Sunday, February 11, 2007

One Body, under God, Which Is Odd

Meditation for Membership Sunday
Romans 12:1-13

It’s really pretty gutsy, what Paul is telling the Roman Christians
to do, in that passage we just heard.
Pretty gutsy.

After a fairly long treatment of some important theological themes,
and after ending ch. 11 with a lofty doxology—
“For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.”—
He launches into chapter 12 with a sort of bottom-line manifesto.
“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters...”
In other words, “If you forget everything else I said,
I beg you, remember this...”
“Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice...”
“Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
so that you may discern what is the will of God.”

Paul had written chapter upon chapter of theological arguments,
talking of sin and covenant,
of law and grace,
of Adam and Christ,
of Jew and Gentile,
of election and salvation and justification and resurrection.
But when we turn the page to chapter 12,
Paul moves from theology to ethics.
From what we believe about God and us,
to then, how in the world we live.
Literally, the world...we live.

And the way to live, Paul concludes, is at odds with the world.
That’s why I say Paul is so gutsy, when he says this
to none other than Roman Christians.
Paul is begging the Christians in Rome—
who lived in the shadow of Caesar’s throne,
who lived in the capital of the Empire,
the center of all the wealth and power in the known world,
the city that thrives on people bowing down and saying
“Yes, sir. No, sir.”—
to lay down their bodies in sacrifice to another power.
Paul tells the Christians there to be non-conformists.
Radicals. Resisters. Dissidents.
“Do not be conformed to the world.
Do not bow down to those earthly powers.
Do not conform, but be transformed.”
That’s dangerous advice,
when you live in the very center
of the world’s power and influence.

But Paul seems rock-solid certain that this is how Christians
are to position themselves in the world.
As non-conformists.
Now someone could argue,
well, that was Rome in the first century.
They were downright evil, bloodthirsty oppressors.
Of course Paul said do not conform.
But we live in kinder, gentler, more enlightened times.
But that someone would then have to explain a lot of things
about today’s world that we notice just looking around.
That someone would have to have blinders on
to think that contemporary culture is any more supportive
of authentic Christian faith modeled after the life of Jesus.

The world and its powers—then and now—actively try to form people,
to shape them into harmless, trouble-free citizens,
that go along with whatever they’re told,
that keep all the systems humming smoothly,
these systems that keep all the powers in place.
This is true whether the powers are political,
like 1st-century Rome, or 21st-century Washington,
or whether they are the powers of the purse or of culture.
The temples of our Empire today
are not only located on Pennsylvania Avenue.
They are on Wall Street, and on Fifth Avenue,
and on Hollywood Boulevard.
And these centers of power are looking for our loyalty,
and our money, and even our bodies.

Meanwhile, Paul pleads and begs that we resist those powers,
and offer our bodies to God, as a sacrifice of worship.
Knowing, however,
how powerfully persuasive the Empire can be,
Paul does not expect them to resist it alone.
Non-conformity should never be tackled all by yourself.

The rest of Romans 12 is Paul’s advice on how to do this,
in the context of the body of Christ, the community of saints.
“For as in one body we have many members,
and not all the members have the same function,
so we, who are many, are one body in Christ,
and individually we are members one of another.”
I spoke of this a couple weeks ago
when I talked of the communal church.
Members one of another.
That is a profound reality, if we stop to think about it.
It’s not the same thing as saying
we have something in common—
we all belong to the same organization.
That kind of connection is happenstance, and indirect.
No, Paul claims that, individually—note that word in v. 5—
individually we are members one of another.
We are part of each other,
like a hand is part of wrist is part of an arm.
The same blood courses through our veins.
And it is only because of this organic, living connection
with one another,
that we can begin to think we can successfully resist the powers.
Only as a body of Christ,
will we be able to live faithfully in the center of the Empire.

This may not be exactly what these 12 persons listed in the bulletin
were thinking when they signed on to become members
of Park View Mennonite Church today.
They may not be taking this action this morning
consciously thinking,
alright, I belong to this body,
so now I can successfully resist the Empire.

And the other 400 of us who are already members,
probably don’t think in those terms, either.
But I think it’s worth thinking about.
I think we all have a tendency to think of our membership
merely as belonging to this institution commonly known as
Park View Mennonite Church.
And formally, that’s what this membership really is.
It’s a status in the organization.
It means you are counted when we send in our reports.
It means you’re eligible to serve on Church Council or Elders.
Just about anything else in this church
you can do without being a member.

But I’d really like it if we could get past that institutional piece,
and get to the heart of what it means to belong to this body.
I would rather have us think of membership more like an opportunity
to go deeper in the life of this communal and missional church.
I’d rather have us think of it as a conscious choice
to allow something other than the empire to form us,
something other than the powers of this world to shape our ethics.

Some of you have heard of Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.
For over 50 years they have defined membership
in a way that might be too challenging for many of us.
They require all persons to take six different courses
in their School of Christian Living
before becoming a member.
Then they need to renew their membership each year.
And they need to belong to a mission group.
But one of the things I find interesting, is that from early on,
that church has seen itself explicitly as a way to deal with
our addiction to dominant culture.

Let me quote from part of their membership affirmation:
“Having been called out of the world’s systems into God’s system:
we recognize the injustice of the world’s systems;
we recognize our addiction to these systems
we recognize our helplessness to break our addiction
and to heal ourselves
we cry out for a Saviour and a community of support
we commit ourselves to becoming recovering cultural addicts.”

Again, you twelve persons, and the other 400 of us,
probably aren’t thinking of our membership as
a cultural addiction support group,
but we are in this relationship for important reasons,
not because we happen to like the music at Park View
better than the church in another part of town.
Although the music here certainly is good and nourishing.
We are in this organic relationship with each other,
in order to be better Christians in the world.

And if we look at the culture around us,
we have to admit, this makes us a little odd.
For us to be one body, under the authority of one God,
and sacrificing our individual bodies to God,
that’s rather odd in today’s cultural context.
It’s an odd of way of thinking,
that I am a member of you,
and you are a member of me.
And it’s especially odd to choose to be a member of a body
where the parts are so different from each other.
It’s certainly how the church was in Rome.
That’s why Paul had so much to say about how to live together
as Jew and Gentile,
as meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters,
as slave and free.
I challenge us members of this body—new and old—
next time we start getting annoyed
with other members of this body,
to read what Paul writes a couple chapters later, ch. 14 and 15.
All these different parts need each other. Badly.
It’s the only way I know to survive as a Christian in the world.

So I thank God for this one, odd, body.
I thank God that 12 more members are becoming part of it today.

—Phil Kniss, February 11, 2007

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