Based on Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, Romans 12:1-8, Mt 16:13-20
Have you ever stopped to take an accounting of how many groups count you as a member? If you are like me, you have current memberships in professional organizations, social groups, a church, advocacy associations, one or more gyms, philanthropic organizations and probably a recreational group or two. I am amazed by all the financial support for these organizations that my wife and I provide as I do our yearly tax return. Being a member is important to us – and trying to be an active member even more important to support causes that we feel deserve our time and money. The Bible has something to say about belonging as well, and today we are going to talk about that membership. I invite you all to pray with me as before we get into that…
Why do many of us feel the need to join different groups? Many of you know that my wife, Lucinda, is in the Association business. I often joke with her that I cannot drive down a street in greater Washington, DC, without seeing at least one association seeking to represent a specific segment of people. It strikes me that there are more of these groups to join than there are people to join them! With regard to church membership, Charles C. Morrison stated, “The Christian church is a society of sinners. It is the only society in the world, membership in which is based upon the single qualification that the candidate shall be unworthy of membership.” He probably never got a job in member outreach with an attitude like that. Truth-be-told, with that kind of membership outreach, the Church would have folded the day after Pentecost and we would all be engaged in some other manner on Sunday mornings. Belonging to God carries something much more important and permanent. Let’s see what our scriptures have to offer us on that point.
We have now entered into the Book of Exodus and have met for the first time the child who would grow up to be as important to the Hebrews as any of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac or Jacob). Joseph and all his brothers have died and our opening line of scripture states ominously, “…Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph….” (verse 8) Pharaoh looked around and saw a great many Hebrews, and started to become more than a little anxious that the Egyptians were outnumbered. I can hear the political slogans now, “Egypt for Egyptians!” (Hmm, it appears that racism was an issue 3500 years ago). It doesn’t matter that the Hebrews had been living and intermarrying for generations, or that they were a large reason that Egypt was so successful – Pharaoh had forgotten his history. Since Egypt had the army, Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrew people and then began systematically eliminating the males. Moses was spared because his mother was able to get him adopted into Pharaoh’s own household – he grew up a Prince in Egypt. Yet, he was always a Hebrew – that’s where his membership credentials lay.
Jesus and the Disciples had come to Caesarea Philippi, one of the most hedonistic regions of that part of the world. Here it was thought was “The Gate of Hell” – a cave that common lore stated was the passageway from Hades into the world. All sorts of gods were worshipped here, and it was a seat of imperial power. It is in this place that Jesus asks a question, “…Who do people say that the Son of Man is?…” After their responses, Jesus asks a more pointed (and important) question, “…But who do you say that I am?…” Peter in his usual impetuous manner blurts out the correct answer – Jesus is the Son of the living God and he is the long awaited messiah. With this answer, Peter becomes the founding member of the Church of Jesus Christ. (see verse 18) Membership is the realization that you can say like Peter did exactly who Jesus is…but is that all that is required?
Paul, in his letter to the Romans speaks metaphorically about our lives together. In the 12th Chapter, Paul develops an idea that he has written about to other churches – mainly that we are all “one body in Christ”. Yes, we all have different gifts and “measure of faith” based on the grace of God. Yet, look closely at verse five, “…so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, (here’s the kicker) and individually we are members one of another….” Did you hear that last part of the sentence? Just like the human body is an assembly of essential yet different parts all working together – so it is that we as a community of faith are linked to all other Christian communities in the body of Christ. Equally true is the thought that I am linked to all of you as you are to me, and you all are linked to each other in a wonderful and intricate web of relationship that all flows from the love of God through Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the love of God, we are all equal members in the same group. Just like in the human body there are no unimportant parts or systems, so it is in the body of Christ. (see 1Corinthians 12)
What do I mean when I speak of the “body of Christ”? Certainly we cannot inhabit Christ’s human body – so what is it that Paul is writing about to the early church? Paul is reminding the members that they have all been baptized by the same Holy Spirit in and with Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his excellent book, “Life Together”, writes in more detail about what it means to be members in Christian community. He states, “…Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this…What does this mean? It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity….” (pg 21)
Let’s explore Bonhoeffer’s reasoning here – he has presented us with some pretty heady theology. In the first point, why do we “need others because of Jesus”? Bonhoeffer echoes many theologians before him in stating that each of us as individuals can falter and interpret God’s word erroneously. In fact, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, stated that there could be no individual salvation – all holiness was social holiness and all justice was social justice. Nothing can be accomplished for God’s kingdom alone. Bonhoeffer says it this way, “…the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word…” spoken “…again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth….” (pg 23) We need each other to bear witness to the salvation of God in our own lives and our lives together – this is our goal of Christian community.
How about the second point that a Christian only comes to others through Jesus? His point is that Jesus mediates between God and humans. This gets a bit into “Atonement Theory” – that is why Jesus died for us, however, the point is that we have been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, all have been given new life and we can come to know each other, through Jesus, as new creations and without our egos getting in the way. Thus it is possible (not often probable, but possible) for us to live with each other peacefully and in Christian love. Forgiving others as we are forgiven and seeking unity in thought and action through God’s grace.
Finally, we have been selected by grace to be part of a Christian community. Wesley called this grace “prevenient” meaning “that which comes before”. This grace instills in us the longing for relationship with God through Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit. Before we know there is a God, we are drawn to God. Other Christians help us along the way and we are baptized in the Triune name of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) into God’s family…into the body of Christ.
Bonhoeffer summarizes this part of his book by saying this, “…Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us…The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity….” (pp 25-26)
Membership in the body of Christ is a gift we receive from our gracious God. Though Morrison’s quote is correct that we are all sinners – he neglected the fact that through Jesus we have all been redeemed, and thus given full membership in the body of Christ. God sent God’s self to become human so that we might see and know, once and for all time, that God is real and alive and working to build relationship with us. When we seek to be in right relationship to each other through the teachings of Jesus and the direction of the Holy Spirit, then we realize the optimal functioning of the body of Christ. Missing members will join with us, the body will function well and all will share in the joy of full membership in and through Christ. It is a membership where all are equal, all are welcomed, and all are necessary for optimal function. Our job is to share with others what Jesus has done for us, and in that way bring others to Jesus. That is a membership reward program that beats all others. AMEN!