Unity in the Body of Christ
Christ United Methodist Church
November 15, 2015
Ephesians 4: 1-7, 11-13a (CEB)
Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. 2Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, 3and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. 4You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. 5There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
7God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ.
11He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. 12His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ 13until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son.
We watched helplessly on Friday evening as chaos unfolded in Paris. The terrible coordinated attacks across that city were awful. And though we are an ocean away, you can’t help but search for any way you might be able to help; some way to contribute to relief efforts, some way to care for the victims, some way to offer hope. We, perhaps more than some, can understand what it is the Parisians are experiencing right now. For me, for many of us, I imagine, it brought to mind some of the tragedy we’ve seen here in our own city recently.
You are probably aware that we had a bit of a scare ourselves a little over a week ago when police units were called to the Naval Operations Center on Amnicola Highway on the report of shots fired. The Chattanooga Police quickly responded with a number of police personnel, but when the dust settled, so to speak, all that anybody knew was that the sound of one gun shot was heard in the area around Chatt State, the Navy Center, and Riverwalk Park. No further gun shots were heard, and no shooter was ever found. Nevertheless, it was eerily reminiscent of the events from this past summer.
As reports of “shots fired” quickly spread and we waited for more news, I started thinking about the fact that Chattanooga really has had its fair share of tragedy. To be nothing more than a small city, we’ve seen a lot in the past few years. A couple of months ago, the Superior Creek Lodge was condemned and closed down. In a matter of hours, hundreds of people were without a home. A few months before that, a young man drove up to the Armed Forces recruiting center and opened fire, a rampage that would continue at the Naval Operations Center. Six lives were lost. It was just a few years ago that numerous tornadoes ripped through the area—not far from here, really, in Ringgold and Apison, was the worst of the damage, though tens of thousands were affected with downed trees and extensive power outages.
We’ve faced a lot in recent few years, and it’s been pretty tough. But I have been impressed by the way that, in the face of every tragedy, our community, and our world, has drawn together in unity and support. Social media lit up this weekend with pictures urging us to “Pray for Paris.” Closer to home, this church was and still is playing an important role in getting people from the Superior Creek Lodge settled into new, permanent housing. To date, the funds raised and work done by United Methodist Churches in the Chattanooga area, and in particular this church and East Ridge United Methodist, have helped place 71 families in permanent housing. In the same way, we rallied around the hashtag #noogastrong in the days and weeks following the shooting here this summer. Beautiful makeshift memorials went up and funds were set up for the families of the fallen soldiers. We put aside our differences and gathered in prayer vigils to support one another in our grief and especially to lift up those affected by the tragedy. It was the same sort of united front we saw following the 2011 tornadoes, when teams of people gathered up their chainsaws and cleaning buckets and compassionately headed out to help those whose homes and lives were torn apart.
It is really, truly amazing how people can come together when tragedy strikes. It’s beautiful how we quickly set aside our differences and focus our minds and energy on doing whatever we can to help. We saw it so clearly in September when the Superior Creek Lodge was closed. A couple of churches opened their doors to shelter the displaced. Trenton United Methodist Church loaded up a trailer and brought dozens of cots over the mountain. Ridgedale Baptist offered their shower and laundry trailer. Spring Creek Baptist provided food. Churches, organizations, and individuals from all over the area sent money, food, clothing, and teams of volunteers to do whatever needed to be done to take care of these hundreds of people who were suddenly and unexpectedly put out on the streets. It isn’t difficult to see how all of these people and churches were offering their gifts to help others. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to understand that this is what the Body of Christ looks like when it is functioning at its highest level. “His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ.” Paul says, “Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.”
Paul tells us many times over that God has united us in the Spirit, has gifted and graced us, has equipped us so that we can be the Body of Christ, so that we can serve together, so that we can build one another up “until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s son.” But here’s the thing. Paul doesn’t say, “This is how you respond to a tragedy.” Paul doesn’t write to the early Christians, “These gifts are reserved so that you can work together as the Body of Christ when catastrophe strikes.” No. When Paul speaks of spiritual gifts in Corinthians, and Ephesians, and Romans, and elsewhere; when Paul talks about our unity in the Spirit, the bond of peace, he is talking about a total way of life, something we should be doing everyday!
Tragedy has this sort of magical way of bringing us together, but we need to be together, to work together, to serve together, to help one another all the time. We need to offer our gifts in service to one another. We need to build one another up. We need to help one another grow in the knowledge and love of Christ our Savior! And this is something that can happen from individual to individual and across the spectrum of the Christian community. Rather than focusing on our divisions, we need to see what unites us as Christians, and we need to live into that. And we need to do this both as individuals and as churches.
We live in a very individualistic society today. We spend countless hours everyday behind screens while our spouses, or children, or friends, or co-workers sit less than 10 feet away, also behind a screen. We value individual achievement and we reward those who pursue personal gain. To possess certain “gifts” is to be special, set apart, more valuable to society. It’s every man, woman, and child for him or herself. If you can’t make it on your own, we teach, you’re probably not going to make it. I suppose that works okay in the “real” world, though it’s not really ideal. And certainly this is not the Christian way. God has built us fundamentally to be together, to work together. At our very core, we are beings created to be in relationship; relationship with God and with one another. We are not meant to be isolationists. Our gifts are not for our own benefit, or to help us gain worldly prestige. Christ draws us together because we are at our best when we are together, when we work with one another toward a common goal. It’s what we see over and over again when we come together in times of tragedy, but it’s something we should be able to point to everyday of our lives and in every aspect of our lives, too.
One of the best ways we can bring our gifts to bear on a regular basis as we help one another grow in “the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son” is through small groups. This is a place where people with gifts of listening, of hospitality, of teaching, of knowledge, of healing, and faith can gather together. And together we use our gifts to lift one another up in times of difficulty, to help one another understand and interpret the Scriptures, to pray together, to hold one another accountable as we seek to grow as Christ’s disciples and share Christ’s love. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was a genius. The Methodist movement built up around small groups. The Body of Christ grew as these groups of people met together, shared their gifts, built one another up, and encouraged each other to share their faith with others. We have to reclaim that identity, for our own health, and for the good of Christ’s Body, for God’s Kingdom. We all have deep needs, in the same ways victims have great need in the aftermath of tragedy. And the best way to respond to our spiritual needs is by sharing our gifts with others on a regular basis, in small groups. God wants us to use our gifts to help others, and as we seek to grow in our relationship with God, one of the best ways to do that is using our gifts in relationship with others.
In the same way, Christian Churches need to bond together in relationship, to use our various gifts, our various contexts, to do the best work we can for God’s Kingdom. There are a lot of things I love about the Methodist expression of Christianity. I wouldn’t be a Methodist minister if that weren’t so. But one of the really great things about Methodism is the fact that we are a connectional church. Our churches work together to get stuff done. We work together to get Superior Creek Lodge residents into permanent housing. We work together to build churches and schools and train preachers and teachers in South Sudan. We work together to raise $75 million dollars to eradicate malaria. When you get Methodist Churches working behind a cause, stuff happens! And we need to capitalize on that. We need to use the connection to bring churches together in ministry more often—this, I believe, is the future of Christianity. There is power in our connection, and that’s because it is the Body of Christ at work!
I have long felt that God’s Kingdom is best served when churches work together. We have to build on the connection we already have, a connection that began in Christ, and we have to offer up together our gifts as churches and congregations to serve our communities in Christ’s name. Some churches may provide childcare. Some churches may offer a great senior care. Some churches may do small groups exceptionally well, while others have an incredible music program. Some churches may need to reach out to families, while others best serve singles. Every church, like each individual, has unique gifts it can offer in the greater work of God’s Kingdom.
Mark and I have been involved in an ongoing conversation about how Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church and Christ United Methodist Church might work together to greater serve the East Brainerd community. It is our hope that this conversation will continue among our Leadership Teams. We hope folks from these two churches will join with one another to begin thinking about what it would look like for us to work together as the Body of Christ. As Christians, our highest calling is to serve in Christ’s name, to do Christ’s work, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, Christ’s body. And we do that best when we do it together!
“You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.” In Christ we are one. And God has given each of us individual gifts in order to unite us for the common good, so that we can work together as the singular Body of Christ. The gifts of individuals and the gifts of churches are given by God so that we can respond to the needs of our communities. But we can only do that if we work together as one. The “Lone Ranger Approach” is nice, and it’s often a lot easier, but I sure would hate for God’s gifts to go to waste, especially when there are people all around us who need to hear of Christ’s love!