When people talk about their church membership it is often in the rather dry sense of being listed on the rolls of a congregation. But the New Testament employs far more vivid ways of describing what is supposed to be a living and vital relationship. Jesus famously spoke of Himself as the ‘vine’ of which His followers are the ‘branches’ – an analogy which He uses to emphasize how believers can neither survive nor ‘bear fruit’ except by their intimate relationship with Him. (John 15:1-8). Surely, we can all agree that this is a much more compelling image of membership!
Well, at the risk of seeming to suggest that Jesus is ‘second best’ at anything, perhaps it is OK to note that He graciously allowed the Apostle Paul to employ an even more powerful metaphor! When St. Paul wrote about membership in his letters, he used a Greek word that literally means ‘body parts.’ For example: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12;27). That’s a really striking image of what membership truly means – one that the more you dig into it the more it has to teach.
What makes Paul’s metaphor of the Body of Christ so powerful is that we each have a very intimate and emotional connection with the parts of our own bodies, and Paul masterfully draws on this to illustrate how each believer, regardless of perceived importance or status, is cherished and essential in Christ’s Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-25). Indeed, Paul points out how the ‘weakest’ parts of the body warrant special care, and how the parts we consider ‘less presentable’ we honor by judicious clothing. All in all, Paul presents a very striking picture of how the diversity of ‘parts’ in Christ’s own Body – the Church – are to coexist, sharing their gifts and accommodating their weaknesses in the service of the whole organism – Christ Himself.
For the past several weeks we have been engaged here at Emmanuel with a sermon series on the topic of Membership Matters and our Fish Hooks have been intended to complement that theme. As we now reach the end of this series, it seems appropriate to address the question raised in the first one (Participation Optional?): “Is church membership and participation our own personal lifestyle choice?” Both Jesus and St. Paul effectively answer that question with one of their own: “Do you want to be part of Jesus Christ?”
You see, Jesus has given us no other way to be saved by Him than to become part of Him – members of His Body or branches of His Vine. Just as it would be extreme folly for a limb, whether that of a tree or of the human body, to voluntarily sever itself, there is nothing but eternal death and darkness awaiting the person who deliberately amputates himself from the Vine/Body of Jesus Christ. And to be part of the Body of Jesus Christ is to also be intimately connected to all those OTHER body parts – including the ones that we find vexing or embarrassing. When Jesus said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (John 13:34) He is effectively saying: “Love Me? Love My body parts!”
Now we need to be clear that the ‘body’ of which Christ is Head is a spiritual assembly of all true believers, and we cannot identify it with a specific church denomination or congregation. Yet, the fact remains, as the Bible so emphatically teaches, that on this earth our union with the Body of Christ can be found only in our association with other professing Christians – the notion that one can be a disciple of Christ while embracing an attitude of “just me and Jesus” is a delusion that actually separates one from Him.
Why is this so? If we are saved by our personal relationship to Christ, why is the Church necessary? But this is like asking why a body part needs the rest of the body! It is our connection to the ‘nervous system’ by which our Head directs us by His Word, and to the ‘circulatory system’ by which we receive His life-giving Sacraments. Disconnecting from the earthly church is to disdain union with Christ’s own Body. And conversely, Christ has ordained to accomplish His work on earth through His earthly Body, the Church, and each and every body part is essential to that mission. So, being a part of His Body is lifegiving, not only for us individually, but also for the Body as a whole. Thus, our membership matters as both His loving gift to us, and as our loving response to Him as we participate in the work of His Body.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)