In the seven weeks between Easter and Pentecost, the church reads stories from the book of Acts, also called the Acts of the Apostles, which is the story of the birth and first baby steps of the Christian church. In our reading in Acts this morning we see the church before it was a church: day zero, so to speak, or even day “minus one”. Actually at this point the “church” is not a church, but just a group of disciples and followers of Christ (men and women, mind you!), who are rejoicing in the resurrection, hanging onto the hem of Jesus’s robe, breaking bread and eating fish with him, and just really, really glad to have him back.
The disciples think it’s just like the old days again. But the times, they are a’changin. Christ hasn’t come back to continue his ministry. After 40 days Christ will ascend and make room for the work of the Holy Spirit in the world and the birth of the church. The first chapters of Acts find the disciples regrouping, reorganizing, and preparing for the day when they will no longer be called disciples, the “ones who follow” Christ, but rather apostles, “the ones who are sent”.
This is the church as a blank slate, a white sheet of paper: full of promise, just days away from being anointed with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. I wonder what the apostles would think if they could spring forward 2,000 years and see us now! In those early days “the believers numbered about 120 persons” — they surely couldn’t imagine that the global Christian Church would someday count over 2 billion members. When the apostles heard that they would be witnesses “to the ends of the earth”, they thought of Rome; they didn’t think of places like Alaska, Cape Town, or New Zealand – places that didn’t exist in the first century imagination.
I get a little wistful as I think of the newborn baby church. They started off with a clean slate, and were handed a piece of chalk to write the first words on it. According to Acts, they lived in common, shared everything, spoke with the power of the Spirit, and gained new converts by the thousands. So much energy! So much promise! A new future lay ahead of them, and the world was their mission field.
Things look different from our perspective, don’t they? In the meantime the church has acquired 2,000 years of baggage, and endless councils and reformations have led to a splintered church of countless denominations. And although the Christian church can be proud of doing some truly beautiful and powerful and God-honoring work in the world, it also has a parallel history of behaving really, really badly in a few of its darker moments. Needless to say the church has not always fulfilled its callings to seek God’s kingdom of peace on earth and to treat all of God’s precious people with dignity and love.
But how optimistic is the vision of the apostle Paul, whose words come back to us this morning through his letter to the new church at Ephesus. In it Paul writes in great confidence (as Paul always does) of the church as a part of Christ: “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Paul writes of the church as the Body of Christ, as the fullness of him who fills all in all –writes in one very long run-on sentence, with guts and bravado, with unswerving sureness, full of confidence that the newborn church will grow up to be a perfect reflection of Christ-in-God. Notice that Paul even writes in the past tense: he writes as if the unity of Christ and Church were already a reality. Paul (despite beatings, despite imprisonment) sees the church, full of her glorious Christ. Paul sees it so real-ly, so tangibly, so concretely that he can describe it like she’s already a reality, like he could reach out and touch her.
The “body (of Christ): the fullness of him who fills all in all,” is what Paul calls the church. There is no part of the body that is not filled to full to overflowing Christ. Think of your own body: there is no part of you that does not fully belong to you. Look down at your own hands for a moment: skin, blue veins, callouses, age spots, fingernails, wrinkles, scars. All of it is you, right?. And in the same way, all of us are Christ. If Paul had known about things like cells and mitochondria he might have written that Christ is even in our strands of DNA, dwelling in us more deeply than what we even know of ourselves; and of this unlikely material, he will create his very own body on earth: complete with hands to serve, feet to go to the nations and a tongue to proclaim.
The Spanish saint and mystic Teresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world. Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.”
We are the fullness and completion of Christ. We are the second incarnation of Christ: Emmanuel, God-with-us, but this time IN us. Audacious and unbelievable, and daunting if not terrifying in its implications for us ordinary people – – but there it is, right there in the Bible. Saint Paul and Saint Theresa offer us a high vision of the church — the highest vision of the church: the church as Christ (re-)incarnate, Christ come back into our world in us, his body in the world. That’s as high as it gets, doesn’t it? And it is as much as anyone could possibly ask of us.
Brothers and sisters, that makes me kind of nervous. Being the body of Christ in the world doesn’t sound to me like an easy job. Being the body of Christ will mean our full participation in his truth-telling, his healing and preaching, his protection of the orphan and widow and stranger, his love for the unlovable, his redemptive work in the world. Being the body of Christ will mean our full participation not only in his glorious resurrection and triumphal ascension, but in the suffering and self-giving that preceded it.
Thanks be to God that we have not been left alone in this daunting task! Left to our own devices, our own efforts and bad ideas and misguided attempts to run the show from down here, we’d end up botching things horribly, as the church has sometimes done in the past. But when God gives birth to the church, God’s hands and feet down here, God sent her out into the world baptized in the Holy Spirit. The church is no ordinary baby, but one quickened by the Spirit, breathing the very breath of God, with the power of the living God. And when the baby church opens its lungs to scream for the first time, tongues of fire come out; men and women are converted, and healed, and brought into the family of God by the thousands.
So goes the witness of Saint Paul and Saint Theresa – who offer us the grand vision, if you will, stretching through all of time and space and cosmos, envisioning the redemptive work of God on its grandest, most universal and eternal scale. From where Saints Paul and Theresa are sitting, they see the big picture, see how God’s love is unfolding in the world across time and space.
But I, for one, am an ordinary person, not a saint. And we ordinary people don’t always see things as clearly, or with nearly so much faith. Our view is small (perhaps sometimes our faith is small), and sometimes no matter how hard we squint into the distance, we still can’t make out what God is doing with God’s church at the moment, or what God is doing with us at the moment. In other words, Saint Paul is writing this epistle from God’s private box right above the center line on the field, with a perfect and unobstructed view of the action, while I’m in the very back in the cheap-o bleacher seats, with a terrible view and a really tall person sitting in front of me, struggling just to make out what’s happening in the game.
But, well. Sometimes you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. And my calling, as a very non-saint, is infinitely more modest. I just call myself lucky to be a single cell in Christ’s body. But (with God’s grace) I can be an obedient cell, one who grows happily in her place, as healthy and devoted as I can manage, fulfilling my calling, living for the sake of the body. After all, we all know the damage that one malignant cell can do.
Even all of us together aren’t more than a fingernail on the hand of God. But what a fingernail we could be, when the Holy Spirit anoints us: the fingernail that points the way to the loving and living, eternal God. Well. I think that’s quite a calling. You’re smirking at me, but if you’ve ever broken a fingernail, you know the pain it can inflict, and the damage it can do. We wouldn’t be the first fingernail to bring the whole body to a halt while it searches for ointment and a band-aid.
But I’m pretty sure that we’re stronger than that. We can serve locally, working with the limited eyesight we’ve got, holding tightly together in the pattern ordained for us, dedicated to what seems like a small group of people, a fragile body in a fleeting time and place: but here we are, and called. This is our little corner of the kingdom. Maybe it doesn’t look like much to other people, I don’t know, but this is who we are and what we have, and I dare say when the day comes we will be held accountable for whether this little fingernail was pointing in the right direction, witnessing to the loving and living God.
Let us pray to God to be the body filled and fulfilled down to the threads of its DNA with the fire of God. Let us pray to be formed as cells that dedicate their very lives to the working of the body incarnate. Let us pray that together, we can point the way to the God of all love. Let us pray to be a corner of the kingdom where the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the seeker and the doubter can find the fingerprints of Christ on everything we touch.
Brothers and Sisters, let us really pray:
God of love, living and true, you have placed on us, your ordinary people, the highest of callings. We would probably be terrified, if we didn’t know that you have promised us your Spirit to empower, embolden and strengthen us. So come, Holy Spirit, and make us willing and able to fulfill our calling. May this little part be a faithful part of the body of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Amen.