Beautiful Church

By Paul Koch

For me, the most beautiful creature that I have ever seen is my wife. From our days of surfing during our college years, to the moment I saw her walking down the aisle on our wedding day, to my return home just last Friday evening after being away for a week at a conference, I am continually stunned by her beauty. I understand why it is that Adam when he saw Eve for the first time would stand and sing, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh…”And her beauty has only continued to grow over the years. The passing of time and the stress and toll of raising 5 children, the constant work of trying to make sure I’m cared for and able to do my work, the running of our home and the management of all the schedules have impacted her; but they have not made her less beautiful.

However, she may not see things as I do. I’ve noticed her standing in front of the mirror upset about how her hair is behaving or how her clothes are fitting. I’ve come home in the afternoon when, in the mayhem of the household, she has barely had a chance to change out of her PJs and she feels like anything but beautiful. And I’m sure that when I say, “Hello beautiful” at such times she must think I’m just trying to be nice or funny or both. But her beauty is not just her physical appearance. Her beauty is in her actions, her care and love and compassion. And though she may not see it at times, it is crystal clear to me. And so I say it to her even if she thinks I’m nuts. I tell her she’s beautiful because she is.

There are, at times, in our lives a major disconnect between what we can see ourselves and what is declared to be true by someone else. There is a tension that we long to resolve, to be able to see as someone else sees. And nowhere is this more pronounced than in the declarations that our God makes about us. For what we see in the mirror causes us to distrust what is declared about us.

One of the great examples of this tension is found in 1 Corinthians 12. The church in Corinth has been marked by division and discord. Different groups have risen within the church, and differing practices have been encouraged or condemned. Yet St. Paul declares, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Now at times we can really see the beauty of this one body of Christ. We can see how the individual members work together to the building up of the whole. And when we see this, when we see the church acting like this and living this way, we see something that is truly beautiful.

But to be completely honest what we see, more often than not, is something completely different than the beauty of the unity of the body. What we see are factions and division and animosity. Christianity is fractured into eastern and western churches, and those churches are equally splintered and divided. Even the Lutheran arm of it is further divided into a whole alphabet soup of labels and contingencies. Within our narrow piece of the pie, the LC-MS, we have further divisions. Of course, our local congregations are not faring much better. In a congregation there can easily arise cliques and subgroups that don’t want to walk together. Each member of the body is only looking out for its own idea of what the body ought to look like. In fact, I think that what happens is the members forget the body all together. They see only what they want to seem, and they believe the whole body ought to be what they are. Wishing the whole body to be and eye or an ear, they love their vision of the body more than the body they are a part of.

To forget that we are part of a beautiful body, created and arranged by our God, has powerful ramifications. For if we forget that we are one body, then all we have are the individual members. Some members are stronger than others and those members that are gentler, sweeter, and tender are pushed to the margins. The church then becomes a competition of ideas, where some are glorified and some are silenced. Along the way people will be hurt. In their time of need, in their moments crying out for tenderness and mercy, they will receive wounds that won’t soon heal. Or on the other hand, in those moments when they need some correction or some strong guidance, they will be left to their own desires or even worse the wind and waves of our age.

Church-Scheduling

The thing is, people settle for this. They think, “Well this is the church. I’ll come for my little piece, my portion for my own benefit and who cares about much else.” When we forget about the one body of which we are a part then we are left with one particular way of relating to each other. Our relationships become one of who can help me help myself, who should I avoid, who is on my side. Life at a church becomes one where we are afraid to do this or that because we might upset the wrong person. We relate to each other through the law. Forgiveness is not expected or given. And so, our default mode becomes one where we are simply trying to protect ourselves.

All this leads us to a place where we are individual members who believe and trust in the gifts of Christ but have long since given up on the unity of the body. We only see the reflection in the mirror. We only see the faults and the hurts we’ve experienced. There are those who say, “If I’m hurt one more time, I’ll never come back again.” And there are those who say, “I will take the reins and make this fellowship what I want it to be.” In the end we will limp along. We will get a few things done, we will have some success, but we will be a far cry from the body that Paul is speaking about. People will be hurt, people will be forgotten, people will leave the church altogether.

It’s not that we want it this way. It’s not that this is our idea of how church should be. It’s just that left to our devices we always end up on a path where we will soon forget all about the beauty of the body of Christ. The only corrective, the only hope, the only source of something more than our sad state of affairs is a word from outside of ourselves. A word that declares something about us that we can no longer see in ourselves. Though we are frazzled, and weary, and angry and disappointed, we look in the mirror and we hear another who says, “I love you, I forgive you. I forgive you your selfishness. I forgive you your pride. I forgive you your apathy. I forgive you your anger. You are beautiful.”

Christ Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox Brown

Now that Word, that proclamation that you are forgiven, is not just some nice thing our Lord has to say. That Word does things; it is transformative. By his proclamation you are forgiven. By his Word you are recreated as the children of light. By his Word you are made into the body of Christ himself. That Word declares something we can’t see in the mirror but that Word will endure long after the mirror has shattered into pieces. The eternal Word is the real thing, the truth above the lies of a fallen world. And so it is by the Word of Christ that we are reminded of the body. It is by the Word that we can begin to see the beauty of the fellowship again. For as we have been forgiven, so that Word fills our mouths as we turn to one another. We turn to the eyes and ears, hands and feet around us and we forgive as we’ve been forgiven. We love as we’ve been loved. It is in the Word of forgiveness that we find the body of Christ again.

St. Paul in this text calls for us to wake up, to hear the Word about what our Lord declares about us and so shake of the dull sloth and care for one another. Care for those sitting around you. Care for the hurting, the marginalized and the prideful. Care for the depressed and the angry. For we are a beautiful body created and arranged by God where, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” We need one another, it was designed to be so. So let us joyfully be what he declares we already are.

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