We are the Body

The United States of America has a long history of embracing personal liberty and self-determination.  From its pioneer spirit to its entrepreneurial energy to its capitalistic economy, America has been an immigrant magnet to those seeking an independent life.  There appears to be a spirit here, even beyond our materialism and consumerism, of freedom and independence.

Fast forward two hundred thirty-six years from its founding and nearly every political debate in the USA today is essentially about the balance between our libertarian ideas of personal freedom and the role of central government in promoting the common good (or not so good).  Where the balance lies in a democracy like ours, I will leave to the political types.  My interest is what happens when the individualism so celebrated in our country enters the church.  Quite frankly, it is a recipe for disaster.

The most common analogy for the church used in the New Testament is the physical body.  “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is the body of Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (I Cor 12:12-13).  The church – the body – is made up of many members and from the outside may look like any other affinity group such as a club, a political party, a bowling league, etc.  But that is not the case.  The church is not a group of like-minded people whose membership is based on some shared interest, talent, or skill.  The church is so much more; held together by something much greater and more unique than having something in common.

The church is a body.  “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (I Cor 12:27).  Why?  “So that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (I Cor 12:25-26).  In short, as a body, the church is the antithesis of the hyper-individualism that is so prevalent in today’s America.

But this antithesis is rarely seen in practice.  Instead, we listen to sermons in megachurches or on the Internet and process them in individualistic ways.  In our “quiet time” we read the Bible by ourselves.  We often carry out our Sunday morning assignments in the local church completely separated from adult interaction.  Even our singing has become an individual worship experience since the music is so loud we can’t hear anyone else around us singing.  Instead of being the antithesis, our churches have become a reflection of the hyper-individualism of our age.

What is the answer?  The answer is for the church to be the body.  In the physical body, every member is dependant on each other.  There is no room for individual mandates among our body parts.  The church is to operate the same way; a pattern Paul explains in I Corinthians chapter 12 in describing our roles and interdependency in the body of Christ.  A pattern that I call “hyper-socialism”, the opposite of hyper-individualism.  Putting it into practice is what the next several posts will be about.

Crucifying the Flesh in Community

“Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.  Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (II Tim 2:21-22).  Another way we “crucify the flesh” in practical terms is by pursuing righteousness in the company of our fellow believers.

Paul makes clear in II Timothy 2 that to become a useful tool in the hands of the Master, or to extend the thought, to crucify the flesh and thus be prepared for every good work, we must flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness.  This flee and pursue pattern is very similar to Paul’s put off the old nature and put on the new man pattern of Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3.  The Greek words translated “flee” and “pursue” convey a powerful message of action.  These are not passive commands.  And the beauty of II Timothy 2:22 is that you don’t have to go it alone.

In what I consider a very underutilized aspect of “crucifying the flesh”, we have a community to help us along.  “… pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”  Flee and pursue in the company of Christian friends.  Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace as a community.  But this communal pursuit is only possible where love from a pure heart is paramount.  Criticism, a judgmental attitude, competitive spirits, or any pursuit of selfish ambition will suck the life out of any community effort at spiritual transformation.

Guided by the Holy Spirit, we are to become the Paraclete, the helper, to each other; coming alongside to encourage and lift each other up.  “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:24-25).  Crucifying the flesh happens faster and more often and with better results when we are connected to the body.

Crucifying the Flesh by the Spirit’s Power

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).  Another tool in our war with the flesh is following the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  If we “walk by the Spirit” – conduct ourselves as ones influenced and led by the Spirit of God – we will not satisfy the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16).

I think one of the lifelong learning opportunities God has given us as His children is learning to hear and follow the voice of the Holy Spirit.  It is stepping back from the brink of temptation to say, “What is the Spirit saying to me at this moral fork in the road?”  It is following your Spirit-trained conscience.  In John chapter 16, Jesus said that the coming Holy Spirit would illumine our minds, not just so we could recognize truth, but so we could walk in it.

There is a brand of Christianity that says we cannot trust our conscience; the thoughts and intents of our heart.  But given the fact that our conscience is now trained by the Holy Spirit and we possess a new heart inclined toward righteousness, it is safe to follow these inclinations of the Spirit.  I think we are practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit when we do.

One of the moral forks in the road I face appears when I first wake up on Sunday morning.  Sometimes I think that I would rather mow the yard, wash the car, or take in a Formula One race on TV instead of go to church to fellowship with my Christian brothers and sisters.  That first thought is a temptation, not a sin.  What I do next is a decision between sin and a holy response.  Knowing God’s Spirit is leading me to serve and be encouraged by my fellow believers, I will generally make the righteous choice.  And I know you will as well.  Why?  Because we are listening to the Spirit’s voice.

I like the way C. S. Lewis puts it in his book, Mere Christianity.  “That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it.  It comes the very moment you wake up each morning.  All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.  And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.  And so on, all day.  Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.  We can only do it for moments at first.  But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system:  because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us.  It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.”