Grace in the Body

By Kristine Blaess

As we’ve been reading through the 12th Chapter of 1 Corinthians this past few weeks, St. Paul has given us a glimpse of the community that Christ is calling into being. The community is not so much an organization as an organism. It is not so much a club as a body.

It is a body, Paul says, not brought together by our desire to be with one another or our choice to come together each week. Rather it is a body created by Christ himself. We are Christ’s body because he has united us, knitting us together by his call and his love. “We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his spiritual classic, Life Together. We are created with a longing to know and be known, so “life in community is an extraordinary gift, the ‘roses and lilies’ of the Christian life.”

This Scripture is particularly poignant for my husband, Michael, and me as it was this week in the church year when we officially joined the Episcopal Church. Even as we are deeply grateful for the profound gifts of our upbringing and nurture in the Lutheran Church, we always give thanks for our congregation and our bishop who encouraged us in these new relationships within the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. We give thanks that we have been knit together into this part of the body of Christ with a new layer of promise, a deepening of covenant, and a shared commitment. As Michael and I made our promises with our bishop and our clergy friends as witnesses, my heart grew three sizes that day.

Life in community is an extraordinary gift, “the ‘roses and lilies’ of the Christian life.”

But this is no time for naiveté. Before we even have much life behind us, we know how hard it can be to stay together as a body. Whether it is our family, our marriage, or our friendships, our community or our church, there are forces that seek to divide us. There are conflicts that push us apart. There is pride, and shame, and sometimes healthy self-assertion, that causes us to walk away from those we have loved. And there is the power of entropy that causes our relationships to diffuse, then evaporate. We get busy and distracted, and several years down the road we look up and wonder, what ever happened to that friendship? Or how did we grow so far apart from our sibling?

We all have places in our marriages, in our families, in our friendships, and in this church, where we struggle and suffer in our life together. There are many forces that push and pull on our unity. And sometimes it is our idealism itself that strains our communities. We have a vision of what family, marriage, friendships, church should be — and the reality of the relationship never measures up to what we hope for it. The dissonance between our vision and the reality can be energizing for a community, inspiring us toward a better future and calling us to be our best selves. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer cautions us: if we love our wish-dream of community more than our community itself, we become “a destroyer of the community that exists, even though our personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

I started learning this lesson during my second year of seminary. I came to seminary with an idea of what living in Christian community would be like, the life together we would have. The first year was great — deep friendships were built, we talked about important things, and dreamt about the futures God had for us. Then the second year it all fell apart. Our real selves started to show, with real differences in how we thought life should be lived. Addictions and mental-health issues surfaced. Garden-variety theological and ethical differences became divisive. We struggled as our wish-dreams about community met the reality of our community. I was high in both idealism and in brokenness, and found that to the extent I loved my dream of community rather than these broken people who made up the community, I destroyed the precious and fragile relationships that had been growing.

In these moments, it is not for us to either draw away from the community or to exclude others from it. In Paul’s metaphor of the body, we are neither the foot that says, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.” Nor are we the eyes saying to the hand, “I have no need of you.”

Even though in community, in family, it is right that there are real consequences for harmful actions, because we were knit together by Christ, we are free neither to walk away nor to say to others, “I have no need for you.”

As Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said, referring to the difficult conversations in a Global Primates meeting, “We are a body of people committed to each other because they are followers of Jesus Christ. We are put together as family by God, because we are all God’s children. We looked at each other across our deep and complex differences — and we recognized those we saw as those with whom we are called to journey in hope towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ. It was our unanimous decision to walk together and to take responsibility for making that work.”

And so it is that grace more often than not is found on the other side of difficulty.

For all of us, the dying of the wish-dream is what allows us to move forward and live differently in community. As we are able to hold in tension the vision of community God has given us with the reality that is before us, we learn to walk together and take responsibility for making it work. We learn to hold each other with a sort of delicacy, knowing full well that in our love we are holding, not the best and strongest pieces of each other, but the most vulnerable and broken pieces of each other. We come together as people not united by our goodness and strength, but rather united in our weakness and need. “We are beggars, it is true. Alleluia, alleluia,” Martin Luther proclaims.

Because there are none among us who are righteous or beautiful apart from the work of Christ in us.

Living together with a measure of honesty, seeing each other for who we are and holding one another gently, and offering grace where there is weakness allows our communities to thrive, even as we are obviously only partially whole.

And a lifetime is not too long for God to work these things out.

So today is a celebration. We celebrate the call that God has put on our lives. We celebrate the bodies that Christ has formed us into — the body of our family and friends. The body of our neighborhoods and community — but especially this particular body Christ has called into being, the Church. We celebrate that as we look at one another across our deep and complex differences, we recognize those we see as those with whom we are called to journey in hope towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ. We celebrate that despite the difficulty, we walk together, and to take responsibility for making it work.

And most of all, we celebrate Christ’s body here poured out for us in this Eucharist meal, this meal that unites us whether we are strong or weak, agreeing or disagreeing, content or discontent. We celebrate Christ’s call on our lives, as he makes us his body in the world.

The Rev. Kristine Blaess is rector of St. Paul’s, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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