Christ's Body and Mission

Reading: John 15.1-17
On the cross Jesus drank the wine vinegar and said, "It is finished!" Then he bowed his head and "gave up his spirit" (Jn 19.30). He didn't mean "I am finished". In fact the Greek word (tetelestai) was often used in commercial transactions to mean a debt had been "paid in full." His mission was accomplished. The redemptive sacrifice was complete. The penalty for human sin had been "paid in full."

Acts begins with the words, "In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen" (1.1-2).

Luke's Gospel was about "all that Jesus began to do and to teach". Acts is the record of what Jesus continued to do and to teach by the Holy Spirit through the apostles. That's why the book came to be called "The Acts of the Apostles".

And yet Stephen, the first Christian martyr, wasn't one of the apostles He was one of a group of seven who were given responsibility for the daily distribution of food to the widows (6.1-6). Following his martyrdom, a cruel persecution began against the church in Jerusalem - "All except the apostles were scattered throughout Judaea and Samaria" (8.1b). For the moment, the apostles remained in Jerusalem, while "those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" (v. 4).

Something very distinctive and important was happening in the life of the early church. It moved from the priestly or clerical model of Judaism and other religions to being a movement of all the people of God, the Body of Christ.

This doesn't remove the need for leadership within the church and some New Testament letters highlight the dangers of each individual insisting on his/her "own thing". But, across the centuries the church has had a tendency again and again to revert to a clerical model where the "leader" doesn't "lead" at all but expects (or is expected) to "do it all".

Two Images of the Church

The Scriptures use two main images for the church on earth - a building and a body.

The first reference to the church is to a building. It was away up north away from the crowds that Jesus asked his disciples, "What are people saying about me? and who do you say I am?" After Peter's response Jesus commended him and went on, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Matthew 16.18).

There have been big debates over centuries about which denominational "church" is Christ's authentic "church". But Jesus wasn't referring to an "organisation" at all. Any human activity - even when divinely directed - will have some degree of organisation. But the organisation isn't the "church".

Significantly, Peter himself wrote, "As you come to him, the living Stone… you also, like living stones, are being built into spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ... You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, the holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2.4-5,9).

Peter sees every Christian as "living stones" built on the foundation of the living Stone, Jesus Christ himself. As "living stones", neither passive nor inert, we are, facing "inward", to be priests "offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God", and, facing "outward", we are "chosen to declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light."

In both 1 Corinthians 3.9b-11 and Ephesians 2.20-21 Paul insists that Jesus Christ is the only true foundation of the church.

As a "building" the church isn't envisaged as a place of isolation and safety within a hostile world. In the original reference in Matthew 16 we detect a mixing of metaphors. It isn't really a question of the church being proof against the "gates of Hades", but the "gates of Hades" being unable to withstand the attack of the church!

Paul's favourite image of the church is the Body of which Christ is Head and Lord (as in Eph. 1.23).

We need a body so we can do things, so we can function in this world. Christ can work directly in the consciences of people through the Holy Spirit. Yet the angel directed Cornelius to send for Peter who would tell him the gospel (Acts 10). The good news of Jesus was given through a member of the Body. The same was true of the Ethiopian official - the Holy Spirit didn't do the work independently of Philip (8.26-40). The Lord Jesus himself appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, yet here again he brings Ananias into the act (9.1-19).

One Body - Many Gifts

The Body is a diversity-in-unity. My body has eyes, ears, nose, mouth, arms, legs... The life and functioning of my body depends on this diversity. It also depends on this diversity working together in unity in response to "me".

In the Corinthian church each person was very proud of the particular spiritual gift he/she had. This led to conflict and chaos because there was too little awareness of the Body. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul acknowledges that the Spirit has given a variety of gifts to individual members, but insists that they need one another. The different gifts all have an honourable place within the Body. They complete the Body and enable the Body to function healthily. But without love, they count for nothing (13.1-3).

So the Church is basically people, the people who receive Jesus Christ as Saviour and acknowledge him as Lord, who are bound together and gifted by the Spirit to be Christ's Body, worshipping God and alert fulfil his mission in the world.

The Mission of Christ

The reason we have gifts so that we become locally a functioning Body of Christ is so that we can fulfil his mission right here in the Burdekin. The risen Lord Jesus still says to us, "As the Father sent me, I am sending you" (20.21). He is depending on us to continue his mission.

At the end of Matthew's gospel, we hear Jesus give his final instructions to the eleven disciples. "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age" (28.18-20).

Jewish Rabbis gathered a group of disciples around them to listen to their teaching. With Jesus and his disciples, it was very much the apprenticeship model - not just learning ideas, but seeing them illustrated in practice, being shown the "how to".

Disciples are accepted by God on the basis of Christ's redemptive sacrifice on the cross (this is "grace", God's unmerited favour towards us), not on the basis of how well they match up to God's perfect standards. (Paul develops this theme in Eph. 2.8-10). Becoming a disciple involves receiving this grace of forgiveness and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul's picture of the Body fits the commission well, for the original eleven were to "teach" the others "to obey everything that I have commanded you" - the commission was not just for the initial group.

This is clear as we read the commission in Luke 24.46-49 (see also Acts 1.8). Jesus had done what only he could do. The next phase (which is our phase too!) was to carry this message throughout the world - "fishing for men"! People everywhere were to be called to the two-fold turn of repentance and faith, so that they could know divine forgiveness and be discipled, and then in turn call others... - the Body, a living, growing organism, at work!

Jesus didn't give instructions as to when the Body should gather together for worship, for how long, how many (and what types of) hymns... Nor did he say we must have Sunday Schools, Women's Fellowships, Men's Breakfasts, Coffee Shops, Kid's Clubs... And should church government be episcopal, presbyterial or independent? Neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers give us much help here.

In fact, we have been left to work out (in consultation with our Lord in prayer, of course!) these kinds of details ourselves in the light of what is culturally appropriate in keeping with our mission. It is simply not good enough to say, "I like Communion done this way" or "I have no time for that kind of music" or "We have had this kind of activity for over a hundred years and it must be preserved at all costs." As individuals and as congregations, we need to think and act missionally.

It has become fashionable in recent times to speak of "unconditional love". There is a very real danger that this will become "non-directional love". Paul wrote, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5.8). God hasn't said, "Love me first and then Christ will die for you." His love was "unconditional". But it wasn't "non-directional" - Christ died for the very purpose of drawing people back into the family of God. And God, who is at the heart of the Body's life, earnestly desires to gather people in, to make them disciples too.

What are your gifts? What is your particular ministry within the one mission of the Body of Christ? Your gifts are needed for the wholeness of the Body of Christ and so that we can be about our Lord's business! And as a congregation, we need to focus our energies and activities in response to the continuing call of Christ our Head.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 29 August 2004
The subject of this sermon is developed at greater depth in the fifth session of the Antioch School Christian Basics module The Body and Mission of Christ
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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