A week ago, the phone rang before dawn.
There’s never a good reason for calls so early, and my heart immediately began pounding when I answered the phone. A dear church member was on the other end, her voice thick with tears and panic. Her husband had died unexpectedly in the early morning hours. It was difficult to wrap my mind around this sudden news, though surely her disbelief was far greater than mine. Her husband, Ed, had stood in my house just forty-eight hours prior, working to get my furnace going on a bitterly cold day and changing out a light switch in my dining room.
I woke my pastor-husband and thrust the phone into his hands. In that moment, I pictured Ed zooming through the church halls in his wheelchair with my two-year-old in his lap the way he did on the many Sundays that Ed’s physical pain was too much for walking and standing. The first time he scooped my son up into his lap and took off in the chair, Ed’s wife was a nervous wreck. I laughed and told her not to worry. I could tell my toddler was having the time of his life. Every Sunday after church, my son had no qualms about climbing up in his buddy’s lap in the wheel chair and commanding him to go. They rode all around the church building, my son squealing when Ed would lean the chair back on two wheels or let him put on the brakes. No man’s life can be reduced to one endearing memory, but this was the scene on a loop in my head that morning.
“So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it;
if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
We are a small church; every absence is felt. In the nearly thirteen years I’ve shared a pew in the brick building set far off the highway, we’ve struggled to keep the ancient boiler working properly and we’ve fought to love one another through disagreements and broken fellowship. We’ve shown up when our hearts were warm and when they were cold as ice. We’ve rallied around the Scriptures, argued over certain passages, agreed on what’s most important, taken turns bearing burdens. We’ve extended forgiveness (sometimes messily) and learned to received it (always messily). We’ve learned that the power of the gospel has rewritten our DNA to bind us together as strongly as any biological family. Sometimes we love it, and sometimes, like a lot of families, we get a bit frustrated with one another. This is my up-close version of the Body of Christ.We've learned that the power of the gospel has rewritten our DNA to bind us together as strongly as any biological family. Click To Tweet
“Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
We’re not that unique. There are plenty of churches worldwide full of people who want to throw in the towel and check out of the Bride of Christ at some point in life. Or, maybe during many points in life. But what keeps us coming back to one another over and over and over is the connectedness we have as siblings in Christ. After all, this was God’s plan for the Church: to be a family that works together to know Him and to make Him known, to rejoice and weep when the situation calls for it, to bear one another’s burdens and to function individually in a way the exhorts corporately, to equip one another to speak the gospel often. And last week, when we lost one of our members to death, I watched the Body of Christ function in the way I’m sure Jesus meant for her to.
“But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted.”
(1 Corinthians 12:18)
When it became known that Ed was in the midst of a bathroom renovation at his home when he died, those church members with gifts for construction and painting took charge the very next day. Before the extended family arrived from out of state for the funeral, the bathroom was painted and put back together with all the necessary fixtures put firmly in place. Some of the women who are gifted with meal organization and serving behind the scenes quickly put together a meal for all the extended family that would be in town. After the funeral, every casserole dish was washed and laid out for church members to take home. Those with gifts for technology put together a slide show or ran the sound board, and those of us with musical gifts took care of the music. We’d had winter weather just two days before the funeral and the church parking lot was still thick with ice. The deacons parked cars for every member and visitor, making sure no one had to walk across the ice unnecessarily. My napless two-year-old was well taken care of in the nursery by a kind volunteer. Not having to worry about car-parking or casserole dishes, my husband was free to preach the gospel to a room full of grieving hearts that needed to be healed by it.
“But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted. And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? Now there are many parts, yet one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:19-20)
It doesn’t sound like a miraculous event, all of this car parking and nursery keeping, does it? It just sounds like people doing what they’re good at and taking care of business. But, perhaps familial love within the church looks like washing out casserole dishes without complaining, like parking cars on treacherous ice, like going to the funeral home with a newly widowed sister to support her as she makes life’s most difficult decisions. Perhaps the Body of Christ functions at her best when she is so busy using the individual gifts God has given her that it doesn’t look miraculous, it just makes sense.
But underneath the layers of practicality and hard work something beautiful and miraculous is happening. It’s people, broken people who’ve been mended by the gospel, showing love to one another by eagerly accepting the task they’re fitted for so another member can do the task they’re fitted for. I couldn’t play the music for the funeral and organize all the food. And I didn’t have to. There’s no need for me to be an arm when I needed to be a hand that day. And truly, the Body doesn’t need me to be an arm when there are other members who thrive on being the arms but maybe aren’t geared toward being a hand. I am free to be a hand so they don’t have to be a hand. That’s the beauty of the Body of Christ. Every part is needed, and God has gifted us for every need.
“But desire the greater gifts. And I will show you an even better way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31)
I’ve not always celebrated the way that God has set up the functions of the Church. For many years, I’ve attended church services with gritted teeth and little else. Church ministry is hard stuff, and it is easy to become embittered toward the people God has placed in your spiritual family. But that’s the heart of the issue: these are the people God has placed in your spiritual family. And the call in 1 Corinthians 13, after all the instructions about serving and using our gifts both individually and corporately, is to love the spiritual family serving with you. Love is patient and kind and forgetful when it comes to past wrongs. Love forgives quickly and seeks humility. Love endures. Love is the impetus for grieving with a sister, for washing dishes, for making sure the heat is working.
Beneath the practical outworking of our individual gifts is that enduring affection for the family of God. And when we get tired of serving or impatient with one another, we dig down a little deeper for the ultimate motivating factor: love for our Father, the One who is knitting us all together with His unfailing, unbreakable love.
The Church is broken because she is made of broken people. But she is also beautiful because she has been healed by a beautiful Savior. I find pieces of my sanctification in serving alongside the members of the broken and beautiful Bride of Christ. He will surely present her pure and spotless before the Father one bright, glorious day.