Mired in the Church
On a trip I took to India, I was struck by the crowds. In a country that has thirty-five times the population of Canada, it seemed that nobody was ever alone. Everything was done together; even homelessness.
I recently watched a documentary put together by four adult Canadian siblings who, at their Indian father's request, took his ashes to India to be immersed in the Ganges River. In the film, a scene is shown of a spot on the Ganges where crowds of people are immersed in the water side by side, washing and performing rituals, all sharing the same space. The four siblings couldn't bring themselves to join that crowd. Instead, they travelled north to the Himalayas and released their father's ashes into a tributary of the Ganges; alone, just the four of them, with the Hindu holy man who guided them. It was a very Canadian thing to do -- to get away from the crowd and find somewhere cold, clean and solitary.
I completely understood. The scene on the Ganges gave me the creeps. I would not want to find myself stuck in a dirty river among a large, unwieldy, diverse and wildly impulsive group of people over which I have no control. But when I jumped into the waters of baptism, I ended up mired in exactly that kind of a group. The church is the entire body of believing Christians throughout the world. That's an eye-poppingly massive crowd, and no amount of Canadian squeamishness can save me from it.
The scene at the Ganges is probably much like the scene at the Jordan River many centuries ago clamouring crowds, dirty water and a corporate desire for holiness. Miraculously, however, the body that emerged from these baptismal waters was clean; and the Body of Christ that emerges from the baptismal waters that I jumped into is also clean. The Jordan River has become a familiar metaphor for death and rebirth. However, I was recently surprised by one particular author who declared that the Body of Christ is not, actually, a metaphor. If this is so, and it is, in fact, a real Body, then it has all the needs of a real body.
And so, not only am I mired with all the other people who have shared the water with me, I find that I must also eat with them. Being part of this crowd means that I will take communion with anyone, whether I like them, agree with them, understand them„ or not. The known road to peace between people-groups is communication. A known method of open communication is the sharing of a meal. If, now baptized, I am required to share a meal with diverse people, I am bound to gain an understanding of them; and the result of such an understanding is peace. Communion makes for a very healthy Body.
Church is something that I am, not something that I do. It's a Body that I'm stuck with. Being Church means that I have voluntarily allowed my life to be in a place where it is not all about me. It's a very scary place, accessible only through death and rebirth. To jump into that water takes all the courage and grace that I can access naturally or supernaturally.
In India, I saw the Ganges River for exactly two minutes: crossing it for one minute by car on my way north, and again on my way back south. From the highway bridge, I could see crowds in the water, and on the shore behind them, markets; and behind that, a Ferris wheel. As we, the Body, emerge clean from baptism, we need food, and then it's time for some fun„. or maybe I should call it "joy". Being mired in a crowd such as the church can be a place to feel alive.
When I jumped into the waters of baptism among millions of other people, I found myself in a messy stew of relationships full of unpredictable beings; myself the chief unpredictable among them. Together, we're called "The Body of Christ". It seems impossible to me that such a swamp-creature should ever survive; but since it has already died, the only thing left for it to do is live.
When Jesus hit stride with his work, he was surrounded by apostles, disciples, rich female contributors, fans and thrill-seekers. That unwieldy crowd set out to do what Jesus was there to do: announce the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and establish it through his death and resurrection. His community was a little thick-headed about that last point, but they figured it out once it happened.
Jesus and his community lived with a lot of unpredictability. There was no telling which house, reputable or not, they would end up at, or what gang of women and children would interrupt their schedule. They did uncomfortable things, like talking to Samaritans; and anything Jesus said was liable to start a riot, or cause people to leave in a huff. However, I'm sure that along the way there were good meals (certainly good wine), lots of laughter and some beautiful scenery. The conversations must have been plenty and interesting, since the Gospel of John is one extended Q&A. It was a crazy life, but people seemed to want to live it.
The nature of Jesus' communal and spirited life on earth is reflected in some of the powerful parables he used to illustrate the reality he was ushering in. To tell these stories, Jesus used mundanely familiar settings: a family, a feast, a wedding, a party, a harvest. Such gatherings of people are full of unpredictability. The individual has little control over the size of the group, the nature of his companions, or the nature of his meals. But those settings also suggest security, good food, and good times. In the Body of Christ, for good or bad, we're all in it together.
I embrace these metaphors provided by Jesus; but I also find it useful to have some images of my own to try to describe my life as Body-of Christ. I sometimes picture myself as a driver in a snowstorm, heading up a highway on-ramp. In that setting, I'm in control of the car, but there is no turning back and it would be dangerous to stop. I have no say in which fellow highway-dwellers, attentive or not, I'm going to end up sharing this anxious road with.
Or, my communal existence is like that common earthly shape: the circle. I picture myself, and those who are part of my life, as a group standing in a circle facing outward. The Trinity--and the powerful, light-producing love they have for each other--is the gravity that holds us together as we all face our purposes in life. We're all part of the solar system of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; all in it together. Standing in a circle means that we are side-by-side supporting one another, and the nature of the circle is such that we are all facing a slightly different direction.
My life as Body-of-Christ is the scariest and biggest miracle of anything Jesus established. I am amazed, over and over again, by the size of the grace that allows me to be swamped by friends and family. It's exhilarating to get into the habit of a shared life. When I emerged from the crowded waters of baptism, and started on an unpredictable journey with others, I became fully occupied with being one of the basic things that Jesus was when he was here on earth: a community.
The swamp-creature that is the Body of Christ has emerged from the crowded waters of baptism, alive and well-fed on communion bread. More alarmingly, it is intoxicated with communion wine. Because of an ancient mystery involving the blood of a sacrificial victim, the creature is imbued with holiness. It is now loose upon the land, wreaking havoc wherever it goes.
Our stories tell us that it's dangerous to be around holy things. It might have been a mountain in the Sinai desert, or perhaps a divinely-commissioned artefact but there were some things you just didn't touch. Even Indiana Jones knew better than to tamper with the holy. One of our particularly hair-raising stories describes the extreme action that turned the Promised Land into the Holy Land. It's a horrifying tale.
As the Body of Christ, we're defined by our quality of holiness. This quality cannot be maintained by power, culture, actions or lifestyle. In fact, all those things, for the sake of holiness, are not to cling to but to die to; more than die, wreak havoc. Power, culture, actions and lifestyle are all human things, prone to unholiness. They can become idols, causing the swamp-creature to want to smash.
In the early days of the Body of Christ, one of the first things destroyed was financial exclusivity. Everyone shared, and no one did without. The very first people to try to insert corruption into such a holy reality met with horror. The next ruin was ethnic exclusivity. By all accounts, this happened quite easily. When it became clear that Gentiles could easily slip into the Body of Christ, everyone was delighted.
History has unfolded over the centuries since then, and the Body of Christ has been a feature of it. The Italian town of Assisi was enjoying prosperity in the 13th century, but when the swamp-creature encountered hyper-religiosity and a sense of entitlement, it smashed and we got St. Francis. A little bit later on, British Empire culture was embraced without question, but when the creature encountered the oppression and abuse of an entire people-group, it smashed, and we got William Wilberforce.
Our contemporary times bring with it the same comfortable confidence that those two distinct European cultures enjoyed. A culture can easily become too sure of its own sense of righteousness. It's as easy now as it was then for unholiness to seep into our midst. But we always have the rampaging swamp-creature to destroy our idols, and remind us how empty they are, and how useless. The Body of Christ continues to be a welcome and wonderful thing.
And so, in these modern times, we had Tommy Douglas. He saw the unholy circumstance whereby an entire class of people was excluded from the blessing of modern health care. He persisted in bringing an idea into practice that is now accepted without question. We also have Nelson Mandela, who resisted an unholy system; and ultimately oversaw a transition to a better way„a transition that could have gone terribly wrong. So the Body of Christ rampages across history and across the planet and all unholy attempts at self-righteousness and entitlement are reduced to dust.
The scary thing about this swamp creature is that nothing can stop it. We can't corral it. We really just have to watch out for it, and give it the respect that it's due. But the beautiful thing about the Body of Christ is that it comes without that horror that I feel every time I read about the purging of the Promised Land. The holiness of the Body has been achieved once and forever through a blood sacrifice that never has to be repeated. If there is any horror to be felt, it will be felt by that which tries to resist the Holy creature.