Title: Being Church
Texts: Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
Date: August 2, 2009
Author: Dave Nickel
Last summer, I was asked if I would be interested in doing an internship with the five congregations of Eastern Carolina District. I said yes, but I had some reservations. Most of them were pragmatic: How would my time be divided among five congregations? Would some feel cheated because they got less time than others? Would others think I spent too much time with them, and wish I would just go away? I did not know. But at the root of these was one question: How are the district’s five congregations related to one another?
I was not familiar with most of the congregations. I had never even been to Greensboro or Graham, and I had only been to Raleigh for hymn sings. I had been to one service at Durham, but I did not know that congregation any better than the others. I wondered who all these Mennonites were in Eastern Carolina. And I wondered if they would welcome a bumbling intern who may only be with them for a couple of worship services? Would the congregations welcome my involvement in these services, and would they let me participate in other ministries outside of weekly worship? I hoped they would.
One of the highlights of my experience has been hearing the story of the district. I asked numerous members of each of the congregation variations of three questions: What is the history of their congregation? How are they related to the district? And how do they see themselves as “church?”
These questions stem from one issue that I wrestle with constantly: “what is ‘church’?” Is each of these congregations a “church?” How are they related to the “Mennonite church?” And how are they related to the body of Christ called “church?”
This summer, I have heard stories about the founding and development of the district. For the most part, a sense of joy has emanated as each storyteller told her account of the story. These story tellers have described each congregation as a blessing.
But, what about the divisions, additions, and subtractions? What does it mean that Raleigh split from Durham, and then Chapel Hill split from Raleigh? What does it mean that Graham split from Greensboro? What does it mean that Winston-Salem closed? And what would it mean for a new congregation to form there? What happens when members of one congregation leave and form another? Can such brokenness be seen as a blessing? How are the members of this broken body church?
The story-tellers have related that, while they think the district has been blessed, still, there are members who have been hurt by splits and closure? What can we say to those who hurt? Can these wounds be healed? Can Eastern Carolina District see itself as five congregations of one church?
Today’s New Testament passages speak to all these questions, and particularly to this last one. In Ephesians, Paul presents a goal for the church. He writes of equipping the saints for the work of ministry, and of building up the body of Christ. Are the congregations of the district taking this charge seriously? And, if so, how?
Prior to this charge, Paul writes about the gifts that Christ gives each of us. Some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors. All five congregations in the district seek to discern the giftedness of their members. Throughout my visits this summer, it has been rare that a worship leader, worship team, person leading the sharing/prayer time, or even a Scripture reader fulfilled that role repeatedly. Through shared leadership responsibilities, all the congregations acknowledge the giftedness of each of their members. They acknowledge that God speaks to the congregation through each member.
And, more personally, I have been allowed to deliver a sermon or two in each of these congregations. I have been allowed space to test whether preaching is a gift of my own, in a variety of congregational settings. And these people have dealt with me in the same way they deal with their own members; they have dealt with me with humility, gentleness, and patience. They have taken Paul’s instructions seriously. They have borne me in love.
A second way in which the congregations of our district are seeking to be church is by embracing an expanded view of worship. Worship is not restricted to what happens in a particular “church” building on Sundays or Thursdays (as is the case in Graham). I have heard about and even participated in numerous Bible studies; breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings; community gardens; quilting groups; homeless ministries; a skate ministry; and I’m sure that I am forgetting many other opportunities. These indicate that worship exceeds the confines of the “worship space.” It spills over into the work and life of each minister. Throughout our district, it seems that work and worship are one and the same.
So in summary, through countless ministry opportunities—both within formal worship services and away from them—members are given an opportunity to test their gifts; to find out which might be, and, at the same time, which might not be each member’s gifts. And these gifts are used in worship services, and in all of life. That is how our district is being church.
But I believe that Paul is calling the church, and, in this case, congregations of our district to do more than provide opportunities for testing gifts. Paul calls the church to speak the truth in love. In my experience, this is one of the most difficult aspects if not the most difficult aspect of being church. How do we know the truth, let alone attempt to speak it to people we consider our sisters and brothers, especially when we know that it may cause hurt?
Paul calls us to live lives of humility, gentleness, and patience. But how do these postures relate to bearing one another in love; how do they relate to speaking the truth in love? I wonder if at least part of the answer might be found in verse 13, where Paul writes: “Until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
Paul seems to indicate that all of us will come to maturity together. No individual has already arrived and is, therefore, trying to instruct others how to get there as well. Instead, my transformation is dependent upon yours, and your transformation is dependent upon mine. We are being transformed together. That is how we’re being church.
Still, Paul is very explicit: one does not speak the truth in love in order to tear another person down. Speaking the truth in love indicates growth. By speaking the truth in love, the body of Christ, the church, is transformed into its head. It’s transformed into Christ. Speaking the truth in love promotes the body’s growth, building itself up in love.
This seems like a daunting task. Can we relate to one another in ways that promote unity and growth? Can we, the church, build up the church in love? I am not sure, but I have faith that is what has happened in the past 40 years of our district: growth, not strictly in the numeric sense, but the transformation of many toward Christ the head. This growth has involved growing pains that could not be avoided, as well as some wounds that continued attempts to speak the truth in love can and will heal. That is how our district can be church.
How does this relate to the gospel reading this week? I have been struck by the final four verses of that passage, and how they may relate to church. Beginning with verse 32, John writes: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The bread comes from heaven. The Father gives it to us. Contrary to what I oftentimes assume, Moses, the Apostle Paul, and Menno Simons do not give it to us; it is a gift from the Father. We cannot be Christ’s body on our own; God is the one who is at work as we try to be church.
In the statement—“I am the bread of life”—Jesus speaks of himself as bread. I wonder if we, who try to be his body on earth, can speak of ourselves likewise. I wonder if we can compare church to bread. I propose we say “church is the bread of life,” because I find “bread” a useful metaphor for understanding Eastern Carolina District as church.
Try to follow this analogy with me. I confess, I can count on one hand the number of times I have made bread, but this is the best I can do. The baker mixes together numerous ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, water, etc to make bread. Each of these ingredients brings its own giftedness to the process, and bread would not turn out without the inclusion of each. Each member is essential to the unity of the whole. With its many gifted members, the church is a unified loaf. God is unifying us all, in this case, all in our district. God is kneading us all together to make us church. It is the blessing through which the hungry are fed. It is through this loaf, the church, that God gives life to the world. By unifying us as one loaf, the body of Christ, God makes us church.
But, I wonder if this is the finished product. Last Sunday Christ’s body, the loaf, was broken and shared. I wonder if the church can also be understood as the bread that is broken for the world. It is the loaf that God is forming and also the loaf that he is breaking. Even in the church splits and closures, God is breaking bread for the world. The brokenness of our district, while painful, is a vehicle which God is using to redeem the world. It is not only by unifying us as a loaf; it is also by breaking that loaf that God makes us church.
This summer I have experienced each and all of the five congregations of Eastern Carolina District as church. The many members that make up these five congregations receive gifts from God and are, in and of themselves, gifts from God. They are the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. They are the broken people through whom God feeds the hungry. May God give us this bread always.