Last week, we looked at the day the church was born into the world. This week, we will look at the day you were born into the church. But first, we need to think a little further about what the church is.
In ordinary conversation, we use the word “church” in four different senses. First, we use it to refer to the building or campus where worship services and corporate events are held. I frequently say to Karen, “I’ve got to go to church,” which is a kind of shorthand for saying that I am headed to the building that is situated at 41.8844529 degrees latitude and -85.0369717 degrees longitude. My wife knows that I can get pedantic about the details, so she appreciates the shorthand.
A second common way the word “church” is used is in reference to an event. Someone asks us to go golfing on Sunday and we reply, “Sorry, I’ve got church.” We mean that we have an event – usually a worship service – to attend. So “church” is an event that happens from 8:30 to 9:30 or from 11:00 to 12:00 on Sundays.
Third: we might be talking about an institution – in our setting, the one known as Lockwood Community Church, with its covenant partners, officers (like the pastors, elders and deacons), and administrative board. Usually when people are critical of the church, it is this institutional expression they have in mind. When they say, “The church needs to change,” they mean the institution needs to adapt or make corrections.
A fourth way of talking about the church is as the group of people who have been united to Jesus Christ as Lord and to each other as family by the Holy Spirit who lives in them. This is what the biblical writers mean when they speak of the church. A person can attend Sunday “events” and be joined to the institution by membership yet not be a part of the people who are united to Jesus and to each other by God’s Spirit.
It is in this last sense of people united to Jesus and to each other by the Holy Spirit that we are thinking of the church. As such, the church is comprised of believers from every part of the world. A believer in New Delhi and a believer in Coldwater are connected to each other by the Spirit and both are part of the church. And not just believers in every part of the world, but also in heaven, for they too are united to Jesus Christ and to his people on earth.
There is only one church, and it is comprised of all the people through all of time who have been united to Christ and to each other by the Spirit of God. There is one church, but it has many expressions. Lockwood Community Church is one.
An illustration may help. In the Malheur National Forest in Oregon lives the world’s largest living thing: a single specimen of Armillaria Ostoyae, a giant fungus that covers more than eight square miles. Over the space of those 8 square miles, it breaks the surface of the ground in many places, but under the surface this vast living thing is completely connected.
So with the church. Lockwood breaks the surface here as a local expression of the church of Jesus Christ. First Baptist does too. In Timbuktu, Mali the church is expressed as the Evangelical Christian Church, and in various other ways. But it is one church united across space and time, joined together by the one Spirit of God.
From my repeated use of the word, “Spirit,” you might get the idea that the Spirit is important to the church. You would not be wrong. There is no church apart from the presence of God’s Spirit. There is no member of the church who does not have the Spirit. Without the Spirit, you can still have a church building, a church event, and a church institution, but you cannot have the church. Sermons and sacraments do not a church make apart from the Spirit of God.
In First Corinthians 12, where Paul talks about how we come into the church, it is worth noting the preponderance of references to the Spirit: thirteen in the first thirteen verses. The essential difference between the Christian and non-Christian is not that one assents to certain beliefs and the other does not – though that is usually the case – but that one has the Spirit of the eternal God enlivening him and the other does not.
It is the Spirit’s presence in a person, which we cannot see but that God can, that marks the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. Back in chapter 2, Paul wrote: “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God … The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:12, 14).
In Galatians 3:3, Paul marks the beginning of the Christian life with a person’s reception of the Spirit. In Romans we learn that it is the Spirit that makes a person a son of God and Paul says that if a person does not have the Spirit, he does not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9).
It is the presence of the Spirit in a person that marks him or her out to be resurrected. God tags people with the Spirit – in biblical language, he seals them – and all those who are tagged will be resurrected. So, in Romans 8:11 we read: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”
The same Spirit that transforms ordinary people into children of God, gives them spiritual understanding, and marks them out as “resurrectionable” also unites them in the church. Listen to First Corinthians 12:12-13: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
Paul uses an analogy here that was familiar to first century Roman citizens – like the people in Corinth. He compares the church to a body: it has many parts, but they serve the body, not themselves. It functions as a single unit, even though it is comprised of so many parts.
A few years ago, I read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein for the first time. I had seen the movie with Boris Karloff when I was just a boy, but the book was quite unlike the movie. In the book, Victor Frankenstein robs graves and burial vaults to find body parts for the creature he is building. Can you imagine if the hand and the mouth, taken from different corpses, didn’t operate in sync – if the mouth kept biting the hand that tried to feed it? Or if the leg from one person did not keep time with the leg from another? What if each body part had its own spirit and operated independently of all the others? It would be chaos.
Paul wants us to know that God is not building some Frankenstinian monster. As he said a few verses earlier: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). It is “one and the same Spirit,” verse 11, that animates the body of Christ and each part within in it. Paul wants us to understand that in the church of Christ, which is his body on earth, there is great diversity (many parts) and yet true unity (just one body).
You, if you have the Spirit of God, are one of those parts. So am I. We need each other to function well.
This is one of the elements of God’s genius. He has designed us so that we can only reach our potential in company with others, when others depend on us, and we depend on them. You might think, But I don’t want anyone depending on me! Then you don’t want to grow spiritually.Eugene Peterson was right: “There can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life, apart from an immersion in, and embrace of, community. I am not myself by myself.”
Today, as never before, people are trying to go it alone in the spiritual life. They have been hurt by, or are angry at, or have just lost interest in the church, and so they walk away. According to Pew Research, about 167 million Americans say they are Christians, yet only 58 percent of Evangelicals, 39 percent of Catholics, and 33 percent of mainline Christians attend church on a weekly basis. Why don’t they gather with the church? Because they think it is optional.
Do you know what that means? They are thinking of church as an event – perhaps one you attend for extra credit. But the church is not an event. It is the community of God’s people, united to Christ and each other by God’s Spirit. That is not optional.
“I am not myself by myself.” Many of us have come to understand that we can’t be who we’re meant to be without God, but we haven’t yet grasped that we can’t be who we’re meant to be without each other. The most important thing about you, if you are a Christian, the thing that makes you “you” is that you are in Christ. But I am in Christ with you. We need each other.
In Corinth, there was a group of people who believed that the church couldn’t make it without them. They were the spiritual ones. They were the ones with something to offer. Sadly, other people in the church believed them, and concluded that they themselves had nothing to offer.
When the Spirit of God brings any person into the church, he gives him or her a gift to share with everyone else. Paul gives examples of what some of those gifts are in verses 8-10. This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives us an idea of the kinds of things he has in mind. Some people bring wisdom to the table, and some bring knowledge. Some inspire the rest of the church with their remarkable faith.
God works through others by bringing healing – emotional, physical, or both. Another is very discerning – he or she senses quickly whether something is good or bad. Another can speak God’s perspective into situations – delivering messages from God. Another can speak in tongues or interpret them.
In Corinth, the people who fancied themselves “spiritual” were enamored with the speaking gifts. They wanted to get up in front and talk. But Paul knew that Christ is not just a talking head – and neither is his church. Of course, the body of Christ needs a mouth, but it also needs eyes and hands and feet.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12, Paul said that a single body has many parts and added that Christ is like that. His body, the church, is one even though it has many parts – us. Now, listen again to verse 13: “For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
The baptism Paul is talking about is not water baptism but the spiritual reality it represents. This baptism is immersion in God’s Spirit, which unites a person to Christ’s body, the church. Notice again the diversity: all of us, whether Jew or Greek, whether slave or free. And notice the unity: we are baptized in one Spirit into one body.
We often speak of people being baptized into Christ (which is biblical language, see Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:2) but overlook the fact that such a baptism is always and invariably into the body of Christ, the church. That is why, when we hold a water baptism (as we will next week), which is the physical expression of this spiritual baptism, we want the church to be present to welcome and receive the baptized. We not only recognize that they are in Christ but that they are with us. Christ not only justifies people, he “familifies” them, as Joe Hellerman says – he places them in his church.
We are not only immersed in the Spirit and into the body of Christ, Paul says that we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Some Bible interpreters think Paul is referring to the wine at Holy Communion. They point to what St. John wrote: “For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood.” They see the Spirit’s activity in the water, which they take to be baptism, and in the blood, which they take to be the wine at communion.
But that does not seem to have been on Paul’s mind at all. He is talking about a two-fold experience of the Spirit. The believer is immersed in the Spirit and the Spirit enters into the believer. Because the believer is in the Spirit, he or she in a part of the body of Christ, and because the Spirit in the believer, he or she has something to offer to the body of Christ.
That “something” is not expendable; the body of Christ needs, for example, what you have to give – what God gave you to give us. A while back someone handed me $500 to give to someone in need. What kind of person would I be if I had held onto that money – even if I didn’t use it for myself but just left it on the shelf? And when God gifts us in some way the church needs and we don’t pass it on to the church, what kind of people are we? Christ’s church needs what you were given to give. Do you believe that?
Some of the church members in Corinth didn’t. That is why Paul continued: “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body” (1 Cor. 12:15-16).
Paul goes on to imagine what a body would be like if it was all one big eye. What if the church were all one part, reproduced again and again? It would not be the body of Christ but the body of a monster.
Let’s pull this together. When you believed on Jesus Christ and received his Spirit, you were united to his body the church – and the church to you. You cannot have Christ and pass on his church; he won’t let you. John Wesley was wise to share what a “serious” Christ-follower once told him: “Sir, you wish to serve God and go to heaven. Remember you cannot serve Him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”
You not only received Christ; you received a gift to share. The church needs what God gave you to give it. More than that: your own spiritual health, the spiritual health of your family, and the people closest to you depend on you doing so.
Now here is the problem: you might not know what gift God gave you to share with us. It came wrapped and you only find out what it is when you give it away.
I challenge you to ask God what he wants to give to the church through you. Then listen for God to speak to you. Guidance may come from something said at church or at home, something you see being done or needing to be done. Get in there. That is the best way to find how God wants to bless the church through you.
As most of you know, Karen and I will be finishing up the work God has given us to do here sometime this year. After making that announcement, I learned that the average church’s attendance drops 11% when her pastor leaves. But Lockwood is not average. I want us to grow by 11% by the time I leave and then keep on growing.
The future God has planned for Lockwood is good but make no mistake, that plan includes you and the gift you have for, and are to, the church.
 I am indebted to Sky Jethani, What If Jesus Was Serious About the Church, Moody Publishers, for the four categories used.
 Gordon Fee: NICNT: 1 Corinthians. P. 668
 Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family, B&H.