Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Body of Christ

When Paul wrote "you are the body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:27) or "in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Rom 12:5) what did he mean? What exactly is the "Body of Christ"?

We take a lot for granted. For example, in the two places where Jesus spoke about the "church" (ekklesia) we assume we know what He was talking about. It's obvious isn't it? He was referring to groups of people who meet in tidy buildings, in rows of chairs neatly set out; following the same order of services they have since the apostles (4 hymns, 2 readings, an exhortation, prayers, breaking of bread and announcements); with elected arranging brethren, presiding brethren, rostered organists, etc.

Except that's clearly not what Jesus understand by "church"/ekklesia. Even if He was thinking 1800 years into the future His audience obviously couldn't have had that vision in their minds when they heard Him speak of church/ekklesia.

So what did He mean? When Jesus referred (only twice) to the ekklesia He used a word which was used in the LXX Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to refer to Israel as God's community. It was a word which meant (to a Jewish audience) "the people of God", and it was a word which included the whole community. So in Matthew 18 when Jesus spoke about being reconciled with a brother, He said we should first enlist the help of a trusted friend, if necessary get one or two others involved, and then if really necessary we should get the help of the whole community of God's people in order to be reconciled with a brother.

So we find in the Hebrew Bible that on important occasions when God's people presented themselves before God that they did so as HOUSEHOLDS. Passover was to be kept by the whole household. When the tithe was presented to the Lord the whole household had to be there to eat together "in the presence of the Lord" (Deut 14:22-27). When the Philippian jailer was converted his whole household was baptised and joined the community of God's people (Acts 16:33). The (unbaptised) children of believers are "holy" (1 Cor 7:14).

Scripture is screaming out to us in these verses and elsewhere that God is interested in families, households and communities. The community of God's people includes new converts, those who have passed down the Word of God for generation after generation, parents, their children who are also "holy", single people, the Sunday School, the Youth Group, the elderly with dementia in nursing homes, and all those in the care of God's people. Together they make up the "congregation of Israel", the ekklesia, the community of God's people, the Body of Christ.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Lord's table - thanksgiving

I think we have such an emphasis on "atonement" in our theology that we might have missed the point about the bread and wine by seeing them as symbols of the literal body and blood of a human sacrifice.

However, I believe Jesus is actually picking up on a very strong theme in the Hebrew prophets.

Here are just a few verses where the prophets talk about the kind of sacrifices God desires.

Having already said that the time would come when Israel "will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol" (Hos 3:4) Hosea went on to preach about what God wants when sacrifice is unavailable. He said "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings" (6:6).

In chapter 14 he spells it out further:
1 Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!

2 Take words with you
and return to the LORD.
Say to him:
"Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips. [a]

[a] Or offer our lips as sacrifices of bulls
Reading the Hebrew literally (as the NIV footnote does above) we realise that the sacrifices of bulls are to be replaced by "our lips" i.e our words/prayers.

When he was inside the fish Jonah prayed and said "with a song of thanksgiving, [I] will sacrifice to you" (2:9).

Micah 6 has a similar view on sacrifice:
6 With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

8 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Amos has a similar message (chapter 5):
21 "I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.

22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.

23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.

24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
The prophetic theme here is consistent. God would abolish sacrifices and remove the Temple and priesthood and replace them with "thanksgiving", the "sacrifice of praise" and a people who would act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, when God's justice and righteousness would prevail.

Malachi 1 even suggests that the time would come when the Temple doors would be shut and the Gentiles (nations) would bring a "pure sacrifice" of prayer (symbolised by "incense" see Rev 5:8).
10 "Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you," says the LORD Almighty, "and I will accept no offering from your hands. 11 My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations," says the LORD Almighty.
Jesus' message of the coming kingdom reached a climax when He cleared the Temple, indicating that the time had come for the sacrifices to end. Almost immediately thereafter He has a meal with His disciples when He says the usual prayers (thanksgiving) over the bread and wine and says "do this" as a memorial. Do what? Offer thanks. Acknowledge God. Offer to God our lips as sacrifices of praise.

Little wonder then that the earliest word the church coined for the re-enactement of the last supper was "eucharist" which means "thanksgiving"! This partly comes from Paul's expression that we share a "cup of blessing/thanksgiving". The point of the bread and wine is that they are about giving THANKS in place of offering the body and blood of bulls. So Jesus said of the items over which the blessing/thanksgiving would be said "THIS is my body and blood" i.e. thanksgiving under the new covenant replaces the body and blood of bulls under the old covenant.

So much of what Jesus did and said was grounded solidly in the preaching of the prophets about the coming kingdom, and the cleansing of the Temple and the last supper were "eschatalogical moments" in which Jesus was declaring that they had reached a climax in God's dealings with humanity. But if we overlook the immense influence of the prophets in how Jesus understood His own role we miss these beautiful connections.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Disproportionate grace

An Australian ecclesia recently decided to "dissociate" itself from another ecclesia because they don't like the "disproportionate emphasis on the doctrine of grace" by the other ecclesia.

A "disproportionate emphasis on the doctrine of grace" sounds like an oxymoron to me. "Grace" is all about God's abundant, overflowing, overwhelming, infinite, disproportionate generosity!

Paul used the word "grace" about 80 times in his letters. John says “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17) and “from the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (1:16). Luke said “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words [or words of grace] that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22). Paul said he taught "the gospel of grace" (Acts 20:24). Many of Jesus stories and parables emphasised the disproportionate nature of God's generosity. If we don't understand disproportionate grace we really don't understand the Gospel.

Members of the ecclesia concerned would no doubt benefit by reading some of the following helpful books:

Law and Grace by Christadelphian author W.F. Barling

Conviction and Conduct by Christadelphian author Islip Collyer

Legalism vs. Faith by Christadelphian author David Levin

The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll

What's So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey