It’s Sunday morning and our pastor is there early, drinking his coffee, straightening the chairs in the sanctuary, and, I think, praying over them. The heater makes the ceiling creak as Jason and Courtney hold hands to pray before he’ll lead worship in a voice that sounds like Mark Hall’s from Casting Crowns, and she’ll find the high harmony. They both grew up singing, but say they didn’t realize what a gift music would be until Courtney was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007.
The hospital was dark when our pastor called Jason after Courtney’s hysterectomy. She was bleeding too much, her blood pressure was plummeting, and in an empty room down the hall, Jason was asking God, “What have I done wrong?” Sunrise was an hour away as his pastor prayed, “Father, help Jason hold fast,” and the music that has run in Jason’s veins all his life brought a MercyMe song to mind:
Will this season ever pass?
Will we see the sun at last?
Help is on the way[i]
Courtney’s blood pressure was low when Jason came back from the waiting room, but just as the sun broke over the hospital courtyard, her blood pressure began to rise with it. Jason will never forget the words, Hold fast.
He and Courtney are singing together this Sunday, and my sister Leanna is jostling her one-year-old on the front row. It’s been two years since Leanna miscarried her first baby and stood here the Sunday after. I remember moms and older women finding her after the service, embracing her, and saying, “I’ve miscarried too.”
The ladies brought her meals, and on Mother’s Day, Mrs. Chris made her a Danish. As Leanna’s belly went small again, God healed her heart, too, because she realized a baby could never fill her the way God could; this morning, she’s singing “Come Praise and Glorify Our God” (and holding Barrett John).
Chris’s Danish is renowned at First Baptist. As church secretary, she keeps candy on her desk for the kids, too— a big, oak desk built by Mr. Frank when he was alive. He was a quiet, old man who was always kneeling in some corner to measure or drill, and when I read about Bezalel in Exodus, who fashioned the tabernacle, whom the Lord gave “all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs,” Frank comes to mind (Ex. 31:4).
On the other side of Chris’s office, Jim brews the coffee early every Sunday. While he waits for it filter, he and Mr. Bill talk about chickens and the economy. Bill asks about my greenhouse and tells me all his kale has gone to seed. We talk about what it takes to work a garden and keep our places in ship-shape.
I like these conversations, and I like seeing Chris at her big desk. I like to hear Leanna and Jason and Courtney singing in the service. There are many names for this meeting of the saints, but when it comes down to it, the church is a group of ordinary folks with stories to tell and skills to share. They have hands and feet and necks and elbows. A Body of bodies— that’s what the church is, and when we get much more abstract than that, we run into a problem, because Jesus was a man with a body.
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you prepared for me…” ~ Hebrews 10:5
Paul invites the church in Philippians to “do nothing from selfish ambition,” and our model is Jesus, who was “found in human form” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:3, 8). Jesus loved us by living and dying inside a body. We love our brothers and sisters by serving them with the work our bodies can do— our singing, baking, and building. When Jesus returns, he’s looking to find us using our hands in ordinary work:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink… I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:34-36).
It could as well say: “I was in a hospital waiting room and you sat with me. I was hurting from a miscarriage, and you brought me dinner.”
C.S. Lewis wrote that the Christ-life is not “something mental or moral.” Rather, “the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts— we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body.”[ii]
“The whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts— we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body.”
~ C. S. Lewis
“For just as the body is one and has many members… so it is with Christ,” Paul reminded the Corinthian churchgoers, who were acting like dismembered parts on a dissection tray (1 Cor. 12:12). “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). In other words, the church isn’t a place to bring our individualistic ambitions and rally support to achieve them. Rather, we lay down our selfish ambitions and take up the cross of Christ— which means we take up each other’s little crosses. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
First Corinthians 13, the symphonious “love chapter” of the Bible, cannot be isolated from Paul’s criticism of church rivalry throughout Corinthians. “Are all apostles?” he countered in 12:29, “Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” There must be Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, pastors and cancer survivors. And so there must, must be love. The spiritual gifts, bellowed from the stage of our individualism, are gongs rattling the rafters of an empty sanctuary.
Paul called the church “the body.” Then he wrote that “Love bears all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).
Love bears miscarriages and waiting rooms. It builds furniture and bakes Danish. The Body of Jesus is alive with this love, because Jesus is alive. His church is a moving, breathing entity that takes up space in the world, that sings and eats bread together. These are ordinary means of grace, ministered through ordinary people that magnify an extraordinary Savior — who bore the iron nails of love, who fills his people with that love — and so I plan to be back this time next Sunday.
[i] MercyMe. “Hold Fast.” Coming up to Breathe, 2006, Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/1RCh0FRG7fPrUuCq3mkH1u?si=53b9cf453ee64f6c.
[ii] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. 1952. HarperCollins, 1980.