Dear church family,
For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body… (1 Corinthians 12:13)
As we approach the celebration of Pentecost, I want to write to thank you all for your wonderful participation in our shared journey of faith as part of the body of Christ. We continually pray for you, thanking God for your faithful works of service, your patient endurance in hope, and your generous labours of love, inspired by Jesus Christ.
At Pentecost we joyfully celebrate the creation of something new, although always part of God’s divine plan – the creation of the church, as the body of Christ – formed through the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is a summarising, integrating celebration of all that has gone before from Easter on: crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, with the Spirit calling together and uniting in Christ a new body of believers. The confusion of Babel is replaced with the harmony of the Gospel, the language of grace and forgiveness.
Pentecost highlights the fact that we are called as a body of interdependent parts, as chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians explains, not as separate, isolated individuals. Through our relationship with Christ, we are in relationship with each other; we need each other. Indeed, the problems of isolation and separation are resolved through the Spirit. Thus Pentecost celebrates not merely the work of the Spirit in the lives of individuals, but the celebration of the Spirit creating and enlivening the church community. People from all languages, cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds are now called together to be “one” in Christ, in a covenant relationship that is open to all humanity.
One of the most common metaphors for the church in the New Testament is the “body of Christ”, elaborated here in 1 Corinthians 12. We don’t create the church. Christ does, through his Spirit. It is his body. No Christ, no church. If you get Christ, you get the Spirit – and church! He’s the head, and he has a body – his church. Because of Christ, we are brought into relationship: fellowship with the Father through the Son by the Spirit. We have membership, communion, in his body. The church is a divine reality, not an organisational convenience.
A proper understanding of Pentecost therefore means that participation in the church, the body of Christ, is inherent in being Christian. It’s not an optional extra, to choose or reject as we see fit. It’s who we are together, in Christ. This is a beautiful metaphor for understanding the Christian community. We are members of the body, not because we chose to be, but because he chose us.
Faith, hope and love
In the next section of Paul’s letter (chapter 13), we find one of the best-known passages of Scripture, on the great theme of love. It’s a section often read at occasions such as weddings, which is entirely appropriate because it speaks to relationships. It’s worth noting, however, that the context is to the church – how the church should function as the body of Christ, using the various gifts God has given to serve one another in love.
This is the “more excellent way”, or the “far better way” – the way of faith, hope and love (1Corinthians 12:30b; 13:13), of which love is the “greatest”. Here is the body of Christ, living out its role as the church in the world – places of faith, hope and love made manifest. Places where the faith, hope and love of Christ are known and experienced.
We are not thrown back on ourselves, to depend on our own faith, hope and love. We are privileged through the Spirit to participate in Jesus’ faith, hope and love, as part of his body. And church is a place where people are invited to share in this faithful, hopeful, loving life, as part of the body of which Jesus is the head.
Pentecost is a time for us to really celebrate the church, the body of Christ, the new creation that is part of the new covenant through the Spirit. Paul was so excited by the new idea of a spirit-filled family, from all nations and languages, that now lived “in Christ” he couldn’t stop writing and speaking about it around the Roman world. In our culture, sadly, “church” brings all kinds of other, often negative, connotations and baggage (much of it justified). We can’t ignore the harsh realities of church failures and shortcomings. We can learn, repent, in God’s grace repair what needs to be repaired, ask for forgiveness and move forward in Christ.
To understand this human element, some have found it helpful to think in terms of the visible church and the invisible church. There’s never been, and never will be a perfect church – as long as we have human beings involved. We need, as C. S. Lewis wrote, to have an understanding of “deep church”, how the divine realities of church emerge from the life of the Trinity. Lewis himself, along with many others, warns us strongly against using this as an excuse to not engage with the visible church, in all its messiness, problems, and difficulties, but to realise there is always much more going on than only that which we can see. Church: in this particular time, and this place, with these people. Messy, frail. Imperfect. But the body of Christ, as a divine reality.
This is a challenge of our age. One response is to start with Pentecost, and really celebrate our small denominational family, as part of the broader body of Christ – celebrate our brothers and sisters in Christ, and what Jesus has done in molding and shaping us as his body, through the movement of his Spirit.
And through that Spirit, to live and share the good news, including the good news of the divine reality of church. Pentecost is a special time for us to celebrate together, rejoicing in the faith, hope and love we share through our participation by the Spirit in the body of Jesus Christ.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:27).
Heather and I wish you God’s richest blessings this Pentecost.
With much love,