1 Corinthians 12.12-31
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Did you hear the one that goes, “Why is the church like Noah’s Ark?” … “Because the stench inside would be intolerable if it weren’t for the storm raging outside.” Or “How many Congregationalists does it take to change a lightbulb?” … “What do you mean change?!” How about the classic one-liner: “Jesus promised us the Kingdom of God, but all we got was the church!”
The past 50 years have not been easy ones for religious institutions. Some of it is our own doing, and some of it isn’t. We all know about “mainline decline” and the rise of people who have no religious affiliation. And we all know that churches have been complicit in protecting pedophile priests, financial malfeasance and greed by televangelists, and political power grabs by the religious right. And those wrongs need to be addressed.
Those stories dominate the news, and if you don’t know anything else of the church, you’re likely to have a rather dim view of what it means to be the church in America today. That catalog of tragedies has caused countless people to say they’ve had enough of the church and decide to chuck it all. I was there, too, when I was 18, having witnessed a bitter factional struggle in the church of my youth and when televangelists shouted and wailed across the airwaves. To my teenage eyes, which tended to see things only in monochromatic black-and-white images, my perception was that the church was broken. Who needs the church?!? So, I left for about 10 years…and eventually I returned through the back door of the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, when I realized that I needed a community where I could nurture and explore my spiritual life. I needed the church.
I know my story is not unique…but I did have a family background that provided me with something to come back to. Yet, a large segment of young Americans today has never stepped foot into a church, mosque, or synagogue, because their families were never involved in the first place. When they are in their 20s or 30s and feel a pull toward spiritual community, they have no home to return to.
I was born at the end of the Baby Boom, and one of the hallmarks of my generation, especially older Boomers who remember the Vietnam War, the shootings at Kent State, and Watergate, was to “do your own thing.” In the 1960s and 70s, every institution was distrusted, including the church. And it is true that the church in this country has been a bastion of sexism, homophobia, classism, and racism. And if your local church was just a social club or a place to be civically involved like the Elks Club, then it was part of the establishment that the Boomers abandoned. Lots of people left in disgust, saying “Who needs the church!?”
So, that’s the bad news folks.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “There are always two parties, the party of the Past and the party of the Future, the Establishment and the Movement.” And here is something that very few people in America realize: from the days of Jesus himself, the church can only function well as the Movement and not the Establishment.
Some suggest that the church got corrupted when the Emperor Constantine adopted the faith and made it the official state religion of the Empire, and that may be so. But think about our own church’s Congregational history: separating from the established Church of England, rallying for the abolition of slavery, ordaining a woman in the 1850s, expounding the Social Gospel in the late 19th century, supporting Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s, and working in the courts, legislatures and the in the church itself for the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks. That’s what the Movement looks like, and for many of us, that is a big part of what it means to be the United Church of Christ today. Years ago, one of our lay leaders, Larry McCulloch, was talking about why he was giving to the capital campaign that renovated and expanded our building, and he said that part of the reason was that the church, unlike any other organization, has been a potent force for social change for over 2,000 years, and that he wanted to invest in our future. Staying power is the upside of institutions.
Social change is central to what we do in the UCC: it’s in our denominational DNA. But we are more than the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, GLAAD, or the ACLU, though we sometimes partner with them. There is a different dimension to who we are and what we’re about.
We in the UCC, especially in the Congregation tradition, tend to have a “low” sense of ecclesiology — the theology of the nature of the church. Some of us here today may not see Plymouth as all that different than the organizations that I just named, and perhaps you see us essentially as a community organization that meets once a week…but with good music. Others of us know that there is more to the story, more to the nature of who we are, and more to explore as our spiritual lives unfold individually and together as a body.
Early Congregationalists in England refused to identify with the church under the monarchy or even as a denomination. For them, the true church was a gathered body of people in one local place, called together to seek God and God’s intention for our lives. The Salem Church Covenant of 1629 spells it out: ‘We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind our selves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth.” And when new members join Plymouth, as they (will do/did) today, we still exchange words of covenant with each other. Your name doesn’t go on a national list at the UCC offices in Cleveland…you are a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC, the local church. Your clergy are not members of the denomination, a presbytery, an annual conference, or a diocese…we are members of this local church.
Our forebears didn’t believe in great hierarchies or bishops or popes or monarchs, but rather in people and pastors, who together try to seek God’s ways and live accordingly. And that is a radical notion of being the Movement, not the Establishment. And today, we also see ourselves as connected ecumenically to sisters and brothers around the world.
And there is a more mystical aspect as well, in what it means to be the church. The roots of Greek word for church, ekklesia, from which we get our word ecclesiastical, mean called out. We are called out of our private lives to form community. We are called out of our comfort to have compassion for those who are hurting. We are called out of our individual needs to serve the needs of others. We are called out of our radical individualism and self-interest to be part of something greater. We are called out of our aloneness to be the body of Christ in the world.
The gathered body — that is what it means for us to be church.
When Paul was writing to those who had been called out and then called together in Corinth, he was doing so before any of our four gospels had been written, probably about 15 years before the earliest, the Gospel of Mark. So, this is early material…perhaps from 20 years after Jesus’ death. People did not yet know what it meant to be the church, so Paul uses this amazing metaphor of parts of the body, which are organically connected. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We aren’t just a collection of individuals…we are an organic, even a mystical, whole. And through baptism and covenant, we individuals become part of that organism. We become part of the Movement: the same Movement that Jesus started 2,000 years ago.
“Now, you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” Those are powerful words, but only if you let them sink into your being…past your mind, past your emotions, into your body and the depths of your being. You are the body of Christ. So, move! Go! You are called out to pray and to serve, BE the church because God and God’s world need you!
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.