Friday, February 17, 2017

Members of Christ and One Another

From the Sounds of Saint Francis (16 Feb. 2017)

“For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”  Rom. 12:4-5

About a month ago, we took the plunge and became members—of Costco, that is.  As our boys are growing, we’re seeing skyrocketing cereal and soap consumption.  There happens to be one of those behemoths of a store not far off Allison’s route from the rectory to Catholic University.  I’ll admit to being at least moderately enthusiastic about the project.  That night we were having a dozen churchwardens over for Friday dinner, those half-salmons were excellent for the money.  I do like the samples on the ends of the aisles.  And when you need a bale of paper towels…

But it still seems strange to think of myself as a Costco member. I’m happy to be a customer, maybe even, in time, a loyal customer.  But for me, membership should suggest something more existential or transcendent.  My association with Costco is purely transactional.  I don’t feel that I belong to Costco, that the institution somehow depends on my loyalty.  It’s silly to imagine that the institution would be diminished should I forget to repay my annual fee at the proper time (though I’m sure they will be much more insistent about tracking down that sum than any church stewardship committee I’ve ever known).

Costco is, technically speaking, not a store but a “membership warehouse club.”  There’s a whole section on their website all about why you should consider becoming a member, with a rags-to-riches history and cheery testimonial videos.  It’s not just about the prices and the quantities, apparently.  Standards of quality are offered—that’s an invitation to trust, mind you.  And there’s a money-back guarantee, something I’ve never seen in the bylaws of any civic organization or church. 

This kind of transactional arrangement disguised as club membership is really quite common.  Have a look through your bulging wallet and see how many “member” tokens slide out of the little pouches.  One doesn’t just subscribe to National Geographic membership, one becomes a member of the society.  The discount plan at the grocery store, the coffee shop’s arrangements about the tenth cup free, these aren’t put forth as simple gimmicks or loyalty rewards---they are called memberships, and that means they trade on some sense of higher purpose and emotional, even spiritual connection.  But do they? Is "membership" at Costco inherently equivalent to membership elsewhere - say, at Saint Francis?

Sometimes it’s good to be vigilant about counterfeits that cheapen the coin of the realm.  We’ve been hearing for decades now about the steady decline of “membership organizations” in America.  Civic clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis, local historical societies, scouting groups for kids, and churches of all kinds have noted substantial declines in the number of people who commit to participate in and to support their work. 

“Membership fatigue” provoked by all those meaningless cards in our wallet may be part of the problem.  But generally, we have become a people far more skittish about commitment and less willing to assume responsibilities than we once were.  Freedom has always been an important American value, but it is increasingly understood and prized in individualistic, anti-institutional ways.

De Tocqueville famously described our society as one deriving its strength from voluntary associations,[1] but there are far fewer joiners these days, which doesn’t bode well for civil society   The opinion page in this Sunday’s Post included a column by Dana Milbank--who has never seemed very religious to me—urging his fellow Americans to join a church or synagogue, if only for the sake of learning how to build meaningful relationships with other people.[2] 

Of all people, membership should be a meaningful category for disciples of Jesus Christ.  Far before Costco ever caught wind of the idea, Saint Paul described the community of believers in two separate Epistles as members of the Body of Christ.[3]  We’re so used to the language, we may well have lost track of the fact that it was originally a rather earthy and direct metaphor—and that it belonged us before anyone else ever took it up.  Bodies have parts—members like arms and legs.  Those parts depend on each other for life itself, and they are only separated at the cost of devastating pain.
We are members both of Christ and of each other.  Jesus isn’t some spiritual essence floating over the sum of the parts.  When we are baptized into Him, we enter into a mysterious but powerful form of union with Him.  He applies the grace bought with His own blood to our sinful souls.  He animates our lives with His own Spirit.  And he joins us deeply with all the other parts of His body, and bids grow closer to each other, as we grow into Him.  Part of that growth is understanding how to use His gifts cooperatively in the work He calls us to do together—seeing the necessity of each member and depending more and more on each other.

It is impossible to be in Christ alone, without having a real connection with another group of believers.  In our country, churches are commonly understood as voluntary associations, with an emphasis on the voluntary.  People often assume that religion is merely a matter of doctrinal opinions and that joining or not joining a church is a matter of taste or inherited habit.  While there may be pastoral exceptions to many rules, this seems to get the New Testament vision of membership precisely backwards.  It’s not that we can believe and then decide whether or not to be a church member.  Christ is only known and loved truly within the community of believers.  Saint Cyprian’s ancient saying is an excellent summary of Saint Paul’s logic: “He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for His mother.[4]”  

This is the season when we invite you to consider becoming a member of Saint Francis.  I will teach a class I’m calling “Life in the Spirit” on Sunday nights at 7:00, beginning February 26.  It will focus on the primary teachings of our faith, the spiritual and moral practices of Christian discipleship, and the history and liturgy of the Anglican tradition.  All are welcome—newcomers and old-timers, those with lots of questions and those who just love to hear the “old, old story.” 

The class will end just before our bishop comes to Saint Francis to administer confirmation and to receive people into the fellowship of this Communion on May 7.  Confirmation by a bishop is the sacramental way in which we become adult members of the Church, confessing our faith and receiving renewal in the Holy Spirit by a successor of the apostles, a representative of the universal church.  All those who have reached the age of reason (we generally place that around 13) are encouraged to prepare for confirmation.  Those who have been previously confirmed by a bishop (usually in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches) will be received instead. 

Perhaps you were confirmed long ago at another Episcopal or Anglican church, but have never formalized the commitment you feel to this parish.  Barbara Cantey, our membership secretary, is happy to arrange a transfer from your former congregation.  You can call her at the church office and also arrange a meeting with me to talk about how we can help you grow in faith and how you can use your gifts to support our common work.  We plan to regularly recognize these kinds of new members in Sunday worship, beginning later in the spring.

Have more questions about the specifics and how they apply to your own church background?   Just give me a call or tick the box on the Communication Card in the pews that says “send me more information about church membership.”  We hope that if you aren’t yet fully committed to this wonderful congregation, we can help you to find your place among the members of this part of Christ’s body, sharing His gifts, working together to do His will, growing in the grace He supplies.

[1] De Tocqueville, Alexis.  Democracy in America.  Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000., 489-492.
[2] Milbank, “Here’s How You Can Deal With Trump—Besides Drinking Everclear.”  The Washington Post.  10 Feb. 2017.
[3] Rom 12:15; I Cor. 12:27.
[4] “Treatise 1:  On the Unity of the Church.” 6.

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