Your body’s immune system normally protects your body from disease and infection. But if you have an autoimmune disease, your body attacks healthy cells by mistake; your body declares war on itself. The human body is an integrated interdependent collection of systems and structures that work together to strengthen and protect one another. For example, the nervous system causes you to pull your hand away from a hot pot before the hand is too badly burned. A body that is not fully cooperating in its own wellbeing is sick.
In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul uses the human body as a model for how the Christian church should function; we are many parts but one body. He summarizes: “So that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part is honored, every part rejoices in it [12:25-26].”
These days we seem to be increasingly aware of divisions within our national family. This is a product of an election cycle gaining steam, which often involves politicians fostering divisiveness among us for the purpose of exploiting those divisions for the acquisition of power. There have been high profile shootings by police and of police that call attention to the fractures in our society--racial, urban vs. rural, poor vs. rich, native born vs. immigrant. We can come to believe that for someone else to get ahead, it will inevitably mean loss for us. It is probably unrealistic to think that our nation will ever grow into the image of a healthy body as used by the Apostle Paul. We will have to settle for something less until the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness; in other words, we will continue to have a cultural autoimmune disease.
The Christian church, on the other hand, is a different matter. The church is to model now the Kingdom of God that will come someday. We are to be a city set on a hill that gives light and demonstrates in the present what God will accomplish for all creation in the last day (Matt. 5:14). In other words, within the Christian church, the autoimmune diseases of the world are to be already healed.
When we read Paul’s letters, too often we do not feel the weight of their implications for the people who first read them. Paul writes that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus [Gal. 3:28].” We do not appreciate the divisions and animosities between these various groups. Paul lived in a decidedly autoimmune society.
In Romans, Paul speaks to the ethnic and cultural divisions between Jews and Gentiles within the church at Rome. The Jewish believers thought they were superior because they had the history of the law and God’s having first chosen Israel. Paul seeks to undermine their sense of superiority, most pointedly in 2:17-29. On the other hand, the Gentiles thought themselves superior because of the widespread Jewish rejection of Jesus. Paul sets about undermining their sense of superiority, most pointedly in 11:13-21. Paul is seeking to heal within the church divisions imported in from the broader autoimmune culture.
Many of the problems that Paul responds to in First Corinthians are the result of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within the church in Corinth. Paul again tries to heal the attitudes and practices and resentments introduced into the fellowship from a decidedly divided culture.
From its earliest days, the Christian church was to be a community where the divisions and alienation and injustices of the broader world are eradicated by the power of God. To this end, pastors and lay people from the Capital Area Baptist and the Mid-Hudson/Union Baptist Associations met on Saturday, September 26th, at the Second Baptist Church of Poughkeepsie to share a meal and conversation about the things that divide us. We came from rural and urban communities, upstate and down state and were Euro-American and African-American. That last distinction generated the most conversation. We shared about our experiences of being white and of being black in America. We listened to one another and spoke honestly in an environment of candor and trust. The acts of sharing and being heard had a healing effect on the relationships of the people in the room. We readily admitted that we were all shaped to some degree, inevitably, by the racial divisions that permeate our society. It was sometimes an uncomfortable conversation but not one without hope; we acknowledged that we were all in the process of being remade by the Holy Spirit. This ongoing conversion, being made ever more into the image of Jesus Christ, assured us that healing can take place. On that day we gathered as Christian brothers and sisters and modeled what a community of healing and health can look like.
These two Associations plan to gather again and wage further war on those things that divide our fellowship and our nation. Our hope is that other Associations will take up this endeavor and sow health among our fellowship. We as Christian brothers and sisters—claiming the same Lord and having been baptized by one Spirit—can make progress in healing those things that divide us. Hope for our broader communities, our nation, and our world begins there.