By Martin Marty
“We are not divided; all one body we:” When we sing such lines in old familiar hymns, we may be voicing a claim that sounds like a lie to observers and should prod consciences of believers. So when the ELCA shares that “We are a church whose unity is in Jesus, who gathers us around word and water, wine and bread” we are telling a truth but mainly pointing to an ideal. Yet ideals can get somehow realized, and they do.
The rest of the sentence about Jesus points to places and times where elements of that unity are real, appearing as signs of hope and probes of conscience. Open your eyes, this sentence implies, and find our Jesus gathering us “around word and water, wine and bread.”
Gather where else than there? God is invisible and God in Christ, we say in the creed, “sits on the right hand of the Father,” which means out of sight and often out of mind. So we are back to finding Jesus in the gathering, which means in the setting of very visible, palpable, testable “means of grace” and the communities they reach and form.
Since the wine of the sacrament may be sour and stale, the bread may lack freshness, the water will not always be clear — and the spoken word is also cloudy, we may seek refuge back in the world of invisibles and ideals.
Some people then prefer to speak of “spirituality” as being a sufficient bearer of the divine word. Then they make fads out of peddling versions of that utterly spiritual word, which makes no demands on us in dealing with fellow members of the body of Christ. No demands? Also, no fulfilling gifts.
“Spirituality” can be a good word if it signals the presence and gift of the Spirit, but these endowments always come connected with the material. One Anglican writer, Martin Thornton, rubbed this contrast, “the material,” in our faces. His intent was to help us learn afresh to be connected with God in Christ. He tried to shock us if we want to keep the ways and word of God at an ethereal distance. We are wrong when we shelf Christian faith into the slot marked “spirituality.” No, Thornton pressed on: Christianity is the most material of the religions. Why? A bit of wit comes with his dead-serious line: “You can’t even get Christian faith started without a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and a river” — connected, we Lutherans like to say, with the word.
It would be eye-opening and heart-moving if for a month we looked around for signs. Advice: Regard the fellow-baptized, those receiving the bread and wine, and listening to the words of others — preachers, teachers, fellow members, families — when they speak the word which is the word of God.
By extension, we will find all of this very concrete and not abstract, very real and not ideal, in works of love, in church budgets, in not always eloquent homilies or some slightly off-key choir anthems, in the weak grammar of many teachers’ attempts to excite post-nursery children, among youth struggling to find a faithful way, in celebrations of those who suffer diseases, including mental versions of these. In and despite and beyond many of these we will find each other, gathered and bound through unity “in Jesus.”
Sometimes we lose patience with someone in conversation and spit out the words “Get real!” My favorite way of being prodded into that real-ity is to recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s startling words: “Jesus Christ exists as community” and not only “in community.” If he is where two or three are gathered in his name and if we are “the body of Christ,” we have new reasons to gather, and we will realize gifts that go overlooked when we are in isolation, when we are not gathered and not gathering.
Look other members of Christ’s body in the eye and realize the unity to be found in him, which largely eludes us in the organizations called churches if and when they neglect to grasp his beckoning hand when it is offered. Which is always, whenever it is summoning, pointing or giving.