How did a movement that began with a rugged band of first-century Jewish peasants eventually become the largest institutional religion in the world? How did the followers of Jesus move from meeting in homes to building extravagant cathedrals, worship centers and family life buildings?
How did the preaching of the gospel move from being a prophetic ministry of calling people to faithful discipleship to being a multibillion-dollar business that promises blessing, prosperity and victory over our enemies? How did a once inclusive community that welcomed Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, become an exclusive institution that works at its best to shut people out?
How did a people called to weep and mourn create an atmosphere of worship that entertains and manipulates the emotions but does not call us to follow Jesus? How did the broken body of Jesus become the instrument of religious power?
Perhaps the most famous metaphor to describe the church comes from the Apostle Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ. Paul’s selection of this metaphor was not haphazard, for the sign and that which it signifies cannot be easily distinguished. The image of the church as the body of Christ signifies that the church is indeed the incarnation of Jesus in the world.
The church is the mouth, the hands, the feet and the heart of Jesus to a world in need of prophetic voices, serving hands and feet, and hearts of compassion. Yet we have forgotten that Jesus’ body was broken for us, and as such the body of Christ in the world today should also be broken.
Brokenness, like many other terms that fit within its semantic domain, conjures up images of weakness and failure, images that for some reason we have taken to be far from what it means to be followers of Jesus. For some odd reason, Christians are particularly guilty of assuming that because they are Christian all things should work out for them. We pray to avoid struggle and pain. In some sections of the church, we are told that if we have enough faith, we can avoid these things and we can even become rich.
But as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own? We must remember that Jesus, the one we are called to follow, suffered real evil, real pain and real death. His life was not just a brief stopover on his way to heaven. He did not swoop in and swoop out of human existence. His life was a vulnerable existence that ended in a miscarriage of justice.
Followers of Jesus must embrace brokenness as a faithful way of existing in the world both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ. Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who is all powerful. When I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ life and tragic death.
Moreover, by coupling the belief that God is all powerful with the idea that we, as opposed to others, are the blessed and chosen people of God, we mock the cross of Jesus. Christians have no pride of place in God’s creation, for our redemption does not make us blameless. Our lack of evil and oppressive deeds does not mean we are innocent. And at no point in his life did Jesus ever suggest that we will be prosperous and secure if we only have faith in God.
Indeed, the church exists in the world as the suffering body of Christ that engages with the pains and struggles of those seeking hope, healing, redemption and restoration. Jesus took on human brokenness in order to be intimate with those who struggled and suffered in this life.
He did not separate himself from pain and brokenness, but he embraced it as a way of being intimate with those who suffer. His compassion was not a feeling of sympathy for the plight of the hurting, while he remained distant from their hurting. His compassion was the force that led him to be intimately bound to those who hurt.
If the church is ever to return to Jesus’ vision for his followers, then those who claim to be Christian must choose to take up the cross of Jesus by choosing to be broken. Becoming a Christian does not remove our connectedness to the rest of humanity.
Rather following Jesus leads us to be more intimately connected to humanity, especially to humans who are broken. The body of Christ does not exist separate from the world, but in solidarity with the world as the broken body of Christ incarnate and suffering with the rest of humanity.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.