In New Seeds of Contemplation (1962), Thomas Merton’s haunting prose captures the Church of history and the present moment: “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.”
Merton continued: “Even the innocent, even those in whom Christ lives by charity, even those who want with their whole heart to love one another, remain divided and separate. Although they are already one in Him, their union is hidden from them, because it still only possesses the secret substance of their souls. But their minds . . .judgments and . . . desires . . . their appetites and their ideals are all imprisoned in the slag of an inescapable egotism which pure love has not yet been able to refine.”
“A Body of broken bones” seems a profound metaphor for what it means to be in Christ and his Church, a community of “new creations” to be sure, but one in which that redemptive “treasure” is housed in “earthen vessels,” mortals easily cracked, chipped, shattered. Nonetheless, the larger image of Merton’s words offers profound challenge: the call to reset the ever-fractured Body of Christ.
If it’s any consolation, the Church’s broken bones required resetting almost from the beginning. The book of Acts says that after Pentecost they “were together and held all things in common,” breaking bread . . . with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2: 44-46). Yet almost immediately “certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1).
Things got worse, fast. By A.D. 53 or so, Paul writes to the Corinthians, grateful that they “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (I Cor. 1:7). A mere half-paragraph later he comments: “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters” (1:11). (Even then church folks told on each other!) Across much of that initial Corinthian epistle Paul attempts to reset the broken bones of a badly divided community where Christians are suing each other (6:1), sleeping around (5:1) and fighting over preachers (1:12-13), worship practices (14:26-30), marriage (7:36-39) and even what food to bring to the fellowship suppers (8:1-4). Must have gotten ugly, since Paul contends dramatically: “Your meetings tend to do more harm than good” (11:17 NEB). In 2018, does any of that sound ecclesiastically familiar?
Throughout the text, the apostle of “God’s foolishness” (1:25) endeavors to counter the Church’s fragmentation, with admonitions like, “God has combined the various parts of the body, giving special honour to the humbler parts, so that there might be no sense of division in the body, but that all its organs might feel the same concern for one another” (12:25 NEB). At present, American Christians seem no closer to that communal spirit than our Corinthian counterparts. The broken bones of individual and collective division desperately need resetting.
Why? Because our contradictory ethics, dogma, hermeneutics, ecclesiology, economics and politics, politics, politics, amid conflicted perceptions of the gospel itself, often seem irreconcilable. Worse yet, the society in which we live frequently appears in a mad rush to write off the Church, here and now, right and left.
Given those sober realities, what might communities of faith do to reset the bones broken by difference and indifference, fragmentation and irrelevance? Many congregations already offer courageous responses to these challenges, so here are certainly predictable, but I hope tangible, recommendations.
First, we might reset our broken commitments by reaffirming covenantal relationships. At our church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we read the church’s covenant together before first-Sunday monthly Communion. It begins, “Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.”
“Covenant reminds us that God’s grace is both vertical and horizontal.”
Covenant reminds us that God’s grace is both vertical and horizontal. Through covenants, we profess our faith, affirm our relationship to Christ and one another, and confess that we are one in Christ. Let’s dust off old covenants or make new ones, bring them to the forefront of our faith communities, and take them seriously, together.
Second, let’s reclaim Christian liturgy as a collective guide for who we are, what we do and where we belong in the Body of Christ. Liturgy unites us in common prayer and praise, word and sacrament, nature and grace. It energizes us communally and individually to live the gospel or sustains us with the faith of the believing community when we cannot believe for ourselves. Liturgy links us with that “cloud of witnesses” who got here before us. It is the enacted spirituality of God’s new community.
Third, let’s cultivate the presence and continuity of religious experience, “a direct encounter of the soul with God,” to quote Quaker Rufus Jones. For those baptized as infants, Confirmation becomes that experiential moment when the faith of the church, spoken at baptism, becomes individual faith. For conversionists, faith is no Jesus vaccination, no mere transaction that fulfills a heavenly requirement. It is a decisive response to Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me.” It demands a continuing encounter with Christ and his grace.
Fourth, let’s audaciously acknowledge that amid the broken bones of our spirituality, the world needs what the Church has to offer – grace and hope in the face of suicides, opioids, injustice, racism, sexual abuse and political exploitation. When the world is at its worst, perhaps we can discover the gospel at its best.
Forty years ago, I preached a sermon entitled “Where are the Clowns?” an early homiletical excursion into the seminary community where I was then teaching, and where the broken bones of theological division remain for me unset. While much of my theology has changed over the last 40 years, these words remain as undeniable for me now as then:
“Somehow, in the mystery that is God, the world needs us, the clowns. Oh, we look silly in the baggy pants of our theology, the painted faces of our practice, and the open-ended barrels of our ethics. But there we are in the center ring where some people need to be protected, where others are hurting, and where those who have fallen need the safety of a second chance. And as foolish as it sounds, that’s why the vulnerable God/man on the cross could not save himself, and in doing that, saved others.”
God’s own body of broken bones, reset, by grace.