“Living as the Resurrected Body of Christ” by Pat Conover

May 30, 2021

I support the emerged language of Seekers that we are part of the Resurrected Body of Christ. It is a bold claim and it separates Seekers from the problems of the  Nicene Creed tradition as promoted by Catholics or by Protestants in the tradition of Luther or Calvin.

I understand the emerged theology of Seekers as an example of progressive trinitarian theology that has reshaped the meanings of the traditional phrases Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Naming ourselves as the Resurrected Body of Christ replaces the concept and imagery of the Son of God up in Heaven where he returned after he died on Earth.

We are parts of the Resurrected Body of Christ here and now. We are a current expression and shared embodiment of the ever changing relationships of communities of Christians who, from generation to generation, have oriented their lives to shared memories of the inspiration and guidance of Jesus. We are embodied memories of the inspiration and guidance of Jesus.

The close followers of Jesus gathered after the crucifixion and realized that they were forever changed by knowing Jesus and started doing what was theirs to do. The Pentecost moment and Paul’s experience of recognizing Jesus without having ever met him in person are quite different stories of the first emergences and embodiments of the Resurrected Body of Christ. These stories and then many more, despite their differences, witness and testify to the importance of gathering together in response to memories of the inspiration and guidance of Jesus. 

We have some pretty amazing Seekers stories to share as we have risked into trusting the guidance and inspiration of Jesus, often without noticing or commenting on Jesus as the original source of our traditions of inspiration and guidance. When we share in embodying the transformative memories of Jesus they become assumptions of who we are together as the Resurrected Body of Christ.

About 300 years after Jesus lived, the Council of Nicea constructed a credal statement about Jesus as Christ that became the official religious doctrine of the Roman Empire under Constantine. Expanding empire sometimes included conversion by the sword to Nicean orthodoxy.

Instead of appealing to Nicean orthodoxy as a justification of our theology and liturgy, Seekers claim that we are part of the Resurrected Body of Christ is one version of often punished Free Church traditions. In North America, Anglicans in Virginia literally tarred and feathered Baptist preachers and rode them out of town on a rail.

When Trish and I were reading the Shardlake novels of C. J. Sansom to each other we stumbled on the persecution of Anabaptists in 16th Century England and the Netherlands. They read the Tyndale English translation of the Bible for themselves, discussed the biblical meanings, and worshiped together in small groups. They responded to the democratic motive that arises from the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself and to care for and share with those most in need.

Free Church movements spread to the moving Western frontier of European expansion in the United States. Hundreds of churches, and small clusters of churches on the frontier, identified themselves as Christian churches without formal denominational linkages.  

My father and his brother Stan attended Chicago Theological Seminary in the 1920s where I attended in the 1960s. CTS was founded as a Free Church Seminary in the Congregationalist tradition of the Anabaptist Pilgrims who fled England and Holland. The founding CTS vision was to provide theologically trained pastors to frontier communities.

I understand contemporary progressive Christianity as an inheritor of the Social Gospel tradition of the Free Church movement that was initiated and named by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a Baptist minister, free of denominational constraints. He lifted up Jesus’s addition to the Great Commandment. Love your neighbor as yourself. This led to a confrontation with Gilded Age capitalism not unlike the current enormous disparities between the most wealthy and everyone else. Our current gilded age still has people stealing bread and sleeping under bridges.

Among other things, Rauschenbusch promoted the establishment of settlement houses to serve the massive population of European immigrants, including many who didn’t speak English. My father founded one such settlement house in Chicago that served a Sicilian population. My mother worked as a social worker. One story I have from my mother is that during a hot Chicago Summer she asked a woman who already had a couple of blankets why she wanted another blanket.  The woman answered, “Because rats can bite through two blankets.” This was her way of telling me that fighting poverty really matters.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was another Baptist. He greatly popularized the Social Gospel movement in the 1920s and 1930s during the time my father and uncle were attending seminary. A quote will give you a little flavor of his teaching. “Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.” Think of leadership emergence in Seekers.

E. Stanley Jones was also a major proponent of the Social Gospel movement, also in the 1920s and 30s. He was a Methodist missionary to India where he had a big impact and where he got to know Gandhi. He returned to the United States, preached, and created Christian Ashrams where black and white men gathered for weekends to build projects serving those in need and to pray and worship together.

Jones went on to become a white ally in the Congress On Racial Equality, one of the important supporting groups in the Civil Rights movement. My father attended one such Ashram.

You can think of those Christian Ashrams as a forerunner to the Christian Spiritual Retreat movement of  the 1970s and 1980s including Dayspring. I was a member of the North American Retreat Directors Association in the 1980s and gathered Shalom Community to live together and provide Christian retreats on 47 acres near Greensboro, North Carolina.

I lift up three contributions to the formation of Seekers that draw upon the inspiration and guidance of Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Savior. The first is that he came out of a Baptist free church tradition. Seekers has always been free of top down denominational pressure to conform to Protestant, much less Catholic, versions of Nicene dogmas. In the Free Church tradition Seekers has written and revised its own foundational documents and is currently taking a fresh look at its Sunday morning worship traditions, reconsidering leadership in Seekers, and reviewing mission groups.

Second, Gordon lifted up the importance of small groups that encouraged the emergence of leadership in multiple forms for multiple purposes, and prompted changing forms of doing things to meet changing circumstances.

The third major helpful guidance of Gordon was to focus on here and now ministry on the forefront of social service. The recent sermon from Christ House and Kairos House is one example of this perspective. Seekers has tempered our emphasis on social service with an emphasis on social justice requiring critique and change in the dominant economic, political, and cultural traditions of the United States. Seekers steps away from traditional liberalism by encouraging intentional inner journeys and the building up of beloved community as being equally important to outer journeys of social service, and of justice and peace activism.

Seekers calling to “be the church” rebalances the C of S tradition of gathering churches to support social service projects. Our calling to “be the church” supports our fresh claiming of ourselves as part of the Resurrected Body of Christ.

We are freed from the pretensions of the Nicene Creed and Empire to live into the humble and simple guidance of Jesus to love God with all our hearts and minds, souls and strengths, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the guidance we need for experiencing here and now salvation before everything has been made right. This is the guidance we need for our personal and shared journeys of discovering and doing what is ours to do.

Jesus did not name himself as Christ or as the Christ. That name was attached to him later. Like his first followers, we don’t have to believe what Paul or the Gospel writers, or the Nicene Christians, meant by the word Christ.

I’ve been preaching a progressive understanding of Jesus as here and now Savior since my first sermon in Seekers in the late 1980s. A few of you might remember that I preached a series of sermons that lifted up the values to be found in different Christian denominations, including fundamentalism, while letting go of the rest. The letting go parts I didn’t focus on was mainly Nicene Creed Christianity.

Jesus was not the traditional Messiah the Jews were looking for. He was not a warrior priest in the tradition of the Maccabees who fought so fiercely against the Roman Empire that they were granted freedom to live according to the Jewish faith in Judea and Israel. Jesus was not a Zealot, but he nonetheless directly challenged the collusion of temple priests and wealthy Jewish families with Rome, much like his mentor John the Baptist. That is why he was legally murdered.

Neither was Jesus the apocalyptic Messiah that the prophets Daniel and Micah were looking for. There is nothing about a dying and rising and returning Messiah in Daniel and Micah. Daniel and Micah were the last Hebrew Scripture prophets before the time of Jesus. They were well known and quoted by Paul and the gospel authors. Jesus did not return from an imagined Heaven leading a heavenly host to punish the enemies of the Jews and their Gentile converts and establish in a Heaven on Earth.

Lost apocalyptic hope was a great theological crisis for the early Christians in the time of the gospel writers. There are a lot of Christians who are still waiting for such an apocalypse to come. It is more comfortable to believe what you want to believe than to face disappointments and to admit that you have lived for false hopes.

The lectionary portion of the 3rd Chapter of John tells us that to live in the Realm of God we must be born of water and spirit. Water symbolizes confession as the washing away of the burdens of sin, leading to repentance understood as a change in direction. Living in harmony with Spirit is about aligning with growing awareness of what matters most. I join countless Christians in telling what I have experienced of Spirit and why it matters to much to me, and telling what I have seen as I have lived into the inspiration and guidance of Jesus.

As we live into our personal and shared transformations as part of the Resurrected Body of Christ we can be saved from the three As: anonymity, alienation, and anomie. Anomie means confusion, but confusion starts with a c.

Anonymity is about not knowing who you are and about other people not knowing who you are. To know who you are you have to consider and choose what matters most to you. Do you really want to face up to who you are in your heart of hearts instead of the image you portray to look good to other people? In Seekers we provide trusting and caring support for your inward journey, even at the ugliest points, even before you get over feeling depressed.

Anomie, confusion, is about not knowing what is true about other people, about nature, about our economic, cultural, and political worlds. What matters about white supremacy and black resentment? What matters about being critical of corporations and the super wealthy while wanting to be wealthy ourselves? What matters about thinking of yourself as a woman or a man? What matters about your successes and failures? In Seekers we provide trusting and caring support for clinging to the truth and hope of beloved community – before you have everything figured out.

Alienation shows up in psychological defense mechanisms. Alienation comes with believing what is comfortable and avoiding unkind and unpleasant truths. Are you resentful that you have been given a life that ends all to soon in death; a life that is unfair; a life that include suffering and pain? Can you live into loving God with all your heart and mind, soul and strength, before everything has made right? Myself, I escape from time to time into pretending that it matters a lot whether the Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl or the Cleveland baseball teem wins the World Series.

Do you still want to be and become part of the Resurrected Body of Christ? The good news is that you don’t have to be perfect first.   

Addition: Mental Health and Salvation

As an older teen I had a vision that I needed to master psychological theory and practice, sociological theory and practice, and Christian theology. My Master of Divinity thesis for CTS was on the philosophical grounding of psychological science with a constructive chapter on the psychological thinking of the theologian Paul Tillich. My Ph. D. dissertation for Florida State University was on the philosophical grounding of sociological science with a constructive chapter grounded in the philosophy of Tillich.

Focusing on the Jesus version of the Great Commandment that added on love your neighbor as your love yourself led me into critical thinking that challenges the horrid and damaging aspects of mental health theories and practices as embodied in traditional 19th and 20th century mental hospitals.

If I had been outed as a transgender child in the 1950s, my science oriented parents might have sent me to the Florida State Mental Hospital in Chatahoochee Florida when the approved treatment for such “sexual deviance” was to ease the distress of such people by prefrontal lobotomies. A lobotomy is done by running an ice pick up through you eye socket to scramble the pre-frontal cortex of your brain to make you “comfortable,” better said “docile.” There were plenty of other horrid “treatments” of people labeled as mentally ill which were all about defending cultural norms, especially norms of sex and gender, rather than helping the victims named as mentally ill.

When I wrote Transgender Good News in 2002, an approved treatment for boys who wanted to be girls was attaching electrodes to their genitals and then shocking them if they got an erection when they were showed pornography. In April the American Psychiatric Association finally apologized for its racism, much as it earlier apologized for its homophobia.

When clinicians talk treating feelings of depression with drugs, I sometimes think about the crucifixion of Jesus and how the close followers of Jesus, including his mother and brothers, were gathered together in Jerusalem and became the first expression of the Resurrected Body of Christ as they bonded into transformation that opened up as they shared their sadness and grief.

Accompanying each other in the midst to oppressions and tragedies reminds us that oppression and tragedy, however awful, is not the last word from God. Remembering the humility and courage of Jesus was inspiration for the first close followers of Jesus to embody the self-giving love that Jesus so vividly revealed.

Healing and salvation is often a path through fears and depressions, through angers and resentments, rather than paths of denying or avoiding our feelings. Being there with each other in the hard times can become known as becoming here in the immediacy of the transformative love that is a potential in the gift of life from the Creator. Don’t misunderstand me, as a trained and sometimes practicing clinician, I know all too well that next steps always come from who we are and that we need to do, what we need to do to hold ourselves together as we discern and gather the courage to take our next steps. My point is that accompanying people in their tragedies is a very different orientation than fixing people to avoid our own discomforts or to meet cultural expectations.

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