If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how would you spend your last night?
Would you fine-tune your will, spend time with loved ones, or reach out to estranged family members? Maybe you’d find a church to seek solace in or go on a spending spree and throw all caution to the wind. When you know you have only hours to live, what you choose to do with that time becomes quite revealing.
Jesus had the rare insight of knowing exactly when He was going to die, and on the night before His death, He chose to spend His time praying. Some of Christ’s prayer is recorded in John 17, a portion of Scripture known as the high priestly prayer. During this earnest outpouring, Jesus makes a similar statement four separate times. The quadrupled appeal Jesus makes is that all believers in Him would be one.
Suffering Together, Rejoicing Together
After Jesus’ resurrection, we find God fulfilling His Son’s request. Paul writes, “God has so composed the body [the church] … that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24b-26). Paul goes on to use this bodily metaphor in several of his letters. He presents Jesus as the head of the body and describes believers as the remaining parts.
This bodily imagery is helpful in understanding how Christians are to rejoice and suffer together. For example, I love cherry cobbler. How crazy would I look, though, if I covered my eyes while eating one of my favorite dishes thinking that the experience was only for my mouth to enjoy?
Likewise, when I’m not feeling well my entire body gets labeled as sick. I’ve never gotten the flu and told my boss, “My head and stomach need to take a day off, but I think my little toe can come into work today.” No, whether for good or bad, my entire body works as one entity.
It’s easy to understand this principle at work in our individual bodies, but how do we apply this same kind of unity to the church body? The command to suffer and rejoice together is complicated by passages such as Proverbs 14:10 which says, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no outsider shares in its joy.” If the Bible says we can’t share in another’s joy, how can we realistically obey 1 Corinthians 12:26 and produce unity by suffering and rejoicing together? Here are three solutions:
1. Treat the church as a body, not a club.
As Christians, we’re not part of a club, a league, a team, a tribe, or a fan base. We’re part of a body. Why the distinction? Well for one, it’s terminology the Bible uses, but in addition to that, it’s far too easy to get in or out of a club. It’s much more difficult to be grafted into or be amputated off of a body.
Understanding the permanence of our union as believers helps to underscore the effort that should go into empathizing with our brothers and sisters. Even though we may not be able to share the full grief or joy of another’s heart, we can still come close. The elbow doesn’t share in the same pain as the foot when it stubs its toe, but it still interacts with the body in the appropriate way to care for its fellow member.
2. Prioritize the local church and small group ministry.
It’s also important to remember that Christians make up the body of Christ that extends globally but gathers locally. I believe one of the reasons God designed His family to experience life together within local churches is to allow His flock to care for one another in a manageable way.
Trying to wear the weight of the world is impossible. To do so for a nation—unlikely. A city—taxing. A neighborhood—manageable perhaps. A small group of believers—perfect! When we regularly gather with our local church family—and more specifically, in a small group within the local church—we find the context we need to fulfill 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 in a meaningful and practical way.
3. Approach each conversation as a public witness for Christ.
John 17:20-23 states that one of the goals of Christian unity is to present a witness so the world will know Jesus was sent by the Father. In other words, someone’s view of Christ may very well hinge on the way they see us treating fellow believers—in person and online.
I sometimes struggle with enjoying social media because it’s hard to scroll through my feeds without seeing professing Christians bickering and engaging in uncharitable talk. I fear many in the church who are active on social media are using these platforms in unloving ways so that the sound being generated resembles the “noisy gong or clanging cymbal” Paul warned about in 1 Corinthians 13.
It’s hard to share someone’s joy when we’re fanning flames of unhealthy and unprofitable conflict. Likewise, it’s impossible to suffer with someone in a meaningful way when we’re stirring up division for social clout. If we want to live out the answer to Jesus’ prayer for oneness in the body, we must die to the desire to promote ourselves and our platforms by belittling others. We must use the communication tools God has given us to bless. We must eagerly share in the joy and suffering of other believers, knowing so much eternally weighs in the balance.
Live intentionally for the unity of the church.
Jesus didn’t die to save ears, eyes, hands, or feet only. He died for His body. Ask the Lord what it would practically look like for you to live more intentionally for the unity of His people. When you do, you’ll be joining in the prayer of Jesus.