Pentecost 16 C: The Group Mind of the Church

Instead of my normal practice of reflecting on one or more readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, this week, and since we will be welcoming new members to St. Luke Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, I have chosen to focus on the affirmation portion of the service of Affirmation of Baptism of the book Evangelical Worship, where we ask people

Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:

to live among God’s faithful people,

to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,

to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,

to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

And, when they respond, “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me,” we ask the entire congregation:

People of God, do you promise to support these sisters and brothers and pray for them in their life in Christ? To which they answer, We do, and we ask God to help and guide us.”

You see, I had one of those syncronicity—serendipitous moments of grace from a mischievous God this week.

First I ran across an amazing article in the New York Times. It was about this amazing bird called the bar-tailed godwit. Any day now flocks of  godwit will take off from the coastal mud flats of Alaska and fly over 7,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. Now these are not sea birds, so they can’t plop down in the ocean for a rest, or to feed. No, they fly nonstop for nine or ten days. They don’t rest, and they don’t eat. They keep flapping their wings until they get there. Then, next March, they will fly back to Alaska.

Scientists who came to know all these things only recently because they have fastened transmitters to these birds and can tell how their wings are flapping and at what altitude (they can fly miles and miles high) have been amazed. They know the godwits build up fat, yet make many of their organs smaller so that they can have lots of  energy, yet fly with half the weight of their more breeding and feeding days. But how, for instance, do they navigate? How do they avoid the typhoons and other weather disasters along that long journey?

One scientist, who has observed these birds day and night while they are on the ground, noticed a curious scenario. A bird flaps and bounces about and shows obvious signs that she wants to start out. But then she looks around her at the other godwits. The mass of birds don’t get excited with her. They seem to be saying, “No, it’s not time.” Finally, after days of this same behavior, a bunch of other birds appear to agree—it’s time—and so she goes along with them and joins the first flock to depart.

So, the observers have wondered, “Is this group mind? Are they pooling their intelligence?”  And I wondered, is that what’s happening when I watch the huge V formation of Canada geese, and they alter their course in mid air, and now one is the leader and now another? Or when a huge mass of starlings stay choreographed together as a great flock, while sweep around in a great dance in the air?

And then – and then, right after reading that article, I opened what is fast becoming my favorite book of theology of all time, titled Fools for Christ, by a theologian and historian from the last half of the 20th Century, Jaroslav Pelikan. The book reminded me of how Martin Luther has been misinterpreted through the years. People make the mistake of thinking that if Luther broke from the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church, and urged people to think for themselves, and stressed the freedom of the Christian, he must have been a radical individualist. But, in fact, Luther did battle against many of the individualists of his time. He also stressed that neither he, nor any believer could live out  the Christian life without the aid and encouragement of fellow believers. Luther knew we may have to do our own believing, and our own dying, yet we are never alone. Where one of us is weak, another is strong. Each has something to contribute to the common good.

But the group mind of the church is more than that. In the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians we read this:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

The group mind of the church isn’t our great asset because all the people around us in the pews are such virtuous people.  It isn’t great because consensus is always better than independent thinking, or because the majority is always right. The group mind of the church is powerful because we are saints.

And please stay clear of the commonplace definition of saint. What is a saint? Saints in the Bible aren’t saints because they are particularly good, but because they are forgiven in Christ Jesus. So saints know when they meet other people who are bent down by sin, that they are no different. Only by the grace of God can I stand before another and exchange stories of pain and suffering. Only because Jesus has died for me and has shared resurrection life with me can I share hope with you.

This is our group mind. Anything good we know about life and death and new life is because we are have died and risen again in baptism into Christ.

We can’t ever do it on our own. We can proclaim good news, serve people, strive for justice and peace—we can do good for our loved ones and neighbors only because we live among God’s faithful people, hear the Word of God, and share in the Lord’s Supper.  Only because we know we are sinners who are forgiven.

Life is a journey, they say. Think of the bar-tailed godwits. They are even now taking off from Alaska and flying 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. They don’t do it alone , but with their flock. They have a group mind that helps them know when and where to fly around the storms. You and I have membership. We have one another in the church. We have the group mind that is the mind of Christ. We must do our own believing, living and dying, but we never do it alone.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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1 Response to Pentecost 16 C: The Group Mind of the Church

  1. Caroline Leean says:

    Thank you, John… Yes, we do need one another.

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