In March of this year, a study published in the journal of Scientific Reports described a fluid-filled latticework of connective tissue that can be found all over the human body. It wraps around the entire digestive tract, the lungs and every artery and vein. Just as our skin covers the outside, this tissue wraps around the organs inside our bodies. The authors of the study refer to it as another organ of the body and if that is true it is the largest organ of the body, providing 20% of our body mass. It is called the interstitium (inter-STISH-um) but to try and help explain it they call it a “series of spaces” and a “highway of moving fluid”.
The idea of an interstitium is not new but previously it was thought of more as a fibrous connective tissue. Now they see that it is a whole highway of fluid-filled sacs. The reason medical science is just now finding a whole organ in our body is because now they have a way to examine live tissue at a microscopic level while still inside your body. Previously specimens had to be removed from the body and when that happened the structure changed and the water was lost.
They believe that this network, if you will, acts as a shock absorber for other parts of the body. It also seems to be a way for fluids to enter the lymphatic system, which means it could spread diseases through the body, including helping cancers to metastasize, which researchers have never before understood exactly how that happens.
But just as it may explain the spread of disease it could completely change the way we treat cancer and other diseases. This has the potential for being a paradigm shift on how we understand the human body.
Our second scripture reading for today makes me think of the interstitium of the body. The scripture comes to us in the form of a letter attributed to the Apostle Paul. It is written to the church at Ephesus and Paul shares that he is in prison being punished by the Empire for acting in faith. He is imploring the local church to live in unity and be in peace with each other. He reminds them that they are the same body…the body of Christ in the world.
Frederick Buechner, one my favorite writers describes it like this:
God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do.
God was making a body for Christ and we are that body, my friends. I think if Jesus would have known about the interstitium of the body he would have said something grand, in the same way he said, “You are the salt of the earth” or “You are the light of the world.” I think he would have said, “You are the interstitium of the body!” If Paul had known about the interstitium I think he would have written something like: “The whole body is joined and knitted together by the interstitium which promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love”. Together, collectively, jointly, cooperatively, communally, we form the interstitium of the body of Christ.
A woman named Martha Grace Reese, through the help of Lilly Endowment research grants has studied congregational transformation. She has worked with over 20,000 congregations and is the author of the Unbinding the Gospel Series. In her research she has been able to discover some key practices that help churches transform. I was most interested in her finding that congregational members have a deep, relational faith in God.
We went through some discernment time a couple years ago as a congregation and one of the things that became very clear was how much we need to have deeper relationships with each other in order to grow in our spiritual lives. Out of that discernment we decided to hire a pastor of Spiritual Formation. We asked her to help us use our varied gifts to form small group opportunities to encourage spiritual growth – individually and collectively. We are at the beginning stages of that process with the advent of new Connect! groups within the church. Some are short term and some are continuing groups.
We were clear as a church that in order to grow and develop we need each other. We can’t be the body of Christ without each other. It is the interstitium that binds us together. We need that highway of connective fluid.
From its beginnings the Church of the Brethren understood this need for community. The early Brethren believed in cooperative salvation. They said, “We can’t do this alone. We can’t be the body of Christ without each other.” The early Brethren lived out this truth by what is called free ministry. They didn’t pay ministers. They did the work together. Some were called to preach. Others were deacons. Some cleaned up after others. Others visited the sick. Plus, they made their decisions together. As we know this process can be laboriously slow but as the body of Christ we do this work together. We make our decisions as a community.
Ephesians 4 says that we are to live a life worthy of our calling. We each have different gifts and different callings, which we are to use for building up the Body of Christ. Each of us need to contribute and participate…as ourselves. The Body of Christ needs us to bring what we have to bring. There is no competition in this because nobody else is you. You bring what you are and what you have. Parker Palmer says:
The deepest vocational question is not, ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’
Ephesians calls us to unity by bringing together our diverse and varied selves…the very stuff of who we are.
Sometimes we have a hard time figuring out who we are. More times than not it is the community that helps us discover ourselves and our gifts and if not discover them, then confirm them.
I remember a conversation I had not that long ago with my favorite Sunday School teacher from childhood. I told her what I learned from her and how much I appreciated her honesty as we discovered scripture together in her class. She said that she had never thought of herself as someone who could teach but the pastor asked her to do it. She told him that she wasn’t equipped to be a Sunday School teacher. He said, “I think you are. I think you should test that ability and I will help you.” She told me she not only found out she could do it but she loved doing it and she learned so much herself. She discovered something she had to offer when it was seen and called out in her.
Recently the church board sent Amanda Bennett of our congregation a letter to let her know that we see gifts in her for set-apart ministry. The Church Board invited her to explore that call. It didn’t take her even two minutes to say “yes” to the process when she received the letter. In the case of Amanda the outward call of the community confirmed her inward call.
The opposite can happen as well. Testing things out with others can help us define or redefine or even head in a completely different direction. I think of the show American Idol as a clear example of that truth. It begins with young people who think that they should move from singing in the shower to recording their own albums. They come before a panel of seasoned pop and country singers and audition. Some of these young people can sing, some of them need some direction to help them refine a gift and some of them need to find a new dream. They test their gift with others.
We offer each other a place to test our wings and find ourselves. We offer each other the gift of care and compassion in times of triumph and tragedy. We are called to be in relationship with each other because there is no other way to truly be. Together we become bigger, bolder and more amazing than we could ever be alone. Together we can reach out beyond ourselves and offer justice and peace and love and challenge to our world. Together we not only find ourselves, together we are saved.
Together we are the institium of the body of Christ. If you are sitting there right now trying wondering if you really are part of the body you need to know how much we need you. If one of us dries up or shuts down the highway is blocked. If one of us thinks I’m not going to participate and no one will notice, the highway becomes disconnected. We need each other and the world is depending o us to be the interstitium of the body of Christ. Amen.