Monday, January 25, 2016

Being the Body of Christ (a sermon from 1 Cor. 12:11-31a)

The church secretary was reading the minutes of the previous church business meeting and she read: Forty voted yes, seven voted no, and one said, “Over my dead body.” I’m sure for those of  you who have been involved in church much of your lives you can recall a contentious business meeting or two. Maybe you heard about the little ditty that was found on the back of a church bulletin. It read: “To dwell above, with the saints we love: O that will be glory. But to dwell below, with the saints we know; well, that’s a different story.”

Paul is well aware of the divisions that are tearing at the Corinthian church. He opens the letter by informing them that reports have reached him that there are divisions and factions among them. And from Paul’s point of view, regardless of the surface issues dividing them, Paul argues they such divisiveness is rooted in spiritual immaturity and selfishness. He says to them early in the letter, “I cannot speak to you as spiritual women and men, but as worldly; you are mere infants in Christ.” You are babies, he says. Their capacity for spiritual understanding, their level of spiritual consciousness is at the stage of spiritual infancy.   

What Paul says here has universal application and there are a couple of really important things we learn.  

First, we learn that in the church, in the body of Christ, we are both diverse and interdependent. A few weeks ago I talked about how baptism symbolizes our immersion by the Spirit into a community where we are all equal partners. In this community all social and cultural distinctions are simply irrelevant. We constitute one body in Christ, whose Spirit indwells the entire body and each member within the community without distinction.

There will always be some tension between our desire to be our own persons and our need for community. Obviously we all need a measure of autonomy and independence and need to establish our identity separate from others. (Sometimes children push away from their parents awfully hard as they grow older because of this need, and parents have to be careful not to smother them with their wisdom.) Each person must be able to stand by himself or herself in order to be an emotionally healthy person.

On the other hand, basic to human maturity and relationships is our need to be bound to others in community. We were not made to be an island to ourselves. The call to Christian faith is a call into community. 

I heard about a Northerner who was ordering breakfast during a trip through the South. He saw grits on the menu, and being a Dutchman who spent most of his life in Michigan, he had never been very clear on the nature of the item. So he asked the waitress, “What exactly is a grit?” She said, “Honey, they don’t come by themselves.” 

Well, neither do Christians. We are called to belong and participate in Christian community. You will not find in the New Testament such a thing as an isolated, unchurched Christian. Are such folks around today? Certainly. I have been working on a couple who grew up in our household. But this is a different time and place. In that time and place to be a Christ follower was to be in community with other Christ followers.  

A local church better represents the body of Christ and the kingdom of God the more diverse its membership. A little boy came out of Sunday School disheartened. His mother could visibly see that he was upset and so she immediately inquired. The little boy explained that his teacher had said that God made us with different parts – that God made us with a nose to smell and with feet to run. His mother said, “Yes, so what’s the problem?” He said, “God made me all wrong. It’s my nose that runs and my feet that smell.” I think sometimes we are like the little boy in that we are not always sure how each part of the body is suppose to work. And it may just be the part that we are.

Now, at the end of this passage, Paul, on the surface seems to contradict what he says earlier because he tells the church to strive for the “greater gifts,” possibly suggesting that some members are more important than others. But that is not really what he is saying at all.

What he seems to be saying is that some gifts (not members, but gifts) are more important to the healthy functioning of the body because of their impact on the body as a whole. He is not suggesting that members of the body are more important than other members.

However, some gifts like teaching or prophesy or leadership are very critical to the overall health and spiritual development of the community. But, and this is important, those who exercise these gifts are not any more valued or loved or appreciated by God than anyone else. So while there are some gifts that are greater than others for helping the body mature and grow spiritually, no member of the body is greater than any other member. There may be greater gifts, but there are no greater members. All are valued and loved equally.

And this brings me to the second point. While all are valued and loved equally, God bestows special honor on some of whom we would never expect. The truly radical thing here, much like Jesus’ identification with the poor and the marginalized, is what Paul says in vv. 22–26: namely, God bestows special honor on members in the community who appear to be “weaker.” Paul writes, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension in the body.” This echoes the special attention and focus Jesus placed on those who were outcasts and oppressed. Paul says that these parts of the body that seem to be weaker, are actually “indispensable” to the health and well-being of the body.

What Paul says here is the reversal of the normal order expressed in other organizations and institutions. In the normalcy of this world’s structures and organizations, these “weaker” members would be considered expendable.

I remember as a junior on our high school basketball team we lost a game on a Friday night that we should have easily won. In fact, the whole season was a disappointment. The year before we had won the region starting three sophmores, so expectations wer high. We were all frustrated, but our coach was furious. With our last defeat the coach had reached his tipping point. So he scheduled practice on Saturday. I knew we were in trouble when I walked into the gym and I didn’t see any basketballs on the floor. We didn’t touch a basketball. We ran and ran and ran some more until we couldn’t run any more. It was grueling. After we finished he gathered us up on the bleachers and lit into us.

In the midst of the cursing and scolding he looked at us and said, “You are all expendable.” Then he paused and added, “Except Row.” David Rowe was our 6’ 6’ center who led our region in rebounds and blocked shots. The rest of us were expendable. Not David.  

What Paul says about the church is that no one is expendable. Rather, we are all indispensable, especially those of us who appear “weak.” I’m not exactly sure what Paul means by this word. I suspect Paul is echoing the same language some of the Corinthians were using. Perhaps some of them who considered themselves “strong” were disparaging the “weak.”

So Paul is saying: “Those of you who fancy yourselves to be ‘strong’, to be more spiritual or knowledgeable than others, you better be careful. Because the very ones you consider ‘weaker’ are the ones on whom God bestows special honor and dignity. These so called ‘weaker’ ones are the very ones God deems indispensable.” These are members of the body who can show and teach us Christ’s love in ways that we cannot learn and experience in any other way. (We might do better if we replace the word “weak” with the word “vulnerable.” God grants special honor to those that seem to be more vulnerable.)

There is a legend about a famous monastery in which every monk was an expert in some high art—except for one little fellow, who had no expertise in any of the celebrated gifts of his brothers. Feeling terribly inadequate, one day he decided to give to the Lord the only thing he had to offer. Before joining the monastery he had been a tumbler in the circus and so he decided to perform for the Lord.

Several days later, when all the monks were up in the chapel participating in the high mass, the little monk went down into the crypt. He was such a nobody in the monastery that no one missed him or even noticed he was gone. He found himself totally alone before a statue of Jesus and there he offered his tumbling act to the Lord. 

Well, this went on for several weeks, until one day another monk came down to the crypt to get some candles and witnessed this strange scene. He found this offensive and went immediately to the abbot. The next day, the informer and the abbot during High Mass, left the sanctuary and went down into the crypt where they witnessed the little monk doing his tumbling before the statue of Jesus. The informer was outraged, and wanted to intervene immediately, but the abbot wisely held him back. When the tumbling was over, the Lord Jesus appeared before the statue, held out his hand, and blessed the little monk. The abbot turned to the informer and said, “More real worship goes on here than takes place upstairs.”

The point of the story, of course, is that God does not judge as we judge. What God considers valuable may not be what we consider valuable at all. The very ones that many would consider “weaker” or more “vulnerable,” are truly the indispensable ones and given special dignity and value by God.

In this passage Paul is calling for a kind of synergy of the Spirit, where members share one another’s sorrows and joys. He says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Here is where the church as the body of Christ differs radically from all other organizations and systems and institutions.

Everyone knows how a pain in the foot or hand can absorb the entire body’s energy and attention for days. No other institution whose primary mission is to be effective or to make a profit or grow the institution would put up with that. They would simply cut off the unhealthy part of the body, the part that is causing all the pain and replace it with a more effective member.

But in the body of Christ, effectiveness is not the first concern. In the church no one is expendable. We are all expected to suffer and celebrate together and to participate in embodying the love of Christ. When a church functions in this healthy way it becomes an outpost for God’s kingdom. The church then offers its community a taste of new wine, a taste of what community is like in God’s new creation and what it means to be the body of Christ in the world.   

Our gracious God, help us to see more clearly what you have called us to be as an alternative community in the world. Help us to see how delighted you are when we truly live as the body of Christ, celebrating our diversity and our interdependence, and truly sharing in each other’s hurts, pains, joys, and celebrations. Forgive our failures and offenses, for they are many, and may we learn from our past mistakes. Inspire us to trust in your grace and continued presence so that we might grow. Expand our capacity to love you and love one another. Empower us to be the body of Christ in the world.


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