SCRIPTURE – I Cor. 12:12-27 – Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I Cor. 12:12-27
Oct. 13, 2013
Several years ago I dealt with a case of vertigo, which is an inner ear affliction that causes severe dizziness and nausea. I learned that my vertigo was caused by microscopic crystals in my inner ear that had come loose and were rolling around in there like pinballs, bouncing off my ear walls and telling my brain I was standing up when I was really lying down. Because of this misinformation, my poor brain was confused, because my eyes were telling it one thing and my ears were telling it another. And the rest of me just wanted to curl up in a ball and die.
I think it’s fascinating that tiny little crystals that you can’t even see with your eyes could wreak such havoc on the entire body. It reminds me of the scientific theory that says all of creation is in a web of connectivity, and a subtle shift in one part of the web can have a ripple effect of great magnitude on other parts of the web. The famous example is that a butterfly sneeze in America could cause a tsunami in China. Scientists call this radical connectivity Chaos Theory. Paul calls it the body of Christ.
Our passage from I Corinthians is one of Paul’s more famous examples of what means to be a Christian, and believe me, the Corinthians needed it, because this was one messed-up church. If the Corinth church existed today, I don’t know any pastor who would go within 100 yards of it. The church was filled with conflict and misinterpretation of the gospel. You had affluent members looking down on their weaker counterparts, and the Lord’s Supper was being co-opted into a spiritual competition. There’s a reason Paul’s famous Love Chapter – love is patient, love is kind – is in 1 Corinthians, because they needed to hear it.
The also needed to hear these words about being the body of Christ, in which everyone is connected to everyone else, because they were so fragmented. Now, Crestwood is a long way from the Corinthian congregation. We’re a very healthy church that appreciates and nurtures a strong sense of community and concern. There’s no hierarchy among members and the Lord’s table is open to all. So we might feel this morning like we’re reading someone else’s mail. But Paul’s words about the body still apply to us.
The use of the body metaphor was not new to Paul. Greco-Roman philosophers had been using it for years to describe the status of the city-state, what they called the body politic. The difference is that in the pagan culture, the body metaphor was used to squash individual expression and coerce people into conforming to the world’s values. In other words, for the good of the state, don’t be yourself. But Paul transforms the metaphor by using it to encourage individual expression in the midst of the larger unifying structure of the church. In other words, for the good of the body, be the self God created you to be.
Paul is trying to help the conflicted Corinthians understand that everyone in the church had a gift to give, from the wealthiest aristocrat to the lowliest slave, and those individual gifts should be honored as equal. Some people were trying to keep others from being a part of the church. To them, Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘We don’t need you!’” And other people were feeling like their gifts didn’t matter. “Because I’m not an eye, I’m not part of the body.” To which Paul says, “Being a lesser-known body part still means you are part of the body.” Everyone has a gift, and everyone needs to share the gift in order for the body to function as it was created.
It’s easy for us to forget that, because we take for granted a lot of the parts of our bodies. I bet we can’t name half the things that keep our bodies functioning, and we probably never think about them until they stop working or need to come out. The rest of the time, they just do their job, functioning as God created them to function. It’s kind of ironic that some of our most prominent body parts are of lesser importance, while the hidden parts are essential. Which would you rather have: a well-rounded elbow or a functioning liver? Both are part of the body, both of jobs to do, and the body is incomplete without either one. I don’t really care which one is more aesthetically appealing. It’s all a part of me, and I don’t think about everything going on inside of me to keep me upright and breathing.
That works fine when I’m talking about my physical body. The problem comes when you extend that metaphor to relationships and you put me in a community with a bunch of other people who look, think, smell, talk, and act differently than me. As pastor Barbara Brown Taylor said, “We don’t handle the infinite variety outside of us nearly as well as we handle the infinite variety inside of us. Too often the brains expect everyone else to act like brains and the heart expects everyone else to act like hearts and there’s always a hangnail that brings out the hangnail in everyone else.” This is true of every church, from Corinth to Crestwood.
This challenge can sometimes arise during times of stewardship. We come to this place with different understandings of what it means to give, with different balances in our bank accounts, and with different responsibilities demanding our time and our money. We also come with different ideas of what we think the church should be doing, and sometimes those priorities can conflict. Should we budget more for outreach or for children’s ministry? Should we be good stewards by maintaining our facility or by hiring staff to expand our ministries? The earlobe believes one thing, the kneecap believes another, and the armpit just wants to make a stink.
This is where Paul’s metaphor is so instructive. He says the priorities we bring with us to church are not in competition with each other. They are all a part of what it means to be the body. We need to focus on outreach and children’s ministry, on opening our doors and hiring the right personnel. All of the things we do as a church are representative of the diverse roles of the body, and the gifts we contribute help us to live out our call to serve God and love each other. We are called to give, not because God needs it, not because it makes us feel good, but to contribute to the health of the body.
As part of the body, we each have something to contribute. When a church is rockin’ and rollin’ like Crestwood is, and when it has so many wonderful, committed people in its body, it’s easy to get complacent and assume someone else is going to do what I should do. But we would do well to remember that this body to which we belong is connected to the head, which is Jesus Christ, and in order for us to stay in coordination, we have to follow the example Christ set for us. We are called to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, and one of the ways we do this is offering our gifts to God for use in the body.
That highlights the wonderful paradox which Paul addresses with the Corinthians. We are all individuals with our own unique gifts, and yet we are called to use them in conjunction with everyone else’s gifts. I liken it to a chain of paper dolls that are connected together. You can decorate each individual doll however you would like, but they must still remain connected to each other to be a chain. As soon as you disconnect one, the whole chain falls. In order to maintain the wholeness of the body, we each must live out our individual gifts.
The cool thing that Paul points out here is that this doesn’t take any extra effort on our part. Notice he doesn’t say, “Be like the body of Christ,” or “Strive to live as the body of Christ.” He says, “You ARE the body of Christ.” In other words, we have already been given everything we need to live as Christ’s hands and feet and heart in this world. As Christians, we don’t simply observe and think about and talk about what Christ has done. We join him in doing it, in giving ourselves as living sacrifices and reaching out to touch the untouchables and loving with God’s all-encompassing love. We ARE Christ’s body in this world.
In order to do that, we need each other. We need the strong and the weak. We need to rich and the not-so-rich. We need the young and the wise. We need to foreheads and the pinkie toes. We need each and every one of us to do our part to contribute to the health of the body. Not only does this help us fulfill our call to be unified in the midst of our diversity, but it also models to our fragmented world what it means to be in true relationship with each other, to rejoice with each other and to suffer with each other.
A few months ago I was going down our deck stairs right after it had rained. When my foot hit one of the steps, it slid right off and for a few seconds I was completely airborne. I remember thinking…well, I can’t repeat what I was thinking, but it was something like, “Oh no.” I came down with a thud, hitting both of my elbows and my back on the steps. The first thing I did was take inventory: What hurts? Did anything fall off? Am I still alive? I had only hurt a couple parts of my body, but believe me, my whole body suffered for several days after that.
That connectedness of the body is lived out every time we come to the communion table. Each Sunday when we do so, we re-enact the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus took bread, blessed it, and broke it, and said, “This is my body.” The body of Christ was broken for us, and we are made whole through it. We are woven into the body of Christ, connected by spiritual sinew to each other, through Christ’s death. Each Sunday when we remember Christ’s death, we also re-member Christ’s body, making us members once again through the sharing of the meal together. We could easily divide the church up into a number of categories: age, ethnicity, income, stage of life. But through Christ’s sacrifice, we are one body. Period.
So we bring our gifts. Some are prominent, like a nose. Some are tiny, like blood cells. But all are necessary. All are required for us to be the body Christ is calling us to be. Don’t worry about what someone else is giving. Don’t worry if your gift is good enough. Give what you have to give and trust that God will do the rest. There’s a Sufi saying that goes, “You think because you understand one you must understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand and.” God can take the one of each of us and transform us into something so much greater than the sum of our parts. May we live the “and” of our connectivity as we give our gifts to God’s use. We ARE the body of Christ. Thanks be to God!