Let us pray: “I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. All who follow Jesus. All around the world. Yes, we’re the church together.” Holy One, you have created us and have gifted us to live in unity with you and one another. We have fallen away; we have developed a taste for uniformity—desiring for others to reflect us, and in so doing have shifted the light away from you, the image in whom we are made. Help us to recognize the value you have given to each of us, and in seeing our value, may we also be able to see and appreciate the value in people around us. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you, Lord, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Long before the apostle Paul penned this scripture from Chapter 12, the human body had been compared to organizations in classic literature. The gist of the comparisons were that the head of the human body and the brain were the top persons in an organization, and the lower down the body one was compared to, the lower his or her position and worth within that same organization. Since Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians in the first century, many others have followed suit and in one way or another compared the human body to the church, to other organizations, and to relationships. In popular culture, one quote from the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” comes to mind. The matriarch of the family explains that the man is the head, but the woman is the neck, and she turns the head. Whether in classic literature or in popular culture, when the human body is compared to organizations, communities, or relationships, the comparison focuses on individuality and hierarchy.
Yet, within Judaism, the idea of hierarchy is turned on its head. Take, for example, the preparation to hear Torah (which we will call the heart). Before the scroll is even brought out in a Shabbat (worship) service, the community prays and gives thanks to God that as individuals, they were able to wake up, to draw a breath, to take care of those personal needs in the bathroom that are often part of the beginning of a day. Without functioning organs, followers in Judaism understand that they would not be able to receive the words of Torah and to live into their calling as participants in their community of faith and in the world.
In this passage, Paul also turns a traditional understanding of the human body/community comparison on its head. Although this book of the Bible is called The First Letter to the Corinthians, it is actually the second letter between Paul and the church at Corinth. After Paul departed Corinth, the community wrote to him expressing concerns about events taking place in the community: people excluding people from participating in communion, people judging that because of ethnicity, heritage, and net worth, that some people in the community were more highly valued than other people. So, Paul responds with this First Letter to the Corinthians. In the salutation of his letter Paul writes:
Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead be restored with the same mind and the same purpose…Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other.
The community was dividing itself into factions: those who belonged to Paul, to Apollos, to Cephas, to Christ. So, Paul reminds them that although Christ had not yet returned (even though it had been almost 25 years or so), that it is still in the foolish nature of Christ’s death on a tree or a cross, that God’s plan of love and unity is revealed. It is not in splintering into factions, but in uniting in the purpose of Christ—uniting in love for Christ and mutual love for one another that God is revealed to those around us.
So, Paul draws the comparison of the human body to the Body of Christ: “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we were all given one Spirit to drink.” Paul asks questions of the Body of Christ, “If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the sense of hearing? And if the body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body?” Paul calls the community at Corinth to use its God-given senses to recognize that each member of the church of Corinth is valued, is loved, is created and called by God to be restored to the same mind and purpose: to live as a community united in the death and resurrection of Christ, even and especially as they wait for the return of Christ.
Although this passage of Scripture comes up no less than once every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary, I think that the timing of this particular passage could not be better. In a climate of ever-increasing anxiety, conflict, and discord, the message Paul writes to the Corinthians is a message for all of us. As major economies work out trade agreements, these words from Paul remind us of the importance of the factory workers who manufacture the products we purchase and remind us of their importance in production and manufacturing. As people react and respond to this past week’s Supreme Court ruling or NY state’s passage of legislation, Paul reminds us that it is not our political affiliation that defines us, it is not our political affiliation that unites us, but we are united in the Body of Christ. Paul calls us to be united—not uniform. We do not have to ascribe to one another’s political positions in order to recognize and honor the presence of Christ that dwells within each one of us. As The United Methodist Church prepares for a special session of General Conference in just under one month, Paul’s letter reminds us that finger pointing, accusing, and name calling is not what we have been called to do; we are called to see Christ in one another, to see and value each one’s gifts, and together to use our gifts in order to be restored to the same mind and purpose. The same mind and purpose does not equivocate into being of the same opinion, nor does it give us permission to dishonor or dismiss those who are not of our same opinion.
“As a matter of fact,” Eugene Peterson writes in The Message:
the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore the more necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?
The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.
You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “body” mean anything. You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in [the] Church, which is [God’s] body:
those who pray in tongues.
But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all interpreter of tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts, [and some of you keep stepping aside, certain that another body part, can fill the task for which God has created you].
On Saturday morning, at Hurlbut Church Family Camp, we are going to have an opportunity to discover the gifts each one of us has been given through the Holy Spirit. Then, on Saturday afternoon, as a community of faith, as this Body of Christ, we are going to begin to ask ourselves about the gifts we have to offer, what we are currently doing with them, and what God is calling us to do with them. It is my sincere prayer that as many of you as is able will be willing to be present, to be part of this beginning conversation, so that as we grow and learn about ourselves and rediscover and uncover realities about this Body, this community, we may all be restored and with the same mind and the same purpose as is in Christ. May it be so!