For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
-1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Is there anything that is as ordinary and extraordinary as the human body? On the one hand, bodies are pretty darn average—every created thing has one, and whether yours is old or young, healthy or faltering, they are pretty—well—familiar. We live in them every day, and so we are usually well acquainted with our strengths and weaknesses, our pains and our pleasures. Our bodies are like old friends, the sort of friend that we are so well acquainted with that rarely do we stop and pause to think about what our bodies are actually doing as we go about our business each day.
In fact, we tend to pay the most attention to our own bodies when they aren’t working as we think they should—when skin chafes and knees throb, bones break and muscles fail, eyes cloud and minds dim. Or we notice other bodies because they are different—they are different colors, or of differing abilities, or we believe either that they are more or less beautiful than our own. Then we are all too aware of bodies and what sets them apart.
And yet, more often than not, our bodies are simply a miracle. Consider your hands—hands that have likely borne you through countless days, held the hands of those you loved, that have borne the brunt of your labors, have held a pencil or typed your thoughts as they spill from your mind. Or your eyes—how many sunsets, how many loved ones, how many snowstorms have these, the only eyes you will ever have—beheld? How faithful have they been to you, whether you noticed or not? How many bones, muscles, sinews, and nerves have labored without your consideration? How many humble body parts—blood cells, lymph nodes, nerve endings—have carried the building blocks of your touch and your sight without our even thinking of it?
Because that’s the thing about bodies. Most of the time, they keep working whether we notice them or not. They keep on working, day in and day out, because that is what bodies do. It’s not that we don’t appreciate them. If you are like me, its more like we are so busy experiencing the world—touching, tasting, beholding—that we are left with little time for reflecting deeply on the gift that being embodied in this world is.
For it is indeed a gift. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle invites us to pause to consider just how amazing the body is. Only Paul has another body in mind, and that is the body of Christ, a motley crew of Gentiles and strangers from this ancient port city who have found their way into community and life in Christ. And to these people Paul reflects that the body of Christ isn’t all that different from our real, physical bodies. In fact, he says, we can learn a lot about being the church by reflecting on the bodies God blessed us with.
“Indeed,” Paul says, “The body does not consist of one member but many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”
It occurs to me that is not the sort of thing that you write to a church body when all is good and well. This is the kind of thing that you say to a community that is struggling. This is the sort of thing that you say to a community that is failing because it has forgotten that it is a body.
And indeed, Paul is concerned about the church in Corinth. He is concerned because the church has taken to drawing distinctions within itself. Just before this passage, we learn that the church in Corinth celebrates the Lord’s Supper quite strangely—they have one table for the rich and wealthy, and another for the poor. It seems that they have carried their own society’s attitudes about class into the congregation with disastrous results. Now church members are saying that “this person” is useful and “that person” is not. “this person” is right and “that person” is wrong. “This person” is in, and “that person” is out.
In other words, some members in the body have decided that others are not necessary to the well-being of the church, and so they have shut them out of the body, as though they were better off without them.
It’s not as though this is some booming mega-church. Unlike many of Paul’s other letters, the letter to the Corinthians is addressed to the one tiny church that has found a foothold in Corinth. More than likely, the church was no more than a dozen or so families, the kind of church where everyone knows your name. Not all that different from the church that we call home. And yet, they find ways to draw lines separating the handful of Jesus-lovers who have gathered in Christ’s name.
All of this reminds me of a story I recently heard about a neurological disease called Guillian-Barre Syndrome. Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes it, but what happens is this: sometime, often following an infection, the persons immune system begins to attack its own nerve cells. Within days, the person’s body is locked into nearly complete paralysis. In the most severe cases, people can’t even breathe, and must be put on a ventilator. Eventually, the symptoms begin to reverse, and many experience a full recovery. But those who endure Guillian-Barre describe a harrowing experience of losing complete control of their body as it attacks itself. They describe feeling utterly powerless to do anything.
I wonder whether perhaps this is what Paul is concerned about. Perhaps he is concerned that the church in Corinth has forgotten what a gift this Body of Christ is. And perhaps he knows that when the body attacks itself, it will be utterly paralyzed. Because it will have forgotten that every part, from the head down to the toes and everything in between, is important. From the priests and the scribes to the lepers and the widows. Not just important, but essential. Irreplaceable. Every single part of God’s body belongs.
According to Paul, what makes the Body of Christ extraordinary is that every part of the body is not just accepted, but is honored. In the body of Christ, “the members have the same care for one another, such that if one member suffers, all suffer together with it, and if one member is honored, all are lifted up together with it.” This is the Jesus kind of Body, one in which there is no strong or weak, poor or rich, gentile or jew. Instead there is just the Body, bound together in love, guided by Christ, reaching across divisions of culture or class, race or gender.
It’s the kind of body that Jesus envisions when he preaches “good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Christ has given us a gift as well, of membership in the body. Across time and space, we are joined to the members of the Church in Corinth, who struggled with what it means to love and honor one another as they followed Christ. They remind us that being church together is one of the hardest things we will ever do, because it runs against everything we have been taught by our society—for in church, we are called to set aside our inclinations to group people as “our people” or “not our people,” and instead see all of us as “God’s Children.” Because we are.
And this is important stuff. Because unless we can learn to love our neighbors within the church as the children of God that they are, we have no hope of sharing that love with those beyond the church. Our love for one another IS our witness to the world. Church is both our testimony, and our training ground for life out in the mission field—the world beyond our sanctuary doors. It is, in the words of Paul, the “more excellent way.”
Friends, let us love one another, for we are all children of God.