This morning, in the readings that Irene read for us, we continue the journey we began last week: moving through Chapters 12 and 13 of 1 Corinthians, and some inaugural stories of Jesus’ ministry from the gospels. Last week we had the story of Jesus turning water into wine in John’s Gospel, and this week we have the first part of a two-part story of Jesus’ first sermon, told in Luke’s Gospel.
The reading from 1 Corinthians continues and expands on last week’s passage that introduced the idea of spiritual gifts: many gifts from the one source, God. Last week, I pointed out the repeated cadence in the text: varieties… same. Varieties of gifts, services, and activities, all from the same Spirit, same Lord, same God. That kind of rhythm continues in this week’s reading, this time in the words “one” and “many”: the body is one with many members; the many members are yet one body. The one body is the body of Christ.
This is the theme that gets woven through this part of the letter, as Paul explores it and explains it, and keeps coming back to it.
I mentioned last week that Paul is dealing with divisions in this congregation: that the possession or expression of certain gifts was the cause of distinctions, as some gifts were valued more highly than others. This is important background information for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. This is a congregation that was stratified, that had a kind of hierarchy, based in part on socioeconomic difference—there were wealthy and poor members in this fellowship; as well as on spiritual differences. Some people fancied themselves as more spiritual, more spiritually advanced or evolved than others.
So these two kinds of inequality: socioeconomic and spiritual. But notice what Paul does with that. He starts talking about body parts! He acknowledges that there are parts of our bodies that we consider more important, more advanced, more elevated; and parts that we consider less so. Parts that we might even be embarrassed about, or ashamed of.
“If the foot would say,
In his letter, Paul addresses these metaphorical body parts. And notice where he begins: he begins at the bottom. “If the foot would say, Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body…” Feet and hands: feet are down there, literally in the dirt, whereas hands are washed and cleaned, perhaps manicured. Paul begins by addressing those on the bottom of the hierarchy; and his message to them is, You are a necessary and needed part of the body.
He then comes back to the one and many theme—many members, yet one body. And notice also the echo of last week’s reading: God arranged the members, each one of them, as he chose. Last week, it was the Spirit allots gifts to each one, just as the Spirit chooses. Another reminder that these are gifts, not our possessions or intrinsic capabilities.
Paul then addresses the higher ups: the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet. Just as he as reassured those lower down that they are valued and necessary parts of the body, Paul now challenges those at the top to see the weaker, lower members as indispensable.
He comes back again to the one and many theme, and this time the lesson is a version of “all for one and one for all”: the members must care for one another, sharing in one another’s suffering and humiliation, and in one another’s success and honour. Like the song we sang earlier, “I will share your joy and sorrow, till we’ve seen this journey through.”
And finally Paul’s says this: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” I read something about this this week that hit me like a ton of bricks. Paul is not saying, “If you do these things, you will be the body of Christ.” He’s not saying that you have to work up to it; you know, practice loving like Jesus, and getting a little better at it, so that you can earn the name, “body of Christ.”
Right now, just as you are.
He says, You are the body of Christ. Right now, just as you are. Imperfect and flawed as we are. And we might think, How can it be so? We think of Jesus, and we look at ourselves, and we can see perhaps a poor and faded, and more than a little jaded, resemblance to Jesus. What can it mean that we are the body of Christ?
Well, first I want to say something about what I don’t think it means. We sometimes say or sing, Christ has no body now but yours, based on the writing of St. Teresa of Avila. It’s meant as a call to compassionate service, a call to be as Christ to one another, as we also sang this morning. And that is good, but it can be misleading. It can be misleading if we reduce it to, It’s all up to us; God can do nothing without us.
To suggest that God can do nothing without us; that God’s activity in the world is limited to our small efforts—that’s a pretty thin theology. It removes God from the picture, or at least pushes God to the very edges, and puts us and our agendas at the centre. I think this is something we really have to be careful of in the United Church.
As a church with an activist heritage and a social justice agenda, it can be tempting for us to conscript God to endorse, or support, or bless our agendas. But being the body of Christ means that we are called to conform ourselves to God’s agenda. Those two things are not always the same.
For example, sometimes in the church we are motivated to do the things we do for other than theological reasons. Sometimes we are motivated by ideology, by our politics. In the United Church, we are often motivated by our liberal values, and our commitment to humanitarianism. Humanitarianism is not a bad thing; it’s often a very good thing. It often leads us to some of the same outcomes as Christian faith does.
Perhaps all Christians are at some level humanitarians. We’re called to love one another, to care for one another. But not all humanitarians are Christians. The two categories are not the same.
I hear people in the church today talking about living the values of Jesus, and I confess that I don’t know what that means.
Because it seems to me that it is not enough to think of Jesus as a teacher whose advice we choose to follow or not follow, as though it’s a New Year’s resolution we make or a diet that we stick to haphazardly.
To say that we are the body of Christ is to say that, by our baptism—so if you’re not baptized you have a bit of an out here—by our baptism we are members of Christ, we are incorporated in Christ; we are not followers, or subscribers, or Facebook friends, but members of Christ’s body.
So for Christians, then, it’s not an option as to whether or not we follow, but only to what degree we allow ourselves to be shaped by our membership in the body, the degree to which we allow ourselves to grow into our Christlikeness.
This is what our baptism begins in us.
You know, at school I am in a doctoral program; so, if we successfully complete the program and earn our degree, we earn the right to be called Doctor. So in class, when somebody says something particularly wise, other students will playfully refer to them as Doctor. We’re not doctors yet, but it functions as a kind of call to grow into this title that we hope to attain. Or you might think of a child, stepping into a parent’s way-too-big shoes or coat or dress, imagining when they will be grown up.
When Paul says, You are the body of Christ and individually members of it, it’s an invitation for us to grow into our high calling, to fill out and fill in this body of Christ that we already are.
To be called the body of Christ is to be called into a pattern of cruciform living—cross-shaped living. It is to commit ourselves—individually and collectively—to the way of dying and rising that we see in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Dying to our egos, dying to our status, dying to our individual agendas. And rising again to life, to true life in self-giving, other-serving love, love in the service of something greater. Dying to our agendas, and finding life in God’s agenda.
In the Gospel reading, we hear directly from Jesus what it means to be as Christ to one another. Notice that the passage begins, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit,” and the first thing he reads in the scroll is, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” The Spirit that Jesus is talking about is the same Spirit Paul talks about, the Holy Spirit; the Spirit that empowers us, and gifts us, and equips us to be the body of Christ.
Where Paul challenges our status distinctions in the church, Jesus challenges status distinctions in the world.
He says that God’s Spirit has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to bring release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus is claiming that God has sent him to the feet of the world, to those at the bottom, to those forced by circumstances to live a rough life.
If we put these two readings together—Paul and his body parts, and Jesus and the world’s outcasts—we hear a call to join with God in working for a world in which no one is excluded, or neglected, or cast off. A world in which all are embraced as indispensable. A world in which the powerful serve the weak.
As human beings, as humanitarians, this is a call that tugs at our heart strings. We’re called to do something to ease the suffering of others. As members of the body of Christ, this call is the first and highest purpose of our lives. It’s what gives our lives shape and meaning and purpose.
It’s not that God can do nothing without us; it’s that God chooses to include us, to conscript us, in God’s plan for setting the world right.
May God’s Spirit come upon us, and fill us, and stir us, and remind us who we are, and empower us to be who we are, the body of Christ in the world. Amen.
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