Grace Presbyterian Church
January 24, 2016, Epiphany 3C
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
What It Looks Like: We Need Each Other
Bodies are amazing things. The sheer complexity of the human organism, the dynamics of coordination that make us able to function physically and mentally are staggering.
The trouble is, though, that bodies being so interdependent can result in one small problem in one part of the body can cause trouble for the whole body. I received a personal object lesson in this fact earlier this week. My body temperature was off, just barely. Not even a degree high, but just a little bit high. Yet that very small difference in temperature was enough to leave me alternately chilly and hot, a bit woozy, and generally not very functional for a couple of days.
Athletes are particularly prone to this kind of difficulty. In the 1937 All-Star Game in Major League Baseball, the pitcher Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals was struck on the foot by a line drive, and ended up with a broken toe. Dean was out for a significant part of that season, but with his St. Louis Cardinals striving for a pennant Dean tried to get back into action before his toe was fully healed. In trying to prevent more damage or pain in that broken toe, Dean altered his delivery – the mechanics of his pitching motion. Unable to adjust to a new pitching motion, Dean injured his arm. His pitching career never fully recovered, and Dean was forced to retire from baseball four years later, only able to win a few more games in that career. A toe seems an awfully small thing, but in Dizzy Dean’s case, it was enough to bring his whole body down. Bodies are amazing things, indeed – sometimes in a good way, sometimes less so.
That Paul chooses the body as a metaphor for the interworkings of the people of God is striking and informative in ways that the apostle himself might not even have imagined.
While Paul is the only contributor to the New Testament to use this particular metaphor, it wasn’t uncommon for teachers and writers in the Greco-Roman world to use such a metaphor to describe communal life. Philosophers and political figures were particularly fond of the body metaphor in that culture. For a politician, for example, the metaphor of the body might well be used to suggest that every member of a society had his or place to fill. A body needs a head; that place was to be filled by the “elites” of society – the wealthy, the military elite, those in power. A body also needs hands and feet; here pretty much everybody else in society, those charged with the hard or dirty or dangerous work of society was to fulfill his or her role.
Paul, though, takes a different angle on this metaphor. For Paul, what matters is the utter interdependence of the body – the degree to which the body needs everything in good working order. Parts of the body that might be regarded as weaker, or less “respectable,” are treated with greater care and covered or protected more carefully. In Paul’s scheme of the body, no part can claim to be independent of all the other parts. The eye can see all it wants to see, but without feet and legs to move, or hands to do the work that needs to be done, the eye is powerless. The head is useless without the rest of the body.
Many of us know what it is for our physical bodes to fail us or betray us. We see what needs to be done but we just aren’t capable of doing it physically. If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers with it. And so it is with the body of Christ, the church; when one member of this body suffers, we all suffer with that member.
Paul wants us to understand, in verse 13, that in being baptized in Christ we are baptized into this one body, no matter the differences between us. Indeed, following on the first part of this chapter we heard last week, the differences we bring to the body are not accidental; they are necessary, both in a given local congregation and in the church universal – we need all those different experiences, all those different backgrounds, for the body of Christ to function rightly and bear witness to the good news.
This is where it gets tricky, though. We are not always good at dealing with difference. We don’t always care for diversity, even as we need it. New Testament scholar Brian Peterson puts it bluntly in noting that “We often confuse unity with uniformity, because it is much easer to gather with people who are like ourselves than it is to reach across the divisions which mark our culture.”[i] We are more comfortable with a church where everybody looks like us, talks like us, is about the same age as us, reads the Bible in the same way as we do – or for that matter, votes like us, goes to Gator games like us, and all sorts of other things that may have very little to do with the life of the church. It’s a natural inclination, but it isn’t really all that Christlike.
In verse 13 Paul refers to two of the great divisions he knew to be at work in the church – “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” Admittedly, “Jew or Greek” is not a huge dividing line in the modern church, and while slavery certainly does exist in the modern world still, such a dividing line doesn’t run through the modern church in quite the same way it did for Paul’s Corinthian readers. We do, though, have lots of dividing lines among us in the church today:
Black or white, or Asian, or Hispanic, or Native American…
Or how about Democrat or Republican?
Maybe rich or poor?
Native-born, naturalized citizen, immigrant waiting to be citizen?
Straight or gay?
How about married or single?
Progressive or mainline or evangelical or fundamentalist?
How are we, as the church, the body of Christ, at truly living in the diversity that makes us work? Or are we still inclined to hole up in like-minded enclaves of homogeneity?
Whether we acknowledge it or not, when any part of the body of Christ suffers, whether they look like us or think like us or sound like us or have anything in common with us other than Christ, we all suffer, and we don’t bear witness to the gospel the way the body of Chris is meant to do. And to the degree that we stand by and let that suffering continue, we are complicit in damaging the body and its witness.
Having worked through this body metaphor, Paul now returns to the diversity of spiritual gifts, or manifestations of the presence of the Spirit, that he had discussed earlier in this chapter. Again the list is incomplete, but Paul now places those gifts in the context of the church as God appoints people to contribute: apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of powerful deeds, healers, helpers, leaders, speakers of various tongues. And just as the body would look rather ridiculous if it were nothing but an eye or a foot, so the church becomes rather ridiculous if it consists of nothing but apostles or preachers or teachers.
But as Paul closes this thought, he actually “teases” us with something even better, a better, “more excellent” way for the church to live or for the body of Christ to function. The diverse and distinctive appropriation of gifts is characteristic and even needful in the church, and the diversity of members matters profoundly as well.
And yet, there is something else that matters more than all of these, or more precisely is the very thing that makes this distinctiveness and diversity work. What is it that makes the body of Christ what it is meant to be? What is it that brings all those diverse gifts and abilities and manifestations of the Spirit together in a way that enables us truly to bear witness to the Christ we say we follow?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: “Blessed Jesus, At Your Word” (PH 454); “O Word of God Incarnate” (PH 327); “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” (PH 438); “We Are One In the Spirit” (GtG 300)
[i] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a,” Working Preacher (workingpreacher.org, 24 January 2016 2nd reading), accessed 21 January 2016.
agnusday.org. Wish they'd do more epistle readings.