The New Testament module I have just completed was interesting in many ways. Its main focus was on several of the Pauline letters, including the epistles to the Galatians, Romans and Corinthians. New insights were gained into the background, setting and context of these letters as well as the character of Paul himself. This was particularly challenging as my natural tendency is to regard Paul with a small measure of annoyance and a gritting of teeth.
Don’t get me wrong, I have learned to love and admire St Paul; for his sheer hard work and determination in setting up the early churches, his zealousness for spreading the message of Christ and his genuineness in his beliefs. It’s just that sometimes I wonder, ‘Is that really what you meant Paul?’
One passage though, in which he explained the metaphor of ‘the body of Christ’ brooks no argument from me and we were asked to prepare a sermon on it as part of the course. Here then is a copy of that sermon, intended with my own church congregation in mind, but here delivered hopefully to an equally receptive, varied and open online congregation.
The passage it relates to is 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
As the writing on the barn wall stated, “All animals are equal…” This declaration by the animals in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm laid down a rule which many democratic societies have upheld as a basic principle. However, if we are all equal doesn’t that mean that we all have to be the same? Not physically the same but doing the same thing, thinking the same thoughts, making everything neat and uniform, because in this way we will surely achieve unity. Won’t we? And isn’t uniformity the thing that we as a church strive for in our liturgy, church management and doctrine?
Well equality is not the same as uniformity and uniformity is actually not really helpful to true unity. As the animals later discovered when they added a codicil to the rule – “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” There is something more that needs to happen and Paul points to it in one of his clearest and least controversial statements in his first letter to the church in Corinth, when he identifies what it means to be the body of Christ
We could so easily just look at the analogy of each of the members of the church being represented as different body parts. We all have different roles to play which could equate to a particular limb or organ within a body – the choir representing the harmonious vocal chords; the sidespeople as helpful hands; ‘Jonathan’ [in my own church], who likes to disagree with every sermon, as the grumbling appendix!… Each of us creating a complete and unified metaphorical human being that is wonderfully made, but which can occasionally stumble and fall, but invariably picks itself up again.
Still is this what Paul really means and is this the only way we can think of being one body?
For a start we are all different, and that’s great; because it would be an odd shaped body if we were all the same part. After all, like a body, we need the unique gifts offered by all of the various members. These various gifts provide diversity, a diversity that is God-given; and coming as they do from such a source they need to be used for the good of all. Paul recognises that the thing that unites us is the Holy Spirit and it is through the work of the Holy Spirit that believers become bound together into one body.
However, our diversity needs to be based on interdependency rather than independence… Just as we use different parts of our bodies to perform different tasks, we all have particular talents which make us very good at the jobs we choose to do; and sometimes we can jealously guard those jobs that we like doing, thereby preventing others from a chance of receiving equal recognition. In addition, if we perceive that these are highly skilled tasks we can begin to give them a superior status, which often leads to pride. Yet the work we perform in God’s name cannot be based on a belief of self-sufficiency – our successes are built on the grace of God and the shoulders of those that support us –this sermon would be pretty pointless if the church and its people weren’t present – and a lot has happened in the past and behind the scenes to bring everybody to this particular point in time. Just take a moment to think why and how it is you are here today?
Moreover, who are we to judge the worthiness of each role played within the church? Just as our limbs depend on muscles, and tendons; nerves and microscopic synapses to function efficiently, and would be useless without them, so we have to ensure that every role a person has is equally valued. Furthermore, we need to realise that if we are working towards a common purpose – a united body – then we have to recognise that there will be some within that ‘body’ who may be vulnerable and therefore need to be nurtured and cared for.
Often, living in a society that prizes outward signs of power and achievement, we can despise weakness and vulnerability, but Paul turns this on its head, so that as Christians we should honour those ‘less respectable members’ and instead afford them mutual respect. It could be anyone of us that fluffs their lines in the readings, or takes a long time to get up to the altar rail or forgets the milk for refreshments…If we learn to be more accepting then the church will truly function as the body of Christ
Of course there are going to be time when we do disagree with each other, but it will be how we deal with this that counts. If our disagreements are forever aired publicly, rather than quietly and with concern for the other person, then we run the risk that we lower the respect that we need to have for each other as well as the respect that others have for us. We devalue the whole
What then should the shape of the whole look like? Well, in a world that is forever dieting and primping to maintain the body beautiful, we need to put that image aside. Our body should be fluid and growing, accepting new members so that every part of the body can grow stronger. We shouldn’t pick and choose what sort of parts or people we might need more of, or reject what might be to some insignificant or worthless. We have to allow people to be what they are; love each other unconditionally and rejoice in our unity – because if we don’t then we not acting as the body of Christ; and In the words of a song by the music group Casting Crowns – “Jesus paid much too high a price for us to pick and choose who should come… and we are the body of Christ”
Lyrics from If We Are The Body – Casting Crowns
It’s crowded in worship today
As she slips in trying to fade into the faces.
The girls’ teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know
A traveller is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row.
The weight of their judgemental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road
But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?
There is a way
Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the body of Christ
Jesus is the way
© Casting Crowns 2003
Disclaimer: Any names mentioned within this sermon have been changed to protect people’s anonymity and because I would still like to worship there. They know who they might be!