25 January 2010

Becoming the Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12: 13-31a

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 24th January 2010

There’s a theological error in the sermon title. Do you see it? It’s a theological error because it contradicts what we just heard from the apostle Paul. It’s right there in verse 27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of him.” Did you hear it? In reading scripture and in doing theology, tense means everything. Paul didn’t say you were the body of Christ or one day will be the body of Christ. Hence the problem with the title. “You are the body of Christ.” Now, not will be someday, one day. To First Church, Corinth, Paul says, you are today, the body of Christ.

The fact that Paul had to write this to them means that, at some level, they had forgotten this about themselves. Or perhaps they never really knew it to be true. Maybe they never knew what it means to be church. As we saw last week, the church in Corinth, organized by Paul, was a contentious place, full of quarrels and divisions. There was a lot of bad theology oozing all over the place and putting the life of the church at risk. There were some who thought they were more spiritual than others. There were some who believed they had special gifts that set them apart from others, a kind of spiritual elite. Paul said, basically, the Spirit is gifting everyone in the community with a variety of gifts, varieties of service, varieties of ministries.

Now he continues his argument by lifting up his well-known body metaphor to describe what a community of Jesus looks like. “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.” The body is one, with many members, many parts, many organs, with many functions that when harmonized yield a functioning, healthy, living body. From here we are reminded that Christ’s community is like an organism, a living, breathing body that requires care and sustenance, that is dependent upon the health of the parts for the health of the whole. All the parts are needed for the whole. Though many, we are one body. So it is with Christ.

When Christ’s Spirit moves within us and among us, the Spirit moves people into community, a fellowship, what Paul describes as a koinonia – a fellowship of people, a wide assortment of people with varieties of ministries, gifts, experience, personalities, individualities, a wildly divergent, different assortment of people, a disparate people who come together around a center who is Jesus Christ. The Spirit moves people into a koinonia, deep, intimate, honest fellowship of people who form a unity with diversity around their love for Jesus Christ. The Spirit forms a individuals into a koinonia, a unique community of people, a church, but less church as an institution, but a relationship of members who are formed into the body of Christ.

And when this occurs something different happens. As Paul said, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greek, slaves or free – all were made to drink of one Spirit.” The unity we find in Christ allows for diversity. And the diverse parts are equal, not one better than the other. In fact, all the divisions that are found out in the world, all the labels and opinions and parties that separate people, judge people, divide, and exclude people are not to exist in the church of Jesus Christ, because Christ is the great equalizer. In him is found equality. Therefore his people must be treat all people equally. And that’s how Paul treats them.

In fact, reflecting on this text, Calvin (1509-1564) makes this observation about what Paul is doing. “Among the Corinthians no slight number had gone astray; in fact, almost the whole body was infected. There was not one kind of sin only, but very many; and they were no light errors but frightful misdeed; there was corruption not only of morals but of doctrine. What does the holy apostle …do about this? Does he seek to separate himself from such? Does he cast them out of Christ’s kingdom? Does he fell them with ultimate thunderbolts of anathema? He not only does nothing of the sort; he even recognizes and proclaims them to be the church of Christ and the communion of saints.”(1) He treats them as if they are already the body of Christ. And he hopes they would view themselves the same way.

Paul develops his argument around this body metaphor in order to help the Corinthians discover or rediscover what it means to be in Christ. He wants them – and us, of course – to know we are the body of Christ already. And yet, we know, as Paul knew, there is something in all of us – call it sin – that causes us to forget who we are. Yes, we are the body of Christ. But there’s also the truth that we’re not there yet. In the Christian life there is always this paradox of the already and the not-yet. We are already children of God, but not-yet, because we spend our entire lives growing into realizing this, believing it, claiming it what this really means. If we really knew this, then we would be different people, the world would be different, the church would be a very different place. We are already saved, but in some sense, not-yet, because we spend our lives living as if this were not the case. We are already forgiven, but not yet because we act and live, at times, as if we’re not forgiven. If we believed we were already forgiven, then we might be freer with granting forgiveness. You are already the body of Christ, but not-yet, because if the church really believed this and lived from this, then the church today throughout the world would be a very different place, we wouldn’t be fearful or anxious, we wouldn’t be worried about membership decline, we wouldn’t be anxious about tomorrow, and we wouldn’t be treating fellow Christians (and non-Christians) the way we do, as if they too were not part of the body of Christ. So often Paul says, and it’s embedded in the Greek, “Become who you are.” Become who you already are. Become the people God already knows you to be. Live into this image. We are always living into who we are. We are becoming the body of Christ.

But what does this really mean? It means we’re called to see how we are organically related to one another. Each member is a part of the body. It means we have a responsibility for one another. There’s mutuality, equality, radical acceptance. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; equally, if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” Because of our interconnectivity, we are not alone, but part of the whole. I remember hearing as a boy that when my mother was pregnant with me, when she was in some pain and discomfort before going into labor, that my grandmother, sitting across the room had similar pain and discomfort in her body. She had sympathy pains. It seems to me that that’s a pretty good image of what it means to be the body of Christ, it’s the place where we suffer with and for, that we bear the pain and suffering of our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. Similarly, we’re called to sympathy joys, when we affirm the joy of the other, when we celebrate and honor the other. Rejoice with and for and over the joy of our sisters and brothers in Christ.

How do we do this? While every member of the body has a special part to play in making up the whole, Paul tells us that in God’s providence greater honor is given to the inferior part. In the body of Christ special attention is given to the poorer, lesser, lower part, to the weaker part of the body. This is one of the most marvelous aspects of the church – when the church is really being the body of Christ, the body of the crucified – the way we really care for those in greatest need, how we care for the weak, make space for the vulnerable among us, protect minorities, and even advocate for the rights of people who have none or little. Our capacity to care for the least of these gives some indication whether or not a church is actually being the body of Christ.

To know the needs of the weak, the inferior, the excluded, the rejected, and dejected means we have to risk getting close to those members of the body. For how can we share their suffering and their joys when we do not know them? How can we have sympathy, when keep people at arms’ length. Paul’s vision of the church involves authenticity, honesty, truth-telling which are all very risky and costly. It requires, the still more excellent way, which informs all that we do, which is love – the love that bears all things for the sake of the other, believes all things for the sake of the way, endures all things for the sake of the other.

That the church of Jesus Christ has yet to fully realize this vision of itself, has yet to fully live into who Christ claims we are, it’s clear we have plenty of work to do. The church is not completely without its moments when it’s really being the body of Christ and we need to celebrate them. The church as a whole doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to really being the kind of place Jesus had in mind. If that were the case, Christianity wouldn’t be in the trouble it is in the West. We need to be honest about this without giving into despair and giving up on the church. It’s a call to remember we are a community of sinners who are trying to be faithful. Lift up some images…

Consider this image. Think of a Gothic cathedral. It’s cruciform; it has the floor plan of a cross. “It is officially possible to enter a Gothic church only through one of the west doors under one of the two spires…. The choir has no doors, although the north and south transepts have doors. But none of these may be used for official entry into the church. Why? The cathedral represents the body of Christ. His head is the choir, his arms are the transepts, the crossing in his navel, and the west towers are his feet. It is only through the feet that the – what might call the inferior, lowly part of the body, often dirty in Jesus’ day, a part of the body that raises all kinds of anxieties in us, so very personal – it’s through the feet that we enter into the body of Christ..never through the choir, his head. For this reason the bottoms of the feet are called the soles, our souls of the feet - it’s through this part of the body, tradition has it, that our souls enter and leave. (2) That’s not biblical, of course, but the symbolism is quite poignant – that there’s something about the low, the inferior, the part of the body that takes quite a pounding every day, with more nerves than any other part of our bodies (which I discovered when I had foot surgery last summer), is precisely through what the foot represents that we are brought into the community.

I’m reminded of the ministry of Jean Vanier, founder of the l’Arche communities, communities around the world with and for people with severe disabilities. In his work he has come to know first-hand the greater honor given to the people with the greatest needs, and find in the risk to care for them, the very face of God. In one of his meditations growing from his experience, he wrote, “ Our body, our whole being, carries within it the marks of each act of gentleness and tenderness but also each wound, each sense of rejection, each word or gesture which gave us the impression that we were loved or not loved…” (3) How we reach out with compassion toward those wounded in the body and the way we reach out with compassion toward our own woundedness says something about what it means to be the body of Christ: Caring for our wounds within the body.

In Washington, DC, there’s a gathering of Christians called the Church of the Savior, founded more than fifty years ago, a church and larger organization that envisions a church made of small groups and home churches, small groups of people that seek to be authentic, real, honest, that search for reconciliation and justice in their groups and in the world. They are trying to really listen to Jesus and follow in unconventional ways, no matter the risk or cost. They have a bookstore and café in DC on Columbia Road. Beside the front door there is a sign for their administrative offices, that summarizes what they’re about. It simply reads: Becoming Church. It says something about how they understand their ministry. We’re not there yet, we’re on the way – risk becoming the people Christ knows us to be.

1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), 4.1.14.
2. Robert A. Johnson, Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy (HarperSanFrancisco, 1987), 60.
3. Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 31.

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