27 January 2013

Building the Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a

Third Sunday after Epiphany/ January 27, 2013

“Now you are the body of Christ,” wrote Paul, “and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).   “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” (1 Cor. 12:12).  Many members, one body.  One body, many members. 

We should all be grateful (I know I am) that Paul came up with such a beautiful, organic, living and dynamic metaphor for the Church of Jesus Christ.  When you consider the church, here’s an image for you.  Play with it, indwell it, and allow it to shape your understanding of what the community of Christ is like. We’re like a body.  Not a machine.  Not a building.  Not an institution.  Not a business.  A body.  Not some day, not when we get our act together, not when we’re one hundred percent faithful will we become a body.  Just the opposite, really:  you are, now, the body of Christ, by virtue of your baptism into Christ. We’re a breathing, living body engaging the world and embodying God’s grace in the world, continuing the mission of God in Christ.

So remember you who are Corinthians, act, live, breathe like a body.  Care for the body.  Love the body. Really live in your body. Treat the body with the respect it deserves and all its members – all – with the honor they deserve.  That’s what Paul is getting at here.  He see’s the church in Corinth as a whole, already possessing a unity found in the “one Spirit” (1 Cor.12:13), and because this sense of the Spirit is informing how he sees all the members of the church, he invites them to do the same.  Claim who you already are and live from it, he says.  See the unity, the one-ness of the community.  See the way all the members are essential.  All the members are connected, like every member of a body.  “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12: 26). 

If we keep on reading, chapter twelve pours over into chapter thirteen, which is the great “love chapter” of Corinthians.  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries, all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  (1 Cor. 13:1-8a).

Chapter 13 is often read alone, but these two chapters, 12 and 13, are really one piece; they really need to be read together by the church, by the body of Christ, together embodied by the Church.  And Paul writes to the Corinthians in this way, as a pastor, because they’ve forgotten who they are; they’ve ignored their unity and the lack of love tears the body of Christ apart.  Without love, the members of the body go off on their own, doing their own thing, with their own agendas.  Without love all becomes fragmented.  Without love, one member thinks it’s better than the other, instead of seeing how each member is connected to every other member. 

Last week in adult education we read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (1929-1968), “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  At the beginning of the letter, it’s as if King is channeling Paul, learning from Paul; King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly.”  Now it might be idealistic to think the entire world or even a nation will live this way, but it’s not idealistic to suggest that this is the way the church can live when it knows it’s the body of Christ – and Christ, as Paul said, is not divided (see 1 Cor. 1:13).

But First Church, Corinth was a terribly divided church, painfully so.  It troubled Paul.  You can tell how much it weighed on him by the length of the letter; there were many concerns to address.  There was a considerable attitude problem there and some members needed an attitude adjustment.  They were the spiritual elite, the pneumatikoi Paul calls them, members who thought they were more spiritually gifted than others, “super Christians.”  It’s in this context that Paul writes, earlier in chapter 12, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7).  You can also see now why the only gift that matters is love.

This brings us back to Paul’s use of the body metaphor – and the centrality of love, for all the members of the body matter. The Corinthians' church cannot experience mutuality and equality until something changes.  There are really two groups in tension here.  First, those with low self-estimation, who think of themselves as spiritually inadequate, ill-equipped because they are not like the others who claim to be spiritually elite, “super Christians.”  The ones with low self-estimation wish they were other than who they are.  But Paul wants to lift them up, to let them to know they are important and just as necessary to the life and health of the body as everyone else.  The second group is made up of those with a low estimation of others, who think they are above, better than the others, they’re puffed up in self-importance and look down on everyone.  Paul wants to knock them down a few pegs.  They must share in the honor and the suffering of all the members of the body.  Because that’s what love does, it bears all things,…endures all things.

The body metaphor allows Paul to make another important point: since there are many members and one body, since there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, varieties of ways to serve God, then the body of Christ should expect and even celebrate variety. Unity in Christ does not mean uniformity.  Difference can be accepted and embraced. This is where love comes in because love makes space for the other to exist, the one who is different from you.  The other doesn’t have to be like you or look like you or dress like you or have the same gifts as you or believe like you or serve Christ in the world like you.  Actually, difference is expected and it’s necessary in order for the body of Christ to be a true body and healthy.

And, as we all know, healthy bodies are important.  This is another reason why the church-as-body metaphor is so helpful because it helps us to focus on the things that matter and it strengthens our witness in the world.  In order for us to live, to thrive, we need healthy bodies. When our body isn’t healthy we’re limited.  As we know, healthy bodies require proper nutrition, exercise, rest, and purpose.  We know what happens to the body when our diet is made up of junk food, when we watch too much television on the sofa, when we are not challenged and stretched, when we are overworked, over-stressed  when life has lost direction and meaning.  Parallels can be made with the health of our faith and the health of the church.  Certain conditions are required to yield life both in our faith personally and together as a church; when these are lacking or ignored, then we suffer with a kind of “spiritual sickness.” There are a lot of people in the religious world trying to survive on a diet of junk food; and they’re making the church and the world very sick.  And there are a lot of unhealthy religious communities out there.

To be the body of Christ means, ultimately, that this body, the church, like one’s own individual body, does not belong to us.  The body belongs to Jesus Christ and by baptism into Christ we have been engrafted into it.  This means that the life of the members is dependent upon the life of the overall body, and the life of the overall body is none other than the life of Christ. “[W]e were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13), Paul says; Christ hydrates the body, as it were; and it is Christ who breathes through us, who gives us breath, breathing through us with the breath of his life, breathing one Spirit.

On Monday at the Inauguration there was one moment that really struck me.  It occurred listening to the inaugural poet Richard Blanco read his poem “One Today.”  He walked us through one day in American life, from his perspective, of course, assuming that perspective could be shared by all.  At one point in the poem he invited us to “Breathe.”  “The dust of farms and desert, cities and plains/ mingled by one wind – our breath.  Breathe.” As he read it he seemed to drag out the word “Breathe,” and then paused ever so slightly.  I was on the Mall watching it on one of the Jumbotrons (one that worked).  There was something about that moment hearing him say these words with the members of Congress and former presidents and other dignitaries behind him, surrounded by thousands on the Mall and millions watching at home, around the world, inviting all of us to acknowledge our breath, inviting us to “Breathe.”  It felt like Blanco was about to lead the world in a contemplative prayer or meditation exercise:  “Breathe.”  Breathe the breath that animates the world and brings us to life, the life that we share.

On this Sunday in worship before we gather for our Annual Congregational Meeting, consider the members of this body of Christ and Catonsville Presbyterian Church, a member of the worldwide body of Christ.  In the Annual Report you’ll find your pastors’ reflections of 2012. Please take the time to read the reports and reflections.  Dorothy Boulton and I sat down several weeks ago and took the pulse, as it were, of this body and came away with the reading:  steady and strong.  And we came away giving thanks for the ways Christ lives among us in this church and for the ways the Spirit is breathing through us. 

What we sense – and others have told us so – is that something is happening within us and among us.  The Spirit of Christ is breathing through us.  Some of the new members who joined this year told us that they sense something very different when they cross the thresholds of the sanctuary, something that pulls them in and speaks to them.  There is, at times, a palpable presence, a vital energy, a feeling that, we believe, is an expression of what the Holy Spirit is doing with us and through us.  This body is alive and it’s thriving in all ways.  And we are growing.  We are grateful for the new members who have joined this year, for their gifts and experiences that are already contributing to the health of this ministry.  Numerical growth is important.  But what we’re talking about and what matters most for a healthy body cannot be easily measured, but nevertheless are real. 

We see a people growing in faith and commitment to Christ, to one another, and to the world; growing in our capacity to extend and receive love.  There is a reaching down and a reaching out occurring – people growing in their understanding of the “breadth and length and height and depth” (Ephesians 3:18) of Christ’s love and then embodying that love here, at home, at work, around the world.  Yes, we have our challenges. Of course we do.  A major one will be paying for the repair of the Beechwood Avenue steps, which is coming.  Of course there are challenges, but God is always faithful; God has always been faithful to this congregation.  

From your pastors’ perspective, when we hear the challenges facing other congregations in the presbytery and across the denomination and in other denominations right here in town, when we read and hear stories of the struggles facing the church in other places in the United States, we have a lot for which to be thankful.  You need to know that it’s tough doing ministry in this age, it’s tough being the church these days when a growing number in our society see us see us as irrelevant and treat us with suspicion. There are churches struggling to keep their doors open and pay the bills; for many it’s extremely discouraging.  We as a congregation, as whole, have much for which to be thankful and hopeful. 

This is not to say that we’re perfect.  Sometimes we’re not all that loving; sometimes a thoughtless word is uttered here or there.  Not everyone who enters this sanctuary experiences God’s welcome. Some visit and never return.  Sometimes we don’t all agree.  In a church at any given time at least one person is upset with someone or something.  We can’t make everyone happy.  Actually, we’re not called to make everyone happy.  We’re called to be faithful.  There’s no such thing as a perfect church because there’s no such thing as a perfect person.  And the church, as we know, is not a building or an institution or a business, but a people. God has not called us to be perfect, but faithful.  And being faithful is a whole lot more fun than trying to be perfect!

Being faithful helps to build the body of Christ.  Being faithful means expanding our capacity to give and receive love. What Paul wrote to the Galatians applies to the Corinthians and applies to Catonsvillians too: “For in Christ…the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love” (Galatians 5:6).  …the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love.  And let us breathe.  Let us breathe the breath that animates our bodies and brings us to life for the sake of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the world.  May it be so.

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