1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
12For 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. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
The church in Corinth was undergoing some fairly significant dissension. Because we don’t have any of the letters and reports that Paul received we don’t know exactly what was going on there, but from the responses in Paul’s letter to them we can see that some of the folks were lording it over the others. Perhaps those who had a bit more money were expecting different treatment than their poor brothers and sisters. Or perhaps folks who could speak in tongues thought they were more spiritually blessed than those who taught scripture to the newest converts. Whatever the argument was about Paul used the church as body metaphor to help them understand that each of them was important. That, in fact, the church couldn’t survive without all of them.
Paul isn’t the first person in the ancient world to use the body as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of a society. He is, however, the first to speak of the weaker and less respectable as being most important. Writers before him had used the image of the community as the body to keep the weaker and less respectable in their places, telling them the head was clearly the most important and the rest existed to serve the head - the nobility and priests and military. People like the peasants of Galilee, carpenters and farmer workers and fishermen, existed solely to support those who were above them in social ranking. Even today we still tend to think of society and communities that way – the obvious leaders are more important so they get more perks, more recognition, the best chair, the highest salaries.
There’s a story told in some leadership training sessions. It seems some junior executives in a large corporation were busy giving the janitor a hard time. He had inconvenienced them somehow and they were making it very clear just how far they outranked him and how much trouble he was in for annoying them. The CEO was passing by about that time, leaned in the door and said “I’ll take care of this.” He took the janitor out of the room, told him to take 2 weeks paid vacation beginning immediately, and assured him the juniors would never disrespect him again. Within a couple of days the juniors were frantic – their trash cans were overflowing, the bathrooms were dirty, the employee lounge was filled with garbage. The place was a real mess. When they started to complain the CEO pointed out that the company could function very well without them, and it could even function just fine for a while without him. But without a janitor the whole place fell apart in just a few days.
22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
We are accustomed to hearing this upside-down picture of the world. It is the basis for most of what Jesus taught. The last shall be first. If you would lead you must be servant to all. We’re used to hearing these very counter cultural statements. But for the folks in Corinth, the idea that the homeless guy sitting by the door was as important as the rich guy in the front row, or that the person visiting for the first time was at least as valuable to their congregation as the deacon presiding at the table, or that the church elder was in no way superior to the lady who helped hand out food to the hungry – this was radical.
Equality was a new idea for people of the time. Their culture was very rigidly hierarchical. The king or emperor was at the top and slaves were at the bottom. Everyone had a particular place in society from the moment that was theirs from the moment they were brought into the world. There were some exceptions but people rarely moved from one class to another. This passage, of course, goes a bit beyond equality. Paul says the least respectable member of the body is the most honored, the weaker is the most indispensable. We cover the less honorable parts with clothing – not out of shame but to give those parts greater honor. The people of Corinth never heard anything like this before. And we, although hearing it regularly, tend to forget it.
It’s hard to really wrap one’s mind around Paul’s metaphor. The least honorable member of the body receives the greatest honor. The weakest is indispensable. Bigger is not necessarily better.
People ask me all the time “how big is your church?” I tell them what our average Sunday attendance is and I watch their facial expression say “oh, a little church. A dying church.” And then I tell them about what all goes on here during any given week. I talk about our food ministry and the Treasure Box and two preschools and all the Girl Scouts and 12 Step groups and 3 other churches and the groups of developmentally challenged folks who get training here. I tell them about Fiesta Educativa and other support groups having meetings and parties here and being a polling place and providing health screening. I tell them that many of these things bring little or no money into the church, but are ways in which we serve our community. And I watch that facial expression change. “Wow. You do a lot.” Yes. Yes we do.
I know, and you know, that we cannot survive financially as a congregation if we get much smaller. Or if our expenses get much higher. And I know, as you should, that if Delhaven disappears this community will lose much more than we will. We can find another church. But where will the neighborhood find those other things we provide?
I know, as you do, that the primary purpose of Church is to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. Not just by preaching the words in the Bible, but by living the Word. By reaching out to care for the people around us the way the folks in the early churches did. The primary purpose of Christianity is to change the world, to bring justice to every corner, to every person. It is to change the mindset of a society. No more “he is more important because he is wealthy” rather “she is more important because she is sick and hungry.” Our primary purpose is to teach by example that there is a different way than the way of the world, a better way.
When I tell people about the vandalism we suffered here, many of them respond immediately with questions about whether the vandal was caught and punished. I try to explain that Christians are expected to do things a little differently. Repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are supposed to take the place of accusation and punishment. It is what we expect in our relationship with God. It is how we are expected to treat our neighbors. If someone hurts us we are called upon to forgive and become reconciled with that person, just as God forgives us. We are supposed to live differently, in a way that is not the same as the society around us. It’s funny, most of the people who asked about punishment are Christian. It simply hadn’t occurred to them that Christians are supposed to treat people differently.
Yet everything that Jesus taught us and these words from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth remind us that God’s way is not our way. And we’re expected to learn to do things God’s way. The weakest is the most indispensable. The least honored are to be seated at the head of the table. The leader must be servant to all. Forgive as you are forgiven. Love one another.
These are not suggestions. These are guidelines, even rules, by which we are expected to live. They are the opposite of what the world teaches us. When we talk about gaining a new life in Christ we’re not talking about where we will spend eternity. We’re talking about living differently here and now. When in baptism we say that we repent our sins, it doesn’t mean we have suddenly become perfect. It means that from that day forward we will diligently seek to root out our defects and replace them with love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness. We will seek forgiveness for hurting another and grant forgiveness to those who hurt us. It means being different than we were before.
Just as we are made new in Christ, so too is the church. As Disciples we identify ourselves as a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. Let us go from this place keeping in mind that Christ calls upon us to change ourselves and the world, so that God may truly reign on earth as in heaven. Let us go from this place today ready to renew our lives. Ready to renew our church.