January 27, Members of the body

Members of the body

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

 

Unless you are on the worship leader and children’s story list, or the music staff list, you don’t get to see my little summary statements for scripture texts and sermon titles that I send out each quarter, but as I’ve told you before, I do my worship theme planning in three month blocks and as I do that, I look ahead at the scriptures for each week, and do some preliminary, and often very tentative, reflecting and writing about the direction I think the scripture might be pointing…at least in the very early stages of that thinking.

So, having said all of that, let me tell you what my little looking-ahead summary for this week, for this scripture from First Corinthians 12: 12-31, was when I sent out the worship lists some time back:

Membership can be defined in numerous ways: it might be about “paying dues,” it might be about “wearing the colors,” it might be about voting a certain way, or engaging in certain practices. In all cases, it is about doing something to demonstrate that you belong. But belonging to a club or a team or a political party is different than belonging to the Body of Christ. Belonging to the body of Christ means you are connected to a family of faith, you have a particular gift to offer, and you care.

Now, last week, focusing on the verses that come immediately before this week’s text, I talked about gifts and how we have various gifts, and whether they are recognized or valued, and what it means to share them – in the church and out into the world. These spiritual gifts – given and received – are so important, not only to the functioning of a group, but they are something of the glue that holds us together.

Today, I want to talk more about that “together” piece – what it means for us to be together, to belong together, especially as Paul, in his writing of this first letter to the church in Corinth, also moves in that direction with this morning’s verses from the second half of chapter 12.

The image for this “together” piece (as I mentioned in my little preview paragraph) is not the image of a club, or a team, or a political party – although those are all “groups” or affiliations that can pull people together and maybe even hold people together. Rather, the image that Paul uses is the image of a body.

And this image of a body is not an image that he just throws out in passing – something on a list of various kinds of metaphors for how people belong to a group. It is the image. We are – he says – a body.

And there are various parts of this body – hands and feet, eyes and ears and noses, and even, what Paul calls, “less respectable members of the body,” that is, those parts that don’t seem as important at first glance or parts that need protection or modesty.

To belong, Paul is saying, to truly be together, to be “one,” is to be a body – one body with different parts that all work together and belong together. So, we are connected, like parts of the body are connected – not affiliated, not just located in proximity to each other, not just of like interest (at least for now!), but connected, connected and working together.

And apparently this image of us as a body is a pretty important image for Paul – not just in this particular set of verses and not just in relation to this particular congregation – the Christian church at Corinth – but it is apparently a pretty important image for Paul because this isn’t the only place it shows up in Paul’s letters. He also writes about the church as a body in his letters to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and the church at Rome. Here are some examples:

Ephesians 4:4 – There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; Ephesians 4:25 – So then putting away falsehood, let us all speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another; Colossians 1:18 – Christ is the head of the body, the church;

Colossians 3:15 – And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body; and from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Romans 12:4-5 – For as one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

And, Paul doesn’t pull this idea, this image of a body out of thin air. It’s not something he makes up on his own and then uses it as his favorite tagline. No. Rather, it seems pretty obvious that his focus on the church as a body, is based on Jesus’ own focus on the church as a group of persons whose “groupness” (if you will) originates in his – Jesus’ – own crucified and resurrected body.

So, we had communion in worship last week, because remembering (from time to time) Jesus’ self-understanding of his own body, and the meaning of his bodily death and resurrection, helps us to locate ourselves in relationship to him and to each other: Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (That’s from Luke, chapter 22.)

The image of the body – of Christ’s body – as a symbol that is central to our identity and our self-understanding, originates with Jesus’ own identity and self-understanding, and is propagated by Paul’s understanding of how Jesus identity and self-understanding is to be taken on by the church: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (verse 27).

So, it’s Jesus’ own language, as well as Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ own language – my body broken for you, the body of Christ – that offers us a way to describe our connection to each other as something more than club, or team, or political party. As I said – in Christ, we are not just affiliated with each other; we belong to each other. We are not just members with each other, we are members of each other.

Now there are some really good things about belonging to each other, but there are also some really hard things about belonging to each other.

The hard things come along when we don’t agree, when we are in conflict, when we are tired or perturbed by each other’s agendas, when we do something that reflects badly on the rest of the body, or when we are asked by other members of the body to choose sides within the body. When those things are happening, the last thing we want is to be connected to the people we are connected to. It would be easier, we think, to have “walk-away” privileges.

But…the wrist doesn’t separate itself from the forearm, and the forearm doesn’t separate itself from the elbow, and the elbow doesn’t separate itself from the bicep, and the bicep doesn’t separate itself from the shoulder. A body is connected – by joints and ligaments and muscles and skin…and it is connected by the spirit that animates all those physical parts. And not only that, but about the time that we think that either we aren’t or shouldn’t be connected to another part of the body, something happens that reminds us that we need each other.

Maybe we need each other’s gifts. Or maybe we need each other’s memories, or perspectives, or talents. Maybe we need each other’s attention or support. Or maybe…we discover it’s a good thing we are connected, like the various parts of a body are connected, because we need each other’s grace, or forgiveness, or help.

Paul says that one part of the body cannot say to another part of the body, “I have no need of you.” Because the truth is, all the parts of the body have a purpose, a place, a role, a contribution to make, a gift to offer, a way of helping the whole. It goes back to what I was saying last week about the common good, right?

When I am in my best space – emotionally, relationally – in regard to other members of the church, the body of Christ, I know that being part of the body is not so much a requirement, or an expectation, as it is a blessing.

Think about that. Think about a time when belonging to the body helped to keep you from floating off into oblivion, or when belonging to the body helped you to heal, or when belonging to the body opened your eyes to your own anger or narrowness, or when belonging to the body gave you courage, or when belonging to the body made you feel like you had a place and a purpose.

So often we take our place in the world for granted. And so maybe it takes a tragedy or a troubling time or a difficult transition to remind us that there are people who can be trusted, that there are people who are paying attention, that there are people who care. But there are. In the body, there are.

In our membership vows for the church, we say a vow of faith in and loyalty to Jesus Christ, and we say a vow of New Testament orientation, and we say a vow about being a faithful member of this, the Body of Christ. And then after the persons joining the church make these vows, the congregation responds – most often with these words:

As we now receive you into the fellowship of the church,

we make this covenant with you

as we renew our own covenant with God:

to bear each others’ burdens,

to assist in times of need,

to share our gifts and possessions,

to forgive as Christ has forgiven us,

to support each other in joy and sorrow,

and in all things to work for the common good,

thus making known Christ’s presence among us

to the glory of God.

As we unite with each other now,

may we all be joined with Christ, our Lord.

 

It’s about connection, right? It’s about belonging to each other and belonging to Christ. Did you hear those key words? Bear, assist, share, forgive, support…all things for the common good… joined with Christ.

Last Sunday I asked you to think about your gift. Today I want to ask you to think about your connection. How are you connected to the person beside you, behind you, in front of you? How are you connected to the person on the other side of the sanctuary? How are you connected to the children, the older folks, the choir members, the youth, the Sunday school class you teach or the one you are a part of, the pastors, the long-time friends who are here, the not-yet-friends, the people you’ve had a troubling time with? How are you connected to the other parts of the body?

Because we are all part of the body: Some of us are backs. Some are shoulders. Some are muscles. Some of us are hands and feet.  Some of us are hearts. Some of us are lungs. Some of us are tears. Some are sweat. Some are blood. Some of us are ears and eyes. Some of us are mouths.

What part are you? What part is the person beside you and the one behind you and the one in front of you? And how are all of those parts connected? How are you connected? Paul says: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Sometimes you hear about the “fabric of a community” – how the fabric of a community is torn, or how people are woven together. I kind of like that image. It’s a bit more colorful and maybe even a bit more beautiful than thinking about a body, with all the organs and fluids and potential for disease and death. Fabric has a discernible pattern. It’s washable. It rips but it can be mended. Nothing leaks out of its very essence. All of that is true – and perhaps more pleasant – but the body, messy and vulnerable and changing as it is, is a better image for us.

It is a better image for us, because the body is alive. It is messy. It always moving in that delicate space between life and death. It can be beautiful and it can be disturbing. It needs care. It is complex. And, it functions on connection, on belonging, on mutuality, on care. You have to take care of the body. The body is wondrous and delicate and amazing and vulnerable. It is us. We are the body, the body of Christ.

One of the very hard things about life right now is how much our culture, our country, has focused on division and difference, on “us” and “them,” on doing harm rather than seeking the common good. I’m not sure what we can do to fix that problem on a large scale. But I am pretty clear what we can do to encourage an environment of well-being, of trust, of compassion, of inclusion on a small scale: we can practice belonging to each other, being the body.

And we can do that by demonstrating trust, by paying attention, by giving care, by working for the common good, by offering forgiveness, by practicing kindness, by sharing our gifts. And we can do it by extending love, that more excellent way, as Paul calls it.

Yes – we can belong to each other, be members of each other, commit to and celebrate our connection to each other, in the Spirit of Christ and for the glory of God. 

 

Amen.

 

Benediction:

You are the body, Christ’s body,

And individually members of it.

You belong to each other;

You belong to Christ.

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

January 27, 2019