The Text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Have you ever taken the time to reflect on the amazing creation that is the human body? The human body is simply incredible. Research tells us a few facts about the human body:
- Our body has over 200 bones, and over 600 muscles.
- The human tongue has between 2,000 and 8,000 taste buds.
- Laid end to end there are close to 100,000 km of blood vessels in your body..
- Scientists estimate your body has about 100 trillion cells.
It’s so complex. There are so many parts, and so many systems. Yet essentially your body functions as a unit. You have one body.
St Paul uses this reality of our human body to teach us about the church. As we work through this teaching of Paul on the church as Christ’s body, we’ll note two important things he emphasizes about what the church is, and then two important things he emphasizes about how we live with each other as members of the church.
So to begin with, what are the two more general things we learn here about the church as the body of Christ? We learn about the unity which exists between Christians, and where that unity comes from.
This is striking right from the start. Our starting point today is usually that “I’m a Christian as an individual”. Paul’s starting point is that we are Christians collectively, as a body. Often today if someone says they are a Christian and you ask ‘where is your church?’ they will look at you strangely. ‘I don’t have to belong to a church to be a Christian’ they’ll say. But Paul says that to be a Christian means to be a part of a body, and if you’re not regularly gathering with those other members of the body to be nourished by God, something is drastically wrong. The Church is not so much an organisation, but an organism. We’re not so much members of the church, as we are membranes of the body.
But then the second part is: where does this body get its’ unity from? The answer here is very simple: ‘in the one Spirit we were all baptised’. The one God has baptised us into the one body of Christ by the power of the one Spirit. In other words, there is a common source by which people are made a part of the body, namely God. There is a common means, namely baptism. There is a common power, namely the Holy Spirit.
This is very significant for the unity of the body of Christ. No one is a part of the body of Christ because they deserved it. No one is a part of the body of Christ because they have the funds to make a big enough donation. No one is even a part of the body of Christ because they decided to be. We are all only a part of Christ’s body the church because he has chosen us. He has baptised us by the power of the same Spirit. The church is unified as a whole because the same God has brought each person into the body in the same way – baptism – by the same Spirit for the same reason – which is his grace!
These are the two things we learn about the church in general. First that it is not a free-association of like-minded individuals, but a living unified body, complete. Second that this unity comes from the same Baptism by the power of the same Spirit.
Then Paul goes on to talk about how we are to live in the church to maintain this unity. He has two main things to say here. First a word to those who feel inferior, and second a word to those who feel superior. In reality we probably all fall into both groups at different times. So perhaps we could say, a word to each of us in those times when we feel inferior, and a word to each of us in those times when we feel superior.
First the word to us when we feel inferior. All of us at times look around in the church and have feelings of jealousy, envy, perhaps even inferiority. We might think that a particular person has such a strong faith, and wonder, “Why is my faith so weak?” We might wonder, “Why a particular person speaks so comfortably to non-Christians, and, “Why I am so timid?” We think that without that person over there, this congregation wouldn’t be the same, without me, perhaps no one would notice. In the church we all may have these and similar feelings at different times. Paul speaks to us a word of encouragement in these times.
He says that when we feel we are different or don’t belong, it’s as if a foot says, “Because I’m not a hand I don’t belong to the body”. It’s as if the ear says, “Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body”. But that’s nonsense. Eyes are wonderful, but if all the ears wanted to be eyes, the body couldn’t hear. Ears are wonderful too, but if all the noses decided they wanted to be ears, the body wouldn’t be able to smell or breath.
God has arranged both the human body, and the body of Christ, the church, in a very particular way. He has arranged it with many different and diverse members. They all fit together to make one body.
This is an incredible word of encouragement from St Paul to us if we feel inferior. In our baptism God has made us a part of the body of Christ with our particular gifts and abilities, no matter how small or insignificant we think they are. God has arranged it this way so that the body of Christ, as represented locally by this congregation, would not be whole without each of us. What an amazing word of encouragement.
Our problem may not always be that we feel inferior. It may be that equally, possibly more often, we may feel superior. Certainly that was a big part of the problem in Corinth where people were experiencing all kinds of spiritual gifts like prophecy and speaking in tongues. Some thought that they were superior Christians because of these special gifts. It happened then, and it still happens today in lots of different ways.
It’s not all that surprising that we tend to despise those who we think are weaker, because our world very much works on the principle of the survival of the fittest. If you’re in a sports team and there’s 11 players and only 10 spots, so that one person has to go, usually it’s the weakest player. If you are a boss or a manager and there is someone in your company or team who is just not as good at their job as everyone else and you have to let someone go, ordinarily they’ll be the first one.
As Christians we can think and act this way in the church. We may look around at other people in the church and find that person a bit annoying, think another person isn’t pulling their weight, or write yet another off as a troublemaker. We may be tempted to think we don’t really need that person in our congregation or our Christian community. In fact, we think we’d be better off without them. Many of us may think like this sometimes, and let’s be clear, this is sinful thinking and we need to repent when we find ourselves going down this path.
Again, Paul illustrates this with his imaginary conversation between the parts of the body. An eye can’t tell the hand, or the head tell the feet, that they’re not needed. On the contrary Paul says, the weaker members of the body are indispensable, and the ‘less respectable’ members are treated with greater respect. When we get frustrated with a fellow Christian, or when we feel ourselves despising them in some way for some reason, God is actually calling us not to shun them or write them off, but exactly the opposite, to take special care for them, and to especially honour them.
This applies to all congregations and denominations as well. We need to be careful not to have a superior attitude over other congregations in our Lutheran Church, or over other denominations. This doesn’t mean we can’t speak the truth where other churches may be in error, as that’s a necessary thing too. But there’s a way of doing this with care and love for them.
Our human bodies are truly incredible. It’s worth reflecting on their complexity and how intricately God has knit our bodies together. St Paul encouraged us to mediate on our bodily reality in order to better understand the Christian Church and our place in it.
So let’s rejoice that God in his grace has united each one of us to Christ and incorporated us into his body – the church. We are all important members of Christ’s church and St Paul wants to encourage us now in that knowledge.
And let’s grow in our ability to see each other in this same light, for the health of the whole body of Christ in our community and world.