January 27, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
This week, I’m going to take a break from preaching on the Gospel reading. Gospel, in the strictest sense, means Good News. And we can find Good News, worthy of preaching in all of our readings each week. Today, I turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I’m typically not a fan of preaching from the Epistle (or the second reading). While Paul and his theology are indispensable to Christian theology (especially to our Lutheran theology), the letters are complicated (and, if I’m brutally honest, sometimes I personally find them a bit boring). I often feel the need to do more “work” and “unpacking” when preaching Paul. These are letters - they are written to a particular community in a particular place for a particular reason. That sometimes makes it at least a bit more difficult to get at the Good News for you and for me today - in a different time and different place. And we only get half of the story - whatever letters Paul responded to are lost to history.
Thus, typically, when I deviate from preaching on the Gospel text, I go to the first reading from the Hebrew Bible. Yet, there are still those times that Paul manages suck me in with his proclamation of the Good News of Christ. He does have this vision of how Christ affects and orients our lives - a vision that does transcend time and place. And, especially given events in our world this week, today is one of those days where Paul manages to suck me in with that vision.
The image of the body as a metaphor for community is not new or unique to Paul. Roman writers used the metaphor of a body to explain and enforce the hierarchies that ordered their society. The head is the emperor, which controls the rest of Roman society. And the lesser parts (i.e. the hands and feet, the parts that do the dirty work) existed solely for the purpose of serving the emperor and the powers that be. Weak parts that don’t live up to their job are lopped off without a second thought. The lesser parts are good only insofar as they serve the head, otherwise they are unnecessary. Who needs them anyway? Who needs those living in poverty? Aren’t they just a drain on the system? Who needs migrants? Aren’t they just taking from civi Romani, genuine Roman citizens? Who needs those who oppose the Emperor? Aren’t they just stirring up trouble and disrupting the Roman peace? We could go on… Who needs them? Aren’t we better off without them?
Likewise, Roman writers, used a similar analogy for the household, in which the husband is the head, and the rest of the family is controlled by the head and is subservient to him. The household and its power structure mirrored that of the Empire. Together, these body metaphors served to strengthen the status quo and to keep power in the hands of those who society deems the “strong” and out of the hands of those who society deems “the weak.”
What Paul does do, however, that is unique is flip this metaphor on its head. It seems that the community of the Corinthians was trying to set up their community to be similar to that of the Romans. Or at very least, it began to mirror that of the Roman society all around them. Divisions started to creep into the community. Hierarchies started to develop. The strong were beginning to dismiss the weak, devolving into a spiritual elitism, where they found power through a degree of spiritual attainment. Those with a stronger faith (as evidenced by certain spiritual gifts), thought of themselves as superior members of the community. Those with a seemingly weaker faith were considered inferior and thrown to the outskirts of the community.
It is in this context that Paul writes our reading for today. Instead of it supporting hierarchy and the powerful, Paul’s vision of Christians as the body of Christ is an egalitarian vision. It is a vision in which we see a body of Christ that is deeply interconnected. It is a vision where all are valued. All are needed (whether we want to see it or not). One part, one member cannot exist without the other. Instead of touting the lesser parts as being dispensable - Paul says that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” The role reversal that Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat, just a few weeks ago, become embodied in the community that forms body of Christ. The powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up to their rightful place in the community.
Humans, throughout history, have been good at finding ways of dividing ourselves from others, of finding ways to define ourselves in terms of us vs. them, of building walls - metaphoric and physical - to separate ourselves from our neighbors. Today, Paul shatters all of that. In our baptisms, those barriers disappear. Paul tells us that we’re no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female (as Paul says elsewhere), but rather we’re one in Christ. Looking at our community today, we might put it this way: because of our baptism, nothing - not our gender, nor our sexuality, nor our age, nor our ability or disability, nor our nationality, nor our relationship status, nor our economic status nor anything - can separate us from Christ, so therefore nothing should be a barrier to finding community, belonging, and value as a member of the body of Christ.
Instead of saying “who needs them?” - Paul tells us that we need “them.” In fact, it is a powerful statement that there is no longer us vs. them but we are one in Christ. God has so arranged the body so that “the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Paul proclaims a vision, God’s vision, for the community of Christ-believers in which, through Christ, all parts have a place, in which all parts are valued, and in which all parts tied, united together. The body does not and cannot function without all parts working together. It is a vision for the Christian community that values and cares for each and every member, working for justice, equality, and wholeness for all its members It reminds us of our interconnectedness. We, as the body of Christ, cannot find wholeness unless all of its members are whole. It is a vision for a community that together does God’s work of letting streams of living justice flow, of proclaiming release to the captives, of feeding the hungry so that all can find wholeness and peace. We are linked, joined together, and all are valued, all are indispensable, all are loved by God - no exceptions - through the Christ that binds us to one another. Paul calls us, as the body of Christ, to reflect that vision - here in our church and in our communities.
It is a vision that proclaims unity in Christ, while celebrating difference. An eye isn’t a foot. A foot
isn’t an ear. An ear isn’t a knee. And that’s okay. A foot doesn’t need to pretend to be an eye in order to be part of the body of Christ. Unity in Christ does not mean an erasure of our difference. Rather, diversity becomes something to celebrate and something to cherish. We celebrate that we have different gifts, different perspectives, and different functions within the body of Christ. We celebrate that we come from different backgrounds, that our families may look different, that our age affects how we interact with and see the world. We celebrate our different cultures, music, languages. We celebrate that we have different ways of engaging our faith and participating in God’s vision for the world. Unity in Christ means that our differences no longer are to serve as barriers to true community in the body of Christ. Together, as one in Christ, with all of our diversity, we are called mirror the kind of kingdom that Christ brings about in this world. I hope that we all can be sucked into that vision for our church, for our community, and for the world.