Body (of Christ) Language

1 Corinthians 12:12-31                                                     After Epiphany/Annual Mtg

Elizabeth M Deibert                                                           31 January 2016                            


Body language.  Have you ever wondered why Paul uses the image of a human body to describe the church?   This image is found in both letters to the Corinthians, in Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and couple of places in Colossians.  He could have spoken about the church as ship, or as tree, vine, or a building.  Those are other images for the church that work.   But the human body, so complex and beautiful in its living, blended, cooperative functionality.   At least once each month our medical student, Emily, will call to say how amazing the human body is and she and Richard will launch into a discussion of a particular system of organs! 


Think about it for a minute and marvel with me how effortlessly your brain tells your hand and arm to cooperate to bring food to your mouth, where your tongue, teeth, and saliva glands prepare the mouth to go down your esophagus, half of which is voluntary and half of which is unvoluntary muscle.  Then your stomach begin to digest and sends to your intestines, and energy to your bloodstream, and I could go on, but I will stop there.   Think about your eyes, and what it takes for you to see and interpret information to recognize a face or to drive a car.   Think about how much a child learns in two years – crawling, walking, running, feeding, and at the same time develops language – how like little sponges they soak it up, even two languages, if provided. Think about your ears, bringing in sound waves for your brain to decipher immediately.   Some of us wish our ears would do this job better.  


By the way, thanks to all of you, who made the sacrifice of sitting in the Gathering Room for the memorial service yesterday.   Your eyes and ears had to work much harder in there in there what was going on.    It was a beautiful day for the Seiters and for all of us who loved Bob.   Bob’s body was finished with this life but in the Resurrection, he is promised a new body, and until then, we know our friend rests in the perfect peace of Christ, and is not far from us, but still near and dear.


But today is the day of our annual meeting and ordination/installation of elders, we almost always read scripture that deals with the body of Christ.  It’s been three years since we focused on the end of 1 Corinthians 12.   Just to give you the context, in the opening of this chapter, Paul’s telling them that the Spirit gives different gifts to different people, and the variety of gifts is purposeful, and the purpose is for the common good.   Same Spirit, same God.    Then he launches into the body language and we are going to take it a paragraph at a time.


1 Corinthians 12:12-31

12 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.  13 For 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. 

Just as our human bodies have many different parts, Paul says “members,” so it is with Christ’s body, and by that, he means Christ’s body, the church.   And by the church, he means those who are baptized and he wants to make it perfectly clear that it matters not one which group you are in.   In our context, whether you are Black or Brown or White, whether you are American or African or Asian or European, poor or rich, educated or not, married or single, widowed or divorced, male or female, gay or straight – everyone has the same Spirit.   Every time I think I have moved to a deeper appreciation of the value of every human being, I am still surprised by the assumptions I make about people, based superficial issues.  It is good to have people break out of the little boxes we try to put them in.   We are called to live as we are – one in the Spirit.   We are not told to become one body.  We ARE.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  15 If 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.  16 And 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.  17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?


This is reminder of the value of all gifts, even the ones that seem insignificant.  The person who gets thanked and says, “Oh, I didn’t do much,” but you showed up.  Showing up is the most important.  For those who are just showing up or quietly sitting back, thinking their gifts are not as valuable, thinking that they are not really part of the church…..know that your gifts are valuable.   And for small to medium size congregations like ours, it is wise to remember that the church down the street may have the crowds and charisma, but their gifts are not more valuable than our gifts.

18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.   19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?  20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body.   21 The 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."   22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,  23 and 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;  24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this.

This paragraph is for the over-confident (insecurity in a cocky form) who think that their gifts are more important than other people’s gifts.   In Corinth, those with the glitzy, popular, attention-seeking gifts were causing division.  In every group, in every effective ministry team, we need some dominant leader types, some influential visionary types, some conscientious types and some steady, patient workers.   I will not mention names, but we have some teams that get a little imbalanced with too many chiefs and no Indians.   We have other teams that are steady and conscientious but never dream big dreams.   Some teams are visionary, but are less diligent at getting stuff done.   But we need all.   We need people-oriented folks and task-oriented folks.   We need planners and doers, leaders and managers, out-going and reserved people.   We need tight-fisted bean counters, and visionary spenders.

And going a little further with that, we need conservatives and liberals, persons from all types of religious and cultural backgrounds.   We need advocates for social justice and quiet contemplatives.    We need those who focus on reaching out and those who focus on growing strong within the congregation.    We need Great Commandment people – love God and love your neighbor, as well as Great Commission people – take the Gospel to the world.   We need the people who ask hard questions and the people who never rock the boat.    We need those inspired by a highly liturgical service, rooted in tradition, and we need those who value a more contemporary, modern service.   We need those who hold to tradition and those who break from it, when it no longer serves to glorify God and inspire the people or edify the body.   We need the young to dream dreams and bring energy and the old to have visions and bring wisdom.  We need both powerful and marginalized people, the strong and weak, the first and the last, and sometimes Jesus says we will not know one from the other, if we are living with his mindset.

But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.   26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  

God intends for the stronger members of the body to be honorable in their treatment of weaker members.    As Paul says to the Romans, “We who are strong need to put up with the failings of the weak.”   Some days I’m weak.   Some days you are weak.   In some ways and areas, I will always be weak and you will be always be stronger, and vice versa.   I am an attentive listener, paying attention to nuance of language, and body language.   You are likely a better organizer of paperwork – not definitely not my strength.       

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  28 And 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.  29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?  31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (NRSV)

And when Paul says, I will show you a still more excellent way, he then writes the most beautiful chapter on love that has ever been written.  But we will save those words for two weeks from now, when Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday.   I just wanted to draw your attention to the fact that these words at the end of chapter 12 are pushing toward love.   But before he gets to the ultimate gift of love, Paul says “Strive for the greater gifts.”  And he it seems that he is saying that the greater gifts are the first three – apostles, prophets, and teachers.  

Apostles are the one who carry down the tradition from Christ.   The prophets are the ones seeking God’s social justice and righteousness.   Teachers are the ones that ensure we keep growing and going in the way of Christ.   The trouble that Paul ran into with the Corinthians was that they over-valued the glitzy gifts of power, healing, assistance, leadership, tongues.    In today’s world, we are very captivated by power and popularity.   There was a time in the 70’s and 80’s when extraordinary gifts of healing and speaking in tongues seemed to hold sway, but then we witnessed how they can be risky distractors from the way, the truth, and the life of Christ.   Jim Jones had charisma.   He had gifts, but look how dangerous he became.   900 people captivated and controlled by him, drank the Kool Aid and died, because he told them to do it.   Charisma is not all that’s needed, in church leadership or presidential leadership.

The temptation for most Presbyterians is to focus everything on two gifts:  assistance and leadership.   We love to boast about helping people because helping people is a good thing, but not always.  Sometimes assistance perpetuates injustice.  MLK was a prophet.   It was NOT enough to be nice to “the help.”  Separate but equal was not right.  Justice was needed, not assistance.   We Presbyterians also put high value on leadership.  Sometimes we think if we just get our ministry team structure worked out, and have effective leaders, all will be well.   Yet if we don’t have the mind of Christ, we are mis-guided.    We value all the gifts, but we place high value on the gift that keep us unified in Christ:  We pay attention to our apostolic tradition, we listen to prophetic voices calling for reform, and we are always ready to learn from our teachers and grow in faith, hope, and love.  We are the body of Christ, and the body language most valuable of all is the language of love.