Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 23rd of First Month, 2022
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture:1 Corinthians 12:12–27, NRSV
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.
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? 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. 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.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Good morning, Friends!
I don’t know how well our cover illustration came through in the bulletin this week; it may not be as good of a picture as I had thought it was, so I apologize if it isn’t clear. If you can’t tell, the image is of a handmade jigsaw puzzle of a body figure, and the body is made up of smaller bodies. Regardless of quality of my photo, I have to give credit to the artist and designer, who was Megan Allen. Some of you may remember that on the very last Sunday before we went to Zoom-only back in March of 2020, Megan used this puzzle as an activity for the young people, on a day when Katie Breslin spoke on this same passage that we’ve heard read this morning. So I guess there’s near-symmetry here, on a Sunday almost two years later, when we are all back on Zoom again because of the pandemic. (By the way, one of the things we learned that day about worship when part of the congregation is online is that any activity needs to be clearly visible to the camera—with the puzzle, it wasn’t very instructive to the folks watching at home to only see a bunch of people hunched over on the speaker’s platform, intent on something, but something otherwise invisible... this is just one of the things we’ve learned as we’ve become a “blended” congregation.)
At any rate, Megan’s body made up of bodies was, and is, a fine illustration of Paul's image of the church as the body of Christ:
The context for this image is the Corinthian church, a diverse and troubled bunch of believers. You might remember that the Corinthian assemblies were largely Gentile, the people having come from a variety of pagan backgrounds, but there would have been some Jewish members. It was also an economically diverse group, with both rich and poor members.
And they were diverse in their understandings of the nature of leadership and ministry. It seems that they were particularly occupied with which spiritual gifts are the most important, and perhaps overly concerned with the gift of speaking in tongues, to the neglect of other gifts. it may have been that the members of the church who were of higher status were the ones who were so interested in tongues, such that they lorded their practice of this gift over others in the church. So—a group rife for controversy and conflict.
And Paul addresses many controversies in his letters to the Corinthians; one example, immediately preceding the chapter we read from, relates to how they are to celebrate the Lord's Supper together. At the time, the Supper was much more than wine and bread, or grape juice and wafers. It was a full-on meal, and celebrated communally. And in a situation where some had much and others little, the problem was that those of high status were gorging themselves on all that they had brought, neither waiting for others nor sharing with those poorer than they.
In this context, Paul presents the image of the body. This is actually a metaphor that was used in Roman political life in the early years of the empire (it’s found in the writings of the historian Livy, and others): In one rendition, the body is Rome, a city at war with itself; the hands and mouth and various other parts rebel against the stomach, because it seems only to benefit from their labor, and they cease to provide it with food. Then they realize the stomach’s role in digestion, and end their rebellion. So in political discourse, this image was used to appeal for unity among factions, specifically for the more common members to serve and honor the more important parts.
Paul, however, emphasizes the body’s oneness, and the interdependence of the many parts. In Paul’s image of the body, each part has complementary gifts; earlier in chap. 12 he gives a list of spiritual gifts, which includes tongues, but many other important things such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, and healing. Each member of the body is needed, and each member has a valuable role to perform; no member is to be valued over another.
And note what it says about honor in the last half of the passage. Honor was in some ways more important in Greco-Roman society than economic power, a more powerful currency than money. In Roman society there was a hierarchy, each level with different privileges and responsibilities. The foremost citizens would have been Roman officials of a certain rank, accorded the highest honors, even officially recorded on an “honor roll” of sorts. other Roman citizens would have been on the next lower rung of the ladder; male non-citizens would have been below them; then women; then slaves. As one goes down the ladder, less and less honor is due to the folks at those levels.
The honor code of the church as Paul expresses it turns these assumptions on their head: we see this first in the beginning of the passage, where Paul mentions “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free,” all “baptized into one body,” all “made to drink of one Spirit” (v13). This body is not the typical Roman honor roll. And then later in the passage, we read that the weaker, the less honorable, the less presentable parts of the body, are given special honor by God, as it says in vv22–25. (By the way, in this part of the metaphor, Paul seems to be referring, among other parts, to the genitals... the parts that need to be “clothed with greater honor”; so even the parts of the body that are conventionally hidden from view have an important role to play and should be honored.) The body of Christ thus directly counters the expectations of the world, and, it seems, also the expectations of many of those in the Corinthian church. With this understanding of the giftedness of all, and the honor due to each—the honor due especially to the weak, the hidden, those that are less respectable in the eyes of society—Paul also gives us a pattern for the present-day church.
Then we go on to read something important about suffering, and rejoicing, in the next verse, v26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Again, the expectation within the body of Christ differs from that of the world: It's not, “I got mine, you get yours.” All members of the body are in this together, no matter where you came from, or what honors are or are not conferred on you by the world.
And this is particularly important with regard to suffering. There are seasons of suffering in almost everyone's life, although suffering comes to each of us differently. Certainly, the experience of the last two years has given us suffering on a global scale, and while few of us in the West Richmond community have been seriously ill because of COVID, it has touched all of us. And I don’t think we would have been able to make it through this time without that community.
Here I think of the words of another one of Paul's letters: “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) The “law” mentioned here, I think, is Jesus' law of love, the Greatest Commandments: Love God with all that you are, and love neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34–40 and par.). These commandments should direct our approach to one another's suffering, and the suffering of the world.
But, Friends, what happens when the body causes itself pain? What happens when we are at odds with one another? What happens when one of us is the cause of another’s suffering?
We have been at odds with one another in our meetings for business, and in other venues, in the last two months. Things that might have been an opportunity for rejoicing have instead become subjects of grave concern. Some very hard things have been said, and those things have caused pain. It feels to me like a very tight place that we are in at present.
As your pastoral minister, I see part of my calling to strengthen the body of Christ, to keep us in touch with one another, to help carry out that commandment to bear one another’s burdens. I confess that in recent weeks I have been shrinking back from our shared suffering and conflict; I have not made myself available to as many of you as I could; I have left unsaid things that I could have said. For this, I ask your forgiveness. I do know that many of you are suffering, and I feel that intensely.
Let me say also, especially for those who are here today but aren’t always with us, that I realize that I am being vague. If any of you listening is unclear on the things I am speaking of, please forgive me; feel free to contact me at a later time, and we can speak at more length.
Friends, I do not have a neat and tidy resolution for this message this morning. But I do trust in the God who has called us together as a body—Christ’s body—and who has gifted us in a variety of ways, and who honors each of us more than the world ever will. I trust that God’s Spirit is available to us, even in this tight place where many of us find ourselves. I trust that if we enter into worship seeking God’s Spirit; being willing to be washed by and to drink of that Spirit; being willing to wait on that Spirit until we are disarmed and can speak only what that Spirit teaches us, then we may begin to see a way forward, together.
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