Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In these days, the world and our society can be characterized in many ways by polarization, disintegration, fragmentation, and isolation. We bemoan the breakdown of community ties even as we choose to spend ever-larger portions of our time in the pursuit of income and entertainment. We complain about fragmenting families, values, and morals while permitting television and movies to dominate the formation of our children's sense of propriety and meaning. We yearn for connections with others in spite of our behavior that betrays fear, suspicion, and a preference for the supposed safety of our homes.
The church brings a powerful witness to our time. The scripture provides extremely relevant guidance. Our faith affirms today a truth that we must not permit to dissipate into our culture of dispersion and dilution.
Paul writes: 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....Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
The church, Paul says, is about unity within diversity, not about splitting folks into categories defined by differences. It is about belonging in a way that extends beyond all our hopes for community. The implication of Paul's analogy of the body for the church is that it is not merely something we belong to; it is something we are a part of. The hand doesn't "belong to" the body, it is an integral part of the body. We don't just "belong to" the church, we are an integral and indispensable part of the church—the Body of Christ.
Every congregation has the same weakness. People often think that they merely belong to the church. It is as though it's one of several memberships one may hold. You might belong to a health club. You expect it to be there when you want to work out, but you may never get to know anyone else who uses the club. If it closes, it won't matter much, so long as you get the appropriate portion of your membership fee back. You use it for what it can do for you.
Unfortunately, that's that way many people think of their participation in the church—and increasingly so in this day of programs of entertainment that substitute for Christian liturgy and worship of God. Paul calls us to recognize that we do not merely belong to the church for what it can provide, we are the church. As the song that I taught my children in Vacation Bible School goes: "I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together." Without you, the health club is pretty much the same, but without you, the church is never the same. It is dismembered, like a body missing a hand.
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. 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.
Paul knows that it is also important for Christians to know that we are integral to the Body of Christ not by our own doing, but by the grace of God—the grace given to all at baptism. What credit can we possibly claim for having been born into a family which was concerned with Christian nurture or for having received God's blessing of grace at baptism?
This passage immediately follows the one we read last Sunday. It notes the importance of the diversity of spirit-given gifts, each with its own value and with no need for disparaging any.
Paul continues from his affirmation of God's gifts to this morning's declaration that all that diversity is essential to the unity and the healthy functioning of the whole body of Christ. This analogy of a body for the church merits attention.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. 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. 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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 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."
Even this passage can lead to the competitive spirit that prevailed in Corinth. The body, Paul reminds, is not to be identified with any one of its parts. When I talk about the church, I sometimes catch myself thinking "the Lutheran Church," or the "Evangelical Lutheran Church in America" as though that constitutes the whole of the Church. Such thinking is tantamount to denying that the Lutheran church is only one part, one member, one organ of Christ's entire body.
But it might help to clarify this analogy of the body by adding another dimension to it. I still vividly remember an impressive and enlightening presentation given by one of the speakers at a pastoral care and counseling conference in Cincinnati many years ago. The keynote was presented by Dr. Paul Brand, a medical doctor who devoted much of his life to the study of leprosy.
He invited us to consider our power (at least for most of us) to see things-a sunrise, the diffused light of a string of street lamps seen from a bridge through the fog, a human face. We are enabled to see only through the cooperative effort of millions of cells. The millions of cells in each of our retinas give up the many possibilities open to individual cells just for our benefit, for the benefit of the whole of our bodies. These millions of cells give themselves up so that we can perceive variations of light and color, and we should give glory in the wonders that we behold with them.
Or take as another example an unimpaired ear. In each ear, millions of tiny hairs of various lengths each respond to a different tone or sound. These are sensitive enough to discern the sound of a pen on paper, and durable enough to endure a thunder clap, and together they make possible the perception of the complexities of sound represented by a symphony and by human speech.
These illustrations suggest that there is a level of cooperation beyond the level of Paul's analogy of the body with its various organs. Each organ is itself a body, not separate, but with differing sets of cells, each with its own distinct and essential function in the life of a part.
What I find to be helpful in this is to see myself not as an entire organ in the body of Christ—a foot, a hand, or an ear—but as a single cell, making my own small but significant contribution to this gathering of cells. Together they become the church, which added to all the other individual churches of the ELCA comprise a single organ in the body which, in turn, is made up of all denominations, each doing their own important part.
What this does is lessen the possibility of pride. An organ, such as an eye or a hand, or especially a brain or heart, might be inclined to take pride in its mighty and indispensable part in the whole. A cell of the heart or brain would be less inclined to do what Paul alludes to in saying: "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.'" A cell might be less inclined to think that it can make it on its own. And yet, each cell is still important. It remains essential.
Even the organs ought not be given to competitiveness and pride. Without the brain, the information received by and sent from the eye, could not be interpreted for the benefit of the whole. Without the heart, the brain would soon die. Without the hand, some threat to the heart might not be averted. Each depends upon all the others, and there is a constant interplay among them.
Paul further notes: If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Pain in an arthritic hand or finger can dominate the whole of our mind and body. When one part aches incessantly, the whole begins to ache with that part. On a larger scale, this is what is happening to us as we ache with the agonies of the people of Haiti; I rejoice that our members are generous in our support for that beleaguered people—and ELCA members have given about $2 Million already. When one hurts, all hurt together.
On the other hand, the pleasure of a touch or a kiss or a kind word or a hand of help is felt in every cell—all are enlivened and quickened by the honor of one.
In the church, the glory is not in the part but in the whole-in the body of Christ. Without our brothers and sisters in this congregation, of other congregations and denominations and of all races and nations, our ministry would pale into insignificance. When one lords specific gifts over another, the entire body suffers. When the arms lord their strength over the back, the back suffers. When the mouth lords its appetite over the stomach, the stomach suffers. That I know personally all too well.
The differences that exist among us do not divide. It is our pride in our differences and our tendencies to rank them, judge them, and make them sources of competition that divides. So also do our pursuits of self-fulfillment and our fears. Paul calls us toward community in Christ, affirming the multitude of gifts, and our participation in one whole, cooperating, and glorious body of Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.