Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church 1/27/13
(Earlier in the service I told this story by Tony Campolo, which is good and you should listen!)
I wonder if by this point in his letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth, Paul had started to get a little desperate. These people just didn’t seem to understand that the church was about community! They were always fighting over who was more blessed than the others, and whose gifts from the Holy Spirit were the most worthy. I’m sure at some point Paul just shook his head with the absurdity of their fighting – and so he gets a little absurd in his own way. “Do you know how silly you’re acting??” he says. “You’re like a hand that thinks it’s better than a foot! Or an ear that wants to be an eye!”
In his desperation for something that would get through to these wild Corinthians, Paul hits on what has been one of the church’s most powerful and enduring metaphors – this image that we, the church, together are the body of Christ. We know bodies. Both physical, human bodies, and metaphorical bodies, as in a “body politic” or a “ruling body” – and in our theology we make claims about who Christ is and who God is, based on the idea of our divine being taking on a human body and all the things that go along with that. And to think that we, now, have become the body of Christ! How lovely.
It is a gorgeous, poetic image, but if we take it beyond the realm of poetry, we are faced with a challenge! There are a lot of things we can say about the body of Jesus the Christ: the human flesh, infused with the very being of God; the small-town carpenter, with rough hands, strong arms, and sawdust in his hair; the traveling preacher, who walked the dirt roads with fishermen and tax collectors, bringing healing in his touch, and a loving word on his tongue; the humble savior who bore in his very flesh the worst of human violence, in the name of a better way. And we as the church, this gathering of believers and seekers and lost people hoping to be found, Paul calls us to be this same body of Christ.
And of course this is not just one small body, here within Head of Christiana, or Newark Delaware, or all of New Castle Presbytery, or even the whole east coast. This is a huge body, a diverse body of all the people of Christ all over the world. All of us, Presbyterian and Methodist and Baptist and Episcopal, old and young, liberal and conservative, traditional and contemporary and new monastic, and anything else we can think of. But how are we – who might have no more in common than an eyeball and a toenail – supposed to be a part of the same body together?
But of course, (and we can see Paul having fun with this image), a body that was all eyes, or all toenails, would not do us much good, would it. Each of us brings different gifts and different blessings – and on some level we know this, but it is easy to forget that these differences are not just something to be tolerated, as if it’s such a shame that people live different kinds of lives than we ourselves do. As Paul writes to a community divided over which spiritual gifts are the most valuable, and who in their community is the most blessed by the Holy Spirit, those differences are essential. Those different gifts are a deliberate choice by a loving God, and essential to the continued life and health of the body.
But we forget that about others, and sometimes we forget that about ourselves, too. Those eyes and ears get all the glory! It is easy to point to a few leaders in the community and feel like our presence doesn’t matter that much, or look at the great work others are doing and wonder what difference our small work makes. Or lately, we may look around and see things changing around us, whole efficient circulatory systems ticking along in new ways without any apparent input from us, while we may feel no more important than the tiniest bone in the ear. But Paul turns this metaphor upside down to say that even the smallest, weakest part of the body is indispensable – and it is. Even the smallest bone in the human body is an essential part of hearing! It may not get as much glory as that visible part of the ear does, but it’s just as important.
We don’t really think about certain parts of our bodies, until something starts to go wrong. Knees, for instance, are really complicated! I have to say, I never really thought much about how knees work until my left one started getting sore when I walked too much, or my friends started having to take breaks from skating due to torn ACLs and slipped patellas. But when some part hurts, the whole body knows. We feel a broken bone and the pain ripples through our whole body; we start to have difficulty breathing and our whole self suffers.
And this is how it is for the body of Christ. When one of us – any of us – suffers, we all suffer. When one bleeds, we are all bleeding. We might not even know it; maybe that person belongs to a far-off part of this body, or one we would really rather just forget about – it might just feel like the dull ache of that years-ago injury that won’t quite heal whose pain we barely notice anymore. But still, the foot aches, and even if we’re half a world away up in the shoulder, still the whole body is limping.
We are a part of this body, for all our glorious and honored talents as well as all the places where we quietly go about the work of the church, and all the times we sometimes fall short of this high calling to which we are called. Those selves, all of our selves, in turn, are knit together into the body of Christ; which is a divine and otherworldly body that bears upon it the life and death of the real incarnate body of Jesus of Nazareth. That is the body of which we are a part. It is the body of saints and sinners, of good people and lost people, of friends and family and those who just grit their teeth and do their best to get along.
In the words of the 16th-century nun Theresa of Avila,
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
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A mentor of mine tells a story of his friend Kim, who once was the pastor of a congregation that included a boy named Sean, who had distinct special needs. He was severely autistic; he could not speak and had a lot of difficulty relating to the world around him. But it was very important to this congregation that he be included in their life together, so with his parents Sean was a part of their worship on most Sundays. They had even decided to hire a special education teacher just for him. When Sean was fourteen, his parents asked Kim if he could be baptized. Of course she said yes, but she was worried about how the service would go. Sean rarely stood still, and would jump up and down making loud squawks and squeals, which were really his only way of communicating.
When the Sunday came for his baptism, the whole family came forward, and despite her nervousness Kim began the liturgy. And Sean started jumping. And making noises. She says, “Do you realize how long our baptismal liturgy is?!” She dipped her hand in the large glass font, and began to move the water. Suddenly, Sean stopped and stood very still, transfixed by the font. She touched the water to his forehead, and he stood there calmly as she said, “Sean, child of the covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and made the sign of the cross. When she had finished, Sean reached out his hand to Kim, and made the sign of the cross on her forehead.
* * *
All of us imperfect people have been called into this one body, together; and we are called to great things. We bring our different gifts, those that glow brightly and those that shine with a quieter brilliance, and those we haven’t even discovered yet, and together we are Christ’s body on earth. As the world starts shifting around us, and the church begins to find itself in a very different place, it is up to us, all of us, to be for a new era the body of the one who walked with the poor and forgotten people of his time, never doing what was expected of him but at all times pointing us toward a better way. It is a big job. But each of us brings something special to this task, and each of us is an essential part in our own way. And through it all, the Holy Spirit flows through each and every one of us to make it all possible. By the grace of God, may it be so.