In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he helps the Church to begin to define her understanding of how to be in the world. It is one of those descriptions that will stay with her and continue to define her as the Church grows and matures. That description of the Church as the body of Christ is both realized and the thing we continue to strive for. It is an easy metaphor for us to simply take for granted, but it is also challenging and complex if we allow ourselves to dive a little deeper.
On the surface, Paul is offering a way for Christians to understand their place in the greater structure of the Church. If the Church is the body, and we are all members of the Church, then we are all members of the body. Depending on our gifts, abilities, and skills we might serve as the hands or feet or even an eye or an ear. We have a place in the body and that place not only empowers us to participate in the work God calls us to do, it also supports the other parts of the body in doing God’s work as well. The hand may be able to do its work without assistance or support from the eye, but how much better might that work be if hand and eye work together in mutual support? Instead of focusing on its independence, individual members of the one body recognize their great interdependence upon one another in partnering to do God’s work in the world.
Outreach is a great example of this interdependence versus individualization mindset. Just this past week, a member of our congregation came to me and asked if there was anything we could do to help TSA agents affected by the government shutdown. We called the TSA office and told them about our food ministry. They told us that would be helpful to them in this time of need, so we went to work. Someone had to go to the food bank and purchase food to pack in the boxes. Others gathered to pack those boxes filling them with vegetables, fruit, meat, and starches. Someone else wrote cards to include in the boxes to remind the agents that not only did the community care for them, but so did God—Jeremiah 29:11 was quoted in the cards, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The Outreach committee contributed Winn Dixie gift cards for each box. Then there were those who loaded the van and transported the boxes out to the airport. Finally, there were those who told the Good News of that work—not to pat us on the back but to encourage and inspire others to do the work of Christ in our community. Their sharing of the Good News was an act of evangelism—that in the face of suffering and despair people might be reminded of hope. In all, if we were to only count the Church of the Ascension, at least a dozen people had a hand in that effort. But that doesn’t include all of our members who give financially to the work of the church—which significantly increases our numbers—nor does it include the people who work at the food bank, the manufacturers of the various food products, much less the farmers who grow and supply food, those who work in the media, and the liquor store owners or manufacturers who supplied the boxes for our efforts. Sure many of the people in that food chain did not know that this food or their efforts would lead to this particular action of God’s work in the world. But without each individual member’s efforts and contribution into the whole—this response to need would not have seen fruition.
No matter how large or small our actions, or our various gifts and talents—we all contribute to the make-up of the one body. As Christians, we value community over individualism and yet, at the same time, honor the individual gifts and talents we each bring to the body. In comparing us to eyes and hands and feet and ears, Paul offers us a vision of how we embody Christ. As prophets and apostles, teachers and evangelists, those on the outreach committee or drive the Ascension bus or pack food boxes or distribute them or spread the message of hope in our community—that whole rag tag group of people just trying to figure out some way of doing good in this world—that is the body God is making for Christ.
As theologian Frederick Buechner says, “Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.”
And all of a sudden it becomes clear, we don’t make ourselves part of the body—God does that. For us, its less about choosing to be a part of the body and more about what we do as part of the body and how we accept and treat the other parts of the body. Being open to saying yes to God not only activates the body; it embodies Jesus in a post-resurrection world. What we do as individuals is important but only in the context of the greater church community.
On more than one occasion in my life, someone asking me if I know Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior has accosted me in the grocery store or at a football game. Though I typically try to get out of that conversation as quickly as possible, the truthful answer would be, “No. I know him as my communal Lord and Savior.” Jesus didn’t simply die for us as individuals, he died for all of us, for humanity, for the great connected cloud of witnesses that we are. I don’t think we can be Christians in individualized ways, I think to be Christian is to be membered with Christ and one another. And I think that act of membering us to one another is begun in baptism and reenacted every Sunday in communion.
Our participation in Holy Communion is not simply a remembering of the Last Supper, it is a re-membering, a re-connecting of us to Christ and to one another through the reception of the sacraments. Just as food nourishes our physical bodies and helps us grow stronger, so too does the bread and wine, body and blood of Jesus nourish our spiritual body—the one body—and helps us to grow stronger as that body.
I often hear churches describe themselves as a family. And that is a beautiful image of connectedness and support that allows individuals to blossom and succeed drawing strength and encouragement from their times of reengagement with their church family. But what if we thought of ourselves as one body—completely interdependent upon one another? Acting in the world with one accord in order to transform it? Frodo might have carried the ring, but Sam carried Frodo and the rest of the fellowship did their part to assure that Frodo and Sam had the opportunity to complete their mission. They acted in one accord as one body—none of them could have destroyed the one ring on their own. It took all of them each acting out his or her own part within the greater whole.
To know ourselves as family is to understand that though diverse, we are connected and unified even and because of our differences. But to know ourselves in Christ, is to understand that we are all members of Christ’s body. Buechner continues his quote by asking, “And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all “attain to mature manhood,” as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we’re like him… Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that.”
What Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians, what he is trying to tell us is that Jesus was, is, and ever will be the only fully human. We are given one to another in our partial humanity to embody the fully human Christ together. For God, the expression, “You complete me” cannot refer to the second person of the singular pronoun, the “you” must be plural—it includes God and humanity. We are completed by one another in and through and of God. It is in that completeness that we are the body of Christ. Amen.
Epiphany 3C: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a;
Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, January 27, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer