Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2022
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. 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 greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Paul was writing to a contentious church in which individuals were vying for position and importance. Church members were seeking recognition more than collaboration. This need to compare and rank inevitably leads to conflict and these conflicts were dividing the church in Corinth. Paul is endeavoring to teach a different paradigm for living. He argues that we are all better off when we respect and honor diversity. This is the ideal but in real life, it is desperately dfficult.
Paul suggests an analogy to our physical bodies to illustrate the physical truth that the individual members of the body are all necessary and all belong. His visuals are nice. It is silly to think a whole person could only be an eye or an ear. The body performs too many different functions to single out one. Everyone of us belongs. Every one of us has purpose and function. Because the body is so interconnected, what happens to any of us happens to all of us. It is a simple but difficult concept to live. Differences define uniqueness but do not define worth.
Yet in real life, working together when we are different is a never ending challenge. We get stuck in our ideas of comparative importance and the way it is ‘supposed’ to be. Over the years, many communities have tried to model themselves after this principle but human failings have inevitably led to problems, if not failure. In our country today, it seems more important for political adversaries to win than to work for the common good. Self interest trumps cooperation. Respect for opposing points of view is rare. Undermining the opponent becomes more important than seeking common ground.
It is no less true in the church. Every year, someone is disgruntled because the senior pastor did not visit them in the hospital. There is conflict over who belongs and in what function. Can the chuch ordain women or gays? Shoud the people who would exclude them be excluded? Finally, on a much more granular level, partners must decide how they will allocate responsibilities and roles. I have had many marriages in jeopardy because the ‘man of the house’ felt he should be in charge of the money—even if he couldn’t budget.
When role and position are arifically valued, efficiency and productivity suffers. I had a couple who were particularly diverse. He was a cross country truck driver and she had a Phd in Education. He complained that she acted smarter than him. She was smarter than him. The question I asked him, “Does that make her better than you?” If the answer is yes, the marriage is doomed. If the answer is no, there is room to allocate responsibilities based upon ability not position or gender. They succeeded. But it was difficult.
Paul’s answer is to remind us: “we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” All of us have had this experience. It is just hard to hold onto. We can supercede enormous differences when we realize what we share. The Spirit connects us and allows us to see what we have in common—even when we look and believe differently.
It happens at sporting events when complete strangers high five each other after a good play. It is great fun to have that sense of camaraderie—no matter how short lived. It happens at every weather disaster. Strangers take in strangers. Whether it be ice storms in Atlanta or flooding in Texas, it is heart warming to see how little our differences matter when other people need help. It happens when you discover the custodian has insights into life that we had not considered. It happens when we meet a family in Central America who is living on a dirt floor and discover a generosity we rarely see in our comfortable homes. Most of us can see that life is better when we acknowledge our common connections and common goals. Yet real life suggests that it is very difficult to live such a life. What it is about us that avoids such connections?
In theological terms, it is our sinfulness—-our self centeredness. We make it about us instead of also thinking about all of us. Metaphorically, we would rather cut off an infected foot rather than nurse it back to health. That sounds silly to write because very few of us would choose amputation over antibiotics. But more often than not we deny such interconnections between peoples. If we imagine we can live without garbage collections because we don’t want to pay more taxes, it will only take a few days to realize the importance of such people. In a very practical way, failure to attend to the disadvantaged and the outcast, will be toxic to to the whole community. The infected foot will eventually become systemic and the infection will kill us.
Our faith requires that we seek the common good. No matter how true, that will not happen naturally. It requires focus and intentionality. Logic is not sufficient. I believe there are at least four things we must keep before us if we are to live as Paul suggests.
1. You must submit yourself to God to belong to the body. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” We spend way too much time trying to decide why the world is as it is instead of doing the work of loving.
2. You must accept diversity and no part of the body is superior. This is hard when insurance companies have charts to determine the value of a lost hand vs a lost foot. We constantly compare and we constantly assign worth. In general, we are too self centered and too short sighted to see the interconnections that give life.
3. You must step out of self centeredness and selfishness into regard for others. All lives matter—not just ours. When we realize that, we will not hesitate to notice and oppose any example of the diminishment of life.
4. You must be able to take the well being of the whole into account. We live in the faith that all of us matter, all of us belong and all of us are interconnected. My well being is directly related to the well being of each member. To fail to see such interdependence is hubris.
We share a common humanity in our very inability to lead a Christian life but we also share a common goal of a life that gives life—a life where love and regard are the highest value.
This is Paul’s ‘more excellent way.’ Let it be so.