March 4, 2018

The Body Of Christ

The ancient city of Corinth was a great cosmopolitan city. It was a center of culture and education. It was also a city of great diversity, as people came and went. Because of its diversity, it was a city in which the people followed a wide variety of religious practices, and there was great variety in terms of personal lifestyles, moral values, and beliefs. Like many metropolitan areas, there was an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the poorer residents of the city were being exploited by the wealthier ones.

It was during this time of cultural shifts that the Apostle Paul traveled to Corinth to form a church. Even though he left after about one-and-a-half years to start other churches in other places, he kept in close contact with that young church in Corinth. This letter we call 1 Corinthians is a compilation of some of that contact.

When we read the letter as a whole, we quickly realize Paul’s young church experienced some spiritual crises. For example, the wealthier members of the Corinthian church were quickly falling back into old urban behavioral patterns and treating the poorer members with disdain. That was bad enough, but when Paul found out what was happening at the Lord’s Supper in particular, what we call Communion, he became livid.

In those days, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was one part of a whole entire meal. The meal began with the breaking of the bread and ended with the passing of the cup (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, p. 199). It was meant to be a time of community, a time of sharing and hospitality for all.

However, the values of urban Corinth had begun to seep into this young church’s practice. Paul heard that the wealthier members who arrived on time for the meal were filling their plates high with much of the food and drinking much of the wine. By the time the poorer members of the church arrived, running late, due to shift schedules and other responsibilities, little was left and the time to break the bread and pass the cup had already passed! At other times, the meal was conducted in typical Roman practice: the wealthy patron served finer food and wine to those from his social rank and less fine food and wine to those of lower rank (The First Paul, p. 199). Both practices mirrored the outside culture, and both practices humiliated the poorer church members.

Paul was, to say the least, unhappy with this situation. In this letter, his anger seems to show up here and there between the lines of the text. But also in this letter, he writes one of the more famous parts of the New Testament: “For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

With those words, Paul offered them an image of who they were to be as a church. “You are one body. And that body belongs to Christ. Paul wanted that church to know that their actions were considered Christ’s actions. Their gifts and ministries were considered Christ’s gifts and ministries. In their baptism, they had been brought into the body of Christ, into that realm of blessing and challenge, and being Christ’s body was the sole basis of their existence (Charles Cousar, The Letters of Paul).

Furthermore, Paul reminded this young church that they were not only all parts of the same body, but all of those parts, all of them, mattered to the body. All the parts were crucial. No one got to just opt out of the community. There is no such thing as a private Christian. To be a Christian is to be a part of the body of Christ. And to belong to the body of Christ means to participate in the body of Christ.

Paul used humor to make his point: “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?” I wonder if Paul wanted to make sure no one would say, “Because I cannot give much money or time to the church this year, I do not belong to the body.” Or “Because I am old and can no longer move very well, I do not belong to the body.” Or “Because I am experiencing homelessness or barely making it week to week, I do not belong to the body.” Wrong, Paul declared. Every single one of us is a part of the body of Christ. Without each of us, the body cannot and will not function the way God intends for the body to function.

But Paul was not done. He took his instruction to a higher level. Not only could you not opt out of being a part of the body, but you could not push anyone else out of the body either. You could not say, “Because you and I do not agree on gun control or on the Black Lives Matter movement or on politics or on welfare, you cannot be a part of this body.” Wrong, Paul again declared. Without all of you, the body cannot and will not function the way God intends for the body to function.

But he still wasn’t done. Paul took the instruction to an even higher level: “As it is,” Paul declared, “God is the one who arranged the members in the body in the first place, each one of them, as God chose.” Paul wanted them to hear they did not just happen to show up at that house church in Corinth. God called them there together.

God is the one who has arranged for all of us to be Christ’s  body together - wealthy people and less-wealthy people and barely-making-it people;  black people  and white people and all-shades-of-skin-color people, able-bodied people and  disable-bodied people, new to town people and  ‘I’ve been a part of this church  since Oswald Delgado was the preacher” people, liberal people and  conservative people and middle-of-the road people - God arranged for all of us to  be Christ’s body together. If one of us suffers then we all suffer together. When one of us is honored, we all rejoice together.

God has done all this on purpose, Paul declared, so there might be no dissension in the body, so that all would have the same care for one another, no matter what. Isn’t that interesting? Instead of fearing a great diversity of people or only wanting to be around folks who are likeminded, Paul indicates God wants it messy and complicated and as diverse as it can be so that all might learn to love each other without competition and without fear.

“Now, you all are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. And God has arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose.” Messy. Complicated. Diverse. The church. The body of Christ.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.