Sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
“You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it,” Paul proclaims to the Corinthian church community; a community that had become fragmented, marked by division and the development of a kind of pecking order or hierarchy based on who has what spiritual gift. Can’t you see that there is no room for that kind of thinking in the church? “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.” You’re heading down a blind alley here, people. Let me show you how things really work in and through Christ.
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That image of the body of Christ is one of Paul’s greatest gifts to the church. He has already used it in this letter to the struggling Corinthian church, in the context of trying to get them to sort out some of their increasingly distorted communion practices; practices that were also creating division. “Because there is one bread,” he wrote, “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor 10:17) He will return to the image in later letters—Romans, Colossians, Ephesians—but I think that it is really striking that it appears first in this letter to a distressed and divided church.
And here’s the thing. Paul did not invent this body image as a way of speaking of a group of people. The image was used by others in the Roman world, but most often to support the status quo. For a Roman philosopher reflecting on the nature of the political world, to say that the city was like a body was to say that a social hierarchy was necessary, right, and good. In the words of the biblical scholar Brian Peterson, “The point was that every body needs a head, and in society that was provided by the wealthy, the rulers, and the elite. Every body needs hands and feet to do the hard and dirty work, and that was provided in society by just about everyone else.” Yet Paul essentially subverts the image, insisting that it is precisely because we are a body—the body of Christ—the social hierarchy of the dominant Roman society is rendered meaningless. He plays with the image for several verses, and I actually imagine a slightly mischievous smile on his face as he writes.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to 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 were to 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?
Now obviously that’s not the way that bodies actually work, right? It isn’t all eyes or all ears, and a foot is no less a part of the body than is the hand. “As it is, there are many members, yet one body.” Paul is well aware that his Corinthian readers are probably quite familiar with the more conventional Roman usage of the body image, so now he really begins to work it in his fresh new way.
“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.’” In the body—the physical human body, but also the Body of Christ—it is simply not of the order of things for one to say to the other “I have no need of you”. “On the contrary,” Paul continues, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.” He’s pressing the image, right? Looking at the physical human body, he says that the parts that are weak or perhaps sensitive and vulnerable—is he speaking of something like our eyes, that can be injured or damaged so easily?—these are the parts that can be so important in day to day life. And the less “honourable” and less “respectable” parts—he’s probably referring not only to sexual organs, but to our “plumbing”, so to speak—these parts of us need to be treated with value and respect. I mean quite honestly I’m quite sure what my spleen does, but I know that if my doctor tells me I’ve got a problem with it, I’d better deal with it!
And now Paul makes his move. “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member,” and we’re thinking, “right, in the physical body the spleen and liver and bowels and the like just keep working away, but their work is part of what makes me alive and whole.” That needs to be acknowledged, valued, honoured. But by this point in his image, Paul has shifted gears. “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” And suddenly you realize that he is now talking about the church; the Corinthian church specifically, with its growing hierarchies, divisions, and competition over who has the best spiritual gift.
This isn’t Roman civil society, with the rulers and the elite sitting at the top as the head and the hoi polloi—that’s the Greek term for the many, the masses, the common people—doing the hard and dirty work. No, this is a whole new thing; an entirely different economy, in which if anyone is to receive the greater respect or honour it is the one who the civil society would deem the last, the least, the little, the taken-for-granted. In God’s new thing, Paul writes, there is to be “no dissension within the body”, but instead the members should have “the same care for one another.” If one of you is suffering, all of you are suffering; if one of you is honoured, all must rejoice together in that honour.
Just as a bit of an aside, I think it is important to notice that for Paul the way that these folks in Corinth have been bound together as a body was through baptism. “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.” Your baptism, he is saying, removed the old divisions between Jew and Gentile or slave and free, and also means that whether you are a spleen, hands, or maybe even the beating heart, we are in this together. Some of us were baptized as infants, some as teenagers—maybe at that point when the hormones were really kicking in and we were just beginning to figure out how to walk in that awkward body—and some as adults. Some here are in a “still not baptized” space, and we really should talk about that at some point. Regardless of when you were baptized, at points all along the way, we all need to stop and lay hold of the force of that baptism—that incorporation into the Body of Christ—and to choose again to live it; to do this faith. And then to do it together.
Again from Brian Peterson: “Since the church is intended to be a foretaste of the final reconciliation of all things that God promises, Paul calls the church to start acting that way.” It is meant as a bracing wake-up call for the church in Corinth, but they’re not the only ones who might need to hear it. Start enacting the faith; the promised future that is the final reconciliation of all things. “[D]iversity,” Peterson writes, “diversity within the church is not a problem to be avoided, solved, or managed, but a gift of God’s grace and a sign of the Spirit at work. The differing gifts of the Spirit form us in such a way that we do, and indeed must, belong to one another.”
Paul concludes this section of his letter with a statement that bridges to what he most needs to say to his fragmented Corinthian church: “I will show you a still more excellent way.” And he will, which is where we will go next week in a consideration of chapter 13 of 1st Corinthians. Spoiler alert. Next Sunday I will invite you to hear 1st Corinthians 13 freed of the sentimentality that is often attached to it; to hear Paul speak with in his most clear-eyed and poetic voice.
For now just hear his words again: “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” Keep seeking ways to make that real.