“Out of One, many”
Third Sunday after the Epiphany (January 27, 2019)
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
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. 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.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. 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. 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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 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.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 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; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor 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 honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 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. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Fred Craddock was a professor of preaching at at Emory University in Atlanta. He tells a story about the first church he served, a little church near Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
When Oak Ridge began to boom with the atomic energy, that little bitty town became a booming city just overnight. Every hill and every valley and every shady grove had recreational vehicles and trucks and things like that. People came in from everywhere and pitched tents, lived in wagons. Hard hats from everywhere, with their families and children paddling around in the mud in those trailer parks…
After church one Sunday morning I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, “Now we need to launch a calling campaign and an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church.”
“Oh I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one of them said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.”
“Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home,” I said.
We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we’d vote next Sunday. Next Sunday, we all sat down after the service. “I move,” said one of them, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.”
Someone else said, “I second that.” It passed… When we moved back to these parts, I took my wife to see that little church…
Then there, back among the pines, was that building shining white. It was different. The parking lot was full–motorcycles and trucks and cars packed in there. And out front, a great big sign: Barbeque, all you can eat. It’s a restaurant, so we went inside. The pews are against a wall. They have electric lights now, and the organ pushed into a corner. There are all these aluminum and plastic tables, and people sitting there eating barbeque pork and chicken and ribs–all kinds of people. I said to Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be in here.”
That story strikes a nerve because we know on some level that the church ought to be different. But alas, the church often reflects the divisions and prejudices and oppression in whatever culture it is. Dr. King once famously called Sunday morning “the most segregated hour in America” and that remains true 50-plus years after he said that.
The motto of the United States, E pluribus unum “Out of many, one,” is not quite what the Apostle Paul is after here. It’s more reversed: “out of one, many.” Out of one, Christ, we are many; many members, one body. The difference is the starting point. That’s a counter-intuitive way for us to think because in our modern Western mindset we’re accustomed to thinking of whatever social grouping we’re a part of as a collection of individuals. Not so with the church, with the body of Christ. The parts are inextricably united to one another; distinct and having their own function, yet crucial parts of an integral whole.
Paul’s metaphor is a genius one because it speaks to unity amidst difference and to how a variety of gifts can help a group cooperate toward a common cause. But Paul wasn’t the first person to use the metaphor. To speak of a group as a “body” was quite common, writers used that frequently in classical literature… but usually to emphasize hierarchy and subordination. Take the military for example; think “foot soldier,” someone at the very bottom of the chain of command who’s simply responsible for doing what they’re told on the front lines. He turns that metaphor on its head (pun intended). The members of the body are interconnected and interdependent and, therefore, necessary for the health of the whole. No member is indispensable. No member is more important than another. Ideas of superiority are just plain foolish in the body of Christ.
Paul was writing this to a nascent congregation divided along all sorts of line of difference: income level, gender, ethnicity. To keep this congregation going, to help them weather their divisions, he had to convince the Corinthians of their essential oneness in Christ, and not only that they were one, but that each of them was critically needed by the other. Can you imagine trying to pull that off? Not an easy task in any time or culture! But here he was, trying to persuade the Corinthians—Jewish person, Greek person, enslaved person, slave owner, male, female—that they belonged to one another and that each “part” had gifts indispensable to the functioning of the whole.
This image of the church as the body of Christ runs far deeper than a metaphor for teamwork. It tells us about the kind of community God shapes, and that is a community in which differences are not erased, but embraced and transcended for the sake of God’s purposes in the world.
Which is precisely why church is (or at least ought to be) a place where we grow and are challenged by practicing community…
– where we wrestle with uncomfortable topics, like the privilege our gender or race or sexuality affords us in the wider culture, often as the expense of another;
– where we break bread with people who come from different social and economic backgrounds, and the point is not so much to distribute food, but to connect over something as ordinary and common as the need to share table and conversation.
– where we we all have space to voice to our challenges and celebrations and passions (prayer request and announcements may grate on us sometimes because of their length or quirkiness) but there is power in being heard and in listening;
– where we rehearse confession and forgiveness and peacemaking, week after week;
– where we realize that, while we do share common values and commitments, we are not always of the same mind politically;
– where not all of us are artists or activists or singers or ______ (you fill in the blank)., but all have a role to play;
– where we offer hospitality to people seeking refuge, not because the guests need us, but because we need each other in a world that constantly pits people against one another in a spirit of suspicion and fear;
and where inclusion is not something we do, but who we are, or who God calls us to be.
It is tempting, as Fred Craddock’s story points out, to try to form and maintain a church of folks who look like, think like, and act like us (in fact, it’s the norm), but the gospel summons us to a greater, deeper unity than that as the body of Christ.