Written by Pastor Ed
Eyes and Ears and Hands and Feet
January 24, 2016
I Cor. 12: 12 – 31
I’m sure Moni got a chuckle this week when I sent her a note asking whether there wasn’t a children’s song about eyes and ears and hands and feet. And she replied – do you mean “head and shoulders, knees and toes”? I just knew it was about parts of the body, so we figured it out.
As the Apostle Paul was trying to deal with this Corinthian church that was being pulled apart by arguments and divisions, he tried to come up with an image that would speak to the people, and he hit upon the image of a body. It was probably not a new image for people, other writers in the Roman world used the image; in fact we use some of the same language in talking about all kinds of organizations. For example, we talk about the head of a corporation. And the same was true in the 1st century.
But generally, the image was, and is, used to describe a hierarchy. Someone is the head and then everyone else is rated below them. Generally speaking that was the elite class, and everyone else were the hands and feet to carry out the dirty work on society. So clearly, everyone wants to be the head, the top, the one who tells everyone else what to do and where to go. To quote Mel Brooks’ famous line, “It’s good to be the king!”
But Paul uses the image in a very different way. “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 and Greeks, slaves or free – and we are all made to drink of one Spirit.”
Now I don’t know how much Paul knew about the body, certainly not as much as we know now, but he then goes on to elaborate on his point. Every part of the body is important, and every part has to work together to make the body function properly. He argues two different ways.
First of all, he says, you shouldn’t be jealous of other parts and declare you’re not a part of the body because you’re not someone else. If an ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that doesn’t make it any less a part of the body. If you have been baptized in the one Spirit, you’re in. God has put you there for a reason, just like God has arranged the body.
And secondly, you can’t simply dismiss another part of the body and say, “I don’t need you.” If you get rid of one part, Paul says, you weaken the entire body and affect yourself in the process. Even the parts that seem to be the weakest, he says, are treated with the most respect.
The point is, rather than seeing the body as some sort of hierarchy, Paul describes it as a system that needs to work together in order to be the body it was created to be. When parts of the body start working against each other, that’s what we call being sick.
Now recall, as I said last week, this is a section of Paul’s letter where he is dealing with the church’s conflict over gifts. Some people were saying, “Well, if I can’t sing like Jenn, then I’m clearly not a part of the body.” And others were saying, “Well, you obviously can’t lead worship like Erv, so we really don’t need you in the church.” And others were saying, “Well, I get to preach so I’m obviously the most important.” And Paul says, “Nonsense! If the only thing people were good at was singing, who would do the ushering or run the sound. And just because someone can’t lead worship doesn’t mean they have no part in the church. And no one is more important than anyone else. You’re all in this together.”
And as I said, Paul probably didn’t know the half of anatomy that we know now; Galen’s works on anatomy would come almost a century later. And we probably shouldn’t push his analogy too far, but if you study the body, as some of you have, you realize just how many parts of the body there really are. The skeleton alone consists of 206 individual bones, all of which play a role in keeping us upright and the rest of the body protected.
Which is simply to say that while Paul and we might focus primarily on the larger visible parts of the body in drawing this analogy, the reality is that the body is much more complex than that, and so is the body of Christ. Each part of the body is important and each plays a role in the proper functioning of the body. You may think you’re not important, or you may want to think that someone else isn’t important, but it takes everyone to make up the body. It is the diversity that keeps the body strong and healthy. If we were all the same, or even all thought alike, we would be in trouble. As I have often said, “If everybody thinks alike, somebody’s not thinking.”
But I’d like to take the analogy one step further. You may recall that last week I talked about the Being A Faithful Church process which is encouraging Mennonite Church Canada congregations to remain together despite the fact that we disagree on certain issues, most particularly the place of LGBTQ persons in the church. The same sort of resolution was passed in Mennonite Church USA this past summer.
Despite that, there are congregations, and in the US, whole conferences that are pulling out. In essence, I would submit, they are saying to the rest of the body, “We have no need of you.” Or, if you prefer, they are saying, “because you are not like us, you are not a part of the body.” Either way, it seems to me, they are denying the reality that Christ’s body consists of many members and all are a part of the body of Christ. And when a church body rejects a member congregation, we too are denying the reality of Christ’s body.
Whenever we separate, we are simply narrowing the scope of our discussion and discernment and silencing the voice of the Spirit speaking through others. All parts of the body have gifts to share. That was one of the themes we heard again and again this past summer in Pennsylvania at Mennonite World Conference, and since today is World Fellowship Sunday and wraps up the week of prayer for Christian Unity, it is good for us to remember that Christ’s body is much larger and much more diverse than our own little group, whether we think congregationally or denominationally.
For a number of years I was a part of the Minnesota Council of Churches, and one of the things I really liked about their statement of purpose was that it stated that as a part of this ecumenical body you recognized that each member had something to teach the others, and each one had things to learn from the others. It’s a powerful statement about the church, that again applies at all levels, I believe.
But there is one more point that while not explicit in this text, is central to all of Paul’s teaching and that is that the body of Christ exists for a purpose, and it isn’t just to be a great looking body. All of those gifts that the Spirit gives are for the common good, and for building up the body, so that God’s mission in the world can be accomplished. Jesus is no longer present physically in the world as he was in the 1st century, healing, teaching, calling people into the kingdom.
And so that task has been passed on to the body that is present in the world, namely the church. Frederick Buechner puts it this way,
“God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. 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.”
That’s what we’re here for, brothers and sisters. And in order to carry out that mission, we need every part of the body engaged and doing its part. Not only for the health of the body, however we define it, but also so that God’s love and the message of the kingdom can be heard by the world around us.
Brian McClaren put a poem to music that captures this thought. It’s called simply, “Kindness.” If you know it, feel free to join in.
Christ has no body here but ours
No hands, no feet, here on earth but ours
Ours are the eyes through which he looks
On this world
Ours are the hands through which he works
Ours are the feet on which he moves
Our are the voices through which he speaks
To this world
Through our touch, our smile, our listening ear
Embodied in us, Jesus is living here
Let us go now
Into this world
With kindness (Repeat last slide)