23 January 2022
Text; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31
by the Rev’d Colleen Clayton
May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
Before I was born, my father worked on the Ord River Scheme in Kununurra, in far north WA. Periodically, he made the very long trip south to Perth and on one occasion, he fell asleep at the wheel, drove off the road and hit a tree. He was eventually found and taken to hospital, but the accident had badly smashed up both his legs. After some time in hospital, he developed an infection in the bones of one leg which had to be amputated above the knee. Dad’s life was changed forever.
But perhaps the strangest thing about the loss of Dad’s leg was that he could still feel it. He had a sense that it was there and, from time to time, he felt pain in it, or an itch in a toe that he could never scratch. The leg was now a phantom, unable to perform the role it had had but although it was physically gone, it was still a part of him.
I was thinking about Dad’s leg in relation to today’s reading from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul is continuing with many of the themes he explored at the beginning of this chapter; the diverse gifts of the Spirit and the importance of the contribution of all those gifts to the Body of Christ.
In verse 13, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the one Spirit has baptised them into one body. This is a radical unity where each member of the church is connected to the others. It is not, however, a unity that makes us all the same, St Paul is at pains to point that out. It is a unity that is formed by the Spirit who gives diverse gifts to each of us so that we can contribute to our corporate life and so that we can rely on each other.
The Body of Christ needs each one of us to participate as ourselves in order for the body to be whole and healthy. Most people are quite comfortable offering their gifts to others but they can be much less comfortable in relying on the gifts of others. However, this is what is implied in the image of the body. ‘If all were a single member, where would the body be?’ (12.19).
Like it or not, we have a need of each other. It is impossible to advantage one group and disadvantage another without doing harm to the whole body. The Body of Christ is only healthy when everyone is valued and treated as equally precious in God’s sight.
We live in an individualistic world. This characteristic influences our churches as much as the rest of life. It is a temptation to think of attending my church to say my prayers and make my communion for my own, personal faith.
However, St Paul’s image of the Body of Christ reminds us that individuals rights and personal freedoms are secondary to the good of the whole. To believe this, and to live it out, is almost incomprehensible to many in our society. Think of the protests over mask wearing, made in the name of individual freedom. Think of the false dichotomy we heard so often during lockdowns about choosing between the economy and health. As we are seeing at the moment, the two are inextricably entwined and trying to assert the rights of one over the other is destructive of both.
If we take the image of the body seriously, it is an enormously challenging text. It means that any and all baptised members of the church are needed for Christ’s body to flourish. We cannot cut certain groups off without doing harm to the whole. We cannot insist that only people with particular gifts are welcome in our community. This is part of what we mean when we claim that we belong to a ‘catholic’ church. It means a church that is all-embracing, that is inclusive of a wide variety of things.
To affirm faith in ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’, means that we have to learn the humility to live out the truth that God’s Holy Spirit dwells in each one and that each one is valuable, whether or not we understand how, whether or not we like them or their contributions. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey said, ‘We cherish the historic norms of catholicity in scripture, creed, sacrament and apostolic succession; but we cherish them not as the walls of an enclosed fortress but as gifts of God for the building up on the Church in unity and in truth.’
St Paul says that God has arranged things so that all members of the church should have the same care for one another because we suffer and rejoice together as members of the same body (12.25-27). His words are powerful reminders to contemporary Christian communities to live out this strong, counter-cultural statement, offering our individual gifts in the service of the whole.
This requires discipline and self-sacrifice, faithfulness and discernment, generosity and hospitality. The human tendency is to separate from those we find difficult, to put distance between us and them, but as the Body of Christ we are called instead to live in radical, diverse unity.
There is a poem by Edwin Markham that expresses this ongoing task.
He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Those lines express the challenge that is a part of living as an inclusive community. There will always be people who want to shut others out, who draw lines of exclusion. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we are called to re-draw those lines as circles of inclusion, lines that, literally, encompass others. In this we are strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit and, often, by those who cling to the edges of our community, showing us where we have drawn lines.
We practice the reality of being the Body of Christ when we meet together each week in worship. Liturgy is the ‘work of the people’. Its aim is to draw everyone into mutual offering and reliance before God. This is why it is important that those who participate in the liturgy are as diverse as possible.
Our liturgy strengthens and sustains our life together and gives embodied reality to who we are, and who we seek to be when we leave this building and go out into the world God loves to continue the work that belongs to us all.
Everything we do when we meet together contributes to the building up of the Body of Christ. We are greeted at the door by welcomers who check us in and give us an order of service. We sit in pews together, hopefully not always in the same place with the same people. We stand, sit, sing and pray together and the leadership passes from one voice to another as we minister to each other in corporate worship.
The celebration of the Eucharist is the pinnacle of our corporate worship. In it we are reminded of who we are, and we receive again in the sacrament the physical manifestation of that reality; the Body of Christ. In the words of St Augustine, ‘Behold what you are, become what you receive’. We see the Body of Christ in the bread and in the people gathered. We stretch out our hands to be fed and we receive the real presence of the Body of Christ in the bread, and we embody that presence in our midst.
The Lord be with you.