When Paul wrote the letter we know as 1 Corinthians, he addressed a congregation in distress. They were divided into factions and were involved in all kinds of bad behavior. Paul planted this congregation and loved it, like a parent loves a child. Like a parent, he had high hopes for his children. But, when he moved on from Corinth, things didn’t go as planned, and he was forced to intervene. You might say that he was acting as a Regional Minister.
Last Sunday we heard Paul reveal that each member of the church was given “manifestations of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). This revelation leads to Paul’s definition of the church as the “Body of Christ.” In using the image of the body to describe the Christian community, Paul drew on an analogy that went back centuries in the Greco-Roman world. But, he put a new spin on the image, turning it on its head. Instead of using it to support social hierarchies, with some on the top and others at the bottom, he uses it to affirm the equality of every member of the Christian community. Even though we each have different gifts and callings, we’re all one in Christ. To Paul, this means the social divisions that define society shouldn’t exist within the body of Christ.
Paul doesn’t give us a detailed anatomy lesson here. He probably assumes we know enough basic anatomy to figure out how the human body works. He might not be up on modern anatomy, but you don’t need a medical degree to understand his message. The question is, will we heed the message?
It’s one thing to know how the body works, and it’s another thing to treat our body in an appropriate way, as my doctor often reminds me. It’s also common knowledge that every January 1 people make New Year’s Resolutions to get in shape. Maybe that’s true of you. I don’t make resolutions anymore, except when it comes to the number of books I’m going to read in the coming year. But, even as people abandon their bodybuilding resolutions as the month goes by, the TV ads keep inviting us to get on board. Join the gym, take up a new diet, or add a new supplement to your diet that will create a new you! With this emphasis on bodybuilding ever-present in our cultural life, this word about caring for the body of Christ comes at just the right time.
When you read through 1 Corinthians, you will discover that at least some members of this community longed for spiritual highs and sought opportunities to enhance their social status. In other words, they’re addicted to spiritual junk food. This might only involve a small minority, but they seem to be calling the shots in Corinth. They also might have been part of the social elite who joined this new religious community seeking new spiritual experiences and opportunities to extend their influence in the larger community. To this group, the church was little more than a social club. The only problem, the majority of the church members were poor. If you’re going to use this community to enhance your social status, you’ll want to hide members of the body who seem unpresentable from the wider community.
From the very beginning of this letter, Paul addresses attempts to change the message so the embarrassing parts, like the message of the cross, could be removed. To Jews, the message of the cross was a scandal, and to Gentiles it was foolishness. He also had to address the people who claimed to be the “Strong” in Christ. The “Strong” seem to believe that if you’re in Christ, you’re above the law. You can do whatever you please without impunity because Christ grants us freedom. While Paul was willing to go along with their claim that “all things are possible,” he wanted them to know that not everything is beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12).
When it comes to the body of Christ, it doesn’t matter whether you are “Strong” or “Weak.” It doesn’t matter what your place in the wider culture is, because when it comes to the body of Christ, everyone is given a “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). This gifting is rooted in our baptism. In Paul’s mind, when you’re baptized everything changes, including your social standing. You may be a person of great influence in the community, but when you come to church you’re no different from the person who is a slave. So, as Paul puts it: “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 the one Spirit” (vs. 13). Or, as Paul puts it in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
When it comes to baptism’s role in defining the nature of our lives, I appreciate this word from Raewynne Whitely: “We come to the water of Baptism as individuals independent and relatively self-contained. We come out of that water changed.” Then she goes on to say: “After baptism, we are more than just ourselves; we are by definition beings-in-relationship.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 281]. Baptism is not simply an individualistic spiritual experience. In baptism we are reborn as “beings-in-relationship.” We become part of a greater whole.
So what does this mean? Paul answers our question with questions of his own. For instance, what if you’re a foot instead of a hand, does that make you any less part of the body? Or you might ask: What would happen if the whole body was an eye? How would you hear anything? Now, I do a lot of reading, so I appreciate my eyes, but if I was just an eye, that would be pretty limiting? Wouldn’t it? Paul keeps on going until he makes the point: “But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose” (vs. 18).
It might help here to remember the word given to Jeremiah at the time of his prophetic call. God said to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). Of course, Jeremiah, like all prophets protested God’s call, but God didn’t let him off the hook. The same is true for us, because we have been reborn in baptism and gifted for life in the body of Christ.
The body is composed of many different parts, with each having its own purpose. Each member is important to the welfare of the body. Therefore, we should take care of the body, giving greater honor, Paul suggests, to the members of the body who have been deemed the weaker members.
Although we might find Paul’s words about the weaker members a bit awkward and even off-putting, he knows what he’s doing. Paul wants us to know that the ones society considers to be the weaker members are in fact indispensable and worthy of greater honor and respect. He reminds us that the members who are numbered among the Strong already have enough accolades. They don’t need any more trophies. So step back, and let the weaker members step forward.
So, who are the weak among us? How should we treat them? Several years ago, we hosted Amos Yong for the Perry Gresham Lectures. Amos spoke to us about the Bible and disability. In his book on this subject, he comments on these verses from 1 Corinthians 12. He reminds us that “from a disability perspective, then, people with disabilities are by definition embraced as central and essential to a fully healthy and functioning congregation in particular, and to the ecclesial body in general.” Therefore, “it is the responsibility of the whole body to end the stigmatization and marginalization of people with disabilities” [The Bible, Disability, and the Church, p. 95]. This might include complying with ADA requirements, but it goes much deeper than that. Amos points out that the “church is constituted first and foremost of the weak, not the strong,” which means that everyone, especially those with disabilities, have something important to offer the congregation. That doesn’t simply mean they are here to receive ministry from those without disabilities. They are here as people gifted by the Spirit so they might participate in the ministries of the congregation. I should note that for Amos, this especially applies to persons with intellectual disabilities, since his brother has Downs Syndrome. Amos offers us another important word: “There is a fine line between honoring the diversity of the body’s members, with and without disability, and overemphasizing either abilities or disabilities.” [Bible, Disability, and the Church, p. 96].
Having heard this word about the gifts of the Spirit and the Body of Christ, we move next Sunday to Paul’s word about love, which is found in chapter 13. As we move toward that message, may we hear Paul’s reminder that because we are one body in Christ, and therefore one in Christ, “if one member suffers, all members suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:25-26). Therefore, let us “strive for the greater gifts.”
Preached by Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (January 27, 2019)