I Corinthians 12:12-27
“A Fellowship of Believers”
October 14, 2007 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
As Art sat at the table with us, he turned white with pain. He could barely rise and walk from the room. The next thing we knew, our fellow pastor was in the hospital. How many of you have ever had a kidney stone? If you have, you already understand our text’s image today. One miniscule difficulty in a tiny little duct you never think about, and the result is excruciating agony that engulfs all of you. Paul is saying that the Christian church is like that, like a body in which what happens to one part affects all the rest.
This image of a human social organization as a body and its parts was fairly well-known in the Roman world. Drawing on the Roman writer Livy’s account, Shakespeare opened his play Coriolanus with a scene of wild rebels armed with staves and clubs surging toward the capitol in Rome. The Roman senator Menenius stands before them and calms the mob by telling a parable of how the parts of the body rebelled against the stomach because the stomach received all the food. But the other parts did not recognize that the stomach distributes food to all the rest of the body. By attacking the stomach, the other parts would starve to death. By attacking the government of Rome, the rest of the country, including the rebels themselves, would be harmed.
Here in I Corinthians 12, then, Paul picked up an idea that would have been familiar in ancient times—the body and its parts as a picture of the interdependency of human beings in society. But for the Roman empire, this metaphor was still just a striking image, useful on occasions like Menenius’s calming of the mob. It was not yet how common citizens generally thought of themselves. In other words, no one then had what has become the common notion of thinking of yourself as a “member,” whether of society, or a club, or of a religious association. The word translated here “part” or “parts,” literally “member,” is used 12 times in Greek and 19 times in our English translation. To the original readers it meant only one thing: body parts, limbs and organs, physical members of an organism.
It’s only because Christianity spread Paul’s use of this metaphor far and wide that you and I are able to use the words “member” and “membership” for our own social relations without thinking at all about parts of the body. In order to really grasp what membership means in the Church of Jesus Christ we need to be brought up short to recall the original meaning of the word. Maybe we need to connect it to an ugly image of the kind of physical injury we still call being “dismembered.” Or perhaps the best translation here is not “members” or “parts” but is to speak of “limbs and organs” in the Body of Christ.
You are a member at your credit union, and at Costco. You’re a member of AAA and of the Republican Party. You’re a member of an HMO and of a book club. And all those watered-down “memberships” conspire to make us forget the deep, deep significance of what it means to be a member of the Body of our Lord. We can see that in how often one of us will wonder why being a member here at Valley Covenant really matters. Isn’t it good enough just to attend and participate? Why should I be a member?
We are members of a local congregation because we belong to Christ’s church like our limbs and organs belong to our bodies. We are members because the connection between us is meant to run so deep and strong that we simply cannot get along without each other. Our individual presence in the church is not simply a matter of our own convenience or our own needs being met. It’s a deep and abiding bond which ties us to each other like your eye resting in its socket or your arm swinging from your shoulder. Tear that bond loose, and the result is horrible. The whole body will suffer. Keep that bond strong and care for each limb and organ, and the whole body will enjoy good health.
So in our fourth Covenant Affirmation, we are affirming just what Paul is after here in I Corinthians 12. When we affirm, “the Church as a fellowship of believers,” we mean to say that we are community bound together by membership in Jesus Christ. We are a fellowship of people connected in unity by our common belief in Jesus and living in mutual dependency on each other in order to grow strong and healthy in that faith.
After initially proposing this picture of a body and its limbs and organs in verse 12, Paul says, “So it is with Christ.” The Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ is what holds the Church “body” together. And the Sacraments of the Church are the symbols and the agents of that unity in Jesus. So verse 13 says, “we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” It’s by baptism and by eating and drinking together at the Lord’s Table that we become one body and know that we are one body. It is through those Sacraments that the Spirit holds us together.
Despite being a “fellowship of believers” we remain diverse. Paul speaks of Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. Today the Church is still diverse. Beginning in verse 14, Paul extended the classical parable of the body into two perennial lessons for how the body of Jesus Christ is meant to look and function. The first lesson is that unity does not mean sameness. In delightful fable-like pictures Paul tells us in verse 15 that a foot doesn’t need to worry that it’s not the same as a hand. It’s still part of the body. And an ear shouldn’t get uptight because it can’t see like an eye. Where would the body be without both ears and eyes, performing different functions?
That is why, of late, the Covenant Church has especially emphasized the diversity of the Body of Christ. Our churches will not and cannot be true expressions of our Lord’s Body unless we reflect the diversity God has built into humanity. For Paul’s churches it meant including both Jews and non-Jews, both free citizens and bonded slaves. For us it means much the same, but in modern terms. Our churches ought to reflect the ethnic diversity of the culture around us, African-American, Latino, Asian and white folks all together. And we ought to embrace the economic diversity of our world, homeless and homeowner, food-stamp user and Food Club member. All together, sharing in the Sacraments, listening to the Word, praising God and serving each other.
Diversity in the Church of Jesus is even more finely grained than ethnicity and economics. Even within one race or social class there are distinctions. The most visible is gender. The world around tries to either ignore ageless differences in a genderless unisex society or else elevate them into a huge gulf of understanding which suggests men and women are from different planets. Scripture and the Covenant adopt neither of the world’s approaches to gender. Instead we say that the God-created differences of men and women are blended in Jesus Christ into healthy families and healthy churches in which both sexes participate with equal status and yet offer different vision and approaches to being Christian. In the Covenant Church we welcome both men and women into all levels of church leadership, including that of pastoral ministry. And our ministries are richer and better because of it.
Gender does not exhaust our diversity. We are each created unique. Some of us are extroverts and love to hug and be hugged. Others of us are introverts and have to work up the gumption just to shake hands. Some us love to sing while others would rather read a book. Some are naturally cheerful. Others tend to be a little gloomy and grumpy. Some like Bach and some like Bono. Some sit up and get excited when the preacher parses a Greek verb, others just let their eyes glaze over until a joke or a good story comes along.
To be the Church of Jesus Christ is to be in unity, but it does not mean to be all the same. If we start down that road of sameness, if we want everybody to like the same music or have the same politics, or even all share exactly the same theology, we are not only doomed to failure, we have ceased trying to be the Church as Jesus Christ called it to be.
So in verses 17, 18, and 19 Paul offers us the comical depiction of a body trying to be all one part, a giant eye or ear or nose, just making its way through the world in glorious unity, seeing everything there is to see or smelling everything there is to smell, and just ignoring the rest of experience. It can’t be. Verse 20 says, “There are many parts, but one body.” There is unity, but there is difference. Unity does not mean sameness.
Unity does not mean sameness. Diversity is crucial to a healthy body and diversity is crucial in the Church of Jesus Christ. But the second lesson here, beginning in verse 21, is that diversity does not mean division. Keeping up the fun, Paul imagines an eye saying to a hand, “I don’t need you,” or a head saying to the feet, “I don’t need you!” But that can’t work. We’re not all the same, but we’re all connected like limbs or organs of a body.
In verse 22, Paul again pushes the classical fable of the body further as he considers how some of the differences among Christians actually work out. There is strength versus weakness, leading versus following, succeeding in life versus struggling. Paul shows us we cannot simply lop off those parts of the body that are weak or contributing less or not doing so well. Some seemingly weaker parts of our physical bodies are indispensable and some parts which are rarely visible deserve special respect.
You give lots more thought and attention to your hands than you do to your liver. But you could lose a hand and go on living. Lose your liver and you will die. A liver seems weak and insignificant in comparison to a hand, but you can’t do without it. The same thing is true in the church. A seemingly insignificant person may be the one whose prayers keep all well. A quiet, unnoticed individual may be giving in a way which provides for everyone.
In verse 23 Paul makes a subtle reference to the fact that certain external parts of the body are modestly concealed and given extra care. Any football or basketball player who has felt a knee or an elbow in a delicate spot knows what he’s talking about. We cover and protect seemingly weak parts of our bodies because they are dear to us. And we who are strong and visible in the church desperately need to care for and protect those among us who are helpless and invisible. They mean more to our health than we may know.
Paul states it with perfect clarity in verse 25, “so that there should be no division in the body.” Diversity without division. Part of the guiding spirit of the Covenant Church, part of what we mean by saying we are a fellowship of believers, is that we do our level best not to divide from each other, not to divide from fellow Christians who also believe in and love Jesus Christ. That’s why we have both infant and believer baptists in the Covenant, why we have people who believe God created through the mechanism of evolution and people who think He did it all in six 24-hour days, why we have traditional churches and contemporary churches and charismatic churches and emergent churches, African-American churches and Latino churches and Korean churches and even better, multi-ethnic churches. We want no division in our diversity, because Christ is not divided.
Of course, we mess it up all the time. As the weak and fallible limbs and organs that we are, we let all kinds of things divide us, from race to music, from interpretation of Scripture to vision for ministry. Our differences on these things come between us and sometimes they separate us. We’ve had a handful of sad separations ourselves over the past couple years here at Valley Covenant. Those divisions break our hearts, they break my heart, they break the heart of our Savior whose Body we are. Because we’re all connected, we are all somewhat to blame and all affected when one member feels hurt or leaves us. As verse 26 says, “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it,” especially when that one ends up separated.
Yes, we mess up the Body we’re supposed to be all the time, just as we each mess up our own physical bodies with food we shouldn’t eat or substances we shouldn’t use, failure to exercise, or just carelessness like slamming a finger in the car door. Yet just as most of us aren’t prepared to give up on our individual bodies, I pray that most of us are not ready to give up on the Body of Christ. Take a brisk walk on a clear fall day and you find that for all its weaknesses and failings your physical body can still bring you joy. Join in a song of praise, or meet in a fellowship group, or join together in mission service and you still find that the Body of Christ is a thing of beauty and joy.
The Body of Christ is what the world needs. Unity and diversity, held together. The One and the Many. It’s the original philosophical problem going back to the pre-Socratics. And it’s still the question to be answered about the world and human life. How can we comprehend the universe in all its multiplicity of elements and dimensions in a single theory? How can human beings in all their multiplicity of languages and ideologies and desires be brought together into peaceful harmony?
The Christian faith is the only ultimately satisfying answer to the One and the Many, the only way to both unity and diversity. We begin by affirming that God Himself and is both One and Many, one God in three blessed, holy divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we go on to affirm that in Jesus Christ we have been brought into the same kind of diverse unity that God enjoys. We are many believers, but we are one fellowship. This is what our world seeks. All the different factions in Iraq, all interest groups and ethnicities in the U.S., the peaceful Buddhists and the vicious military in Myanmar, warring tribes in Africa and Protestants and Catholics in Ireland—they all seek an answer to being many yet needing to be one. The answer is the unity in difference found through faith in the God who is Himself unity in difference.
Living out our unity in Christ depends on carrying out the mission we talked about last week. People need to know and love Jesus in order to be brought together in His Body. They need to believe in Him. Most emphasis in our Covenant Affirmations booklet or in the video some saw this morning on the Church is on “fellowship” in the phrase “the Church as fellowship of believers.” That’s good emphasis on the interdependence that knits us together. But our forebears in the Covenant also put the emphasis on “believers,” saying that we are a fellowship of believers. They meant to say that the Body of Christ cannot exist without belief in Jesus Christ. Our unity in difference cannot embrace all possible differences. Without belief in Jesus and His authority as our Lord, there is no Church, no Body, no unity.
So our life together is no warm and fuzzy celebration of diversity, no matter what that diversity is. The fellowship of believers is an active, concerned, striving community of people trying to be one with each other because Jesus Christ is at the center of who we are and all that we do. That’s the significance of our Covenant logo—Christ at the center of people reaching out to each other in love.
Our dear friend Doris died last year. For the last few years of her life, she depended heavily on her church. Some of you looked in on her to see if she was O.K. You took her shopping. You listened to her long stories about the old days. Sometimes you listened to her grumble. On occasion you visited her in the hospital. You took her food. You cared with love and compassion for a weak member of the body. But that’s not the whole story.
Several of us received cards and letters from Doris, saying she was praying for us, or just sharing a bit of news she thought was important. She encouraged us and blessed us with a fine example of faith struggling to hold up in weakness. And now, even after she’s gone, she will soon bless this congregation again by a gift she’s left us in her will, coming at a time when, as you heard this morning, it’s especially needed. Without Doris, even in her weaknesses, our church would be a whole lot poorer, a whole lot weaker.
Others even less significant and weaker have been among us. There were Chuck and Jan and Jeannie and others who seemed only to need assistance and who, God forgive us, we sometimes wished were even less visible than they were. Yet their presence here strengthened the Body in ways we can’t quite understand. In their need, they ministered to our needs and made us together more like Jesus, more like His true Body.
That’s how it is with the Body of Christ, with the fellowship of believers that is the Church. We are joined in a fellowship of what Paul says is to be “equal concern for each other,” whether weak or strong, young or old, male or female, wealthy or poor. We reach out to care for those in need and in mysterious and wonderful ways they care for us in turn.
Yes, this Body is a fellowship of believers. To belong you must believe in Jesus Christ and trust His Word. But that is all it takes to join you to the rest of us. Believe in Jesus and receive with us the gifts of baptism and the Table and your troubles are the troubles of us all. Even better, your joys are the joys of us all. Verse 27 says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Yes, you are. Yes, we are. May our Lord bless us and raise us up as His own physical body was raised.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj