By Rev. Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church
January 23, 2022
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
12For 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. 13For 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.
14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If 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. 16And 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. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The 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.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and 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; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And 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. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts.
Let us pray. Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
Paul used the metaphor of the body frequently to describe the church. Sure, sometimes he’d compare a group of people to a temple, to a building, to a field, to a vineyard, but his favorite metaphor was the body.
You can hear him telling people, Trust the body. It may seem hard to maintain unity when people seem so different from one another, but your body does it every day and that is how we survive. It may seem like some folks have all the power and all the influence and all the visibility and others are practically ignored, forgotten, and disrespected, but your body intuitively understands our interdependence. Trust the body. It may seem like the pain and stress and strain is shouldered by a small group of people, but your body is less convinced by the numbers. It has learned the power of small things like animal bites, cancers, viruses, and toothaches to shut down everything. Likewise, it gravitates to small things, like hot showers, naps, bird songs, and hugs to make things right again. You can hear Paul saying, trust the body and learn from it. Trust the body, God made it. Trust the body, God made us to be the body of Christ.
Biblical scholar James Cousar wrote that Paul was addressing all these feelings of inferiority and conceit that were seeping into the Corinthian Church. Paul was speaking to all these divisions weeping in from the culture into worship. There were competing loyalties, cliques, and factions, and in some cases, whole different world views. They had all this information, but there wasn’t precious little wisdom and a lot of foolishness. They talked so much about freedom, but seemed completely enslaved to their appetites. Fads, affairs and lawsuits were out of control. They had all this bounty. But, they had no boundaries.
The notion of “boundaries” has been in vogue in recent years, but the best definition I have heard for boundaries comes from Kelly Rae Roberts. Roberts was a social worker who worked with cancer patients and became a prolific artist. Discouraged by some of her art students copying her work and making money from it, she wrote a piece called “What’s OK and What’s not Ok.” When it came to her work, it was ok to be inspired by her work, it was not ok to copy it and sell it.
The body is a beautiful object lesson in boundaries. In the Pauline community, it was ok for a hand to be a hand. Clap, wave, praise, do sign language, point, pray, write that missive, pat someone’s back. We love hands. But, it is not ok to disparage feet, stomp on toes, or laugh at their appearance. It is not ok, probably quite dangerous, for hands to try to be feet – unless you’re in Cirque de Soleil. Feet are essential to the body. There are times when you have to stand for something. Put your best foot forward. Take that next step, not just scroll. Likewise, Paul says, it’s ok to be an eye. Behold, notice, gaze, observe. Weep, wink, watch. The eyes are the window to the soul. But, it’s not ok to discount how something feels or tastes or sounds. It’s not ok, probably quite dangerous, to assume what you see is all there is. As Mark Twain said, “you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
Sometimes people have too many boundaries. Others have too few. So, here is how using boundaries might sound in our lives: (hat tip to Brene Brown, a church lady herself, for some of these)
- It’s ok to be upset. It’s not ok to raise your voice or gossip or ignore my calls for weeks.
- It’s ok to make decisions. It’s not ok to assume I am fine with those decisions if we haven’t discussed them.
- It’s ok to ask about my life. I’m pretty sensitive about this particular issue so I’d appreciate if you didn’t ask about it for now. I’ll definitely keep you in the loop.
- It’s ok to use those ideas in the project. It’s not ok to claim them as your own.
We are kind to each other when we honor our boundaries, knowing where we stop and another starts. That makes for a healthy body, full of compassion and generosity. Author Prentis Hemphill said, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” I love that. That it ultimately what Paul was getting at, as we know from the famous I Corinthians 13. All of this is about being able to live and serve together with love.
Trust the body. It knows its gifts and it knows its limits. It will not lie to you. Paul suspected that what would waste people’s energies even more than running over the boundaries of others was playing comparisons, which is when boundaries fall in on you. One of my all-time favorite quotes is “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparison obliterates boundaries. For example, someone sees a co-worker’s email at 10 pm. They start comparing ideas, work ethics, their worth in the organization. So, they respond right away, leaving an important bonding time with family. No boundaries. Or another example, someone has a brilliant poetic mind, words spin like ornate tapestries in their mind and become a garment of truth in their life. But, they start comparing themselves to the Instagram influencers and TikTok dancers. And all of a sudden, their gift looks threadbare in comparison. They go about trying to be everyone else. Trying to please everyone else. And their gift from God stays in the box. That is how people, how families, whole churches become ill. Trust your body when it tells you its limits and trust that God gave you a gift that is essential for the health of this body, even if it looks different from others.
And it turns out this isn’t just a nice metaphor. It isn’t just a handy (haha) teaching tool for Paul. Not just a nice wellness idea for January. It is the ongoing incarnation, the word that means love made flesh. Frederick Buechner wrote, God was making a body for Christ. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody [God] could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. [God] 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, [God] 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. Trust the Body, the parts you like and the parts you don’t, it is the love of God made flesh.
Paul ends with this line, strive for greater gifts. At first that confused me. Why extol these intricate body parts, why ward off all comparisons, then say “Ah, but wait…look for more!” At first I wanted Paul to end with, “look, be the best darn elbow there is and you’ll be fine.” But I have to come to realize that there are times when our bodies hurt, when the world changes dramatically and our bodies can’t take it, when we lose people and it feels like an amputation, and when that happens, Paul uses his finger to point toward Christ. Gently, without judgement. Paul points toward Christ to remind practical people of what happened to the body of Christ… Betrayal, suffering and death come with the territory. Yes, that’s true. But, guess what, so does forgiveness, resurrection, and eternal life. God’s body, given … for us. These are times when we have to trust God’s goodness even beyond our present understanding. There are hints, of course. If you cut your finger, it will heal, whether you read a book about healing or not. Forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life are a feature of the bodily enterprise, not a bug. Trust the body.
Few people were students of creation to the degree of Annie Dillard. She won a Pulitzer for her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She spent years crawling on muddy hands and knees, ears open, eyes open, paying worshipful attention to insects and tree leaves and her own life, through its hardest seasons. From this vantage point, she discovers greater gifts indeed.
“What do I make of all this texture? What does it mean about the kind of world in which I have been set down? The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility of beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the Spirit I seek.”
The spirit invites us to trust the body. If you have a decent set of pipes, sing out so that the air fills with joy. If you are more of an ear, listen deeply so that truth finds safe haven. If you are arms and hands, amazing biceps, if you are able to be the feet, send them into service. Those of you who are internal organs, knees and backbones, for God’s sake, be you so that the church doesn’t lose heart or a pulse or prayer or her spine especially when the winds are fierce and the air cold and the ties that bind feel brittle.
Perhaps you know this famous Teresa of Avila quote. Today, it is our MRI, as well as our discharge orders:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”