“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). This passage proclaims a beautiful truth about individuality within community — about how the church best functions with the flourishing of gifts that are honored and valued because the parts make the whole what it is supposed to be. Yet, sadly, Christians more often behave like the body parts in this cartoon by Nicolas Kline than they do as Paul so beautifully describes here. After clearly not working together, the brain suggests to the hand and the eye ball, “You ever think we should figure out a way to work together?” (I do love the irony that the eyeball is dragging the disconnected optical nerves behind it, showing how dysfunctional this body has become!)
Paul’s image of the body and its parts can apply throughout society — teams, communities, and even nations — yet, it is particularly suited for the church because the church has a God-given baptismal identity that is deeper and truer than the social fabric of being an American or of being a Grand Haven Buccaneer. The State of our Union has the firm foundation of the claim God has on each of us in the waters of baptism. Our union, our togetherness, is defined by that very reality. The claims we make at this baptismal font are staggering, and they are true.
One of the issues in our world and in churches these days is that we have forgotten that who God says we are takes first place ahead of all the other things we come to believe about ourselves or that others say about us. Our identity properly belongs in our baptism. The Book of Common Worship uses these words to conclude a baptism, “You have been received into the one holy catholic and apostolic church through Baptism. By the power of the Holy Spirit, you have become members of the household of God, to share with us in the ministry of Christ and the priesthood of all believers. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you into the body of Christ.” Think of all those startling truths we claim at baptism — we are part of the one church; we are members of God’s household; we join in Christ’s ministry; we are part of the body of Christ.”
But there’s a lot unsaid in that moment. There’s no talk of age, gender, or race. There’s no claim of rich or poor. There’s no attention given to sexual orientation. The pastor does not finish the baptism and say, “Also, your political convictions are now liberal or conservative.” None of that is there because, while those things do give some shape to our lives, they are nothing compared to the claim God has made on your life in baptism — you are a member of God’s household. Like the Corinthians who were prone to divide themselves into camps of Jews or Greeks, of poor or rich, we 21st-century Americans are prone to identify ourselves by these lesser identities. Paul says that’s a huge mistake. Your identity is one God has given you in baptism; everything else is subordinate to that.
One of the issues of getting that identity wrong is that we begin to divide into parts of the body that are like us. To use Paul’s metaphor, we focus on being individual parts of the body and forget that God has designed these unique parts to serve and work together. As is so human of us to do, we decide which parts are better than others, which parts we enjoy the company of more than others, which are more like us than the others, and we, at best, ignore the other parts, or, at worst, treat those other parts with contempt.
Paul begins his argument using the foot as an example. “If 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.” Paul begins with the foot to shock his audience. We don’t have a huge issue with feet in our society, but in Middle Eastern cultures, feet are considered “unspeakably unclean.” Ken Bailey devotes an entire page in his commentary on 1 Corinthians to examples of how shameful feet are in their understanding. Unclean shoes must not touch holy ground, so Moses removes his shoes in Exodus. Psalms 60 and 108 insult Israel’s enemy by proclaiming, “upon Edom I cast my shoe.” Jesus refers to Judas’ betrayal as “lifting up his heel against me” (John 13:18). Rabbis determined that a new shoe became unclean the moment it left the workshop and touched the ground. You get the picture. People in their world wanted to ignore that feet even existed.
Yet, Paul holds them up as a vital part of the body. Like any other part, the feet have an essential role to play in the body’s proper functioning, and any body that tries to work without all of its parts becomes less than God created it to be. This is not only true from an anatomical perspective — could you imagine ditching your ears because you didn’t like them and asking your hands to take over the task of hearing? — but also this is true from the perspective of how God has designed the church body.
In verse 18, which is the center of this text, Paul writes, “But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose.” Just as God has given each member an identity in baptism, so too God has purposefully arranged each member in the whole of the body. Each is essential to the proper functioning of the body. What Paul is showing us is radical. In his world, there were lesser members and greater members. There were important people and unimportant people. There were those who struggled to get by while doing menial labor and those who had it all. Paul is saying that our baptismal identity gets rid of all of those things that define us as greater than or less than others. We’re all in this together, and we’re all important to the functioning of the whole because God has arranged us to be in the body. It’s God’s design.
Sometimes our issue is that we think we’re unworthy to function as part of the body. Sometimes our issue is that we think we’re above doing something helpful to the body. But often times the issue is that we just exempt ourselves from being present to the body. Imagine this scene with me.
You’re walking north on Sheldon, and you see a yellow city truck creeping down the street. A worker gets out of the truck and digs a large hole between the street and the sidewalk. As soon as the worker finishes the hole, a second worker gets out of the truck, shovels the dirt back in the hole, and tamps the dirt flat. The truck moves further down the street and repeats the digging and filling again and again. You watch and get exasperated enough to ask what’s going on, thinking your tax dollars are going to waste. “What are you doing?” you ask. “An urban beautification project,” the worker replies. “But all you’re doing is digging and filling holes,” you respond. “Well,” the worker answers, “the man who plants the trees is out sick today.”
When any member of the body is missing, whether they don’t show up or they feel unappreciated, there is a hole in the body. The church functions optimally when all members are engaged using their Spirit-given gifts. Sadly, we are living in a time when many members aren’t seeking to use those gifts or expecting that others will handle things without them. You may have heard of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. One of its applications is that, within an organization like a church, 20% of the people do 80% of the work or 20% of the people give 80% of the funds. This principle is interesting, but I have to say that it sits in opposition to Paul’s image of the body. Could you imagine if one arm did 80% of the body’s work? That’s a recipe for disaster and exhaustion.
So, my second observation for the State of our Union is really a dream. I’d love for us to make sure the 80/20 rule doesn’t apply here, particularly when it comes to sharing our Spirit-given gifts with each other. We all have gifts from the Spirit to give. Are we seeking to know what those are and share them, or are we not seeking to know how God can use us and therefore opting out of being part of the very body God has called us to? My dream would be to help each of us realize our gifts and find ways to use them within this body. My dream is no more standing on the sidelines for any of us.
Today is a special day in our church. We get to hear from some of our ministry areas and their leaders about the good ministry that has happened through us over the past year. Even in this ridiculous pandemic, God has still been at work among us. I hope you’ll read the annual report, not just for the financials, but to celebrate all the good ministry. But I also hope that you’ll see all the ministry and ask yourself, “Where is God calling me to use my gifts?”
We began today’s readings with Nehemiah. It’s an image of a community coming out of exile — out of extreme hardship — to gather around God’s Word. Together the body hears God’s promises once again. Together the body shares in worship. And here’s what I love, together the body is told to celebrate — to throw a party — because God is forming them into a whole body, blessed to be a blessing. What a celebration it will be when the body of First Pres is whole, with each member functioning well and with each member valuing the contributions of all the other members. That’s a glorious body!