Imagine a body, female from the neck down, with a head that is male. Now imagine yourself, or this congregation as some part of anatomy on that body – an elbow, a hand, or something much more obscure – a capillary in a little toe, part of the lining of the intestinal wall.
After the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, those who considered themselves followers of Jesus found themselves stretching for metaphors to illustrate just what it was they were now a part of. The apostles came up with various images that gave the church a sense of identity, many of them borrowed from the culture, and then given a twist.
The name church itself, ekklesia in Greek, was one of these images. The ekklesia, the assembly, was the name of the principle democratic gathering of ancient Greece which was open to all male citizens over the age of 30. Those who went to the ekklesia participated in key decision making activities like issues of war and peace and keeping magistrates accountable. The early Christians thought of themselves as an ekklesia, and their assemblies were open to those who had been baptized into Christ. The apostle Paul echoes the baptismal liturgy when he says that in Christ, in this ekklesia, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.
The body was a common image used in the ancient world to talk about society, and that there can be unity in diversity. One body, many members, each making their own contribution. The New Testament letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians each mention the church, the ekklesia, as a body. The metaphor gets intensified and takes on a unique quality when it is said that this is a body with Christ as its head and that the body itself, the people making up the church, are the body of Christ.
Another metaphor for the church, coming from a picture of Israel in the prophets, is that of a bride. Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God pursues Israel with the intense love of a bridegroom for a bride. The book of Revelation pictures the church as a city which is dressed in a wedding gown, a bride adorned for marriage. She will marry the Lamb of God, the meekness of God which has overcome the violence of the world through its suffering love.
Combining some of these metaphors gives us a wild picture of the church. It’s a body, Christ’s body, a female, a bride dressed in white, the head of which is Christ – keep or subtract the beard as you wish. The head passionately in love with the body, the whole creature ready for the wedding vows, married for all eternity to a Lamb.
Look closer and the body itself is made up of countless smaller bodies of individuals, like one of those computer generated images of a face made up of 1000 smaller faces, all different shades and shapes – a cosmopolitan city with people from every tribe and nation. Remove just one of those smaller bodies from the picture and it becomes incomplete.
This composite image either shows us that the church is by far the most exotic, wonderful, and bizarre creature of all God’s creations, or that we really shouldn’t be combining all these metaphors into one.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul is focused on just one of these metaphors – probably a wise move – the church as a body. His message through the picture is this: we are all one, and everyone in the church, everyone, has a vital place in the life of this body.
This is how he starts: “For 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. For 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. Indeed the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
As he goes on, it’s easy enough to re-create what was going on in the Corinthian assembly – mainly because it’s something that we all still struggle with. In this case, the church as a body, speaks to two different voices from within the assembly. The first is those who underestimate their own worth: “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.” Or the ear might think that because it’s not an eye, that it doesn’t belong to the body.
This speaks to our tendency to minimize our own gifts and the value that we inherently have simply as members of the body. Or to see the kinds of contributions that one person is making and to put oneself on a one dimensional continuum with the extremely gifted over here and oneself on the other side. That’s not the way this body functions, Paul argues. Simply by being a part of the body, by showing up and being in relationship with other parts, other people, we become indispensable to its organic, multi-dimensional life. Annie Dillard talks about “no one but us” and that there are no others that are somehow more holy or more worthy to do the work that we have to do. No one but us. We all bring this unique image of God that only we bear and this small but vital aliveness that God desires to bring in to the life of the body. In our assembly here it’s part of the joy of my work to see each of you as a great gift to the life of each and every one of us.
The other angle this passage takes speaks to those who underestimate the value of others. “The 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.’” A strong temptation that we may face in this area relates with those who call themselves Christians but who come down so differently on the issues that are so important to us. There are a number of parts of the Christian family that I’m not necessarily all that proud of and am sometimes tempted in my thoughts or words to put that part to the chopping block and just pretend in my own head that I’m walking around as a part of a happy and healthy spiritually “progressive”, “open-minded,” peace loving body that is completely whole in itself. Diminished in size, no doubt, but freed from those cumbersome parts that I’d rather not be identified with. What do you think? I think tt would be hard to square such a dismemberment with these urgings to the Corinthians.
As engaging as the body metaphor is, especially when we ponder that we are the body of Christ, Paul knows that it brings up some difficult, even off-putting kinds of associations. We have complicated relationships with our bodies. Not least of which is because it’s not just that we have bodies, but that we are bodies. In life as we know it, we can’t escape this body of ours. So much of our identity is tied up in what this body does or doesn’t allow us to do, and how others perceive our body, or at least how we perceive that others perceive our body.
It may seem to be an ideal image, this body with all of its members working together in harmony with each other, but we know better than to idealize it, and fortunately so does the apostle Paul. This is a body, not a perfectly running no-maintenance machine. Bodies have problems. Bodies get sick, bodies get wrinkles and parts don’t always work the way they’re supposed to, affecting the rest of the functioning of the body. Bodies get tired, get hungry, get cancer, get bored.
The life of the Christian, just like the life of Jesus, is a life in the flesh. A life of incarnation. Enfleshment. Our imperfect body is the vessel in which we bear the glory of God. The imperfect body of the church is the imperfect vessel in which God desires to incarnate Godself.
Paul knows that something so familiar to us as the body does not serve as a metaphor to lift us into the ethereal realms of ideal perfection – that there are parts that we just about always cover with clothing more than just to keep warm. That this talk about bodies and brides and wedding feasts can only take the church so far in a certain direction of reality before we’re pulled back into our skin and this body of ours. This earthbound humanity of ours. So he mentions what might be on the minds of those carnal Corinthians. “and 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.”
During one of the Engaging Pastors events I participated in last year, there was a group of us pastors and we were each asked to choose a metaphor that we felt characterized our pastoral work so far. Most of us chose very theological and spiritual metaphors. Different ones of us felt we had experienced our work as calling us to be the loving face of God, or a spiritual guide on the faith journey, or a learner who is also a teacher. One pastor’s metaphor for himself stood out. His metaphor for himself was an asshole. When it got around to him to talk about his image we were all pretty curious how he was going to spin this one. His congregation had experienced a fair amount of conflict in his time there. He said, with a straight face, that in his time pastoring where he is at, a lot of the crap of the congregation has passed through him.
The image had come to him as a kind of revelation during a heated conversation he had had with a congregational member. After going back and forth and disagreeing on a certain matter, the member came back at him by saying, “You know what? You’re an asshole.” The pastor said he paused for a little bit, and then sort of out of nowhere, heard himself saying. “Alright. And how do you treat that part of your body?” The person was taken aback and then said something like, “Well, I take care of it, I guess.”
Not sure if this is what Paul had in mind here, when he talks about treating the less honorable parts with greater dignity, but I think it fits perfectly. Where would we be without the parts that take care of things we’d often rather pretend don’t even exist?
John opens his gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God…and the word became flesh, and dwelled among us.”
Ever since this we have been asked to recognize that the word, the very articulation of the name of God, dwells among us through this flesh, this body. Incarnation is a great mystery of our faith. It is not only something that we look at and behold in the person of Jesus, but something that we are asked to participate in through our own body.
Think about this congregation as one body itself, joining together with other bodies to make up the body of Christ, one face of those thousand faces who make up Christ. So how would you picture all of the workings of the body of Cincinnati Mennonite? I can picture all of the emails and phone calls that happen among us as these firing of neurons, connecting and signaling to the body how to move, where to go, what to say. All of the prayers that we offer for one another are part of the body’s immune system and healing that occurs. Since we’re all over the map in Cincinnati, maybe our driving and traveling around the city is something like a circulatory system. Every week we cycle back for worship to be restored and renewed, like blood cycling through the lungs, breathing in deeply the oxygen of God’s grace. All of the meals that are made in caring for one another and the neighborhood keep our muscles supplied with what they need to keep active. I think of all of the care that goes into maintaining and repairing our church building, changing light bulbs, watering plants, shoveling snow, and those who adorn the worship space to add to its beauty. Those who teach and mentor the young people are helping the body grow new healthy cells, passing on the DNA of love of God and neighbor. I think this body of ours has especially strong hands that are well exercised in the act of service to others, and also well developed vocal chords, which is a great gift.
All of this, all of the life of this body and the wider body of Christ, is for the glory of God, in whom we live, and move, and have our being.