Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Body Politic

I had coffee with a clergy colleague yesterday, and we spent a few minutes celebrating the lessons for this coming Sunday. He and I both think that Luke 4:14-21 is a preacher's dream-passage about who Jesus is and what God's will is for the whole world. We also smiled and even snickered at next Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 4:21-30), which picks up as this week's lesson ends but carries it through to its nearly tragic conclusion, when the congregation attempts to throw Jesus off a cliff because of his challenging words. We enjoyed imagining together the two-week sermon series that, like Jesus' words, gets the whole congregation excited about good news and then frustrates them with the revelation that the good news is intended for someone else. Oh what fun we preachers have over a cup of coffee, right?

And then I confessed that I don't think I'm going to preach on Luke 4. Incredulous at my own conclusion, I asked my friend, "How can I have that as the gospel lesson and not preach on it?" Yet that's what I think I'm going to do. Why? Because even stronger than my love of Jesus' incorporation of Isaiah 61 as a self-definition for his ministry is my love of Paul's words to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a.

Paul writes as much to the church of the 21st century as to that of the 1st, "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." This is one of those moments where outdated English or a southern dialect come in handy because, when he writes "you are the body of Christ," Paul means "ye" or "y'all" as a you-plural. "Y'all are the body of Christ, and individually members of it." You don't need to know Greek or be from Alabama to know that. It's obvious if you read the rest of the lesson, in which Paul inseparably links foot and eye and hand. But the body image has become so familiar to me--perhaps even over-used--that I forget those obvious things and allow my mind to remain in the metaphor without forcing my brain to grasp the implications.

This is a bold passage. At our diocesan clergy day last week, we studied it as the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers presented an insightful and inspiring program on the stewardship of privilege. We read the passage several times and were led through a small-group discussion of the text. In that exploration, forced to linger in the text longer than I thought I needed, I saw new things. (Thanks, Canon Spellers.) Take another look at this passage from 1 Corinthians. And then take another look. And see if the Spirit says anything new to you.

Here's some of what I garnered from that study:
  1. "God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose." Because God himself has brought us together, each member must be understood as a gift and a part of God's plan for the whole body. Use evolutionary biology and the wonders of the natural world like the long-necked giraffe to reexamine the clear and important purposes of each body part (eye, foot, hand, mouth), and then return to the image of the church and allow each member to be distinct and important.
  2. "God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body." The ordering of the parts of the body is God's plan, and one of the purposes of that plan is to prevent dissention. There is no room for dissention in a body, so where do we seem to crave it in our church? A return to the fullness of the body image could reorder our thinking.
  3. "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.'" That's obvious. And the danger of using an obvious image to convey a message is that people like me take it for granted. Of course the eye can't dismiss the hand as unnecessary. That's ridiculous. But don't brush the metaphor aside simply because it seems obvious. The church is the body of Christ, and it is made of many members, and none of those members is indispensable. What would happen if we really thought of our church that way?
I'm excited about the body of Christ. I'm excited about letting the physicality and clarity of that metaphor begin to influence my own understanding of our congregation and our denomination and the whole church. I'm looking forward to inviting others to do the same this Sunday.

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