1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The church, for all its faults and failures is, for better or worse, the very body of Christ, Christ’s presence in this world. Those of us gathered here, in this church, in this place, are God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world. Church, we are the body of Christ!
Introduction to the Readings
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10: A scroll is found during the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and then it is read aloud before all the people as the people are confronted with the word of God.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a: Even as one body has many different members, so there are many different members to the church, the body of Christ, Paul writes to the church at Corinth.
Lord Jesus, by your grace you have called us to be the church, your presence in the world. When we think about the church, our church, we are tempted to despair. How can it be that we, with all of our ineptitude, are your body?
Yet in your love you have called us. So we pray that in your grace you would give us the gifts we need to be your body, to show to all the world signs and signals of your kingdom. Bless your body, the church. Amen.
Encountering 1 Corinthians
A good deal is said about our epistle, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, in today’s proclamation section. All we need to note is that Paul has a troubled, troublesome church on his hands, in first church Corinth. The precise difficulties in Corinth are a matter of speculation. We can infer that there were divisions, disputes, infidelities, and a host of other problems that made this group a candidate as poster child for Paul’s worst congregation.
And yet to them, with all their problems, Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ” (12:27). Let us use this as an affirmation of the church, a strong word for the faithful. You are, despite any of your limitations, the body of Christ!
Proclaiming the Text
One of the great things about being a biblical preacher – getting paid to do business with the Word of God on a regular basis so that I can speak to you the Word of God on a regular basis – is you have these wonderful moments in scripture. Say it’s scripture that you have read a dozen times before, scripture that you really think you have fairly well unpacked, squeezed the juice out, and gotten the best of long before. And yet, on looking at it again, something in that scripture reaches out to you, grabs you, shakes you up and down, and becomes not the Word of God as a theoretical possibility, but the Word of God as something that grips you, that changes you. That’s great!
A similar experience happened to me in preparing this sermon. Paul, in writing to one of his most difficult of churches, uses a metaphor: The body of Christ. Paul says to them something that he says in a number of places in his letters, “Now you are the body of Christ.” In other sermons on this passage, I have generally focussed upon what Paul says about the various members of the body of Christ. Paul says that we are all members of a body, and we all have different functions and forms. The arm is not superior to the leg, but each of them has a certain role to perform in the body, the body of Christ. And I have preached lots of sermons that move in that vein.
“You are all different members of one body,” I have said. “You have diversity of gifts. Some of you are good at one sort of ministry, but others of you have a gift for another sort of ministry, etc.”
But I tell you, this time around the phrase that reached out, grabbed me by the throat, shook me up and down and became a Word of God to me was when Paul says simply, at the beginning, “Now you are the body of Christ.” It is amazing that Paul would have made that sort of statement to this sort of church. For a number of chapters he has been hammering them for all of their woeful inadequacies to be the church. They ought to be ashamed calling themselves Christians and acting the way that they have acted, with their fussing and feuding and doctrinal ignorance, petty divisions, and cowardly disloyalty to the way of Christ. But even after all of that, Paul blurts out, saying directly to them, “Now you are the body of Christ.”
It really struck me. Paul does not say something like, “You ought to be the body of Christ,” or, “If you work hard, someday you might be able to be the body of Christ.” He just says flat out to them, “You are the body of Christ.”
It’s an amazing thing to say about a group of people like them.
It would be an amazing thing to say about a group of people like us!
Sometimes a person that I have been trying to get to come to church says, “Well, I do consider myself Christian, but I just am opposed to organised religion.” I want to say to them, “Well you certainly ought to come to our church. We are about as disorganised as religion gets!”
But what I really want to say to them is well – take it up with Jesus. Like it or not, for all our faults, we are the body of Christ, the only visible form the risen Christ takes in the world.
You are the body of Christ!
Relating the Text
Writer Annie Dillard recalls her own childhood in Shadyside Presbyterian Church:
I quit the church. I wrote the minister a fierce letter. The assistant minister, kindly Dr. James H. Blackwood, called me for an appointment. My mother happened to take the call.
“Why,” she asked, “would he be calling you?” I was in the kitchen after school. Mother was leaning against the pantry door, drying a crystal bowl.
“What, Mama? Oh. Probably,” I said, “because I wrote him a letter and quit the church.”
“You – what?” She began to slither down the doorway, weak-kneed, like Lucille Ball. I believe her whole life passed before her eyes.
As I climbed the stairs after dinner I heard her moan to father, “She wrote the minister a letter and quit the church.”
“She – what?”
Father knocked on the door of my room. I was the only person in the house with my own room. Father ducked under the doorway, entered, and put his hands in his khakis’ pockets. “Hi, Daddy.” Actually, it drove me nuts when people came in my room. Mother had come in just last week. My room was getting to be quite the public arena. Pretty soon they’d put it on the streetcar routes. Why not hold the U.S. Open here? I was on the bed, in uniform, trying to read a book. I sat up and folded my hands in my lap.
I knew that Mother had made him come – “She listens to you.” He had undoubtedly been trying to read a book, too.
Father looked around, but there wasn’t much to see. My rock collection was no longer in evidence. A framed tiger swallowtail, spread and only slightly askew on white cotton, hung on a yellowish wall. On the mirror I’d taped a pencil portrait of Rupert Brooke; he was looking off softly. Balanced on top of the mirror were some yellow-and-black fallout shelter signs, big aluminum ones which Judy had collected as part of her antiwar effort. On the pale maple desk there were, among other books and papers, an orange thesaurus, a blue three-ring binder with a boy’s name written all over it in every typeface, a green assignment notebook, and Emerson’s Essays.
Father began, with some vigor: “What was it you said in this brilliant letter?” He went on: But didn’t I see? That people did things – quietly? Just – quietly? No fuss? No flamboyant gestures. No uncalled-for letters. He was forced to conclude that I was deliberately setting out to humiliate mother and him.
“And your poor sisters, too!” Mother added feelingly from the hall outside my closed door. She must have been passing at that very moment. Then, immediately, as we all heard a hideous shriek ending in a wail; it came from my sisters’ bathroom. Had Molly cut off her head? It set us all back a moment – me on the bed, father standing by my desk, mother outside the closed door-until we all realised it was Amy, mad at her hair. Like me, she was undergoing a trying period, years long; she, on her part, was mad at her hair. She screeched at it in the mirror; the sound carried all over the house – kitchen, attic, basement, everywhere, and terrified all the rest of us, every time.
The assistant minister of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Dr. Blackwood, and I had a cordial meeting in his office. He was an experienced, calm man in a three-piece suit; he had a mustache and wore glasses. After he asked me why I had quit the church, he loaned me four volumes of C. S. Lewis’s broadcast talks, for a paper I was writing. Among the volumes proved to be The Problem of Pain, which I would find fascinating, not quite serious enough, and too short. I had already written a paper on the book of Job. The subject scarcely seemed to be closed. If the all-powerful creator directs the world, then why all this suffering? Why did the innocents die in the camps, and why do they starve in the cities and farms? Addressing this question, I found thirty pages written thousands of years ago, and forty pages written in 1955. They offered a choice of fancy language saying, “Forget it,” or serenely worded, logical-sounding answers that so strained credibility (pain is God’s megaphone) that “Forget it” seemed in comparison a fine answer. I liked, however, C. S. Lewis’s effort to defuse the question. The sum of human suffering we needn’t worry about: There is plenty of suffering, but no one ever suffers the sum of it.
Dr. Blackwood and I shook hands as I left his office with his books.
“This is rather early of you to be quitting the church, he said as if to himself, looking off, and went on mildly, almost inaudibly, “I suppose you’ll be back soon.”
Humph, I thought. Pshaw. (Annie Dillard, An American Childhood, Harper & Row, 1987.)
Annie Dillard recalls her reaction to her church as an adolescent:
Nothing so inevitably blackened my heart as an obligatory Sunday at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church: the sight of orphan-girl Liz’s Jesus tricked out in gilt; the minister’s British accent; the putative hypocrisy of my parents, who forced me to go, though they did not; the putative hypocrisy of the expensive men and women who did go. I knew enough of the Bible to damn these people to hell, citing chapter and verse. My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. Every week I had been getting madder; now I was going to plain quit. One of these days, when I figured out how.
After the responsive reading there was a pause, an expectant hush. It was the first Sunday of the month, I remembered, shocked. Today was Communion. I would have to sit through Communion, with its two species, embarrassment and tedium – and I would be late getting out and Father would have to drive around the block a hundred times. I had successfully avoided Communion for years.
From their pews below rose the ushers and elders – everybody’s father and grandfather, from Mellon Bank & Trust et cetera – in tailcoats. They worked the crowd smoothly, as always. When they collected money, I noted, they were especially serene. Collecting money was, after all, what they did during the week; they were used to it. Down each pew an usher thrust a long-handled velvet butterfly net, into the invisible interior of which we each inserted a bare hand to release a crushed, warm dollar bill we’d stored in a white glove’s palm.
Now with dignity the ushers and elders hoisted the round sterling silver trays which bore Communion. A loaded juice tray must have weighed ten pounds. From a cunning array of holes in its top layer hung wee, tapered, lead-crystal glasses. Each held one-half ounce of Welch’s grape juice.
The seated people would pass the grape-juice trays down the pews. After the grape juice came bread: flat silver salvers bore heaps of soft bread cubes, as if for stuffing a turkey. The elders and ushers spread swiftly and silently over the marble aisles in discrete pairs, some for bread cubes, some for grape juice, communicating by eyebrow only. An unseen organist, behind stone screens, played a muted series of single notes, a restless, breathy strain in a minor key, to kill time.
Soon the ushers reached the balcony where we sat. There our prayers had reached their intense pitch, so fervent were we in our hopes not to drop the grape-juice tray.
I passed up the Welch’s grape juice, I passed up the cubed bread, and sat back against my coat. Was all this not absurd? I glanced at Linda beside me. Apparently it was not. Her hands lay folded in her lap. Both her father and her uncle were elders.
It was not surprising, really, that I alone in this church knew what the barefoot Christ, if there had been such a person, would think about things – grape juice, tailcoats, British vowels, sable stoles . . .
[Yet] I was alert enough now to feel, despite myself, some faint, thin stream of spirit braiding forward from the pews. Its flawed and fragile rivulets pooled far beyond me at the altar. I felt, or saw, its frail strands rise to the wider tower ceiling, and mass in the gold mosaic’s dome.
The gold tesserae scattered some spirit like light back over the cavernous room, and held some of it, like light, in its deep curve. Christ drifted among floating sandstone ledges and deep, absorbent skies. There was no speech or language. The people had been praying, praying to God, just as they seemed to be praying. That was the fact. I didn’t know what to make of it. (Annie Dillard, An American Childhood, Harper & Row, 1987.)