I Corinthians 12: 14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But eagerly desire the greater gifts.
I owe the main point of today’s message to a theologian I heard recently, when he spoke at a local seminary. He’s Justo Gonzalez, a Cuban Methodist pastor and theologian, who served many years as a teacher and leader of a seminary in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I heard Dr. Gonzalez speak about the very passage we just heard this morning. In his talk, he told about a big ecumenical celebration at the seminary, when representatives from all the Christian denominations of Puerto Rico came together for worship, and to celebrate their unity in Christ. As he read verses 22-25, it was all he could do to keep himself from laughing out loud as an oddball and slightly irreverent idea struck him. Here he was reading this passage about giving special honor to the weaker parts of the body, about how we protect and even dress up the most vulnerable and least presentable parts of the body, and listening to this were all these cardinals, bishops and arch-bishops, metropolitans and reverends and Right-Reverends, in their gold-brocaded robes and pointy hats, with their ornate, golden crosses and shepherds’ staves. Even lowly pastors and conference ministers of low church denominations were wearing robes and stoles and big, golden crosses on their chests. In the midst of this glamorous ecumenical fashion show, it was all he could do to keep himself from interrupting the Bible reading to laugh and to ask, “Is that why we’re all decked out like this and have these grand, honorific titles like Father, Right Reverend and Your Holiness? Because we the clergy are actually the weakest and least presentable parts of the body of Christ?”
I’ll let you decide on your own answer to that question.
In today’s passage, Paul draws our attention to the different treatment that we give to different parts of our own bodies. Its all one body, but it doesn’t all get the same treatment, decoration or coverage. Construction workers don’t wear their work boots on their ears, just as the Minnesota Vikings don’t take the field wearing athletic supporters on their elbows. Of course that’s not equal treatment for the body parts. But its necessary and strategic. Without getting too graphic, suffice it to say that our particularly tender, vulnerable and private parts get the most protection and care, because they need it.
Dr. Gonzalez went on to say that this ironic twist, that we give the most honor, protection, covering and even decoration to the weakest, most private and least presentable parts of the body, is the very hinge on which this passage turns, on which it turns even in a surprising new direction. Its a new idea about their relationships that he most wants the Corinthians to get their minds around. Its where their customary body talk has suddenly jumped the rails and gone in another direction.
Up until verses 22-25, while Paul compares the church to the human body, he is not telling the Corinthians anything they had never heard before. Comparing a community to a human body was common to the day and time, whether that community was a family, a city, a country or even the empire. But it was usually used to explain why the emperor was the emperor, why the middle class was in the middle, and why the slaves were slaves. Because, supposedly, the gods had so arranged the parts and pieces of “the body politic” to serve the directions of the head, just as the liver, the lungs and the heart serve by the signals of the brain. That was the conventional wisdom of Greek and Roman society in the First Century: how and why everyone was arranged in order of status and power, from top to bottom, so that the strongest and most presentable parts of the community body got the most honor, decoration, power and protection.
The whole focus and orientation of this kind of “body politic” was the person at the pinnacle of power. In that kind of arrangement, the weaker parts of the body politic, like slaves, soldiers, women, Jews and unskilled free men and women, were quite dispensable, and easily abused or neglected.
And not much has changed. Inequality of power, wealth and opportunity are growing around the world, with disastrous results for health, peace and happiness. Just around the corner from us this morning, on 24th Street, between Park and Chicago Avenues, are two starkly different symbols of how we organize ourselves in response to human weakness and need. One is Hope Academy, a faith-based school that serves inner city children, many of whom are at risk and in need. Next to it, in the grounds of the Eye Hospital, is an abortion clinic. As much as that saddens me, I’m not recommending we go march over to the abortion clinic and block the doors. At that point and place, I think its too late to do something about abortion. Every so often, I see protesters from both sides of the issue out there in a tense stand-off, and their relationships—or lack thereof– make me sad. Its like watching some highly scripted dance with very predictable sound and motion, but little real communication, creativity or human connection on either side.
But I find that juxtaposition of a school with an abortion clinic, on the same block, deeply symbolic, in a disturbing way. A school is a prime example of a community that is organized and oriented toward the weakest, the neediest, the most vulnerable: children, and their needs. Especially a school like Hope Academy. The abortion clinic, on the other hand, speaks to me of the tragic ways in which those same children might be unwanted, their conception and birth considered a disaster. For that I blame men, as much as mothers, for the very tragedy at the heart of this conflict: that a human life, real or potential, would be unwanted in the first place. The position of these two organizations on the same block to me is a visible parable about our common ambivalence toward weakness and need, including our own. On one hand we want to turn, with compassion, toward those in need. On the other, something tempts us to run from the fist sign of our common human vulnerability. Its what prompted some cities to actually pass laws a century ago that prohibited persons with diseases, deformities or amputations from being present on the streets: the fear of our weakness, our vulnerability and our dependence one upon one another. Its what prompted the question that Cain posed to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The rest of the Bible is God’s answer to that unfortunate question, including, and especially, Paul’s surprising words about the body of Christ.
But ever since Cain tossed that defiant question at the face of God, human societies have tended to orient themselves toward the desires and dictates of the most powerful and privileged members, as we see with warlords like Hitler, Mao or Pol Pot, or when corporate raiders raid company assets and pensions and walk off with more wealth than they know what to do with, while leaving others unemployed, or with the mafia, or in the pre-packaged celebrity people product industry, in which people live vicariously through the escapades of tabloid magazine subjects.
Every human society that is oriented towards the top always and eventually requires sacrificial victims, whether in the womb, or when of the age of military service, or whether they are identifiable by their language, their skin color, their country of origin, or by the documents they don’t carry. Then no one is safe from the possibility of an ever-widening feeding frenzy. Like Pastor Martin Niemoller said, during Hitler’s regime, “When they came for the Communists, I said nothing, because I’m not a Communist; When they came for the labor unions and the Socialists, I said nothing, because I’m not a union member or a Socialist; when they came for the Jews, I said nothing, because I’m not a Jew; and when they came for me, no one said anything, because no one else was left.” As I read I Corinthians, I get the impression that Paul was trying to put a stop to the feeding frenzy that was happening in those churches. It was a feeding frenzy over who was the most spiritually gifted, and who had the most power, honor and liberty among them.
Now we might say, “But wait a minute! Christ is the head of our body, the church, and we give all honor and obedience to him.” Doesn’t that mean we’re oriented toward one supreme leader too? I hope we are. But the head of this body is is the Christ who says, “Whatever you have done for the least of these, my brethren, you have done for me.” Christ identifies himself with the lowest, weakest and neediest parts of our body politic, and is most often to be found by loving and serving them. Whatever we do to honor, serve, cherish and protect them, we do for Jesus.
Today’s passage then speaks of an opposite organizing principle than the one found in most societies, one that’s truer to the human body, and the body of Christ: that no part of the body is dispensable, especially not the weaker parts, and the most care and protection go to the most vulnerable and least presentable parts. That’s the surprise twist that Paul adds to the conventional social body talk of his time. If such an orientation toward the most vulnerable, the weakest and their needs sounds burdensome and unfair, remember that the most vulnerable, weak and needy include ourselves, if not now, then some day. Yes, Paul says that “the body parts should have equal concern for each other.” But that only happens when a group is oriented toward seeing and serving their weakest and most vulnerable members. Otherwise, we drift back into the human default mode of serving, fearing, envying and even worshiping the most powerful and privileged people. Rather than a burden, this new organizing principle is good news for all of us.
We do this already at Emmanuel Mennonite Church in several ways. One is with our policy for preventing abuse and responding if ever, God forbid, there should be even any hint of it. Then there’s our top notch Christian education program and teachers. We also have a deacon’s fund to respond to financial crises and emergencies, or to help people with needs they might not be able to afford, like utilities or counseling. Our denomination and conference, and other church agencies, stand ready to help us deal with the inevitable issues of physical and mental disabilities, and of mental and emotional health needs that we all face. Some day I’d like to see us address the issue of accessibility in this building for those with physical impairments. No one’s knees are getting younger. Remember, whenever we talk about organizing and orienting ourselves toward the needs of the most vulnerable and weak, we’re not talking about “them,” we’re talking about “us” and “ourselves.” That makes us, the Body of Christ, God’s answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”