WE ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, California
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
“We are the body of Christ, bonded together by grace.” Again this week we began our service of worship with a sung affirmation of an image of who we are as the church. Again, I will state my belief that, as we consider strategic planning for our congregation’s future, it is essential for us to understand and embrace a vision of what it means to be the church. Though it’s true that we are a social institution, though we are deeply embedded in cultural expectations and a denominational identity, though we clearly want to be a significant presence in our wider community, we are first and foremost God’s people, the body of Christ.
In the early 1960s, theologian Georgia Harkness of Pacific School of Religion wrote, “The Church is not essentially a human institution but is the community of believers of which Jesus Christ is Lord and in which [Christ] works by [the] Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God for the salvation of the world through the proclamation of the evangel of good news to all [humanity]. It asserts the claim of Christ as the incarnate Word of God to the lordship of all human life” (Georgia Harkness, Beliefs that Count, chapter 9, “We Believe in the Church.) We might not choose to use quite this language today but I think these words proclaim essential truth about the church and are consonant with what Paul has written to the church at Corinth.
In his metaphor of the body of Christ, Paul writes about the various parts of the body, how each is important to the whole and how it all works together – or ought to – to fulfill God’s will and accomplish God’s work on earth. Every part of the body is indeed needed but the thing that holds the body together, giving it direction, courage, grace and possibility is the head – and the church has one and only one head, Jesus Christ. We have professed that truth in hymn and anthem this morning – “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord…” “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the Head and Cornerstone; chosen of the Lord and precious, binding all the church in one…”
Last week we focused on being the people of God. Whoever we are, whatever we do moving forward, we are the family of God, God’s people. This truth must shape our identity as a congregation and draw us into doing God’s work as God’s people. We are not an independent, free-standing institution. The problems we must solve and dreams we dream are not just about how we can make dba FBCPA thrive or even survive. We belong to God in whom we live and move and have our being. As Thelma Parodi so wisely reminded us last week, we must begin and end by asking what God’s plan is for us.
Likewise, we are the body of Christ. What does that mean? Most importantly, I believe it means that God’s work is not yet done, that the ministry of Jesus “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18) has not been finished, that the reign of God which Christ proclaimed and embodied is not yet fulfilled. There is work to be done and the work is ours as the body of Christ. Teresa of Avila professed this truth long ago,
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
But we cannot be the body of Christ unless Christ is our head, unless Christ calls us and leads us in God’s way. We don’t get to decide on whim what it means to be Christ’s body; we give ourselves to Christ’s leadership when we pledge to be Christ’s disciples. The church is the body of Christ in order to carry on Christ’s work and live out Christ’s promise.
Clearly Paul is not altogether happy with this church he has planted in Corinth. We’ve looked before at the opinions and practices, beliefs and leaders, differences and fractures that threatened its existence let alone its future. In the chapter before this one, Paul thoroughly chastises the congregation for the way it practices the Lord’s Supper. He’s incensed that the rich and privileged hog all the best food at the table, leaving the lowly to fend for themselves around the leftovers. What is the primary purpose of the meal? Not to fill anyone’s belly. Its purpose is to fill the soul, to fill the soul with Christ Jesus and everything he stood for. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Paul quotes Christ as instructing his followers, his body. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:24, 26.) That is, every time we partake of communion, we pledge to keep Christ alive – in our own lives and in the world – until he re-appears to fulfill the promise of God’s reign in person.
This is serious business but in the 12th chapter it seems that Paul actually becomes playful. Though he is concerned with the ways in which the Corinthian church holds and uses their gifts, there is clearly humor in how he writes about it. “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. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 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.’
There is wisdom in this humor. As absurd as it is to imagine the body dominated by one part or another, to the exclusion of others, there is value in seeing how all the various parts were made to serve the body as a whole, when they are in the right place, doing what they were created to do. Can we think of First Baptist Church Palo Alto in terms of this metaphor? If we are the body of Christ, what part do you play? What were you made to do? Where are you meant to fit in? How well do you function? Do you need a little help? Could you use a massage, a good washing, a vitamin, a new covering, a rest, a different perspective? And, whatever your part, do you see Christ as the head that bonds us together in grace and leads us into God’s future?
I suppose in some sense the metaphor breaks down, as do we. But it is also true that the human body is remarkably resourceful and adaptable. We talked about this in Bible study this week. The injured, wounded, diseased, disabled body is amazing in its capacity to compensate for injury, illness or loss. Sometimes the part can repair itself. Sometime it needs a stint or a cast. Sometimes another part has to learn to step in and take over for an incapacitated member. This, too, is part of the wonder of the body – both the human body and the body of Christ. It may be that, in some ideal sense, the body was meant to come together in a comely form a nd function smoothly, but it doesn’t always work out that way, does it?
The other night, I happened to catch the very end of the Miss Universe Pageant. Arrayed across the stage were five striking women, each manifesting the culture’s current ideal of physical beauty. They were at the point a the end of the competition in which they ask each contestant some purportedly profound question, the answer to which helps determine the winner. Miss Angola, a tall, stately beauty was asked what, if any, part of her appearance she would change if she could. I thought immediately about a couple of changes I would make in my own physique and assumed she would find something about her nose or chin or ears that would be better if slightly adjusted. Instead her response was, “Thank God I'm very satisfied with the way God created me and I wouldn't change a thing. I consider myself a woman endowed with inner beauty. I have acquired many wonderful principles from my family and I intend to follow these for the rest of my life.” She was perfectly happy with the gifts God had given her, including the way God had put her together. Now given her stunning beauty, I would say she had nothing to complain about. But what moved me was the graceful humility with which she seemed to accept who and how she is.
I imagine it’s easier to affirm the body when it’s a prize-winning beauty, but Paul says that God can use us all in the body of Christ – young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish, activists and contemplatives, the healthy, vigorous, joyful and lively along with the lame, tired, lonely and sad. There’s a place for each of us. Each of us is needed. All the parts are important, no matter what condition they’re in. That’s another important dimension of the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ – whatever shape we take, whatever gifts we bring. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.” There is a place for each of us. Can we take these words and apply them to ourselves today? Can we live with such connection and compassion that when one suffers, we all suffer and when one is honored, we all rejoice? Can we lay aside our differences long to enough to listen for guidance from our Head? Can we commit ourselves to the work of God’s reign without getting caught up in our own agendas? Can we build a consensus among ourselves as God’s people? Can we work together as many parts of one body, supporting one another, sustaining one another, hearing one another and respecting one another? If we can, Christ will live on in us and through us. This is an exciting and challenging vision for us now and for the future, to be the body of Christ bonded together by grace. Amen.