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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 24, 2016

1 Corinthians 12:12-31


It’s a powerful image, a metaphor that has become one of the most iconic ways of talking about and representing the church. The Body of Christ; one body with many members; each with our own gifts and liabilities, strengths and weaknesses; each of us incomplete on our own but made whole in community with one another.

It’s a powerful image that gets at a core part of why many of us come to church. We come looking for that sense of connection, that sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves, that sense of a larger purpose to which our own individual lives can contribute. And when things go well, we find that here, brought together with people who are, in some cases, quite different from us, yet united by this core truth: that we are stronger together than we are apart, that something is missing when we are alone, and that each of us bears a unique reflection of the image and likeness of God.

It’s a powerful image, to be sure. It’s also tempting to let it wash over us like an easy cliché, a pretty platitude. We come together, each bringing our own unique gifts and perspectives and personalities, and everything clicks, and it’s rainbows and butterflies and happily ever after. One body, many members, all living in perfect harmony. But if you think about your own body, even for a moment, is that harmonious image really one hundred percent accurate?

By the time we reach adulthood, or sometimes before, most of us have some part of our bodies that doesn’t work quite the way we’d like it to. Maybe it’s arthritic knees, or a digestive system that can’t handle the foods you used to love. Maybe it’s vision or hearing that seems to need stronger assistance almost by the minute. Maybe it’s an immune system that leaves you vulnerable to every passing germ and microbe. Maybe it’s a chronic illness. Maybe it’s an injury from which you never fully recovered. Maybe it’s something more cosmetic—some part of your body that never looks the way you’ve been taught to think it’s supposed to look when you look in the mirror. Migraines or high cholesterol… back pain or bunions… by this point in our lives, most of us have some part of our bodies that doesn’t work as we wish it would.

And, if we’re honest, maybe there are parts of our life together as congregation that don’t work quite the way we’d like them to, either. Sometimes what the mouth says is not heard by the ear. Sometimes the right hand and the left hand seem to be completely disconnected from one another. Sometimes the feet are running in one direction while the head is looking in a different direction. Sometimes we lose our balance and trip over ourselves and fall flat on our face. We are not always as coordinated as we might be, not always as graceful as we might be, not always in step with one another, and sometimes going in opposite directions. And maybe—just maybe!—there are people here with whom you find it just a little more difficult to coexist, to coordinate, to collaborate, to cohabitate here in the household of God.

If we’re honest, maybe there are parts of our family lives where that’s true, too. If we’re honest, maybe there are parts of our work lives where that’s true, too. If we’re honest, surely we can’t help but notice that there are parts of our community life, parts of our national life, parts of our global life that are not as harmonious as Paul’s “one body with many members” image makes it sound.

And that, of course, is precisely why Paul wrote such a passage in the first place.

The text we heard this morning comes from a letter sent from the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, in what is now Greece. Paul was an early missionary, a follower of Jesus who traveled from Jerusalem to found and encourage the early churches across the Eastern Mediterranean. Word had reached Paul that the church in Corinth was struggling with disputes and discord. Wealthier members were lording it over poorer ones. People were competing about who had the most important spiritual gifts, claiming higher status for one reason or another. So Paul wrote to guide them back to the way to which they were called.

His letter covers many topics—some theological, some practical, but most having to do with the relationships among those Corinthian worshipers. In the chapter that precedes this one, Paul describes what he has heard, that when the Corinthians gather for worship, they are together in name only, but divided in spirit. In the chapter that follows this one, a chapter that will be familiar to many of you from weddings you have attended, Paul instructs them on the virtues of love that is patient and kind, never envious or boastful or arrogant or rude—love that is the essential ingredient for living faithfully in community.

Paul exhorts, explains, corrects and chastises the Corinthians. But nowhere does he say, You must all be the same. Instead, he says, You come from many places; you bring many experiences; you possess many resources; you offer many gifts. You are NOT the same, and yet you are united, because you all share in the same baptism. You all receive the same Spirit. You are one in Christ, brought together by God’s love. You are each created in God’s image and likeness, and the community would be incomplete without you. You need each other. The church needs all of you. And Christ needs the church to embody the hands and feet and heart of God in the world.

This impulse to unity without uniformity—this embracing of diversity with a common purpose—is no less powerful nearly two thousand years later than it was when Paul first wrote it. It is no less relevant to these Woodstockians than it was to those Corinthians. It is one of the hallmarks of our Christian faith.

Indeed, the life of this congregation is enriched by the beautiful variety of people who participate in it. Younger and older, richer and poorer, northerners and southerners, easterners and westerners, liberals and conservatives, long-time residents and new arrivals… cradle Congregationalists alongside former Catholics and Methodists and Presbyterians and Quakers and Episcopalians and Unitarians and agnostics and nothing-in-particulars… poets and nurses and teachers and plumbers and lawyers and farmers and engineers and builders and artists and doctors and bus drivers and insurance agents and everyone in between… The life of this congregation has vitality and depth precisely because we are not all the same—because we are united but not uniform.

If we are to survive—but much, much more importantly, if we are to continue to follow Jesus, to serve God and God’s people, to truly be the Body of Christ—we need each and every one of you, bringing a unique set of gifts and a unique set of needs, and, together, making us whole. We need the arthritic knees and gluten-sensitive stomachs. We need the scars and the injuries, the headaches and the heartaches, the cellulite and the receding hairlines and all those parts of the body that don’t work quite the way we’d like them to.

Because here’s the thing. Somehow—and this is the great mystery of our faith—somehow it is precisely those parts of our bodies that we see as ugly or imperfect or undesirable that God sees as the most beautiful of all. The people who don’t seem to fit in have something crucially important to contribute. The ones with whom we struggle most have something profound to teach us. The ones who are as yet unknown to us will add immeasurably to who we are.

This is what it means to live as the Body of Christ, to bring God’s ways of reconciliation and peace, justice and joy, to our lives, to our communities, to our world. We’ve been on the way together for 325 years now. I think I’d like to keep going. Wouldn’t you?


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