Preaching 1 Corinthians 12:12-30
Paul describes the church as the body of Christ. I doubt that he would be pleased with our understandable tendency to refer to the church as a building. Even if he were a contemporary church leader in charge of building maintenance, I expect Paul would still argue that the parts of the true church are not best understood as sanctuary, narthex and vestibule. As that ever popular song by Avery and Marsh makes the point, "The church is not a building...the church is a people!"1
Gathered as we are as the people of God, let us remember that God is working through the very human bodies that we are. (Many of us were taught in seminary that, according to the Hebrew understanding, we don't just have bodies--we are our bodies. So, perhaps for Paul, Christ doesn't just have a body which is the church. The church is the body of Christ!)
It is both stimulating and humbling to be called members of the body of Christ. What could be more stimulating than the knowledge that the very being of Christ moves through our often all too human beings. On the other hand, what could be more humbling than the realization that all too often we clog the veins of our bodies by choices that are not of Christ. Indeed the choices we make threaten to choke out the very life of our Christian being.
To find our proper functioning part in Christ's body, both locally and perhaps beyond--that is our deepest vocationalchallenge as Christians. At a deep level of our lives, it is a never ending search, and most of us need all of the help we can get to keep at the task. Some of us feel we have already received some pretty good hints about what bodily functions God wants us to fulfill as individual members of Christ's body. But I expect the Spirit is even now issuing new vocational promptings to some of us as well. Although we pastors hate to let go of those older "tried and true" leaders on whom we've depended for a long time, maybe, just maybe, the Spirit is encouraging a few of you to give up the now burdensome roles in your local "Body of Christ" that you have been filling for a long, long time. It is time for the younger members to take on more of the responsibility." But then again, if our whole society is growing older, as most of the studies say, then why shouldn't the leadership of the church grow older too? Trusting in the Spirit's guidance, we ought to let you make up your own mind. Maybe you have served long enough in your particular role in the local body. Or maybe you just need to step back from your long held church responsibilities and be reminded of what this "body" that you are part of is after all called to be about. Ernest Campbell, former minister at Riverside Church in New York, once said that the church's goal is nothing less than to "Christ-ify" the world.2 I am told that when he used this term, Campbell was explaining the significance of using lay readers in worship. After all, the ordained pastor could quite easily read his or her own scriptures, Campbell explained, but lay readers are invited to participate, at least in part, to remind us all that God's goal is to "Christ-ify" the world.
How does our local church function as the body of Christ? In our Sunday bulletin after the title "Pastor" comes my name. But after the title "Ministers" come the words" "People of the congregation." I believe these designations are true to Paul's description of the properly functioning church body. Even though I am privileged to have been called as pastor in order to activate certain pastoral and sacramental bodily parts in Christ's church, at its heart any Christian church worth its salt depends upon the voluntary commitment of its people to fulfill their Spirit prompted callings as members of Christ's Body.
I think it is most appropriate in a sermon on this text to celebrate some of the often neglected but still crucial members of the Christ's body as they function locally. Some of the local ministers I know prepare used clothing for sales held each Spring and Fall-sales sponsored by our Women's Alliance. Some of our minsters prepare funeral receptions to assist families--even those outside of the church--who have lost loved ones. One minister takes the church trash to the dump, and while his volunteer ministry is little noticed, it is easy enough to imagine the problems that would occur if he ceased to perform his necessary function! Some ministers enable the rest of us to better remember the beauty of God's creation by arranging flowers for Sunday worship, and some ministers share in a "wood-bee" every summer to save parsonage oil costs and provide wood needed for the supplementary wood furnace. Other ministers meet the emergency mission needs which come to their attention, sometimes by using the food donated to the food shelf, sometimes by writing checks through our Emergency Mission account, and sometimes by recruiting used items from friends needed by young couples in setting up apartments for the first time. Several lay ministers visit our community shut-ins and occasionally even drive the considerable distances necessary to reach nursing home residents who formerly lived in our town. Their visits as ministers serving as Christ's body provide very tangible reminders for the community that Christ remembers those that society often forgets. And their visits to shut-ins provide important reminders to the church that the Body of Christ lives to serve those outside the local membership.
But we need to emphasize not only the way Christian lay ministers function within the mission of the local church but also the way our people's "secular" jobs are "sacred" when their relation to the church's wider mission is understood. Surely our lay ministers do many things to help "christ-ify" the world through their jobs as teachers, bank tellers, constables and carpenters. (Why not take a stab at suggesting some connections between a few secular jobs with which you are familiar and the holy purposes of the body of Christ?) In our small town in Vermont, I am convinced that the personal conversations members of the general public have with postal workers, grocery store clerks, fuel oil deliverers and bank tellers provide frequent opportunities for the Spirit's ongoing work of "christ-ifying" the world.
I am aware that much that I have just said paints a very rosy picture of the way the church functions as Christ's body. But we join in confessions of sin each Sunday to remind ourselves that we regularly fail to serve as Christ's body as well. James Worley has painted out that when honestly observed our churches are all too often best described as "gathering[s] of strangers."3 Admittedly, Paul's following words sometimes describe more of an ideal than a reality: "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together." (v. 26) Any church that submitted its spiritual body to an annual check-up conducted by the Holy Spirit would no doubt receive a report that indicated something less than 100% good health.
But despite all our failures, we are still the body of Christ. The good news is that God is always seeking to re-member-understood as "putting back together again" the ultimately mysterious body of Christ which moves the world towards its true goal. Through our very Christian bodily being, God's hope for the world keeps us compassionately reaching outward. Whenever a visiting missionary comes to our church, faith in the life saving dynamic of the world wide body of Christ is renewed for our congregation. And far beyond the synagogue in Nazareth, the marching orders given us by the one who is now our Lord echo through the centuries. As the body of Christ, we are to "bring good news to the poor...to proclaim liberty to the captives...to announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people." (Lk 4:18-19)
1. Avery and Marsh, "We Are the Church", The Avery and Marsh Songbook (Proclamation Productions Inc., 1973), p. 32. 2. Shared in conversation by Vt. Conference Minister Curt Minter who heard Campbell say this when attending a conference at Riverside Church. 3. Robert C. Worley, A Gathering of Strangers: Understanding the Life of Your Church (Westminster Press, 1976), p. 11.
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