Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 1/24

          The human body has 206 bones, 639 muscles and about 6 pounds of skin along with ligaments, cartilage, tendons, tissue, veins, arteries, blood, fat, and more.  Every time we take a step or move an arm or a hand, take a breath, say a word, eat or drink, hundreds of different parts work together in such a way that most of the time we’re not even conscious of it.  It’s just what we do; it’s just living.  Most of us don’t really know how it all works but if we pause for a moment and think about it, any of us can marvel at what an efficient, incredible machine the human body is.

          It’s no wonder that people like Paul used the body as a metaphor for the church.  I don’t know what people of his time understood exactly about human anatomy and physiology; certainly they didn’t know as much as is known today, but they understood enough to see the body as many parts working together.  The body imagery conveys complexity and diversity, but also unity and that’s what makes this image for the church so appropriate. 

          This part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians immediately follows last week’s reading about varieties of gifts.  As I said then, there must have been disagreement in the community about who was more important than who so in his letter, Paul was trying to defuse the disagreement by highlighting the need for all the different kinds of gifts and talents and the fact that one was no more important than the other.  Then, by using this image of the body, he tried to show how all the gifts work together for one cause.  I don’t usually think of Paul as being particularly humorous, but with talking body parts as part of the image it may be that Paul was using a little playful humor to calm down the disagreement that existed.

          The imagery works; I don’t think there’s any question about that.  I’m sure no one in Corinth had any trouble understanding what Paul was saying and we don’t have any trouble with it either.  As you get older you perhaps understand it even better because while we might not know exactly how the human body works, we know how it feels when it doesn’t work right; we do become aware of how things work together when things break down or one part doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.  If one part suffers, all the others suffer together with it.  I think most of us know what that’s all about. 

          But Paul wasn’t dispensing medical advice.  He wasn’t a doctor.  He was an apostle and a missionary trying to encourage a community he had helped to organize, encouraging them in how they ought to be living as followers of Christ.  He was talking not about the human body but about the church as the body of Christ.  Paul was wise enough to know that whether you were talking about the human body or the church, parts pulling against each other rather than working together would ultimately damage the whole thing, preventing it from functioning the way it is supposed to.

          There are a couple of ways one can approach this church as the body of Christ imagery.  The most common approach is “In baptism we all become members or parts of the body of Christ; what part are you?”  It’s a useful approach that challenges each of us to discern our gifts and how they can best be used in service to Christ with emphasis on the fact that everyone’s gift is of value.  Everyone has a role to play in making the church body function properly and function to its maximum potential. 

          It seems like a simple and helpful way to approach this text and this image, and it is, as long as you agree that you are part of the body.  In the case of the human body, there’s not much room for disagreement.  Going back to Paul’s talking body parts, the hand can’t say, “I’m not part of the body,” because there it is, attached to an arm which is attached to the rest.  The hand can say it’s not part of the body, but it still is, unless you chop it off.

          The church and faith are a little different though because there is an individual component to it as well as a part of the body component, so one can say, “I believe in God or Jesus, I read the Bible, but I don’t choose to belong to the church.”  Anybody know anyone like that?  This isn’t a problem unique to the church as studies show that a lot of people these days are not joiners; they don’t want to belong to anything.  It’s been 15 or 20 years now but there was a book written about this called “Bowling Alone” because they found that while the number of people in bowling leagues was way down, the number of people actually bowling was about the same, but more were bowling alone, they didn’t want the commitment involved in joining a league. 

Relative to the church, you can argue, “Well, you were baptized, that makes you part of the body,” but when they have effectively chopped themselves off, what are you going to do?  Paul’s image still works though, with a little modification, because a body with a part chopped off doesn’t function as well either.  It may still function and the body does have remarkable restorative properties, but a body with too many parts missing isn’t going to function the same way.

          It’s also not going to function the same way with parts that claim to be parts but which don’t do anything.  Many of you have probably had the experience of reading an obituary where you see someone identified as a member of Bethany Lutheran Church and you say, “He was??  I never saw him here.”  Every church has lots of people like that.  You could say that they’re like paralyzed body parts.  Some of you know very well what that’s all about.  You know what it’s like to have the part still there, but you can’t make it do what you want it to and it’s not fun; it can be pretty frustrating and again the body doesn’t function the way it’s supposed to.

          So this image can get a little complicated and there is yet another way to think about it that makes it even more complicated.  Paul’s imagery is about both the diversity of the parts and the unity of the body and we shouldn’t lose sight of that because both aspects are important in thinking about the church.  The idea of the body parts working together doesn’t mean the individual parts are no long individual parts.  They are, and that needs to be acknowledged; but I’m still not sure that one part can ever operate totally independently in such a way that it doesn’t impact other parts. 

Relating this to the church, working together for the sake of the body is important, but it doesn’t mean falling into lock step on everything; diversity among the parts is recognized and allowed and this is where I think Paul’s body metaphor breaks down a little bit because in the church, contrary to what Paul says in this passage, even dissention is allowed, to one degree or another.   

Being a member of the church body doesn’t mean absolute agreement on all matters of doctrine or practice, in fact I think it would be naïve to expect such agreement.  Churches who would claim such agreement among their members are kidding themselves and you don’t have to read a whole lot of church history to find out that such agreement has never existed.  Decisions are made, agreements are reached, but dissenting views are still present and that’s OK, as long as the members in disagreement care for one another (as Paul says they should), as long as the disagreement supports the life of the body rather than sucks the life out of the body.

It can go either way.  There are some churches though where dissent is viewed as a cancer that has to be removed from the body.  But dissent can also represent points of growth, possibilities for growth that ultimately make the body stronger even though there may well be growing pains along the way.  In church history, Martin Luther is one of the classic examples of this.  He was seen by some to be a cancerous part that should be removed, but while his legacy is still debated, most would agree that the movement he was part of had many positive effects that in the long run promoted the growth of the body.  Without question though, there were growing pains, but the body he was part of is still living.

Our task as members of the body is to use our gifts to keep it alive and to promote growth, balancing our need for connection with a need to be who we are as individuals.  It can be a tricky balance sometimes, but focused on our unity in proclaiming life and forgiveness through Jesus Christ and moved and empowered by the same Spirit that filled Jesus, we can do it; and the body will stay strong. 

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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