Together in the church
The human body is amazing. What do you think of your own body? We can be very critical of our own bodies and find it hard to be complimentary about the way we look. We think of ourselves as too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall, too lumpy and bumpy, too plain,
our hair is too curly, too straight or there’s not enough of it to be either straight or curly; we have bad eyesight, a bad back, stomach ulcers.
In spite of our criticisms of what our own bodies are like, there can be no doubt that the human body is amazing. It is complex with all of its various parts and internal organs, yet it is unified with unparalleled harmony and interrelatedness. It's a unit. The many and differing parts work together as we do simple everyday things.
Take a simple thing like walking – the movement of the legs back and forward, the action of hips, knees and ankles as well as muscles and tendons, the feet and toes as they keep us upright as one leg is lifted off the ground and swung forward, the movement of our arms, and the parts of our brain and nervous system that not only make all these body parts work together but also give us a sense of balance as we take each step. We take it all for granted and complain a lot about what we think our bodies ought to be like, but in reality, they are fantastic. If ever in doubt, watch a gymnastics or ice-skating competition and watch the beauty and grace of the human body.
The apostle Paul was fully aware of the wonderful way God has made the human body and talks about this in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:12,13, 25-27). But he wasn’t interested in giving his readers a physiology or anatomy lesson. His chief interest is in the way the Holy Spirit has brought so many different people into the one church. Just as each part of the body is unique and different from any other yet work together as one body, likewise the church is made up of so many unique and different people yet is like a single body. Paul says,
"The body of Christ has many different parts, just as any other body does. Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles. Some of us are slaves, and others are free. But God’s Spirit baptised each of us and made us part of the body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:12,13).
Paul is right when he points out that the church is a strange mixture of all kinds of people. Just take a look at the people in your churches. Everyone is different. There are different personalities, different ages, different backgrounds, different jobs, different upbringings, different hobbies, different levels of spiritual maturity, and all the other things that mark one person different to the other.
On any given Sunday in our churches across the world we might have disgruntled church hoppers, visitors from all over the country and even overseas, newcomers to town, new converts to Christ, the spiritually lost returning to God, long time members, babies and children. You won’t find too many other organisations that gather every week with such a mixture of people.
How do we all fit together? How did so many different people get to be part of the one church? This question becomes even more puzzling when you think of the church as not just the group of people who meet every Sunday, or members of a particular church, but people from every Christian denomination, from all parts of the world. When Paul talks about the body of Christ referring to the church, he means not only the narrower meaning of the word "church" (the local congregation) but also the wider meaning that includes all Christians. When we think of this wider meaning then we are really faced with a lot of differences.
How do we all fit together? Paul was writing to the Corinthians. Now if there ever was a bunch of people who found it difficult to get on it was the congregation at Corinth. There were all kinds of disagreements, some thinking they were better than the others, some feeling as if they had no place in the congregation. Much like any congregation really – there are those whose leadership is resented, those who always seem to end doing everything, others who feel put down and inadequate when it came to doing anything in the church, those who feel no one talks to them, others who are upset over what someone else has said or done, some who never say anything but harbour grudges and resentments, others who want change, and others who resent it, those who like the pastor and those who don’t.
Paul was writing to a congregation much like this congregation or any other congregation. Because of the upsets caused by the differences in people Paul writes to the Corinthians and us, describing the togetherness that is characteristic of the church.
He tells us that the church is like the human body. Even though the body is made up of different and diverse organs it all functions together as one body. When we were baptised, the Holy Spirit made us part of the church. Someone pointed out that we are not just members of the church but "membranes" trying to get across the idea that all of us are connected together through Christ. We have been joined together in such a way that even though God has given each of us different gifts, some seemingly more important than others, others that are hidden, nevertheless all of us in God’s eyes are equally "membranes" in his church.
Paul points out that God put the body together in such a way that one part looks after another, and that the whole body is affected when one part is hurt. If you hit your thumb with a hammer what happens? Well actually, several things happen all at once. Your mind registers pain, tears come to your eyes, you stick your thumb in your mouth taking it out every now and then to give it a shake, and you commence to jump up and down while words rush forth from your mouth. (The nature of those words we won’t repeat here.)
A few years ago, during a Special Olympics, nine young contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with the desire to run the race, to the finish and win.
All, that is, except one boy who stumbled. He tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and paused. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them. One girl with Down's syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, "This will make it better." Then all nine of them linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for 10 solid minutes.
That’s precisely what Paul was getting at. When one is hurt, all feel it and will provide the help, encouragement, support and guidance that are needed. Whether we are talking about someone who going through a crisis, depressed, hurting because of what others have done, a teenager who has dropped out of the church, a single mother, a person who just needs to feel they are loved, someone who has lost someone close through death – the pain of these people affect us all as "membranes" together in the body of Christ. We are called to "link arms and walk together" as those disabled athletes helped and encouraged one another. (As a point of interest Paul chapter on the body of Christ leads into that wonderful description of love in Chapter 13.)
Garfield, the lazy cat from the comic pages, gets up one morning and still half asleep, looks in the mirror. Seeing his face, he says, "Boy, do I need a shave." In the next frame you hear the electric razor buzzing and Garfield's frantic thought, "Wait a minute!"
In the final scene, John (Garfield’s owner) has this startled look on his face as he sees Garfield with the fur shaved off the bottom half of his face. And with a very perturbed look on his face, Garfield says, "I forgot I was a cat, okay?"
Just like Garfield, sometimes we forget who we are. We don’t have to be told that at all. We know just how often we let our sinful nature take control and we behave like individuals – selfish individuals at that – and forget that we are the people of God brought together in the church. We forget that "together we are part of the body of Christ" and that in our own way all of us have something valuable to contribute to the life of the church – some people are the upfront type; others go about things quietly and unobtrusively. We forget that as part of the body of Christ we care for each other, and work together using our differing abilities, financial resources, and personalities to do the work that God has given his church – namely to speak and do God’s Good News of salvation to people in every kind of situation. We only need to look at the history of any congregation and you will see how often church members are like Garfield and forget who they are.
Thank goodness that God isn’t as forgetful as we are. He never forgets the promise he made at our baptism that he will always be our loving God, ready to forgive us and renew the bond that we have in the body of Christ. His Spirit reminds us that we have been joined together as brothers and sisters and is urging us today to look at how well we have worked for unity in the body of Christ.
Yes, there is always plenty of room for making the togetherness that we share a reality in the way we work together, care for one another, and share the Gospel of Christ. All of us are challenged to recognise that the differences between us all are God-given and not a cause for division and separation. We should use those differences to be the church in the world and minister to the needs of others in our own unique way.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, together, we are the body of Christ.
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