22 January 2007

YOU are the Body of Christ (Third Sunday after Epiphany)

Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Psalm 113; Luke 4:14-21

“You are the body of Christ.”

Being at seminary and all, you might think that the body of Christ is on my mind all the time. In actuality, however, most of us, myself included, are far more preoccupied with practical questions: will I be able to afford rent on a minister’s salary? where will I work? do I really have what it takes to be a priest, pastor, confidante? And lately, what’s going to happen to the Church?

Anglicanism has been much in the news these past few years, and not for good reasons. I would love to see headlines declaring – “Anglicans broker peace in the Middle East” – “Episcopalians end poverty” and so on. Nothing seems to make news, though, like the ecclesiological version of a train wreck. And – to be fair – even the appearance of a disaster or conflict gets our attention far more than success.

It is far easier to do damage, to reject one another, and to create a rift than it is to heal, to compromise, and to work together for good. The Gospel reading today, from Luke, portrays Jesus’s return to Nazareth and describes him reading Scripture in the synagogue. This pattern of worship was common in first-century Judea. Everyone would gather together, hear the word and listen to the teacher’s interpretation of the passage. Perfectly peaceful… except that a few short verses later, Luke tells us that when they heard more of his teaching, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29).

Even in the presence of Jesus, whose messianic claims they had accepted without murmur, division is instinctive. It is as old as Cain and Abel. It is part of human nature.

Anglicans are not the only ones good at schism, an ugly word for the particular divisions that afflict the Church. There are literally thousands of Christian denominations of all flavours and stripes, which is why Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is necessary wisdom for us today, not only as Christians, but also as Anglicans.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, we are still members of one church. We share in one baptism. We might go about it different ways – sprinkled, dipped, poured on, right up to whole body experience – but it is the same Spirit, and I’m not sure that God worries about the minutiae. And, no matter how much we might not like it, we are all members of the one body of Christ.

To be honest, I am compelled to this conclusion – not by preference, because I am human, and certainly not by observing how we act towards one another – but because none of the things we do and say make any sense otherwise.

If the body of Christ is not ultimately one, holy and universal, then our witness to the gospel is imperfect, incomplete, diminished. Paul makes two separate and yet integral arguments. First, that the Church is fundamentally one, exhibiting a kind of unity that eradicates ethnic and social differences. Thus, for Paul, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, shared a common initiation by the Spirit through which they experienced a level of oneness analogous to the human body: many bound together as part of a single entity.

Second, that “the body does not consist of one member but of many” (v. 14). Unity does not preclude diversity. It is absurd to think of a body with only one part, performing only one function. The body of Christ is complex, and the many parts are organically related to one another, rather than simply existing contiguously.

It is impossible to speak of the one body in any meaningful sense unless we recognize the value of its many parts. Oneness does not mean sameness. Unity does not require uniformity.

I wonder if this lesson is heard in the Anglican Communion today, if it is heard in the Episcopal Church. We seem to imagine that everything will be better when that disagreeable group over there is gone. Things might be easier, but they will not be better. Eliminating one part of the body leaves those who remain poorer for it, diminished.

If we examine the model of Jesus’ own life and ministry, the portrait that emerges is complex, multi-layered and, like the body of Christ, diverse. Jesus brought together both radical reform and a commitment to the Law, judgment and forgiveness, holding seeming contradictions in tension with one another. Jesus embodies a vision for the body of Christ and for the church: Teacher and healer, friend and stranger, victim and savior. Jesus was not confined to one aspect. He did not restrict his ministry to teaching or miracles, but incorporated all of these into his life and work. It is imperative for the church to do the same.

I imagine that fear has a lot to do with our rejection of one other. We don’t want to be lumped together with people who do things we find distasteful, with people who proclaim a theology that we abhor. It gets to the very heart of who we are, and we don’t want to be mistaken for people that we think get it wrong.

It is also pride that imagines our particular part of the body is superior to another. It is this pride – arrogance, even – that we have to work to overcome. And it is to this pride that Paul’s letter speaks: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable;” those that seem to be less honorable deserve recognition and honor; those that seem worthless are as necessary and integral to the whole as the most valued.

We are created by God to drink of the same Spirit. We are called by God to live as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are, by the grace of God, members of one body, the body of Christ, the church.

We are the body of Christ. Young, old. Educated, or not. Poor, rich. Hungry, well fed. Imperfect, all of us.

We are the body of Christ: conservative and liberal; evangelical and practically Catholic; emotional and stoic; those who speak in tongues … and those who are horrified at the very thought. All of us, from every race, culture, theological persuasion, liturgical style, speaking in many languages and with many voices: so diverse that we disagree with one another vigorously, passionately, even vehemently.

We are the body of Christ, not because of a common identity as Christians, but because of the one Spirit, present at Jesus’ baptism, present at each our own baptisms, and present among us in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to us: “You are the body of Christ.” Amen.