1 Corinthians 12:14-27
I once worked with a pastor who couldn’t stand that little finger play up there on the screens. Join with me if you know it -- “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.” It’s cute, right? I’m pretty sure I knew that game before I knew any Bible verses, maybe even any Bible stories. So what’s the big deal? What did this pastor have against a nice little kids’ rhyme?
Well, it was the church part. This colleague was pretty particular about the way the word “church” is used. “The church is NOT a building,” he would say. It’s not our sanctuary or our Sunday School rooms, our offices or our Fellowship Hall. The church is not bricks and mortar.
The problem with that finger play for my colleague is that for him it’s all backwards. “Here is the sanctuary,” he might say. “Here is the steeple.” (That part doesn’t change.) “Open the door and see...the church!” OK, so it doesn’t rhyme. It loses a lot as a kids’ game without the rhyme, but the theology is so much better.
The church, my colleague was getting at, is the people. The church isn’t a place; it’s a community. It’s the people of God created, redeemed, and blessed for ministry. It’s the gathering of believers called together, but also sent out to be active in God’s work in the world. The church, Paul described in his letter to the Corinthians is a living, breathing, active, creative, responsive, body, Christ’s body, to be sure.
I think this is a vital part of our faith. As Christians we claim to be more than just followers of a Jesus, more than just worshipers of God, more than just recipients of the Spirit. We understand ourselves to be collectively, the representation of Christ himself on earth. The church, the holy community, at its very best, is called to the best expression of Christ’s body on earth. This is what we claim to be - - together - - when we’re living and working the way God calls us to.
There are a couple of key points to that idea. One is that it only works when we do it TOGETHER. No one person among the faithful can be the body of Christ alone. No one person expresses Christ-likeness well enough alone to claim that role for himself or herself. It’s why we Presbyterians LOVE our committees. When God’s people work together, we claim, the Spirit of unity makes us the body of Christ. We aren’t the body of Christ on our own; we are individually members of it, but we are not it. Like Paul said, an eye is not the body alone, and an eye cannot function alone. The eye needs the ear and the mouth and the nose and the hands and the feet and the torso and everything other part of the body to make it work to its fullest potential. Each part does not a body make, but together we can be the body of Christ, the church.
The second point is that little caveat “at its best.” The church, we all know, is made up of human beings. We run the same risk as ever other human institution to fall into the way of sin. I remember an old bumper sticker I saw ages ago that said it best, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I’m not saying that others aren’t forgiven, too; that’s another sermon for another day, but I love the admission and realization in that statement that following Christ does not mean we are perfect people. And imperfect people make an imperfect church.
We make mistakes large and small. As denominations and faith traditions within the larger body of Christ we have covered up abuse out of fear of scandals. We have persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ and people of other faiths or no faith at all. We have ignored the poor, the hungry, the naked, the less-educated, the mentally ill. We have bullied people based on theology, race, and sexual orientation.
Within this congregation and in others we have failed to honor one another as we should. We have reacted rashly out of anger and hurt. We have talked behind each other’s backs or left hard feelings unresolved altogether. We have put our own desires first and disregarded the likes of others. We have been slow to forgive and seek reconciliation with one another. We are an imperfect gathering of imperfect people, and it is difficult, no, impossible for us to be “at our best” by our own efforts.
On our own, even in the church we resort to the ways of the world. We are a broken body. We forget that we are called to a different kind of community than the kind we experience away from the body of Christ. We forget that we aren’t a corporation or a business or a city council or any other earthly institution. We forget that we are the body of Christ, God’s chosen ones, who by a heavenly voice are called to live with one another a different way.
We are called to drape ourselves with compassion, the act of suffering along with those who suffer, humility, where we honor others more than we honor ourselves, patience, where we wait for one another without grumbling. Most of all, I believe, we are called to be a loving, forgiving people, recognizing the imperfections we see so clearly in others are also very present in our own lives. We are called to offer grace when we are hurt, not revenge, not vindication. When we are wronged and we have a complaint against any other, our response should not be a distancing through negative speech and giving up on relationships.
Our response should be to seek one another out that we may find peace and offer forgiveness as we are forgiven by the Lord. Our response in the body of Christ should be different than the response that might come from within a secular gathering. Our calling is to demonstrate the way of Jesus to the world, and the way we treat each other is an important part of doing just that.
But just as we are broken, so was Jesus broken. And just as he is resurrected, we are resurrected. By his grace, we are redeemed and raised to new life. By his overcoming of death, we can overcome the pockets of life-killing imperfection in our life as the body of Christ. Through his forgiveness we can find the strength and courage and grace to forgive one another.
When Jesus calls us together, he calls us to new life, and he unites us with the gift of sacraments, the gift of the holy community, the gift of his Spirit, that together we can be the best expression of his body on earth. Together our hands can be his hands that heal the sick, give food to the hungry, and comfort those who sorrow. Our mouths can be his mouth, praying for the lonely, speaking to the shunned, advocating for the forgotten. Our feet can be his feet, taking the long way to include the excluded, stepping into public places to make his presence known, walking along side those who are seeking the presence of God in their lives. Together we can be his one body.