I Cor. 12: 12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I’ll start this message with a language lesson. I don’t expect you to remember the words, but I hope you remember the point of it. What’s the word in English for the little flying insect with a stinger, with yellow and black stripes, which flies from flower to flower collecting pollen, to make honey in a hive?
Right. A bee.
Now, is there anything about the word, “bee,” that tells you what a bee does, or what it’s like? Not really. You have to import things from your experience, or from your study, for the word “bee” to mean anything. But in the Jula language of West Africa, bees are called, “lideenw.” That literally means, “honey children.” A name like that tells you how bees are in relation to each other—like children in a family, or siblings—and that their purpose and relationship have something to do with honey. The Jula language makes similar connections with other compound words, like the one for “neighbors.” That literally means “my-sit-togethers.” There are two words in Jula for family, one of which literally means, “home-people,” or those who share a home, and another which literally means, “extended-offspring-ness.” That last one describes family in relationship to new and future generations.
I could probably come up with a few examples of that same relational tendency in the English language, too. But it happens a lot more often in Jula. That reflects how people in that culture tend to see things in relationships to other things, to the connections and communities in which they belong and participate. Their proverbs display that, too. Like, “Every guinea hen sees the back of another guinea hen’s head.” Or, “One finger cannot pick up a stick by itself.” Or, “Other peoples’ hands carried us into this world, and other people’s hands will carry us out of this world.” Just as we can’t birth ourselves at the beginning of our lives, nor can we bury ourselves at the end of our lives. So, why would we think we can get through the rest of our lives on our own?
The English language also has some proverbs about relationship and cooperation, like, “Many hands make light work,” or, “It takes a village….” Oops. That one came from Africa. Still, our Western world, by contrast, tends to see things and people more in isolation and distinction, as their own separate, unique entities. Today I hear much more along the lines of, “You do you,” or, “Whatever floats your boat.” That 1970’s song, “I gotta be me,” wouldn’t have been such a hit among Jula-speakers.
Now, I’m not saying that either way of looking at things is always superior to the other. There’s peril and profit in either outlook. When Don and Kelly and I met Christians in Burkina Faso last fall who had been kicked out of their homes and communities for their new faith, that shows how much that society has room to grow in its respect for individual dignity and liberty. Conversely, when Great Lakes Rustbelt Auto-Industry towns like my old home town of Toledo were abandoned, disposed of, laid off and closed down for the profit margins and stock options of a few top executives in the major auto companies, that shows how much our culture needs to learn about respecting communities and relationships.
But what if our vision was equally strong in both ways of seeing? What if we could look at bees or people with one eye for their connections and communities, and with another eye for the beauty and worth of each individual? Wouldn’t that be a wise, powerful and enriching way of looking at things or people?
It would be like Lasik surgery, but for our hearts and minds and spirits. Lasik eye surgery adjusts the lenses of our eyes to the point where we hardly need glasses anymore. One eye the do Lasik surgery is to adjust one eye for distance vision, while the other is adjusted for close-up vision. It takes a little getting used to, I’m told. But the brain does soon adjust to two ways of seeing simultaneously. And when it does, people generally say, “Wow, that’s better than when both my eyes were short-sighted, or far-sighted, and I wore glasses just to correct that issue.
That’s what Paul wanted for the Corinthian Christians in the words we heard today: two different but equally strong kinds of vision simultaneously: one for individual persons, and another for their relationships in community. Read the whole letter to the Corinthians and you’ll see how the Corinthian Christians had 20-20 vision for the rights, the gifts, the dignity, the differences and distinctions between each unique individual, but were nearly blind to the needs, the rights, the dignity and the dynamics of the community, the church. They could see and get excited about personal charismatic gifts and charismatic personalities. But they were nearly clueless and conflicted about how to get along as a community. They could see how Christ lived within each one of them, through his Holy Spirit and his gifts. But they were blind to how Christ lived and loved among them, also by his Holy Spirit, and his gifts. Their culture of individualism had degenerated into the cult of the individual.
So, their worship services were degenerating into a show-and-tell and one-up-man-ship over who has the most spectacular spiritual gifts, like prophecy or speaking in tongues, leading to chaos and competition. Like they say in Texas, some of them needed to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” Their love feasts and communion services were devolving into “lifestyles of the rich and famous” kinds of conspicuous consumption, even drunkenness, while the poor, the slaves, the needy and vulnerable among them remained hungry, watching the others pig out.
Paul’s words amount to spiritual and theological eye surgery. The Corinthian Christians need to see the true nature of their connection, covenant and community, as well as the worth and uniqueness of each person. What brings and holds them together is not a common task, nor even a common set of beliefs, although those are extremely, extremely important. Their deepest, most intimate connections are about Some ONE who connects them, and us, most deeply and intimately to God and to each other: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Last Sunday I said that Jesus established the church so that we would carry forward in the world Peter’s confession about Jesus, “that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and so that Christ’s cause, or combat, in the world might continue, banging down the gates of Hades, or hell. I still believe that. But as I prepared for this message this week, I realized that what I said was half the truth. If I stop there, I risk leaving us with the impression that we can and must carry on the confession, the cause and the combat of Christ against the Gates of Hell on our own power, by our own charm or talents, or with our own wisdom, will and ways. But we face, on the other side of Hell’s gates, an Adversary so subtle and skilled that he can camouflage himself and his work within the best of our intentions, talents and efforts, and so corrupt them, like he was doing through the spiritual gifts of the Corinthian Christians.
Today’s passage fills in what was lacking in last week’s message. It tells us that Christ instituted the church so that he might carry on his work through us. Christ instituted the church so that he himself might ever be present and active in the world in the person and the power of his Holy Spirit, and so pursue his cause and his combat for God’s kingdom for us and through us, as his body still on earth.
In another passage, Paul tells us that our individual bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. So, let’s live and love in them in holy, God-pleasing ways. In our time and culture, we typically invite people into eternal life by encouraging them to “accept Christ into your heart.” That is absolutely true. But if we stop there, with that, then the church risks becoming simply an afterthought, something extraneous, even unnecessary, to eternal life.
The gospel tells us how much God loves each and every unique individual irreplaceable, unrepeatable person, as much as if he or she were the only person in the whole universe. But in today’s passage, Christ does not only want and seek to be present and active through each individual Christians. Christ, seeks and wants to be present and active through the Church, together, in our relationships, by his Holy Spirit. That’s how Paul can tell us that we are “the body of Christ.”
So, we must learn to see Christ among us, as well as within us. For God also loves the communities, the connections, the covenants, the relationships in which we exist, as much as God loves each one of us. God is a personal God, but he will never be our private God. God is a God of personal relationships and reconciliation, not just of personal renewal.
So, what does that mean, practically speaking? What difference does it make to have 20/20 spiritual vision for Christ in each one of us, as well as for Christ among us, all together? I’m talking about the whole worldwide church, as well as the individual congregation now. One difference is that it helps us trust that God puts us in relationship for a purpose. And that purpose is for God’s glory, as well as for our own good and growth, yes, but also for the good and growth of others. Seeing Christ among us, not just within us, helps us to believe in God’s purposes for our being together, even when it’s hard to believe, like when someone’s opinions, or personality, or perspectives clash with our own, which they will. Or when something about them rubs us the wrong way. I can also guarantee that that will happen. Then it’s so easy to think, “One of us must be in the wrong church!”
But when one part of the body is causing pain to other parts, should amputation be our first resort, or the last? If we, together, are “The Body of Christ,” then how similar do the parts even have to be? If anything, don’t the parts have to be different in some ways, for the whole thing to work? How well could we feed ourselves if our hands were identical to our feet? As for our hands, what if our thumbs worked in the same direction as our fingers? Whenever being together gets hard, let’s first ask, “What is it about this person’s difference that God wants me to learn from?” As well as, “What might God want to teach this person from my viewpoint and experience?”
Another thing that this 20/20 vision for the individual and the community means is that our attachment and devotion to Christ would find expression in attachment and devotion to each other, personally, but also to our togetherness. We can treasure, revere and serve the Lord Christ no better than the ways in which we treasure, revere and serve each other. We can attend to our life with Christ no better than we can attend to our life together. I hope that gives some encouragement to those of us working on church committees or ministries or projects, including the most practical, hands-on ones, like in the kitchen, or in the facilities we share.
There’s a wonderful Thank You note in today’s bulletin from Steve Phillips, to all the people at Zion Mennonite Church who offered to drive him to and from OHSU as needed, during his tests and treatments there. Yes, those offers came out of the goodness of those persons’ hearts. But with a 20/20 vision for Christ within the community, we also know that Christ was saying through these offers of help, “even if you don’t need the rides, this is how much I love you.” And parts of Christ’s body were thereby ministering to another part of Christ’s body, as unto Christ himself.
Back in 16th Century Spain, Teresa of Avila displayed the kind of 20/20 vision that I am talking about. As the abbess of a convent, she could see Christ in both persons and in their relationships. She’s famous for saying:
“Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Speaking of language again, the word that Teresa used in Spanish for “you” and “yours” is the second person singular, as though she were addressing just one person. But she was actually addressing her whole community of nuns. She spoke that way so that each individual sister would take seriously the call to be Christ to her sisterhood, and to see Christ in her sisterhood. For the same love that brought the fullness of God bodily into the world in Jesus over two thousand years ago, in Palestine, wants and seeks still to be present and active everywhere in the world today, here and now, with us, in us and through us. And that is why Christ instituted the church. That’s another reason why church matters so much: because Christ lives and loves among us, as well as within us.