1 Corinthians 12:12-27
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:12-21, 26-27 [NRSV])
After 2,000 years or so, we have become quite familiar with St. Paul’s image of the church as the “body of Christ.” Maybe too familiar. And yet there is an aspect of this metaphor that is often overlooked in the midst of our reading. In fact, the passage that was assigned for this sermon, the one that I read just now, cuts out four verses in the middle of St. Paul’s argument—four verses that speak of this often overlooked aspect of the body of Christ. We rightly note that St. Paul is concerned to address the problem of schism in the Corinthian church, and so we focus on the unity that is pictured in the metaphor of the body. But we often forget to ask the question, How is this unified body arranged? What does it look like? Just now, we heard 1 Corinthians 12:12–21, 26–27. Wouldn’t you like to hear what verses 22–25 have to say!?
22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:22-25 [NRSV])
“God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member…”
God has arranged the body.
As it turns out, St. Paul’s use of the body metaphor was not terribly original. The body was actually a common symbol for society in ancient times, the “body politic.” Much as in 1 Corinthians, the image of the body was for Roman politicians a concrete visualization of a unified society made up of diverse social roles. (The Roman historian Livy uses it this way.) The question that we should be asking ourselves at this point is: Who gets to be the head, and who gets stuck as the butt? (Not to mention the feet, and armpits, and, well, you get the point…)
Last quarter a classmate of mine was lamenting the childhood experience of always having to be the goalie during gym-class soccer matches. “There is an assumption,” he said, “that just because I’m the fat kid, I will, of course, be the goalie. But what if I don’t want to be the goalie? What if I want to be on offense?” The reply was always the same: “I’m sorry, kid, that’s just the way it works. Everyone has a necessary role to play, and you are the goalie. You were made for this. Just accept it.” In fact, you can even put a really positive spin on it, right? “We need you to be our goalie! Your role is absolutely critical for the success of the team!” It was simply his destiny to be goalie!
Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t just take place on the soccer fields of our childhood. So too did early 19th-century Americans argue: “Slave labor is absolutely critical for the success of the plantation. Some people are created more equal than others. That’s just the way it works. That’s just their proper place in society.” When St. Paul says that the body was arranged by God, doesn’t this make it even more likely that the image will be used to keep people in their place? After all, God arranged the body, who are we to argue about our place in it? Some people have the gift of preaching (i.e., “me”) and some people have the gift of folding bulletins and cleaning up the nursery after everyone else has gone home (i.e., “you”). In the body, some people are lucky and get to be the head, and some people, well, aren’t as lucky…
But God didn’t just arrange the body. God arranged the body in a certain way. We read: “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member…”
It’s pretty simple really. The problem is just that it’s upside down … or should I say right side up? At different points throughout the letter, St. Paul has been developing what Martin Luther called a “theology of the cross,” that is, a view of the world that says, “The King of the universe rules from a splintered, bloody, cross-shaped throne.” A scandal. Foolishness. … Or, is it “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24)? Maybe, just maybe “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25). Maybe, just maybe, God knew what he was up to when he “so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member.” Maybe, just maybe, Jesus was right and the first really will be last, and the last really will be first… (Mark 10:31).
You see, compared to the Roman politicians of his day, St. Paul uses the familiar metaphor of the body very differently. He uses it not to buttress the status quo, but precisely to disturb the present status of the Corinthian church. St. Paul says that the members of the body that seem to be weaker are in fact indispensable (12:22). This isn’t some vague abstraction. He means it. The weakest, most vulnerable internal organs of the body are absolutely indispensible if there is to be life. That’s just the way it is. This is simply how God has arranged the body. And it is simply how God has arranged the church.
So, then, what would it look like if we arranged our churches according to the way God arranged the body of Christ? Particularly for us as leaders, What does it mean to give the greater honor to the inferior members of the body of Christ? As members of the community with particularly prominent public voices, we will be in a unique position to give honor to specific members of the church. Which members will we choose to honor publicly? Will it be the wealthy members who are most capable of donating large sums of money for church programs? Or will it be the less wealthy, less educated family from the other side of town, the ones who happen to be at every church event, quietly helping to set up and tear down? Will we honor the strong leaders who already spend a great deal of their time in the spotlight? Or will we publicly honor the weak old lady who hospitably greets every person who walks through the door?
If we really imagined the church the way that God does, who would we choose to sit on our committees and make our decisions? Who would we applaud? As Christian leaders, who will we spend our precious hours with? The “respectable” members of the community? Or the “less respectable” members? And you know who I’m talking about!
These are real questions that we will have to answer, beginning right now.
It should not be forgotten that, were it not for God’s arrangement of the body, we ourselves would be in pretty bad shape. The fact that God arranges the body giving greater honor to the inferior members is actually really good news for us. After all, how many of us can say that we deserve to receive honor or respect? Are we, the students in this room, not ourselves the less honorable, less respectable, inferior members of the body of Christ? … I know I am.
God really does know what he’s doing in arranging the body of Christ, giving greater honor to the inferior members. It only remains for us to live into this aspect of the gospel. Amen.