1 Corinthians 12: 4-17, 20-21, 26-27
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a Westminster member. “In this fractious election season,” she wrote,
“When people are being driven further apart, I wanted to share something that reminded me to listen to my better angels.
My husband bikes to work, and yesterday as he passed two houses in our neighborhood that had posted yard signs for the candidate my husband opposes, he noticed one was gone, and one had been crushed. Another sign also missing had declared that people who backed the political party my husband supports were hateful.
He stopped and knocked on the door of each house and told the owners he was a supporter of the other political party. He said he was sorry their signs had been taken or destroyed, and offered to buy them new signs. He reiterated that nobody should do that to a neighbor.
While I gulped hard at his offer to buy new yard signs for these neighbors, I thought about how I would feel if the situation were reversed and someone did the same for us. He said he hoped it would help them rethink how they felt about their neighbors, and perhaps defuse the anger.
“The body does not consist of one member but of many…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.”
Sometimes the Bible makes a point so simple we can miss it.
The imagery the Apostle Paul uses in First Corinthians is perfectly straightforward: the community of believers is like a body. Christ is the head. The various members of the community are diverse parts of the same, one body. As with a physical body, each part has its distinct function.
It’s not complicated. The eye is not the hand, but it wants the hand to offer help to someone it sees in need. The ear is not the foot, but they work together when we hear a crying child.
The community called church is that imagined body. We use Paul’s words in ordination services in the Presbyterian church, because they speak of a variety of gifts, but the one Spirit that gives them all. The person being ordained is no better than anyone else, but simply has a distinct role in the church.
The point is that Christians should not expect everyone to have the same gifts. We should not expect everyone to assume similar identities, think alike, or worship or pray or preach in the same manner. Some of those Corinthian followers of Jesus were Jews by birth; most were Greeks. Some were enslaved; most were free. Some were wealthy; most were poor. Some followed one teacher; others followed different leaders. Such diversity did not make one person better than another. If there were inequities among them they were to be resolved.
If only it were that easy.
Since the 16th century Reformation, we Protestants have made a career of refusing to embrace the simple teaching of this text in First Corinthians. First, we condemned the Catholics. Then Lutherans and Presbyterians condemned each other. Next, we went for the more radical Protestants, the Anabaptists. Then a century ago in this land, Modernists and Fundamentalists went at each other – starting a split that continues today, when so-called “progressive Christians” and “conservative evangelicals” rarely think of themselves as part of the same body.
“How can they even call themselves Christians?” we each ask incredulously.
“There are many members,” Paul says,
“Yet one body…The 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.’… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
This should not be controversial or that difficult, yet the Church has failed to live out this ancient vision. We’ve ignored the biblical teaching that social and political differences and ethnic and theological variety are expressions of built-in diversity – it’s designed that way – and we are stronger for the variety of gifts from the one source. Instead, especially in recent years, we Christians have drunk the cultural Kool-Aid that assumes if someone is not like us or reaches different conclusions from ours or votes for the other candidate, they deserve our disdain and scorn, if not worse.
For decades, sociologists have reported on the crumbling of the core American value of shared commitment to the common good. In their new book The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett document the rise in community solidarity in the U.S. from the late 1800s through the 1960s. By their measurement, in increasing numbers over those years, Americans joined civic groups, they volunteered, went to houses of worship, participated in unions and community and fraternal associations – and the nation’s economic disparities slowly diminished with the decades-long incremental upswing in social mobility.
But then things changed. We’ve watched it happen.
“Over the past 50 years,” David Brooks wrote in a recent column,
“The positive trends have reversed: membership in civic organizations has collapsed, political polarization has worsened, income inequality has widened, social trust has cratered, religious attendance is down, social mobility has decreased.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/15/opinion/how-to-actually-make-america-great.html)
Brooks laments what he sees as the chief cause for national decline. “It was socially celebrated self-centeredness,” he writes, “Based on a fallacy: If we all do our own thing, everything will work out well for everybody.”
But it’s more complex than merely self-centeredness or nationwide narcissism. There are systems and structures, histories and policies all contributing to the country’s present malaise. There’s damage to repair – decades and centuries of damage – and a playing field to be leveled. Yet he’s right that the American myth of the rugged individual making it on their own, independent from others and not needing to concern themselves with anyone else, is now running amok among us, grotesquely distorting any balance of personal liberty and collective responsibility.
“In greater numbers than ever before,” Putnam and Garrett write, “Americans seem to have stopped believing that we are all in this together.”
In 1787 our nation adopted its motto: e pluribus unum – out of many, one. It’s the political equivalent of the Apostle Paul’s “one body, many members.” The Corinthians didn’t get it right in the first century, and we Americans didn’t in the 18th or any other century.
Today, late in the game and only after multiple generations of injury, those of us with power are beginning to realize how very wrong our nation got it at the start. The sinful displacement of indigenous people and enslavement of Africans worked their way into the systems of our nation and continue to do lasting harm.
E pluribus unum: the one in the motto turns out to be limited to those on top by virtue of their gender or color or privilege, while everyone else is relegated to the many. That’s precisely what Paul was struggling against in his letter to the young church in Corinth. Things were threatening to break down into warring factions, to fly apart in that community and in that church. It was starting to look like everybody for themselves.
The Apostle wants to counter that reality. “For in the one Spirit,” he says, “We were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
What would it be like if the biblical language about one body and many members became a way to describe and understand and celebrate our city, our nation? Can we take this imagery out the door of our ecclesiastical edifices and into the streets of our city and our nation?
We should not give up on the dream that has animated our nation since its founding – however flawed – any more than the Church should discard its hope for oneness in Christ, despite its failures.
“Today…the great missing pieces,” Brooks writes of America,
“Are in the civic and cultural spheres: a moral vision that inspires the rising generation, a new national narrative that unites a diverse people, actual organizations where people work on local problems.”
When a young man is shot in our city and a father mourns, we grieve with him. When a mother in northern Minnesota loses her daughter to an opioid overdose, we all suffer with her. When our nation denies asylum to refugees and deports them back to certain violence – as happened this week to Cameroonians in our country – we board the plane with them.
And when our neighbor’s political signs are trashed by someone who disagrees with them, we all are victims.
As the election nears, let us not forget the promise of this land and its democracy. We are one community with many voices, and in order to sing all the parts we need all the voices. Life is not a solo; it’s a blended harmony, a symphony of wide-ranging, different instruments that differ from each other as much as a kettle drum and a piccolo, a string bass and a trombone – an eye and a hand, an ear and a foot.
The faith of those who follow Jesus – our faith, yours and mine – gives us an image of life in community full of possibility, and responsibility, and hope: we are one body, of many members.
And if one member suffers, all suffer with it.
Our future depends on embracing such a vision for life together.
Thanks be to God.