Monday, June 29, 2009

You Are the Body of Christ
Mary Koon: Riverside Presbyterian Church
June 21, 2009
(All scripture taken from New Revised Standard Version)

Prayer of Illumination: Startle us this morning, O God, with the truth of your love for us. Help us to hear your word in a new way that will give life to your body, made manifest in this place. AMEN

1 Corinthians 12: 12-26

For 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. For 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.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If 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. And 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. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. Then you cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you,”
On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and 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; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

AMEN So ends the reading and may God add a blessing to our understanding.

You are the body of Christ. And each of you is important. If you weren’t part of the body, it wouldn’t be the same.

It is Father’s Day, and I promised my dad a shout-out in his honor. (I’ll email him a copy of this sermon later!) You see, my dad really gets the whole church as a body thing. He contributed his unique gifts to our local Congregational church for 50 years, serving as a trustee, chairing the stewardship committee, using his considerable creative talents to write music and text for church celebrations and anniversaries and most recently, spearheading a team to improve communication within the church. I tell you this, because my dad has always been a source of inspiration for me. Growing up, I, too, tried to contribute to the body in a variety of ways – helping in the nursery, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, working in the community. But when I went to college, I pursued other interests… preferring fraternity party life to life in the church. As an undergraduate I told my dad, “I am a good Christian. I can be a good Christian even if I am not a part of the church.” He looked at me and said, “Mary, that just isn’t how this whole thing works.”

My faith life was diminished because I wasn’t participating in the life of the church, and as awkward as it is to admit, the body of Christ missed me, too.

The apostle Paul is a master of metaphor, and I think the body is one of the best. It helps us see the church as a living organism, both strong and vulnerable. Paul doesn’t say, “You ought to be the body of Christ; or when you get better at what you do, then you will be the body of Christ,” he says, “You ARE the body of Christ.”

But the Corinthian church also had its share of divisive issues.

For example, some of the wealthy believers were taking their poorer brethren to court to settle disputes. Paul speaks out against this practice, arguing that judgment between church members should be handled within the community. The poorer in the church body were being taken advantage of by the richer members.

In chapter 11, Paul admonishes the wealthy for their practice at the Lord’s Supper. At that time, communion was practiced as a full blown meal complete with wine. Because the church met in homes, only those with large houses and staff could host the meal. The rich would arrive early, eating and drinking their fill and leaving little for the less fortunate church members to eat or drink. Ouch.

But in chapter 12, Paul addresses the misunderstanding surrounding the manifestation of God’s spirit among believers. He wants to encourage their unity as a church, a unity that doesn’t happen because folks are all the same, but the unity that lies in the diversity of uniquely given gifts. He expresses this brilliantly by talking about the hand, the foot, the eye and ears – different body parts.

And how does is the body created? We become the body through baptism – through our shared story of the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The external stuff of our lives isn’t as important as our unity in the cleansing, initiating water of life. Imagine the radical nature of Paul’s words…Greeks, Jews, slaves, free -- people are made one in the One who saves. Made one in the mystery of the risen Christ…one in awe and wonder. No room to judge or feel superior. In contemporary language? We are members of the body of Christ – made one in baptism – regardless of gender, socioeconomic status political or sexual orientation, education level, nationality, skin color or any of the other things that separate us in today’s culture.

It is God’s spirit who gives us our gifts, God’s spirit who enlivens those gifts within us, and God’s spirit who uses those gifts to build up the body. We are given talent, passions, and skills to carry out our common mission in the world so that together we make a difference. Together, we are the church.

Remember that when the church was just getting started, it consisted of house churches – all independent from one another. In fact, as Stan Schade even pointed out in the Human Scene, the diversity among believers was tremendous. Today, our church organization looks quite different. When Paul was writing, he was telling each house church to envision themselves as fully functional, unified in the spirit to support one another and share the gospel. Today, we of the Riverside Presbyterian Church are an expression of that body. But we are also a part of the entire, global church body – both within the denomination and beyond. We all thirst for God. We all drink from the same spirit, as Paul says, though our differences are many. Can we ever say to our Catholic neighbors, “we broke away from you in the reformation, so we don’t need you.” Or to our Methodist friends, “John Wesley’s doctrine of sanctifying grace doesn’t square completely with reformed theology, so we don’t need you.” Or to our Baptist cousins, “We believe in infant baptism, so we don’t need you?”

How exciting that our church actively participates in work of the Riverside/North Riverside covenant of churches. The covenant is made up clergy and laity of many of the churches in this area, promoting peace and unity through a monthly prayers for peace service, weekly pastor’s Bible study, combined Vacation Bible School in July and, this year anyway, a joint Good Friday service.

And what of those less honorable, weaker, and less respectable parts of our body that Paul talks about?

It can be tough to admit our vulnerability and need for help and support from the community. Particularly if we are the ones who are used to giving, used to being relied upon for assistance. But the scripture and lived experience reveals that there is grace both in giving and in receiving.

Perhaps your world has been turned upside down by illness, job loss, depression, an accident – oh, any number of things that life brings. Because we are the body of Christ, we all are made to feel the suffering together – and together we seek wholeness. That could mean keeping a family close in prayer, or making a phone call, lining up legal assistance, starting a support group of giving a hug at church. And as we who are used to being thought of as strong, open ourselves to receiving from the community, we experience the church at its best. One body, each person living into the gifts that God gave them, together, sharing, struggling, growing, receiving, giving, and rejoicing.

Everyone has been gifted by God’s spirit. All are important and necessary to the body’s thriving. In these challenging times for main-line religion, there is no greater message of hope.

My friend Linda was a middle aged woman in one of my former churches. Linda married Barry when he was a young widower with two boys. She raised those boys as her own, had a daughter with Barry and created a loving home for them all. At church, Barry was one of those guys who was an “out front” person. He taught an active adult Sunday School class, preached occasionally, served on the church counsel and was prominent in the community. Linda, quiet by nature, worked behind the scenes, having an impact without lots of recognition. She served meals to the elderly, cooked for families in need, was a good listener, helped in the kitchen during pot-luck suppers, and created a small cottage industry making stuffed angels and crafts. (I have one she gave me here!) I met Linda when she arrived at our Bible study bearing a homemade applesauce cake garnished with sugared pansies from her garden. Linda was warm and generous, talented and hospitable. But because her talent and gifts weren’t as out in the open as her husband, Barry’s, because she didn’t teach or lead groups, Linda felt as though she had nothing worthwhile to offer. She shared this feeling of inadequacy one day while our group did a study on spiritual gifts. Linda was doing exactly what Paul cautioned the Corinthians not to do…looking at another person’s gifts and service and finding herself lacking.

It was only after learning that helping others is considered a legitimate gift, given by God for the purpose of glorifying God and lifting up others, that Linda knew her worth. Through tears, she acknowledged that she, too, was an integral and important part of Christ’s body, created with a purpose.

After nine months with all of you, I can state with certainty that God’s spirit moves powerfully within this place. I have witnessed gifts of compassion, hospitality, musical and artistic gifts; gifts of helping, woodworking, computer skills, and pure physical strength: gifts of conversation, healing, and teaching, cooking, baking, and dishwashing; gifts of friendship, organization, and proof-reading: gifts of wedding planning, editing, and sound system operation; gifts of communion preparation, work with youth, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, and advocating for the poor.

You are the body of Christ and I thank you for opening your lives to me this year. AMEN


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