Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C] - January 27, 2013 (1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)

Last Sunday I ran into a group of our high school Sunday School students who were ranging the halls of the church on a class assignment. Apparently they were supposed to look all around the church building and reflect on what the church means to them. The three particular students I ran into were especially curious about seeing a part of the church they’d never seen before: the boiler room. They had walked past its unassuming, brown door dozens—who knows…maybe hundreds?—of times, but they’d never had the chance to go in there and see what it was about. Knowing I carried a master key, they prevailed upon me to let them in. As I opened the door, they got instantly quiet. I don’t know what they were expecting to see. For a few seconds, none of us could see anything because I couldn’t remember where the light-switch was. I fumbled around, flipped something I thought might be the lights, but nothing happened. When I finally found the real light-switch, I realized that I had accidentally shut off the master switch to the boiler…Oops!

You see, I rarely go in the boiler room myself. It remains that damp, closed-off, room that is shrouded in dark…even for those of us who work here every day. As they looked around, I wasn’t able to tell if the three youth were impressed or not. I told them about the time the sewer lines got backed up during one of the weeks we were housing the homeless and how the whole boiler room flooded with raw sewage because that’s where the main overflow drain is located. I showed them that the large ladders we use for hanging things on the sanctuary cross are kept there, too. And then there’s the boiler, of course. I guarantee we’d all notice it immediately if that stopped working properly, especially on a week like this. It’s a crucial room for the church building—its existence affects our everyday functionality in here, its upkeep is critical to our mission, its proper usage costs us more money than just about any other room—and yet the door stays locked and hardly ever has any visitors.

It’s the kind of room that the apostle Paul would have found fascinating and probably would have used as an example in his letter to the Corinthian church, if he could. “The body does not consist of one member, but of many,” he says to the conflict-ridden and often-divided congregation in Corinth. He goes on to say, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker—or darker, or damper, and less often used, we might add—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.”

Of course, Paul was not talking about a physical building and its different rooms when he was talking about the body of Christ and its many members. He was talking about people and their gifts. And if there were ever a congregation who needed to learn to think of themselves in that way—that is, as a body with many different members, some of whom seemed dispensable but, in fact, weren’t—it was Corinth.

map of the ancient Corinthian isthmus
Corinth was a very diverse and cosmopolitan city. Because it was situated right on an isthmus, a bridge between two major land masses with a double harbor, it became a major trading and merchant center. A lot of commerce flowed through Corinth, as did a lot of travelers. The result was a very eclectic community that contained a strong element of social climbing. People in ancient Corinth were easily impressed by signs of visible status and intellect and usefulness. And so, even within the Corinthian churches, Paul found that people were easily impressed by…signs of visible status and intellect and usefulness. The people who possessed gifts, even spiritual gifts that, for whatever reason, were viewed with greater respect were prone to try to dominate and belittle the others. And, surprisingly, those who possessed lesser-desired gifts would actually go along with it, to some degree. Gifts that the church in this age doesn’t seem to have much use for these days, like speaking in tongues, were held in high regard at Corinth. In fact, that gift in particular seemed to be the one everyone wanted, and the way they were prioritizing it was harming their entire community and mission. Things like this ne-e-ver happen in the church nowadays, right?

Paul thinks the metaphor of the church as Christ’s body will help them understand how they must function together, that the effectiveness and success of the whole community is dependent on the participation of every one of its members. Even though people in the church may look different and occupy different roles, there is no one person or part that is more important than any other. In fact, God has arranged the body that the greater honor is given to the inferior member. Those who look and feel like a boiler room—dark, locked up, never visited, never worshiped in—actually possess some of the most vital functions of the whole church. In the end, however, no one is indispensable.

Other than the naturally intuitive aspect of this image of the church as a body that works together, Paul knew the Corinthians would latch onto this metaphor for another reason. In ancient Corinth there was a large temple to the god Asclepius, who was believed by many to be the god of healing. People would come to the temple of Asclepius there in Corinth to pray for healing and cures for different diseases and injuries. Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of clay body parts in the area where that temple stood. Noses, arms, hands, feet…worshippers either bought or made themselves clay replicas of whatever part of their body needed healing and offered it to Asclepius there at the temple. In the shops that surrounded the temple, these earthen body parts could be purchased for worship, and historians imagine that the inside of the temple of Asclepius was typically littered with hundreds of disconnected clay body parts haphazardly strewn everywhere.

body parts excavated from a temple of Asclepius
You see, for the Christians in Corinth, that disconnected mess in that pagan temple would have been one of their main associations with the body. Paul means to tell them that they are a body, too, with many different parts, but put together in a whole, arranged carefully so that everyone can see their functioning depends on everyone else’s full participation. Can everyone have the same gifts, or occupy the same position in the congregation? Naturally, no. But that is not all. Another important end result of this body image is that each member’s well-being is somehow mystically connected to everyone else’s. “If one member suffers,” Paul goes on to say, “all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Just as the pain of a wounded or injured hand would radiate throughout the rest of the body, so should the hurt and pain of one church member be felt and borne by everyone else. And, by the same token, joys are also shared. A healthy and well-functioning congregation is not only one where all people are present and sharing their gifts for the good of the whole, but one where prayers for each other and service to each other, especially in times of hardship, are flowing like the blood of a circulatory system. Paul’s image does not mean that the church exists to make members feel appreciated.

We should pause to notice that nowhere in this letter’s twelfth chapter does Paul mention feelings, and yet so much of our modern-day participation in and commitment to the body of Christ seems to depend on our feelings about it. While feelings of worth are important, they are not the sole reason for the church’s ministry. Paul is more concerned here with the fact that the body is learning to understand and assimilate the contributions of each and every member for the mission of the church. Whether or not you feel you are important doesn’t mean you aren’t, and each member bears some of the responsibility for contributing even when they have not been properly appreciated. Interestingly, Paul does have quite a bit to say about certain gifts that are greater, gifts that do have a lot to do with making sure everyone is taken care of and functioning at their best. Paul will want members of the congregation to strive for those particular gifts…but we’re going to come back to that next week.

I ran across a video clip the other week about the pair of brothers who have been recognized by Sports Illustrated as the 2012 Sports Illustrated Sportskids of the Year who I think do an excellent job of illustrating Paul’s lesson to the church. Conner and Cayden Long, both in elementary school, compete in triathlons. Cayden, who is seven, was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy and is unable to walk or talk. His nine-year-old brother Conner had the idea to enter themselves as a team in a triathlon event in order to connect better with his brother. When Conner swims, he pulls his brother behind him in a raft. They’ve devised a system, of sorts: when Conner bikes, he pulls Cayden behind him in a trailer, and pushes that trailer in front of him when he runs.  It may seem that Cayden doesn’t contribute much to the effort, but when you watch them even for a second, you’d see that really isn’t true. He clearly enjoys it. One of his gifts is his smile and his laughter. Another is his bravery at undergoing such a potentially dangerous situation for someone who isn’t really mobile.

At one point in an interview Conner says concerning Cayden: “He’s the same inside as you or me…and he understands what you say about him…and if people could race with people who can’t walk or talk or have any kind of autism…it might open the eyes of people” who need to learn to care more. The brothers never really cross the finish line first, but they finish first in another sense, an unlikely lesson to the community of Christ’s followers about sharing one another’s burdens, about honor and function within the body, and about the true growth that comes from including everyone’s gifts within the accomplishment of the whole.

Well, I’m pretty sure that’s not the exact lesson that the high school Sunday School teachers were attempting to teach last Sunday as they sent the students out to roam around the church building, but it is nevertheless what I ended up getting out of it after I bumped into Mark, Amanda, and Emma in the hall. It was a gift of happenstance, planned by the Spirit and enabled, quite frankly, by our communal life together—bone to bone, flesh to flesh, heart to heart—designed, you see, to bump into one another and learn from one another on this great big triathlon because we are, after all, one body. And individually members of it.

Boiler room.

Or Sunday School classroom.

Or sanctuary.

Or Cayden’s triathlon trailer.

All a part of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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