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One Body

Sermon - 1/31/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

The text this morning comes from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and I'm reading once again out of chapter 12, the second half of that chapter, beginning with verse 12, through verse 27:

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. 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.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to 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 were to 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.’ 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. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

 

It's fitting that we have such a great gang of youth here today.  The first sermon I gave in this church was on 'Youth Sunday', from this text, when I was a senior in high school.  And that was, what, about 15 years ago as I recall :).

And my illustration was that youth are one of those members of the body, and essential to it.  Even though it was only 15 years ago, I think the message still holds.

I want to focus on a different aspect of the text this morning.  Two weeks ago, we looked at the notion of spiritual gifts discussed in the first part of this chapter.  And last Sunday I focused on the importance of using our mind as one of those gifts, drawing out of chapter 14.  So for this combined service this morning, bringing together both of our worship services, I thought it would be a good time to remind ourselves of the unity of the body of Christ.

Now, one of the ways to achieve unity in the church is through conformity.  And typically, that is done through an authoritative structure that lays down the truth for all to follow.  It's my way or the highway, right?  Just like we do here :).

And there are times and places when conformity is essential to the organization.  The military is a classic example -- when you give a command as a military officer, you have to know with reasonable certainty that that command will be carried out.  There's just not a lot of room for free-thinkers in the military structure.  Fast-food franchises are another good example, where conformity is pretty essential.  You go to a Dairy Queen or a McDonalds, or a Taco Bell when you're traveling because you know what to expect when you arrive.  You already know the menu.  What would happen if you go into a KFC and there was no chicken?!  Or you go into an Arby's and there's no roast beef?  I mean, the world could not handle such freedom!

So we come to depend on that kind of conformity.  But, is conformity the way to achieve unity in the church?

I know we've all probably experienced that kind of church, but I'm suggesting a different kind of unity.  I'm not sure that's the kind of unity that Paul has in mind here either, when he refers to the church as the body of Christ.

Paul does say that God has so arranged the body that there should be no dissention.  And we see how that works out for Paul.  If you know the story, particularly in the Corinthian church, but indeed in Paul's entire ministry, he's constantly struggling with those who have different points of view. 

The church in Corinth was about as free of dissention as the United States Congress.  I'm not sure which one gets along better with each other :).  But the simple reality is that the only churches that have been free of dissention throughout the history of Christendom are those churches that do not allow freedom of thought or differences of opinion. 

There's an ad I picked up years ago from an organization called 'The Church Ad Project', which I've always wanted to run -- it says:  "There's only 1 problem with religions that have all the answers:  they don't allow questions".

I've shown that to various committees as we've thought about advertising, and they've all kind of laughed and chuckled, and said "yeah, that's a great message".  And I say "Well, should we use it?".  And they say "Are you nuts?!".  We can't put that out there, we would offend people.

So instead, when we started our New Celebration Service, we did a series of ads.  We tried a few to lighten things up a bit, get attention.  On a more serious note, and back on topic, we ran this one sometimes on Easter:

 

 

And underneath the caption reads:  "You don't have to stop thinking when you walk into our church.  Come experience an atmosphere where faith and thought exist together in a spirit of fellowship".  I still like that one.

Well, naturally, if we are not just going to allow, but are going to encourage people to think and decide for themselves, then we have to allow for the freedom of the spirit.  Differences of belief, and even dissention.

Now, recognizing that all metaphors have their limitations, the idea of this metaphor for the church as a body calls us to recognize and affirm our many differences.  Paul uses the metaphor to describe our different gifts.  I'm suggesting that it's useful to describe our unity in light of our many differences.

Like this Methodist congregation in Dallas, Texas, with about 600 members.  Nancy Comer called my attention to their web site, and right on the home page (http://www.northaven.org), it says:

Because God's love in Jesus Christ has broken down walls that divide us, we embody that love in our congregation and welcome persons of all races, sexual orientations, and economic circumstances.

You see, the difference between conformity and true unity is that churches that follow the conformity model achieve unity by pretending they have no differences.  The deeper unity I am suggesting as a body of Christ with many differences is to affirm those differences, name them and claim them as evidence of our unity in Christ, as this church does.

We do have different political and economic philosophies, but we are one body. 

We have different worldviews, and Biblical views, but we are one body. 

We are of different genders and sexual orientations, but we are one body. 

We have different nationalities, speak different languages, but we are one body. 

We are not united by our music preferences, by our modes of dress, by our class, by our marital status, not even by our choice of Super Bowl teams (go Saints!), we are united by our faith in Jesus Christ.  It's not conformity we seek, but unity.

Conformity is getting everyone to sing in unison.  Unity is singing in harmony.  Maybe it's just singing the same song.  Maybe it's just, you know, clapping along, or in some other way participating.  As Paul puts it, a body that is all 'eye' doesn't hear very well.  A body that is just an ear doesn't have a sense to smell.

I like the way Richard Rohr put it in one of his daily meditations, he writes:  "Church, for Paul, is not something you attend.  Church is something you organically are.  Or not.  It is more of a living organism than a formal organization".

It's just something you are.  As Christians, we don't have a choice to be or not to be, a part of the body.  We simply are that body, like it or not.  With all of its different parts, all intricately linked.  That's why Paul says when one part suffers, all suffer.  When one part rejoices, all rejoice.

And we don't just tolerate diversity, we need it.  Not just diversity of gifts and abilities, but also those differences of opinions, those preferences of music, those styles of spirituality, those various worldviews, even different understandings of God. 

The greater diversity we have, while maintaining our unity as a body, the stronger we will be as a witness to the vision of God for a more heavenly world where all are welcome as part of the one body of Christ.

Maintaining that unity while expanding our diversity is not an easy task.  The Christian Church Disciples of Christ is a perfect illustration.  We are a branch of one movement that sought to unify all Christians around the principles of New Testament Christianity.  And our early founders actually believed they could do that.  We could do away with Methodists, and Presbyterians, and Lutherans, and all of that, and simply be Christians.  That's why our name is "Christian Church".

We created 3 more branches of the church :).  Didn't work so well.  Did we just fall from the way, or is there something to learn from that? 

One of the things we discovered is that when you seek that kind of unity within diversity that I'm describing, those who desire unity through conformity are often the first to leave.  They're just not comfortable.  Sometimes it's hard to worship with folk who hold views diametrically opposed to your own.

We had a great illustration of this last Sunday.  Our Inquirers Class had a wonderful discussion about who we are, what we do, what we believe, great exchange.  At one point I made some reference to evolution (a topic I'm going to preach on next Sunday), and one person said "Wait a second, you mean that you accept evolution as a possibility?".  And I said "Yeah, but you don't have to to be a member here".  But that was all she needed to hear.  She was very cordial, very polite, she was thankful for the dinner and the conversation, but just said this isn't the church for her.  She left, and we continued on our way.

No doubt that we've lost a few who felt the same.  Even when we try to be as inclusive as possible, we exclude those who don't want to be inclusive.

To be more inclusive in our preference for music, we started our early worship service, and we maintain separate services precisely because we still have those exclusive preferences toward music.  I love this illustration, I have to pull it out every few years and share it with you because not everyone has heard it, and it illustrates well our different styles of worship:

An old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wide asked him how it was.

"Well", said the farmer, "It was good. They did something different, however. They sung praise choruses instead of hymns".

"Praise choruses?", asked the wife. "What are those?"

"Oh they're okay. They're sort of like hymns, only different", said the farmer.

"Well, what's the difference?", asked the wife.

The farmer said "Well it’s like this if I were to say to you "Martha, the cows are in the corn" well that would be a hymn. If, on the other hand, I were to say to you,

Martha, Martha, Martha,
Oh Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA!!!!
The cows, the big cows, the brown cows,
The black cows, the white cows, the black and white cows
The Cows, the COWS, the COWS are in the corn
Are in the corn
Are in the corn
In the corn, CORN, COOOOOOORRRRRNNNNNNN!

Then if I was to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well that would be a praise chorus".

[Look around and see who's laughing, because the other half of the joke is coming :)]

As luck would have it, the exact same Sunday a young, new Christian from the city church attended the small town church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was.

"Well", said the young man, "It was good. They did something different, however. They sung hymns instead of regular songs".

"Hymns?", asked the wife. "What are those?"

"Oh they're okay. They're sort of like regular songs, only different", said the farmer.

"Well, what's the difference?", asked the wife.

The Young man said "Well, it’s like this if I were to say to you "Martha, the cows are in the corn", well that would be a regular song. If, on the other hand, I were to say to you,

Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous, glorious truth.

For the way of the animals who can explain
There in their head is no shadow of sense
Hearkenest they in Gods sun or His rain
Unless from the mild tempting corn they are fenced.

Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broken free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn chewed.

So look to that bright shining day by and by,
Where all foul corruptions of earth and reborn
Where no vicious animal makes my soul cry
And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.

Then if I were to do only verses one, three and four and change keys on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.

 

Now, we're all equally offended, right? :)

It's a bit oversimplified, but you get the point.  So we have two worship services.  We could easily have three or four or five, each for our different preference, but the point is we are still one body.

It's one thing to have different worship styles, and it's quite another to have different understandings of some of our core beliefs.  Last week I cited the slogan, fallen a bit out of favor, in the history of our church:  "Where scriptures speak, we speak. Where scriptures are silent, we are silent".  And I suggested I have some problems with that.

But another slogan of our founders that I still hold as good for us:  "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity".

And we need to remind ourselves from time to time, for the sake of that unity, that not everything we hold dear and important is essential to that unity.

Pivotal matters before our country -- healthcare, economic recovery, climate change -- are vastly important to us, but we have different views.  Are those kinds of essentials necessary for our unity?

Love for our country may be important to us as citizens, but is it essential for us as Christians, especially given the different nationalities of the church?

Traditional church doctrines about things like sin and salvation, the origin of scripture, virgin birth, resurrection, may be important in church history and church institutions, but are they essential to our faith in Jesus Christ and our witness to the love of God?

Yes, I know I have made some pretty strong claims on probably all of these for how I think as a Christian.  But I've always sought to do so, at the same time saying, we are free in this church to dissent.  We are free to think for ourselves and hold our own opinions.

So what is essential?

You may recall, Jesus was asked that very question.  And remember his answer?

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself".

In short, to be the body of Christ is to love as Jesus loved.  Following the way he lived and taught.

Now, we can be that body badly, pretending to be something else that we're not.

Or we can be that body boldly, claiming who we are, claiming the unity we have in Christ's love with all our differences. 

With our different ways of seeing, and yet still be in one body.

With our different ways of looking, yet we are one body.

With our different ways of believing, yet we are one body.

With our different ways of voting, yet we are one body.

With our different ways of loving, yet we are one body.

With our different ways of being, yet we are one body.

What a powerful witness in this divided world, to the love of God, for all people.  You are that one body of Christ.

 


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