The Third Sunday After the Epiphany
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Today we continue a short walk through the last few chapters in Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth. Last week, we heard that some members of Paul’s community saw themselves as superior to others in the community. They saw themselves as superior, because they were given ecstatic, exciting, spiritual gifts, while others didn’t, and it was causing considerable conflict and division in the community.
So last week, the issues, the source of the problem was spiritual arrogance. The idea that one’s spiritual experience makes one better, or more favorable to God. This week, though, the issue Paul addresses isn’t spiritual arrogance. This part of the letter is how stronger members are treating weaker ones. Here, the issue dividing the community is social arrogance. Social arrogance.
Today’s passage centers around this image of the community as the Body of Christ. “For just as the body,” Paul writes. “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.”
But the image of church as a body isn’t Paul’s invention. Greeks and Romans used it to describe their communities, but also society. For them it was an image used to reinforce the natural, brutal hierarchy of human beings. I mean, we have no idea how the west has come culturally since that point. The wealthy, intelligent or heroic were, of course, the brain. Or the heart, the nervous system of a community or society. And the other mass of humanity, peasants and slaves would be other stuff like feet, or like hands, subordinate to the work of the brain. If you’re a foot, well, then you’re a foot, and you’re lesser than the brain. Do your work, what you’re told by the brain your social superiors. You’re a foot, dammit. You better act like it. The body as a whole functioned to fulfil the mission and purpose of Roman society. So if you’re a foot, you need to keep in step, otherwise this whole society thing’ll stop working. It’ll fall apart.
And this is where the social arrogance comes in. It’s this very way of thinking and acting that’s infecting the body of the Corinthian church. Those with higher social standing, more prestige, more power, are disrespecting and mistreating those with lower social standing. It’s creating division, rather than harmony. They are acting like a body of Romans. Social arrogance is destroying the fabric of the community.
It’s creating division, Paul says, because the Body of Christ is different than the Roman body. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized,” he writes. “We were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
The idea here for Paul is that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He’s been raised, and has ascended, has become part of God’s very being. But he is still present by the power of God’s Spirit. And through that same Spirit, Jesus is embodied, he gets still gets physical, in and through the gathered community of the church. But unlike the Roman body, each identity—slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female—are all equal partakers in God’s Spirit. With each person playing a unique role as a limb or organ does in the human body.
It’s an organism, like the human body. Many different unique parts, with God’s own Spirit serving as the ligaments, muscles, and veins holding one single body together. One body that, working together, embodies Jesus and his mission here and now. Many members, but one body, drawn together by one Holy Spirit, for God’s mission to heal the world through Christ. And that’s different than the Roman mission of conquest, domination, and control.
And the difference between Paul’s view and the Greek/Roman view, though, is then made sharply: “The eye,” he says. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary,” he continues. “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 honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.”
That’s the main difference. Where the lesser members of the Greco-Roman body—meaning the weak, the poor, women, slaves, and serfs—are seen as lesser. They’re seen as inferior to the rich, the strong, the well born and heroic. And they’re seen as disposable, without worth. Whereas, Paul says that in the body of Christ, those lesser members are, in fact indispensable to the whole. They’re crucial, they’re vital. If you remember last week’s sermon, Paul said that God’s Spirit has each and every one of the Corinthians equal gifts to build up the community. But it goes even further—the lesser are not only indispensable, they’re to be clothed with greater honour. And they’re to be treated with greater respect.
This doesn’t mean that the weaker members are somehow better, then, and the stronger members are garbage. This is how we tend to deal with power imbalances in our present cultural moment. That being weaker, lesser, or a victim just inverts the pyramid of greatness, with the strong on the bottom and the weak on the top. But Paul doesn’t say that. He says that “our less respectable members are treated with greater respect, whereas our more respectable members do not need this.” Greater members are already respected, honoured and given status in the society they live in, so they don’t need it. But the lesser members are treated as dishonourable by that same society, so a greater effort is made to lift up those who society normally shoves down. It’s a matter of the greater bending down, so the lesser can be raised up. Those who society sees as lesser are to be raised to the height of those who are deemed greater in society, in terms of love, honour and respect.
And he doesn’t say this because Paul is simply in to the idea of diversity. Or that he took a workshop on inclusion. I mean, those are good things. But they’re really just empty words without some kind of content. Paul say so because they are the Body of Christ. Christ, who, in his mortal body spent little time honouring the great and spent more time reaching out to the least and the lost. The sick, the poor, the outcast. Jesus, who took on the sufferings of others, and the sins of all of humanity on the cross. And so since they’re the body of Christ, together they should look and act more like Jesus, and less like the rest of the world. Taking on, absorbing the grief and suffering of others in the way Jesus does. Their body should look less like a buff Roman soldier, lesser peoples crushed under his sandals. And more like the broken body of Jesus on the cross.
That’s what’s at the core of the conflict. Greater value is being ascribed to those who society values. And lesser value to those who society values less. That body, according to Paul, is sick. The healthy body, though, is the body of Christ, where those who society considers greater are drawn away from arrogance, and towards humility and service. While those who society considers lesser are given a place, they’re honoured. They’re lifted up, and their burdens shared in love. Paul’s simply reminding them of who they are. Who they’ve been drawn together by God’s Spirit to be.
It’s a good reminder for us, too. Because that’s who we are, St. George’s United Church. We, after all, are Christ’s body that happens to meet once weekly on the corner of Sixth Street and Fitzgerald, rather than an atrium in a bustling first century Mediterranean city.
Like Christ’s body in Corinth, our body, too, can become sick. We can bring society’s views of greater and lesser with us into the body. It’s not only social status. We can very easily view people through the lens of our own resentments and prejudices and treat them dishonourably. Whether it’s lack of money, lack of manners. Whether it’s lack of etiquette, hygiene, or a lifestyle that looks nothing from our own. Differences can even simply be generational, and the cultures we’ve grown up in. We may not be Corinthians, but we just as easily fall in to the same trap of seeing and treating others for whom Christ died as lesser members, in the same way our culture does. We can be a sick version of Christ’s body at our worst, and make others sick, too. None of us are immune to social arrogance.
But like the Corinthians, man, we can be healthy, too. We, like the Corinthians, are a body of all sorts of different people, with different gifts, and from different walks of life. We’re also made up of those who society deems good, dependable, respectable and “together,” as well as those who society thinks of as lesser. As useless, strange, broken and unlovable. And, at our best, those of us who are strong, who society sees as greater, show true greatness in emptying ourselves in love and Christ-like humility. So then those of us who society deems as unworthy can be lifted up, and honoured as brothers and sisters and not burdens or nuisances. Honoured as made in the image of God, those for whom Christ died. Where the lives of the rich and poor, children, millennials, boomers, and elders. Young and old, gay and straight intermingle. Where the strong help carry the weak, and the weak become strong in their own way, and able to carry others, after finding the unconditional love and acceptance that they’ve been looking for all their lives.
So, if you’re one of those people who Paul classifies as “strong” or “greater.” If you’ve got money. If you’re the kind of person who has it together, or society honours your achievements. Who has the respect of friends, colleagues, and seems to know all the right rules and manners that go along with it. The good news for you this morning is this: you have been drawn here by God’s own Spirit to be healed of your self-justification, your resentment, and your arrogance by those who society considers your lesser. So you, too, can be an instrument of God’s healing for those who need it.
And if you’re someone who society considers “lesser.” If you have no money, no good friends. If you’re not big on social graces and other people have a hard time getting along with you. If other people look down on you, if nobody seems to value and respect you and hey, you can’t blame them. Know, in this place, as part of this body, you are indispensable. The good news for you is that God’s own Spirit has brought you here to clothe you with honour for your healing. So you can be freed of your self-loathing and aimlessness. You are who God says you are here. Loved, unconditionally, and given meaning and a purpose. Even if you haven’t found it yet.
In the end, the good news is for all of us. Because whether we always look like it or not, God has brought us all together as Christ’s body on earth. And at our healthiest we look like Jesus, with Christ walking, talking, reaching out, mending lives and pulling down division through us.
May we continue to yield our lives more fully to the Spirit’s leading. May we let God make us into who we already are: the Body of Christ.