One body, many parts

Goose Pond UMC
Jan. 27, 2019

(Based on a sermon preached Jan. 21, 2007, at Cannon UMC)

NOTE: Today was the last Sunday of my six-week stay at Goose Pond. My home church, back in December, called me down front to pray for me before I left; Goose Pond, at the end of today’s service, prayed for me going forward and for my new role at the newspaper. I was warmly received at Goose Pond, as I knew I would be, and would probably have stayed longer if it weren’t for getting settled in the editor job.

1 Corinthians 12:12–31a (CEB)

Christ is just like the human body — a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. 
If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell?
But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body. So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. 
But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues. All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All don’t perform miracles, do they? All don’t have gifts of healing, do they? All don’t speak in different tongues, do they? All don’t interpret, do they? Use your ambition to try to get the greater gifts.

In this Bible passage, which is quite a familiar one, the church — the Body of Christ — is compared to the human body. I looked up some information about the human body; this came from a web site but the original source was cited as being self-help author Deepak Chopra.

In one hour, your heart works hard enough to produce the equivalent energy to raise almost one ton of weight one yard off the ground.

Scientists have counted over 500 different functions of the liver.

Nerve impulses to and from the brain travel as fast as 170 miles per hour.

The average human blinks his eyes 6.2 million times each year.

The average human body contains enough sulphur to kill all the fleas on an average dog, enough carbon to make 900 pencils, enough potassium to fire a toy cannon, enough fat to make seven bars of soap, enough phosphorus to make 2,200 matchheads, and enough water to fill a 10-gallon tank.

One human brain generates more electrical impulses in a single day than all of the world’s telephones put together.

One last fact: the tooth is the only part of the human body that can’t repair itself. Teeth have been on my mind lately; I had to get a root canal last month, and I’m going tomorrow to get a crown put on that tooth.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the health of your teeth and gums can have an impact on the health of your body as a whole. Bacteria from a gum disease can even cause heart problems such as clogged arteries and strokes.

No matter how we look at it, the human body is a remarkable machine. God created each and every component to work together. A problem with one part of the body can have effects in the entire body. Paul uses that imagery to show that each of us, as a member of the Body of Christ, is essential.

Paul’s words are a challenge to us to recognize that each of us has different strengths and weaknesses, and different roles. Paul’s words were directed against jealousy and self-righteousness. The early Christian church was quite unlike the religions that had preceded it, and in those early, heady days of the church there were many miraculous things taking place. That was exciting — but it was also a challenge. People became jealous. Why is that person over there considered a great leader of the church, while nobody even notices me? I’ve been faithful, and pious, and I say my prayers every night.

In the early church, there were probably a lot of people who felt some pride over having been a Christian longer than other people, and who felt some irritation when some new believer was given a special task or position.

Of course, in our day no one is ever jealous of someone else in the church. Are we?

No one in the church should think that one job is more important than another job. No one in the church should look down on someone else’s job, or be jealous of someone else’s job. Each person in the church is unique and valuable. Each person is just as beloved by God, and each person is just as important to the life of the church. If one person is looked down upon, or if one person has a problem, that can affect the life of the church as a whole.

We, as a church, as a nation, and as a society, are more divided now than I can ever remember us being. In too many areas, we look at things as us versus them. We take people with whom we have good faith disagreements and we insist on turning them into enemies. But the fact of the matter is, as Jesus told his disciples, and as Abraham Lincoln repeated 150 years ago, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

No one person has all of the answers, whether it’s for the United Methodist Church or the United States of America. We need the people who stand up for compassion, just as we need the people who stand up for personal integrity. We need both hands, right and left, if we’re to build something that lasts.
The church doesn’t belong to any one person or any one family. It doesn’t belong to the person who’s been sitting in the same pew for 50 years. It doesn’t belong to the person whose granddaddy donated the property on which the church sits. It doesn’t belong to the person who put the biggest check in the offering plate, and it doesn’t belong to the person who joined last week. It belongs to Christ, and we are in service to Christ. We are part of the Body of Christ.

I heard a story, many years ago, and I’ve looked for the source several times over the years but can’t find it. So I can’t give you the names of the original author or the people involved, and that always frustrates me — I’m a writer myself, and I always like to give credit when I tell a story like this, because I’d want credit myself if someone told one of my stories. I hate these sort of floating, unattributed stories. But this story is too good not to use. I’ve used it several times, in several different sermons, over the years, most recently back in September over in Rutherford County.

It’s about a megachurch — one of these churches with a whole staff of pastors, and thousands of people in the seats every Sunday. A recent seminary graduate had been hired for one of the staff positions, and on one of his first Sundays at church, the senior pastor came up to him.

“Listen,” said the senior pastor. “I have to go and pray with the choir before service. They just told me that one of our parking attendants called in sick this morning — can you go out and help park cars?”

“I’m a seminary graduate,” huffed the young man. “You want me to park cars?”

The senior pastor looked at him for a second, and then said, very softly, “Very well, then. You go and pray with the choir.” The senior pastor went out to the parking lot, put on a day-glo vest, and helped park cars. And the seminary graduate learned that every job in the church is important.
Paul writes about the fact that the way the body is arranged gives greater honor to the inferior members. The parts of our body that modesty requires us to cover up are vitally important; we couldn’t survive without them! Some of the parts of our bodies are more visible than others, which varies from culture to culture and generation to generation. But that doesn’t make those parts of the body that are seen any more or less important, and it doesn’t make the parts of the body that are covered up any more or less important.

Every member of the body — every role within the church — is worthy and equal, and that’s an important lesson. Each of us has a different job to do, and each of those jobs is important.

But it’s also important not to use this passage, or the idea behind it, as an excuse. How many times have you, or I, or someone we know, begged off of an important task in the church because “that’s just not what I’m good at”?

Sometimes those words may have a ring of truth to them, but too often they’re used as a means of escape. I’ve seen people who thought they weren’t cut out for foreign missions do amazing things on short-term foreign mission trips. In fact, I see one of those people in the mirror each morning when I’m shaving. I never thought I’d go on a foreign mission trip — until God actually called me to go on one, and I’ve been on eight more since then.

I’ve seen people who thought they weren’t cut out for leadership positions become powerful leaders. I’ve seen people who were pushed out of their comfort zone discover that even if they thought their own abilities were lacking, God could work through them.

I used to be a board member for Mountain T.O.P., a ministry which operates up on the Cumberland Plateau and brings in volunteers from all over the eastern United States. Some of the most inspirational stories that come out of Mountain T.O.P. have to do with people who ended up doing things they didn’t expect. I remember a man from Texas named Marty Robbins — no relation to the late country music singer. Marty, a big muscular guy, signed up for Mountain T.O.P.’s home repair ministry some years ago along with a group from his church. 
But then he hurt his back just a few weeks before the trip, and his doctor said home repair was out of the question. Someone from the staff talked Marty into transferring over to the Kaleidoscope ministry, which is an arts camp for special needs children. Marty resisted this. He had never worked with kids before, and, after all, he had signed up for Mountain T.O.P. so that he could swing a hammer and build things. But he had put down his deposit, and the woman who was running Mountain T.O.P.’s adult ministry at the time talked him into going anyway and working with the kids.

I was part of Kaleidoscope that year, and I saw what happened to Marty Robbins first-hand. The kids adored him — they called him “cowboy” because he was a big tall guy who wore a cowboy hat. The kids took turns wearing that hat during the week.

There were two kids who particularly loved Marty. They were little twin boys, small for their age, who looked almost like stick figures.

Anyway, those precious little boys, and all the other Kaleidoscope kids, loved Marty, and they melted Marty’s heart. The next year, Marty found himself in Kaleidoscope again — not because he had to, but because he wanted to. God had shown him an ability that he wasn’t aware he possessed. Marty thought he was one part of the Body of Christ and God showed him he could also be another part of the body.

When Paul tells us to “strive for the greater gifts,” he is setting the stage for the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, the famous “Love Chapter.” The point of this 12th chapter, though, is also about love. We must love each other as a church, and this means we must be willing to do whatever is needed. It may be a leadership position or it may be cleaning toilets. And it may be one and then the other in successive weeks.

We need to be willing to serve when called for or willing to step aside; willing to be a leader in some cases and a follower in others. We need to set aside jealousy and stereotypes and recognize each person’s potential to serve.

The image of the church as the body of Christ is a powerful one, but it’s not a complete one. Your hand is always your hand; your foot is always your foot. But your role in the body of Christ may change according to God’s will and the congregation’s needs.

In order for us to serve effectively as members of the body of Christ, we need an attitude of love and flexibility, willing to accept our own role but also to change that role, and willing to encourage and challenge others, and to listen to their input. As I continue on my journey, I want to be able to grow and to listen to God as he shows me my role in the church, the Body of Christ.