Picking up from our discussion last week about the importance of working together as a holy community, this week’s texts insist that we not only value different gifts but that we also recognize the value of a diverse body of the faithful.
Paul spoke earlier in 1 Corinthians 12 about the varieties of gifts that work together to further the ministry of the Spirit in each place. In this week’s readings, he introduces the metaphor of a body. No longer are we simply talking about humans who may receive one or other gifts from the Spirit. Now we are learning that each individual—as that individual—is a unique and irreplaceable gift to their community.
All baptized believers are part of the body of Christ, and Christ’s body on earth needs each individual part to function fully. A human body that is all eyes would be nonfunctioning (but apparently angels have different rules … Ezekiel 10:12; Revelation 4:6). Similarly, a body that is all feet would be constantly tripping over itself. Paul uses this ridiculous imagery to shame the desire of homogeneity within congregations. If a person sees that he/she/they are unlike the rest of the local body, Paul is emphatic that this person doesn’t cease to be part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:15-16). Just as a body is necessarily made up of hundreds of various parts and will cease to function if too many of the parts are missing, so, too, the body of Christ absolutely must be made of hundreds of different parts to function well. Paul’s intent here is to talk about people with specific gifts, but the lesson goes further to teach us that a church body without a healthy diversity of members simply, by definition, can’t be a fully functioning body. We need lots of different kinds of humans to be Christ’s body on earth.
As an aside, I think it could be useful for congregational and personal reflection to meditate on what part you might be in Christ’s body. After much prayer, I gained tremendous focus in my ministry when I was inspired to think of myself as a spleen in the body of Christ. The spleen is a humble part, to be sure, that works behind the scenes (unless something horrible happens). But its job is to keep the rest of the body healthy by removing impurities in the blood and training new blood cells to fight infections. I like to think that in my roles of training up pastors and lay leaders, I’m helping keep the body healthy by filtering out poisonous theology and toxic biblical interpretations that hinder the growth and work of the body of Christ. What part of the body of Christ might you be?
We need lots of different kinds of humans to be Christ’s body on earth.
Knowing how the roles we play work together is certainly not just a New Testament concept. In the reading from Nehemiah, we learn about a mass Scripture-reading for the recently returned exiles. On a new moon festival, the returned Jews gathered to hear the book of the Law of Moses. During the exile in Babylon, it seems that many Jews grew up without learning Hebrew, and that many or most of their number had never heard about several of the customs and laws found in the book that Ezra was reading to them.
To facilitate this mass education, the community needed different parts to work together. Carpenters made a special teaching pedestal (Nehemiah 8:4). Ezra, the scribe, read the book all morning long (8:3). He knew that the crowd included three distinct groups: 1) those who understood what he was saying, 2) men who didn’t understand and 3) women who didn’t understand (8:2-3). To make the text accessible to everyone, Ezra made sure that he had translators with him on the podium to read the laws in Aramaic and other languages of exile (8:4, 8). As a second step, Levites were dispersed throughout the crowd to explain to the people what they were hearing in the various languages (8:7-8). Because they knew that the assembly of God’s people didn’t have the equitable access to their holy texts, they planned ahead of time to use their different strengths and skills so that everyone could hear and understand the texts according to their own languages and abilities. Because of this communal preparation, all the people together, no matter their linguistic or interpretative abilities, raised hands, knelt down and worshiped God together as one assembled body.
The body of Christ must be made up of diverse and unified parts, otherwise it will not function. What part of the body might you be? How can you work together with your congregation, synod, churchwide and siblings in Christ to be the body of Christ in this world—together?