St. Augustine of Hippo


Episcopal Church

 


The Body of Christ

by

The Rev. Dr. Nathanael Saint-Pierre


(1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4: 14–21)


January 23, 2022


I have studied, but I need your strength. I have prepared, but I need your power. 

I am willing, and I want to, but only you can make me able. 

Make the word of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you,

O Lord, our God, and our Redeemer! Amen!



Beloved people of God, what does it mean for us to be Christian? How do we feel towards someone not attending the same church that we do? A Jehovah's Witness sister does not even want to enter your Catholic Church because she labels it Babylon? A Seventh-Day Adventist brother who does not want to eat at our home because he believes we eat unclean meat? How do we feel towards someone who, despite being Episcopalian, does not share our understanding of the Bible or does not share our love and admiration for our preferred priest or pastor?


Paul sent a letter to the Church of Corinth, which we read a portion of this morning. The last paragraph goes like this: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.”


What was going on in the Church of Corinth for Paul to write such a letter? Are Christians today in a better place? What did Paul’s letter bring to the Church of Corinth? What can Paul’s letter bring to the church today and to us individually?


We often look for and gather with people like ourselves and share our same core values, misunderstanding that unity does not require uniformity. What is so wrong with walking across the aisle or any dividers to meet with those we “other”?


The Church in Corinth dealt with many issues, including claims of spiritual superiority over one another, suing one another in public courts, abusing the communal meal, and sexual misbehavior. Paul wrote to demand higher ethical and moral standards.


Most Corinthian new Christians were (poor) from the lower classes, but at least some of them must have been well-born, wealthy, and educated. This economic diversity helps explain some of the problems in this community. The wealthy arrived at the communal meal before the others (because they didn’t have to work); by the time the working-class members came, the food and drink had been consumed. Another problem that may be traced back to the different socioeconomic levels of the Christians at Corinth is eating meat offered to idols. Those educated Christians recognized that the worship of pagan gods was superstition and, thus, eating the sacrificial meat posed no theological problem for them. However, the less educated Christians saw this as dangerous, perhaps because they believed eating meat was tantamount to idolatry. The Corinthians thought they had died and risen with Christ (exalted in Christ as per the “super-apostles”). So, they wanted to enjoy salvation in the present. For them, all that was needed was done by Christ.


The Church today is not so different. Only a few of our churches reflect the ethnic, social, and economic diversity of the neighborhoods around them. Our congregations are often very homogenous and are decreasing because of the gentrification of our communities. We welcome people who look alike; we are primarily a circle of friends, a club for people who think alike, act alike, and have the same traditions. When Hispanics are invited to a “Black” church, we quickly label them “those people.” We don’t perceive the minister trying to read a few prayers in Spanish as extending a welcoming gesture, and we are, sadly, comfortable with that.


We speak of the church as our church, seeking to control it as a possession. When some priests say “My Church,” they don’t often mean the church they serve. When some laypeople say, “My Church,” they do not mean the church they belong to. It is the church they feel that belongs to them.


As our diocese is heading towards new leadership, it is also an opportunity to reflect on what we want that leadership to look like and be. Like the super-apostles of the time of Paul (James, brother of our Lord, Peter, etc.), we don’t understand that our church must become the body of Christ (meaning open to all). The super-apostles wanted the church to be a gathering of Jews. They wanted to preach a Jesus who came to save the Jews. The super-apostles wished to exclude the Gentiles and impose their culture as mandatory to follow “the Way.” Giving all members access to our leadership, no matter our ethnic differences, must be the purpose of any church. It is as if we prefer to have our church empty instead of welcoming diversity (multiplicity of people with diverse ethnic backgrounds). I have seen so many churches using the word diversity out of context to maintain uniformity. I feel it necessary to say that a White Church is White even if some speak Swedish, others Polish, and others English. A Black Church is Black even when one comes from Africa, another was born in the USA, and another speaks English with a strong French accent. The church controlled by one ethnic group is exclusive. After all, did Jesus die for one kind of people (the ones with power and might), or did he die for all (to free and redeem both the oppressed and the oppressor)?


Paul wrote to the Corinthians and used a metaphor to illustrate his message. The Church of Corinth is the body of Christ. There are no super-apostles, no superior members that ethnicity, fortune, or education should elevate above others.  In baptism, followers of Jesus experience the Spirit of God at work to overcome the divisions that this world’s powers nurture and depend on. The Corinthians had been competing according to their culturally defined values. They were using the gifts of the Holy Spirit, meant for the good of the whole community, as their arsenal in the competition for honor at the expense of others. However, by pointing to the church’s common experience of God’s grace in baptism, Paul clarifies that we all share the same water, the same promise, the same Spirit, and thus all are equally part of the same body.


The end result of the body metaphor in Paul’s hands is not the same old hierarchy. It is not even the inverse of that culturally expected pattern of domination with new people placed on the top who would do the same stuff. It is a profound unity of the whole body, with each part cared for by the others.


Paul’s message to the Church of Corinth must resonate with our church today in need of a profound transformation. We belong to an institution that is sometimes too Judgmental to carry the ministry of liberation Christ entrusted us with. Sometimes, within our own ethnic group, the distrust is so high that we seem to belong to different bodies at war with one another. We are a church afraid of taking risks such as trusting a black leader because we believe that none is trustworthy (even Black folks do not trust in themselves enough to support a Black leader). We don’t want to try or give second chances. We definitely don’t want to try and fail. Taking a risk for a vision that is unknown seems to be the great gospel message. We cannot fake it when we are alone with God. Jesus is not grace for some or many. He is grace for all. We cannot deny that Jesus finds us in different pastures, each of us with baggage and a past, but we are part of Christ’s body. As such, we must function as members of one body.


It might be the conviction of the well-born, or noble-born, people who consider themselves fit for leadership, always to position themselves to head/lead the church. But Jesus came for a different purpose. Thus, the socially and economically “weak” cannot be despised, rejected, or marginalized in the church (or by the church!), because God’s power is, in fact, at work in what the world sees as a weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). We are the church and the body of Christ when those who are shamed by the world regain their humanity and their dignity among us.


Any group that puts people in shackles or regulates people’s lives with hard-to-bear rules is not responding to the mission of Jesus. The church’s mission is to be a space inhabited by the Spirit of God. “How do we know that a person is following Jesus or that the Holy Spirit inhabits a space?”, you ask. Here is Jesus’ answer:


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”


Our mission is to propagate the message that the Lord has done us a favor. Our mission is to use our skills and talents to bring good news to the poor and the weak. The mission of the church is to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. The mission of the church is to be the body of Christ. Amen!