I wonder what first comes to mind when you hear the word, ‘church’?
For many people, it’s a building; when they say, ‘our church’, they’re referring to the building in which they meet for worship. Those buildings are often full of hallowed memories for people, especially if they’ve lived in the same place and gone to the same church all their lives. For them, the presence of God is somehow especially associated with these familiar places of worship.
For other people, it’s an institution. There used to be a saying, at least in England, that when a young man (it was always a young man in those days) decided to become a priest he was ‘going into the Church’. Never mind that, from a Christian point of view, it was faith and baptism that made you a member of the Church; these folks saw the Church as a great national organisation, comparable to the army or the civil service. If you decided to become a soldier you were joining the army; if you decided to become a priest you were joining the Church.
There’s a variation on this today when people say, ‘the Church should be getting involved in the community more’ or ‘the Church should be doing something about housing issues’, or ‘the Church should be feeding the hungry’. What many people mean by this is that ministers should be visibly involved in this. Never mind that three quarters of the members of the board of a particular charity might be members of Christian churches; never mind that ministers are trained in biblical exegesis and not housing policy – unless there’s someone with a clerical collar on the committee, some people will say that ‘the Church doesn’t care about these kinds of issues’ – by which they mean, the Church as an institution, as represented by its paid professional ministers.
So there’s the church as a building (preferably old and beautiful), and the church as an institution. A third common use of the term is the church as a community. This is usually a local thing; people talk about ‘my church’, meaning the particular congregation of which they’re a part. It’s especially important for it to be a welcoming community, a friendly community, a community that has lots of activities and programs to support people through the stresses and strains of their lives. At St. Margaret’s we try to give a lot of attention to this aspect of the church; we think it’s important for members of a church community to know each other and care for each other, and there’s no way we can do that without being willing to spend time together. We also try to make sure new people feel welcome and can easily find their way into this community of faith.
Well, there’s probably some truth in all three of these common ways of thinking of the church – the church as a building, as an institution, and as a community – but they all fall short of the image that Paul uses in our epistle for today when he talks about the church as a body. And not just as any body, either – as the body of Christ. What’s he trying to get at here?
Well, let’s remind ourselves first of the context. Paul is writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, a church that seems to have been full of the Holy Spirit, with many great strengths but also many problems and weaknesses. If you read through 1 Corinthians, you find exciting things about supernatural gifts – speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles and so on. It seems that Corinth wasn’t the sort of church where people get bored and fall asleep half way through the service – you never knew quite what was going to happen, and not all in a bad sense, either. People came together with a lively sense of expectation that they would meet God and see God do spectacular things.
But there were also weaknesses. In 1 Corinthians we read about sexual scandals, and about disagreements about whether you should eat meat offered to idols. We read about divisions in the church, with people splitting of into little cliques grouped around their favourite charismatic leader. We read about disruptions in the fellowship meals, with some people eating more than their fair share so that others had nothing. Paul is very concerned about these things. People seem to have lost their sense of purpose; they don’t know what church is about, and they’ve come to think that it’s all about me. I want to have an exciting time when I come to church; I want to have a thrill; I want to be able to speak in tongues or lay my hands on someone and heal them, so that I’ll be seen and noticed and people will admire me for being such a spiritual person. I doubt if anyone in Corinth would have expressed it as blatantly as all that, but when Paul scratched below the surface, that’s what he saw.
To address these issues Paul comes up with this image of the church as the body of Christ. It’s as if he’s saying to the Corinthian Christians, ‘You folks have forgotten what the purpose of the Church is. You need to ask yourselves why God needs a Church in the first place. What was in the mind of God when he looked out over the earth one day and said, “I know what that place needs – it needs the Church of Jesus Christ?” What did he have in mind that the Church should be and do?’
The answer is that Jesus needs a Body. When he walked the earth as one of us, he had a body, and he used that body to do God’s will and to love God and other people wherever he went. He used those legs to walk around and go to new places to share the good news and heal the sick. He used those hands to heal people and to touch the untouchables and no doubt to hug people who hadn’t been hugged in a long time. He used those ears to listen to what his Father was saying to him and to listen to the needs of the people he met. He used that mind and that voice to proclaim the gospel and to teach people how to live into the Kingdom of God. And ultimately he offered that body up as a sacrifice, allowing nails to be pounded through his wrists and feet and a spear to be thrust into his side, showing everyone that there was a price to be paid for doing God’s will, but if you were faithful to God, ultimately God would be faithful to you as well.
So Jesus’ mission during his three years on earth was very physical; without his body, he couldn’t have done it. But Jesus’ physical body is no longer on earth; he has ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father. So how is he going to heal the sick and touch the untouchable and hug the lonely and spread the good news and teach the ways of God to the people of the world?
The answer is that the Holy Spirit is gathering a new body for Jesus – a huge organism made up of hundreds and thousands and millions of limbs and organs and members – each of them a living, breathing human being. It’s you – you are the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:27 Paul says, ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’. When he says, ‘members’, a better translation of the Greek might be ‘limbs’. We aren’t ‘members’ of the body of Christ in the same sense that we are members of the Elks or of a political party. There is an organic connection between us Christians that isn’t present in any other human society.
What is that connection? Look at verses 12-13:
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. For 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.
What is the connection? The connection is the Holy Spirit. By the work of the Holy Spirit we have all been baptized into one Body, and we have all been given the same Holy Spirit to drink.
This is important, because this Body of Christ is actually a very diverse group. Paul names here two of the strongest social divisions he can think of in the world of his day – the division between Jews and Greeks, and the division between slaves and free. Many Jewish men prayed every morning thanking God that he had not made them Gentiles, and they called Gentiles ‘dogs’. Slaves were tools, not human beings like free people. But in the Body of Christ Jews and Greeks, slaves and free met together as equals, all loved by God, all saved by Christ, all filled with the Holy Spirit. And the same is true today. In our church we see people of different ethnic backgrounds; we see people with widely divergent political opinions; we see people of different ages and economic backgrounds; we see people with different theological opinions on many different subjects. But we have all been brought into this Body by the Holy Spirit and we have all been given the same Spirit to drink.
In other words, what we have in common is that the Holy Spirit is quenching our spiritual thirst. In John 7 Jesus says,
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).
And John adds the comment,
‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (v.39).
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in that verse Jesus says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”. If Jesus was taking about the Holy Spirit quenching our thirst, you’d have thought Jesus would talk about water flowing into us. But no – it’s as the Spirit flows out of us that our thirst is quenched. In other words, true Christian spirituality isn’t about ‘me, me, me’ – it’s not about me getting my spiritual needs met. Rather, it’s about me taking my place in the Body of Christ and using the spiritual gifts that God has given me to help Jesus in his mission to the world.
In this mission everyone is important and everyone has a place. Paul goes on and on at great length to drive this point home to us, riding his illustration of the body for all it’s worth. He says that just because a foot isn’t a hand, that doesn’t mean it’s not a member of the body, and just because an ear isn’t an eye, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a member of the body. If the whole body were an eye it would be in trouble when it comes time to listen to people! And if the whole body were an ear, it would be in trouble when it came time to smell your food! No – our bodies have many different types of limbs and organs – some are up front and some are hidden, some are beautiful and some look rather odd! But they all make up one body, and if one part suffers, the whole body suffers with it. It one part is honoured, they all rejoice together.
The church is like that. Look at Paul’s summary in verses 27-31:
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.
Every member of the body of Christ is important; everyone has a role to play; everyone has been given a gift by God that they can use to help further the work of Christ. Some of those gifts are up front and obvious: preachers and teachers, musicians and worship leaders and so on. Others are less spectacular, but equally important: administrators, those with the gift of listening and caring for others, those who fix broken furnaces and build houses with Habitat for Humanity and so on. But all work together for one end – to build up the strength of the Body and to serve the world in the name of Jesus.
Paul’s church knew no distinction between clergy and laity. He knew nothing of the idea that only the minister could say grace at a potluck or pray for the sick. Indeed, he didn’t necessarily think that the person who was the preacher and teacher should also be the person who prayed for the sick. Maybe the preacher didn’t have the spiritual gift of healing – they are very different gifts and very different personalities. We do a great disservice to the work of the church when we expect that a paid, full-time minister will all the work. What inevitably happens in those situations is that the minister concentrates on the areas in which he or she is gifted, and the other areas get neglected. And that’s not unreasonable – generally speaking, we’re happier and more productive when we’re using the gifts God has given us, not the ones he hasn’t!
So, to use again an illustration I used last week, Paul doesn’t see the church as a school bus with a driver up front and a whole bunch of passengers. Rather, he sees it as a team, with a coach or coaches at work helping everyone to discover their gifts and use them to serve the church and the world in Jesus’ name.
So let me close by encouraging you to do two things.
First, remember what it is we have in common. Paul says that we have all been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was at work in our baptism, joining us to the Body of Christ and putting the life of Christ in us. But it doesn’t end there; Paul also says, ‘We’ve all been given the Holy Spirit to drink’. Baptism is once for all, but drinking is not – we need to drink again and again, or we’ll get thirsty again. And in the same way, none of this Body of Christ stuff will work unless each of us goes on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit. So pray every day, and keep on praying, that God will fill you with the Holy Spirit and quench your spiritual thirst. That’s the first thing.
Second, discover your spiritual gift. What’s your place in the Body? What is God challenging you to do in his work in the Church and in the world? Are you a talking person or a doing person? Are you a listener or a teacher? Do you have an artistic mind or an analytical mind? Are you a good musician or a good carpenter? Do you know how to be a friend to the friendless, or are you a thinker who loves to study the Bible and share what you’ve learned with others?
Every gift is vital. To have a healthy Church Jesus needs accountants and fix-it people; he needs Sunday School teachers and musicians; he needs people who can lead public prayer and preach and administer the sacraments; he needs visitors and counselors and people who just know how to be a shoulder to cry on. He needs people who can raise huge amounts of money to serve earthquake victims in Haiti, and he needs people who can get involved in the political process and try to change the unjust structures in society. He needs people who can share the gospel with others and help them become his followers. No one person has all these gifts. You will kill ministers if you expect them to fulfil all these roles. In the Bible, all Christians are seen as ministers, all willingly sharing their gifts so that God’s work can go forward.
In Philip Yancey’s very fine book Where is God When It Hurts? he points out that often the answer to that question is another question: ‘Where is the Church when it hurts?’ More to the point, where am I when it hurts? Where are you? Are we praying for the help of the Holy Spirit and then using the gifts and talents the Holy Spirit has given us to help others? Or are we neglecting our gifts, preferring to live for our own selfish ends rather than do the work of God?
Jesus needs a Body. We, his Church, are that Body. There is no other plan. So let’s joyfully take up the challenge, pray for the Holy Spirit’s help, and then move out in faith, using the gifts God has given to us to make a difference for Christ in the world.