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Re-Membering the Body of Christ

October 2nd, 2009 by Jason · 2 Comments

(below’s a recent sermon I preached.  for those interested the podcast & video are on my church’s website)

When my wife and I got married eight years ago we of course thought about using this passage as our text for the service.  And why not?  It’s all about love (though it doesn’t mention marriage, and actually Paul doesn’t seem so interested in marriage a few chapters back…), but marriage is about love so it should be perfect.  But as popular as this passage is for Hallmark cards and wedding ceremonies, it has much more to do with what we’re doing here as church, what we do when we take communion, or the meals we eat together during the week as c-groups.  That’s because this chapter actually comes up just as Paul is trying to figure out what on earth could possibly bring this dysfunctional family, also known as the church in Corinth, back together.

Paul was writing to a church that was a mess.  If you look back at the previous chapters you find a string of problems in the Corinthian church.  There’s incest, there’s people suing each other, there’s some folks who have become Paul-followers and others who are tried and true Cephas-followers.  Folks are trying to one-up each other and see who is the better Christian based on the quantity and quality of their spiritual gifts.  Even something as good as having a meal together during communion has become a place where the well-to-do form cliques and exclusive eating clubs and the poor go home hungry.  Dr. Phil could have set up shop here for quite some time.

So, it’s no surprise that by the time Paul gets to chapter 12 he wants to talk about the problem of unity.  Paul’s already emphasized the fact that they are a family by repeatedly addressing them as brothers and sisters.   Now Paul hits on a new metaphor for the church by reminding them that they are Jesus’ body.  And what they are doing with their lack of regard for one another is pulling apart that body.  They are disfiguring and dismembering Jesus’ body.

Paul reminds them that they are not just a big, gelatinous eyeball, or a foot with a tiny head sprouting out.  No, they are a whole body, Christ’s body.  And as such they should not only should honor and care for one another, they need one another.  In fact, the weak, the unlearned, the slow of speech are as needed and as valuable to this body as the apostles, preachers, and worship leaders.  This is the context out of which the “love chapter” arises.

I can imagine the hearers of this letter thinking, “great, Paul, we may be family, but how are we going to survive intact?  What’s going to actually compel us stay together?”  1 Corinthians 13 is Paul’s answer to those questions.  It is both about the nitty gritty of how we do life together as a Christian community as well as what inspires us to keep at it.

Before diving into chapter 13, let me pause for a moment to point out something from this quick overview of the Corinthian church that we can easily miss because it’s so obvious: community is difficult.  The very fact that Paul had to write this great chapter on love is evidence of the fact that community is messy.  If it was hard for a church started by none other than Paul just a few decades after Jesus had walked the earth, you can bet it will be hard for us as well.

Now, granted, if when we think of church, we primarily think it’s about going to church, about being an attender at a performance then it won’t be so hard.   But that’s not being church, it’s not being a family, and it’s not being the body of Christ.  It’s more like being a bucket of marbles.  A bucket of marbles has lots of self-sufficient, haphazardly piled, balls of glass, but the only thing that keeps them together are the bucket’s walls.  If we’re going to be church, and not just an entertaining production, if we’re going to be a body and not just a bucket of marbles, then it will mean investing ourselves in becoming rooted and connected with one another—and we can be sure it will be difficult at times.  The more you put into community, the more you get out of it, and the more you’re going to get your toes stepped on.

I remember when I was fresh out of college, I wanted the church and the people in it, to be everything, and to be it now!  I wanted our church to bring down the walls of racism, share our food with the poor, minister to the sick and dying, incarnate the good news of Jesus, and for everyone get on famously as BFFs while doing it.  I had grand visions about the idea of church, but little experience with being church with real flesh-and-blood people.  C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, where a senior devil writes to his underling, Wormwood, on how to derail Christians sums it up quite well:

Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous….  Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman.

So, to sum it up: the church is Christ’s body and is a gift to us and the world.  But it is made up of us, people still learning to be healed from our loveless ways by Jesus.  The more you invest yourself in the body, the more you will have a chance to be annoyed, to be challenged, to be stretched.  But as the generic ideas of church and community die, the people who make it up will come alive and we’ll move from being a bucket of marbles to a body starting to grow sinews and bones that knit us together.

You probably know that pastor Eugene recently tore his achillees.  I’ve been intrigued by the fact that a torn tendon like his can heal itself.  Somehow the cells at both ends know that they aren’t meant to be separated and so they go into overdrive producing collagen so that eventually the two parts of the muscle are fused back together.  However, the process takes time, at least 6 to 8 weeks for an achilles rupture.  Becoming the body of Christ takes time as well; it takes patience.  We could go all over the map with everything in chapter 13, but I want to camp a little while on just the first part of verse 4.  Love is patient.  Patience doesn’t sound like a very exciting aspect of love.  Love is all fire and emotion, and patience seems tame, so laid-back, so unexciting.  I think of patience and I think of letting others go first in line.  Or raising my hand to speak as a first grader.

Yet Paul lists patience first in his description of love.  Further, patience is echoed in many of his other descriptions of love: “Love is not easily angered,” “Love always perseveres,” “Love is not self-seeking.”  All are different angles on the practice of patience.  Why would Paul spend so much time on an such a mundane aspect of love as patience?

This summer I learned a little something about patience from a mountain.  I had a chance to climb Mt. Rainier with some friends from Quest.  I didn’t really have a clue what climbing the mountain would involve, but I had made it a New Year’s resolution and was determined to give it a go.  At the parking lot I somehow got saddled with the 25 pound rope, but it wasn’t until we got half way up that I learned why we were carrying it all the way up there.  To ensure that one of us didn’t end up falling into a crevasse we all attached ourselves to the rope.  Now if someone started falling all we needed to do was throw ourselves to the ground and dig our ice axe into the snow and we’d all be fine.  Or so the guide assured us.  We never ended up falling, but I did quickly learn what it meant to be bound together.  It meant that we all got to the top or none of us got to the top.  It meant that even when I was starting to freak out because it was getting late in the day which makes the climb more dangerous, we went only as fast as the slowest person in the group.  In short, I learned that day that patience can be aggravating. It can also be risk to throw your lot in with other people.  But also that patience is absolutely essential when you’re bound up with others.

So why is patience so inextricably linked to love?  Because Christian community can’t happen without it.  For one, it takes patience to get to know those who aren’t like us.  It takes time for the hand to notice and appreciate the foot, for the heart to realize it needs the stomach.  How is this fleshed out?  Well, it’s part of the reason simply eating together is an important aspect of our c-groups and church life.  Meals help us linger and they help us make space where we can start to hear each others stories.

Perhaps, though, patience is made most concrete in the way we talk to each other.  Our culture and our self-centeredness have made it easy to speak at or over those who disagree with us.  Even when we aren’t speaking, patient listening is no easier with the constant distractions of cell phones and our propensity to spend the time when someone is speaking thinking about what we want to say in reply.

I’ve found c-group to be no exception to this.  If I don’t take time to slow down, to ask God to help me to be present to the others, I won’t hear them or God.  Patience is love’s bulldozer.  Patience makes space for friendships to build, for sinews to grow.  By training us to stop, listen, and then ask if we heard correctly we learn to love with our ears.  By pushing us into time-consuming dialogue rather than angry diatribe we learn to love with our mouths.  And by asking us to take time to invest in real people and a real church rather than only facebook friends or church shopping we learn to love with our bodies.

As we continue through the passage there’s much we could observe, such as how quickly pride and a lack of love can turn even good things like giving away our money into something worthless.  Or we could talk about the importance of trust and hope as the soil in which love grows best.  But I actually want to skip down to the last section of the passage because it hints at an explanation of why community, love, and God are so intertwined.

In verse 8 Paul shifts gears from practical details about how to love one another to trying to express something that he can’t quite capture with words.  Paul ventures to the edge of the cliff and looks towards the future, towards the consummation of history, the coming Kingdom of God, to try and capture just what it is that makes what we experience now so pale in comparison to what we hope for.

Why is it that love is so compelling, so attractive, worth so many of our songs, but at the same time so fragile, as likely to be a source of pain as joy?  Even in a community of brothers and sisters in the body of Jesus, we know that disunity is easier than unity, that impatience and pride can easily triumph over the way of love.  Paul’s answer: we are incomplete, and in some mysterious sense the whole cosmos is incomplete and yearning for completeness to come.  Paul strings together a series of different images as he reaches to the limits of knowledge to express just what is that we hope and yearn for.  It will be like when you grow up, says Paul, and the world takes on new depth and meaning.  Or, it will be like turning the focus on your camera and the world goes from blobs of color to vivid detail.  The coming of the Kingdom of God will mean the coming of completeness, of wholeness.  What we yearn for and where God is bringing us is to know in full, and to be fully known.

It’s that final metaphor, of knowing and being known, that weaves together love, community, and the Triune God.  When I started preparing this sermon, my first inclination was to come up with some bulletproof Biblical justification for being a part of church and community groups.  And then I realized that not only am I likely to come up with something that’s forced, it also wouldn’t be that compelling or interesting.  Because being a part of Jesus’ body, and by extension being part of that body in small groups, isn’t something you or I have to do, it’s something we get to do.  It’s something to which we are invited and for which we yearn for because it is the place where we get to know and be known by the family of God.

To know and be known is at the heart of where community and love meet.  We have been made with an innate desire to know and connect with others, and with God.  One way of defining love is that to love is to venture out towards someone we don’t know and say “I want to hear your story.  I want to know what makes you tick.  I want to know your joys and sorrows simply because you are made in God’s image and to know you is to know something about God.”  Another way of describing love is that it is to allow ourselves to be known, to trust that as we confess our sins to one another, share our sorrows, delight in our joys, and take off the masks we will find God’s grace sufficient to heal and sustain us when our toes get stepped on.

Not surprisingly, the idea of knowing and being known are ways in which we can understand the salvation of God.  God wants to be known by us.  God wants us to know more than just ideas or words about him.  So much so that God became flesh and blood and then sent the Spirit to set up camp in our midst permanently.  Still more, the God who knows all still wants to take the time to know us, to hear our prayers, and even to wrestle with us, like he did with Jacob, in our doubts.  We can be known by a God who comes to us.  That ought to stop us in our tracks.  God initiates.  The God who holds our cosmos together reaches out.  God looks at humanity, at Seattle, at Quest, at you and I with the patience and kindness described in this passage and then asks us to be known by his gaze.

God is the one who has given us this desire to know and be known.  God has begun the work of knowing us.  But remember that God loves bodies, not just ideas or ephemeral spirits.  He loves this body of Christ and so gives us the opportunity to start upon the journey of being that body that’s learning to travel love’s road.  When we answer the invitation to be a part of the body we can be sure it will be hard at times, but we can also be sure that it is the best place to begin learning love’s patient ways of reaching out to know and being known in turn.

To bring in ol’ C.S. Lewis again, my favorite line at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia series is where evil has been defeated, the animals and people healed, and they start running after Aslan, the lion who represents Jesus in the stories.  But they realize that being saved from evil is only the beginning of what Aslan has in store for them, because Aslan keeps calling for them to run “further up and further in!”  There is no “having arrived” at community, it is always the patient practice of learning to better love and be loved by our brothers and sisters.  Similarly, there is no end to an infinite God, no place where we have finally arrived at knowing the love of God completely or being reflections of that love—we are always called further up and further in.

Tags: pop culture · prayers · theology

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Oct 14, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Hi Jason, I listened to your sermon yesterday. I liked it alot. Great work. I especially appreciated the way you talked about our journey into community as a journey into a mystery—”further up and further in.”

    I hope you have more opportunities to preach and teach at your church.

  • 2 MikeZ // Sep 10, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Awesome Sermon… As we struggle at our church to all be united, I think this hits the nail on the head…