Yesterday, I got to preach for the first time since last June. I really enjoyed being back in the pulpit after such a long break! I miss preaching, but I also forgot how exhausting it is. As soon as I got home I ate a quick lunch and then took a 3-hour nap.
I must admit, I'm a little nervous about sharing my sermon online. When I preach, no one will remember exactly every word I said, so it's not quite as daunting. By putting the words on here, available forever, anyone at any time could go through them with a fine tooth comb and find places where I'm wrong. Because I'm sure I'm wrong sometimes - I am human after all. (Sometimes I read my sermons from the beginning of my ministry and wonder what I was thinking!)
Nevertheless, I had some requests to share my sermon, and I would like to have the record for myself. So here is the sermon I preached at the Methodist Church in Street, England on January 27, 2019. I was taught a sermon should speak to a particular people, in a particular place, at a particular time, so parts of this sermon are written directly to my congregation from yesterday. The overall message, however, should apply to everyone.
So without further ado, here goes!
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
I’ve only been in the community of Street for a few weeks, so none of you know me very well yet. But if we spend more time together you will learn something about me that becomes obvious to everyone after a while - I am a clumsy person. Ironically, I used to be a dancer when I was growing up - all through high school and college. Yet while I could dance an entire ballet in pointe shoes, I could also trip over my own feet while walking down a normal hallway. My mom used to say I only had grace when I was on the stage.
I tell you this because I want you to think for a minute about what happens when a part of your body gets injured - a fate I know all too well. I’ve had more than my fair share of skinned knees, sprained ankles, and bruises (even now, into my thirties). When we are hurt, we pay more attention to that particular part of the body, right? We put a band-aid on the scrape, a wrap on the ankle, and make sure we don’t bump our bruises against anything else. We do whatever treatment is needed, whatever the doctor recommends, until the body part in question is healed and healthy again.
We do this because we inherently know that every part of our body is important. Even a minor injury can turn into a major problem if we try to ignore it, so we pay attention to every piece and work for it to be at optimal health - as much as possible. And even when full healing isn't possible, even if we lose a limb, we still feel it as a part of the body. Doctor's describe what is called “phantom pain” after someone loses a part of the body - they will often still feel that part, and feel pain, even on a hand or a foot that is physically no longer there. It is this inner knowledge and trust of our bodies that Paul was tapping into when he gives us this metaphor about the body of Christ.
Interestingly enough, Paul was not the first to use the body as a metaphor for a group of people. It is likely that he borrowed this imagery from a Greek philosopher at the time - Plutarch - who in turn had borrowed it from the Roman statesman Marcus Agrippa. Both of these men used the metaphor of the body to describe the state, or government, and the way all the pieces worked together for the common good. Yet when Paul used the metaphor in speaking to the early Christians, he made one distinct change.
You see, when Plutarch used body imagery he was often speaking to people who were considered “lesser” in the society of the time - and he did so to remind them of their place. He would emphasize that certain parts of the body were not as important as others - therefore those who were not as important in society ought to remember that there were people considered better, and more valuable than them.
Paul takes this cultural norm of the time and turns it on its head (as Jesus often did.) He uses the metaphor of the body, but instead of elevating one body part over another Paul insists that all are important. He tells them that “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” And if God made you a certain part of the body of Christ, whether that part is the eye or the foot, or even the nose hair (as one author put it), that part must be important. Paul tells us that no one part of the body can tell the other part “I have no need of you.”
He even goes on to emphasize that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect, whereas our more respectable members do not need this.” I think this is Paul’s way of repeating and emphasizing Jesus’ teaching that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
Paul also says that “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We know this to be true in our own experience of our own bodies, yes? If one part is hurting, the rest of the body will be pretty miserable, too. We can’t just cordon off our stomach ache or a headache and go about the rest of our day like nothing is wrong, can we? One part suffers, and the whole body suffers.
I used to have a teacher in junior high school, Mr. Siepmann, who made the same joke in class any time someone complained about having an ache or pain. If you told him you had a headache, he’d offer to drop an anvil on your foot. “It will make you forget about your headache!” he would say with a laugh. It was always met with a mixture of laughter and groans, because we knew, of course, that that wouldn’t really help. Just because one part now suffers worse than another doesn’t mean that initial pain has gone away. When one part suffers, the whole body suffers.
So what does this truly mean when we think about the Body of Christ? I think for the most part Christians have gotten on board with the imagery of the body of Christ when it comes to remembering that all parts are important. We do our best not to elevate one gift over another, and to recognize that everyone brings value to the table.
But what about when a part of the body of Christ is hurting? Are we as quick to respond as we should be?
Within individual churches, perhaps the answer is yes. I don’t know enough about your church here yet, but I imagine that like many others you are skilled at jumping into action when one of your own is hurt. Visits are made, flowers are brought, bedsides are sat by, homemade meals are at the ready. We know how to gather around the parts of the body of Christ that within our sanctuary, and we see this as one of the best ways to put our faith into action.
But what if we consider our home church only as one part of the body? Yes, within each church perhaps we have eyes, and ears, hearts, and feet - yet when we look at ourselves against the backdrop of all the churches in Street, or all the churches of the Methodist Church in Britain, or all the Christians in all the world, we know that we are just one small part. I think the image of the body of Christ goes even one step further than that - to all the people, in all the world. Scripture tells us that all people were made in God’s image, which I think means that every single person on this earth is a part of the body of Christ.
But what about people who don’t believe in God? Or Jesus? Surely they aren’t part of the body of Christ, right? Well, John Wesley, when he spoke about God’s grace, spoke about a type he called prevenient grace. This is the grace of God that is given to all people, even before they are aware of God’s existence. This grace is why we believe in baptizing infants, and it is this grace that can help us to see that all people are a part of the body of Christ. The grace of God is there for them, whether they want it or not, and so is the body of Christ.
Which means, we should be, too.
When we extend the metaphor that far it becomes clear that whenever any person is hurt, we should feel that pain as the body of Christ. And we know, there are people hurting all over the world - from systemic poverty, racism, greed, and so much more. And all around the world, people struggle with how to respond to those in need. How much can we give? How much is too much? When do we get to close our hearts, and our doors, and our borders and say no, I don’t care that you are hurting, I have to take care of myself, instead.
I can speak to my own country, the United States, on this front, as we deal with what our politicians have deemed an immigration crisis. I don’t like to talk politics from the pulpit but I will say this: any policy that has us not only turning away people who need help but tear gassing them or putting them in cages, is not something that Jesus would do. In my reading of scripture I see that Jesus always, always, always stood with the least, and the lost, and the foreigner. If you draw a line to keep people out, I can guarantee that Jesus will always be on the other side of that line from you.
For each person on this earth is a part of the body of Christ. And when any one part of the body suffers, we all do.
So how do we respond? How do we start to care for the whole body?
First, we pray. We pray for God to break down the walls that we have put up in our hearts, and the walls we have put up in our world. We pray for God to gives us the eyes we need to see the suffering around us, and the courage to do something about it.
Second, we put that prayer into action. Pope Francis once said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” The book of Matthew chapter 25 gives us guidance about what actions we can take - welcome the strangers, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick and in prison.
We start by paying attention to the parts of the body closest to us, that we know we have the power to heal. Where are the skinned knees and the sprained ankles and the bruises on the body of Christ? Perhaps we can find a way to heal those first.
And then, when we have started to feel our power that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit, we start to draw the circle wider. We begin to look outside of our sanctuary, down the block, through the neighborhood, through the town, and on and on. Then we can look for the bigger hurts, and we can begin to heal those, too.
When we work together as a body of Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit, there is nothing we cannot do. So let’s get to it.