Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:14-21 - link to NRSV text
[If you haven't seen my previous entry on the gospel reading for this Sunday, please do. It's brief, and says some important things about the passage that I wouldn't want a preacher to miss, though having written on that passage a number of times before, I'm emphasizing different things this week.]
What does it mean to be a member of the Body of Christ?
That's been a question of crucial importance ever since St. Paul took a metaphor previously used to tell striking dock workers to accept their poor treatment and get back to work (the argument went along the lines of "a body has many parts that must all work together for the health of the body, on which the health of the members depend; y'all are the feet, so you belong in the muck, while others belong in more honored places higher up") and used it instead in a wonderfully subversive manner to argue the reverse -- that the health and honor of all of us hinges upon honoring and caring for the weakest.
Well, I kinda just answered the question, or started to. The thrust of the metaphor for Paul includes a number of points central to what it means to be God's church. It means that we are linked with one another in a relationship that we can't dissolve any more than we could have launched it on our own. How could an organ choose to become my liver? Does it have to fill out an application? Go on some Liver Idol television competition? Prove itself as a particularly good and loyal liver to rise through the ranks of mammals judged less worthy? It's a rather silly question. My body, being relatively healthy, had a liver develop as part of my body in the womb. It was there when I was born; it's part of God's creating me. And what could my liver do to become not a part of my body? Nothing whatsoever. If it could and did issue some kind of declaration of independence from my pancreas, that would do nothing to change the status of either as part of my body; it would just make a little meaningless noise (like the noise of a clanging gong, even).
I want to emphasize something else that Paul uses that metaphor for, though -- something that's something of a hot word in Anglican circles these days. I'm talking about interdependence. Paul is saying that we need one another. He is NOT saying merely that the poor need the rich, the sick need the healthy, and the weak need the strong to protect or rescue them; he's saying that we ALL need one another. There is no one to whom the Spirit has not given gifts that needed by all of us.
These are gifts that are needed for our health as a body and as members of it, to be sure, but they are needed for more besides. They are needed because, in Paul's terms, we're not just parts of *a* body; we're members of the Body of Christ. That implies something similar to what I was saying last week about the theology of Third Isaiah: that who we are as God's people is connected inextricably with our call to engage in God's mission. God has made us one Body of Christ, a sign -- a living sacrament -- for the world of what God in God's grace is doing in the world. St. Teresa of Avila puts it something like this:
Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out upon the world. Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses his people now.
We experience what it means to be Christ's Body as we engage in Christ's mission in the world. And if we want to know more about what that means, we have an excellent starting point in our gospel reading for this Sunday. In it, Luke portrays Jesus at the start of his public ministry claiming a combination of passages as his mission; and in claiming this as his mission, Jesus offers himself and his life as a prophetic sign that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
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.
These are inspiring words, well chosen by our Presiding Bishop as a theme for her ministry and its highlighting the Millennium Development Goals to eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015. But they're not just words -- not by a long shot.
What would it mean if we really believed that in Jesus, the words are being fulfilled today? How would we respond?
For once, I find that the epistle reading is perfectly paired with the gospel. Our gospel reading shows Luke's version of Jesus, the Christ, saying clearly what his program, his mission is. If we who seek to follow Jesus are the Body of Christ, it's the mission we're called to engage.
If I could, this Sunday I'd take the opportunity provided by these readings to invite the congregation to take that in, deeply and repeatedly.
I might invite the congregation during the Peace (which was never meant to be a kind of mini-coffee-hour for socializing) to commission one another. Each one there is a member of the Body of Christ. I might invite them to use the Peace to say to one or two people near them, prayerfully and with eye contact, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor."
Were I privileged to bless or dismiss a congregation this week, I'd want to include in that an invitation to the congregation to own their role in the world as Christ's feet, eyes, and hands personally as well as understanding it corporately: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor. He has sent you to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
I think sometimes that, as a member of the Body of Christ, I'd like to put that kind of invitation on my bathroom mirror, to see at the beginning of my day as I make decisions throughout my day: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God 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, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Because that's one set of things I think we should draw from this passage. I'm not Jesus, and I can't save the world. But we are the Body of Christ -- here and now, not contingent on us winning some kind of pageant or getting our act wholly together, but by God's action, with Jesus having done all of the groundwork necessary. We are called to live into that identity, and to engage the mission that comes with it -- not later, when we've got our act together, or when it's more convenient, or once the kids are in college, or after some kind of cosmic sign. We have our cosmic sign. We have the life, the teaching and healing, the confronting and defeating of worldly powers, the death on a cross and the resurrection by God's action of Jesus, the Christ.
The Spirit of God was upon him, because God anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord's favor. And here and now, we are the Body of the Christ, the Anointed. I wish I could look into the eyes of people in your congregation, put a hand on their shoulder, and tell them that. Because it's true. It's powerful. And this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing -- and in our doing.
Thanks be to God!
Do have a source for that earlier use of the parts of the body metaphor you cite at the begining (about the dock workers)? That's the first I've heard of that and would love to find out more.
Posted by: Stacy Alan | Jan 20, 2007 12:15:52 AM
It doesn't really get to a source, but Bill Long makes the same point in his blog -- http://www.drbilllong.com/Lectionary/ICor12III.html:
The image Paul uses in this passage is powerful but commonplace. Other ancient writers use the rhetorical "topos" or topic of the body, but Paul uses it differently. The ancient writers use it in the context of political theory--to describe the way that the city should function. They use it in a conservative way, and by stressing the importance of each body part, they try to "keep people in their place." That is, the city as a body only does well if the various parts function as they should. Don't try to change your social location. However, Paul uses the image differently, to stress the diversity and interdependence of the members. In a striking departure from the ancient political theory, Paul includes vv. 23-25 where the less honorable members ought to be treated with greater respect in the Body of Christ. What is evident both in the Luke 4 and the I Cor 12 texts for this week is that the Gospel has social implications: for Jesus it means "release," which has an economic dimension to it. For Paul it means treating the "less honorable" members with greater honor. If we think that the Gospel simply baptizes the status quo, we haven't yet read Jesus or Paul very deeply.
Posted by: Jed | Jan 20, 2007 2:43:55 AM
Thank you so much Dylan. I've worked with your thoughts and it has been so fruitful for me, and made me cry and hope and pray in a way that sermon prep rarely does.
Hugs and blessings xxx
Posted by: Kathryn | Jan 20, 2007 8:27:50 AM
I am reading Nehemiah in the service and not Paul. But I am taking a similar approach. I also am trying to think of a way for the congregation to commission one another to be Christ in the world...to have the courage to stand in the great congregation and proclaim the word of God.
Posted by: Tripp | Jan 20, 2007 12:16:39 PM