St. Paul’s metaphor about the body of Christ is one we are very familiar with and yet which remains surprisingly underdeveloped in our thinking.
People struggle to think in corporate terms; we come at the world from our own personal position, trying to reach others in order to understand the world better. St. Paul’s metaphor about the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 asks us instead to approach the world together, not separately. We find this really hard because our culture tells us to beware of being swallowed up by the group, as if it will stifle our self-expression and aspiration. Personal freedom is so entrenched today that the idea of being organically linked as Paul implies feels to some like being assimilated into the Borg collective in Star Trek where personal identity and liberty are sacrificed for the benefit of the group.
It is tempting, in this competitive world of ours, to compare ourselves against others and this inevitably leads to envy. This comparative instinct diminishes rather than enhances us, because we tend to compare ourselves unfavourably with others. Our confidence is eroded, restricting the expression of who we are and what we offer the church and the community. It also makes us feel outsiders even when we aren’t. As Paul said of the body of Christ in our passage: ‘if the ear were to say, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’ that would not make it any less a part of the body’ (verse 16). The risk of jealousy is that it takes our eye off what God wants to do with us, allowing our gifts to atrophy while we imagine what it would be like to be someone else.
It’s not surprising that we succumb to this way of thinking when the dominant story today is that we can be whatever we want to be if we have the ambition and desire, hence the mantra heard repeatedly on Saturday evening TV: ‘she wanted it more than the rest’. This kind of vocabulary is misleading if not dishonest, suggesting to people that nothing lies beyond them; as if they can will into being whatever gift they want. It also induces anxiety in people as they feel they must compete with others rather than collaborate with them and that when they fail, they have only themselves to blame.
The truth is more comforting and liberating than this and if we want our churches to be places of healing and inclusion, then some attention to this is called for. God has shared his gifts liberally with his people. There may be some who have more than a fair share of these gifts (rather like the man with the five talents) but all have been gifted in ways that will bring them worth and purpose once these are expressed. Our gifts are not given so that we can use them to our advantage, but so they can be shared with others who may lack them. Everyone benefits on this basis. Anyone who boasts of their gifts shows their naivety, for these originate with God. As we use them to touch other people for good, they reciprocate in turn and the whole body is built up. The selfish use of gifts, or the jealous imitation of someone else’s, is like a growth spurt in the body of a child which can’t co-ordinate itself as parts of the body grow disproportionately, leading to clumsiness and falling. When this happens, the body of Christ shows itself to be immature.
Paul speaks of eyes, ears, hands, feet, noses and heads in his analogy of the body. We cannot all be the same component part, or we would become unbalanced. If I may extend Paul’s familiar analogy: in the body of Christ, the eye provides vision, the ear listens to other people, the hand does practical work, the feet are quick to respond to God’s call, the nose offers discernment and the head contributes leadership. We could descend to the level of a panel show by allocating the role of every part of the body to the church, but I’m anxious where an archdeacon would be placed, so I’ll leave you to play that game elsewhere!
Like a human body, the body of Christ has certain frailties, for we are not perfect and there is a tendency to complain about the same parts of the body endlessly for their failings. But the greater risk is that, like an ageing body, we do not realise that the body is letting us down, so slow but steady has been the decline, rather like when our hearing goes but we don’t realise it at first. If the church is to be a place of healing and growth for the people who inhabit its spaces, then we should reflect on the gifts we share and whether these remain fit and active. Just as when human hearing declines, so the ability of a church to listen to itself can be reduced to a position where only the loudest voices get heard in a room. The loss of eyesight leads to the narrowing of our horizons; the weakness of a hand to a failure to get the basic things done; the slowness of feet to indifference to God; the loss of smell to an acceptance of wrong; fuzziness of head to a lack of clarity in leadership. Our healing as the people of God is not simply individual, like a patient visiting a doctor; it is corporate. We are healthy because the church is healthy. Many people can testify to this, and to the opposite, where their own health suffers because the church’s health is poor.
In a world where individuals are exhorted to strive against one another, to compete and to win, and where losing often makes people unhealthy, the body of Christ witnesses to a strikingly different ethic of co-operation and well-being. As St. Paul said: ‘if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it’.
At times we collude with sickness in the body of Christ, especially around behaviour and conflict, tolerating the strain they place on people because we are reluctant to face up to problems. In this way we mimic those who know there is something wrong with their body but refuse to go to a doctor. They endure their symptoms rather than embrace the cause because it is easier this way in the short term. In the longer term, however, they suffer more for not having the courage or the energy to do something about it. Churches often endure the pain of factionalism or the misbehaviour of a few when they allow their peaceable nature to slide into conflict aversion. In the long run, the body usually suffers more.
As in a mature human body, there will always be parts of it which are unwell. By a certain age (which I wouldn’t dream of identifying) most of us are enduring lasting ailments of one kind or another; we assimilate them into our way of thinking and can even forget to see them as a problem. In any church, there are always people who are sick in one way or another, but we should not take them for granted the way we accept our own ailments; a healthy church embraces the pain it finds within. Just as when sudden disability causes another part of the body to compensate for loss of function, so the healthy parts of the body of Christ step in to cater for those who suffer, until all may share in a good outcome.
Our highly individual, clinical understanding of health can inhibit our understanding of what wholeness means together in Christ. Paul’s metaphor of the body of Christ is underdeveloped in our thinking; perhaps we should run with it afresh.
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