October 11, 2009
“From Christ the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Eph. 4:16)
This metaphor of the church as the body of Christ probably sounds familiar. Paul uses it in other places as well. The most graphic of which is I Corinthians 12 where Paul asks, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?”
The whole body as an eye. It’s a great visual image, isn’t it? How absurd of us to try to be an entire body on our own!
As a preacher, I appreciate this metaphor because it works at least as well today as it did 2,000 years ago. You are salt of the earth? New wine in old wineskins? Hiding your light under a bushel? A lot of biblical metaphors do not make much sense in our contemporary society. And preachers like me have to spend half of our sermons just explaining the role of salt in ancient near eastern society.
But this metaphor of the Body of Christ—it’s timeless. In fact, if anything, the more we learn about our bodies, the more profound the metaphor becomes.
Did you know that one of your brain cells can hold more information than a set of encyclopedias? When you are standing still, your body uses 300 muscles to keep you balanced. Your nose can remember 50,000 different scents and your eyes can distinguish between 500 shades of gray.
Like our physical bodies, the body of Christ is amazing, complex, beautiful. And we are part of it. You are a brain cell, or a rod in the eye, or a muscle in the little toe.
Something else we know about the body—probably better than people of Jesus’ day, is that the body’s health depends on each and every part doing what it is supposed to do.
John McCutcheon has a song about Cal Ripkin, Jr., breaking Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive baseball games played. Ripkin played his 2,131st consecutive game on September 6, 1995. When he was asked to give a speech after the game, Ripkin said that he was just doing his job, like folks everywhere.
That is what this body metaphor is about. That all of us in the body of Christ must do our jobs.
Now, if I were talking to a group of slackers, or maybe if it was nominating committee time, I would be preaching that each of you must do your job.
But you are not slackers. You are highly motivated, hyperactive (in the best sense of the word) people. So my message to you is that each of you must do your job.
The body works best when each part does what it is designed to do. No more and no less.
So all you have to do is figure out what part of the body you are. What is your job?
Now, as great as the body metaphor is, it—like all metaphors—breaks down at a point. And this is that point. I don’t think that my pancreas wakes up in the morning and thinks, hmmm, I wonder what I’ll do today. Maybe chew some food, or pump some blood. No, my pancreas makes insulin and squirts out digestive juices. It does what it was designed to do. And that’s pretty much all it can do.
We, on the other hand, have infinite possibilities before us. Scripture tells us that “Christ gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” But which of us are supposed to do what?
The functions of the different people within the church are not as easy to discern as the functions of the different parts of the body. And I suspect that most of us even have different functions at different times.
It takes prayer and practice, some trial and error to discern what gifts God has given you; to determine what exactly your job is within the body of Christ.
Some of you have very obvious skills. You are phenomenal writers, brilliant musicians, eloquent speakers, great cooks. Some of you are known for certain personal qualities. You are kind, organized, encouraging, funny.
And your talents and your personalities are certainly related to your spiritual gifts. But spiritual gifts go beyond this. Simply knowing what you do well and what kind of person you are does not mean you know your gifts.
Actually, it’s difficult to articulate exactly what a spiritual gift is. Paul never really defines the term, he just gives examples: prophesying, encouraging, teaching, giving, helping, leading, showing mercy, speaking in and interpreting tongues; wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, discernment; apostle, evangelist, pastor, teacher.
We don’t quite know what spiritual gifts are. There are some “spiritual gift surveys” that you can take and they will tell you which of these gifts listed in the Bible is your strongest gift. Those surveys aren’t bad, really, but I do think they miss the point. They treat these few lists of gifts in the Bible as an exhaustive list of the gifts the Spirit gives. And I think that is the wrong approach.
In fact, I don’t know how helpful it is to look at the examples at all. I think our energy is better spent looking at the reasons for the gifts. As vague as Paul is on what exactly a spiritual gift is, he is quite clear on the purpose of those gifts.
I Corinthians says, “To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good .”
In Ephesians we read that Christ gives spiritual gifts to people in order “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
So even if we don’t know exactly what a spiritual gift is, we know what it does. It seeks the benefit of other people; it promotes faithful service; it moves those of us within the church toward deeper unity and toward spiritual maturity.
If there is something you do that does that, chances are it is a spiritual gift. If there is some way that you are that does that, chances are it is a spiritual gift.
A spiritual gift, rightly used, will always build up the body of Christ. It will not be used to glorify one’s self.
Seriously. Biblical scholars have a fit trying to identify authors of the various books of the Bible. Ephesians, for example. It claims to be written by Paul. But some people think it wasn’t. Because a lot of letters claim to be written by Paul that we know weren’t. And it’s not that people were lying, it’s that they were writing in the spirit of Paul, to build up the body. And so the authors’ names are not important. The message is important.
An African student in one of my preaching classes was astounded at the thought of typing and saving sermon manuscripts. From his perspective, sermons are the words that God gives to a preacher for a specific time and place. They are from God, for the people, to build up the body. They are not to save in hopes of someday publishing a sermon collection so that book reviewers can write about what a gifted preacher you are. Not that I save my sermons for that purpose . . . I’m just saying . . .
Our gifts are to be used for the common good. For building up the body. Not for personal gain or glory. It’s one of the more counter-cultural claims of the gospel in our copyright-obsessed society.
I love the “This I believe” series on NPR. And I always thought I should write an essay for that. My essay began, “I believe in the church.”
That’s as far as I got. But I would have written about how, despite how very messed up it is, the church is at least a place where people are expected to work for the common good. Where we are supposed to use our gifts—time, talents, even money—to build up the body, to help other people, to bring glory to God rather than to ourselves.
Just think about this congregation. Yes, sometimes not all of the parts of the body work the way they should and the body gets sick. But isn’t it really amazing how often it does work? I mean, when you really think about it, isn’t it amazing that we are as healthy as we are? That as many of us show up on Sunday morning as do?
Planning this upcoming retreat has been—continues to be—such a blessing for me. Putting together a retreat, even for a small group like this, is a big task. There are so many details from meeting space, to food, to childcare, to session content.
The Coordinating Committee thought we should have a retreat. I wanted to have a retreat. But it is so much work. Then the Social Committee says they will take care of the food. (I think Jeff is pretty excited about making pancakes on Saturday morning.) Anne and Gwen offered to help with the planning and to lead games. Musicians have volunteered. Two people volunteered to lead children’s sessions. And guess what, there are two children’s sessions!
I knew the retreat was going to be about the church as the body of Christ. I just didn’t realize that making it happen would prove to be such a wonderful example of the body in action.
Within this congregation, the parts work together using their God-given gifts, and wonderful things happen for God’s kingdom.
And this metaphor of the body can be applied at successively higher levels. This congregation, as a whole, is a part of the broader Christian Church—the worldwide body of Christ. So as you pray and discern your job in this congregational body, I also encourage you to pray for this congregation to discern it’s job in the larger church body.
I know the Peace and Justice Committee wrestles with this question. We cannot do everything. What do we do? What gifts has God given this church to share with the world?
I read an article recently in the Christian Century magazine about a church in New Haven, Connecticut. It was a huge, beautiful building. But the congregation itself was dwindling. A new pastor came who was expected to “make the church grow.” She didn’t follow a church growth plan, she simply reached out to the people who came.
There was a gay couple that began coming to the church. Eventually all of the old ladies stopped trying to hook up the two new young men with their nieces and granddaughters. And then the couple hosted an Epiphany party in their luxurious home. The older members of the church were completely impressed by the beautiful dishes, the gourmet food, the rich decorating.
One of the men then headed up an effort to refurbish the churches long defunct parlor. Did you have a parlor in the church where you grew up? In my church it was the room that was kept locked so that us kids wouldn’t mess it up. But at this church, the luxurious parlor became a room of hospitality.
The congregation would gather there after church to sip tea from china tea cups and eat cucumber sandwiches. The nursing mother’s groups, teenagers, labor unions, social workers and environmental activist groups couldn’t believe that this room was for them to use.
This church’s gift was hospitality. It shared it’s lavish parlor and fancy china with anyone who cared to come.
I cannot imagine this congregation creating a parlor or hosting fancy teas. (Who in the world would polish the silver?) But we don’t have to. We don’t have to do what other churches do.
We are not called to be like the biggest and “best” church out there. We are called to be who we are. We are called to do what we do well for the building up of the body and to the glory of God. We are not—individually or even collectively—the whole body of Christ. We are simply one part. And what our one part does affects the health of the whole.
I really love Paul’s body metaphor. Here’s one more fun body fact. Look at the people sitting around you . . . every person in this room spent about 30 seconds as a single cell.
Ultimately the building of a body is out of our hands. It is a miraculous work of the Spirit. Thanks be to God.
[See also the hymn, Body of Christ.]