|| "Who do you say
that I am?" Jesus asked. Simon Peter answered, "You
are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus
answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are
Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra)
I will build my church..." Jesus then began to speak of
the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get
behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling
May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
Message preached January 24,
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Order of Worship
In the classic novel by Mary Shelly, a young scientist named Victor Frankenstein pieces together various body parts of persons who have died and attempts to bring them to life as one human being. The only problem is that when Victor comes face to face with his creation, he beholds not a man, but a monster. The body parts function together, but not as he intended. The rest of Victorís life in this story is spent dealing with his mistake.
Frankensteinís creation is the product of a Ďmechanisticí world-view. In this way of seeing things, the human body - for instance - is merely the sum of its many parts. If a person could only collect and piece together all the necessary organs, as the protagonist of this book did, then it would only take a spark to reanimate the resulting creation. As Victor Frankenstein discovered, however, it isnít that simple.
Sometimes, I think we approach this body we call "the church" in similar ways. The apostle Paul almost seems to give us license to do so. After all, in this marvelous chapter from his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul is a bit like a young person who takes apart a toaster to see what makes it work. Did you ever do that? Maybe not a toaster, but some other mechanism. The mark of a true mechanic is the ability to put everything back together that now lies scattered on the ground. I learned early on that I was not a good mechanic. You?
In the twelfth chapter of 1st Corinthians we see various body parts separated from the rest. Hereís a foot, thereís a hand. Over here is an eye, over there is an ear. All it takes, it would seem, is the proper way of fitting them together and, Ďpresto chango,í with a bit of wind power from the Holy Spirit, weíve got the church. Of course, we know that Paul is not talking literally about feet and hands, eyes and ears. Heís talking about abilities, or ministries, or things that happen in the church, and those who are part of making them happen.
With our modern view of things, we grab what Paul wrote and start taking apart the church to figure out what makes it run, like a toaster. Thatís not a bad endeavor, mind you. The problem comes, though, when we start trying to piece everything back together. If we see the church as merely the sum of all its parts, then all we need to do - it would seem - is make sure we have all those parts (with none lying lost under the sofa), fit them together in just the right way then, Ďpresto chango,í we have the body of Christ. As the fictional Victor Frankenstein discovered, however, it isnít that simple. Besides, the result could be a big mistake.
I personally resist the temptation to approach the parts of the body of Christ - what the apostle Paul called "gifts" - in a Ďmechanisticí way. You see, we can come up with a catalog of parts necessary for the church to function, a list that includes apostles, prophets, teachers, encouragers, evangelists, miracle-workers, healers, helpers, administrators etc. From this catalog we them order the necessary parts, fit them together, and voila, we automatically have a living breathing organism.
Now, please do not misunderstand me, I am not downplaying all these wonderful ways in which God gives to the church of Jesus Christ what we need to fulfill our purpose in this world. Indeed, within this body are those who are called out by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to provide wisdom, for instance. Others are gifted in knowledge - how to get from point A to point B. Persons among us are endowed with an extra measure of faith, persons to whom you and I turn when our own faith is lagging due to the push and pull of everyday life. Within this fellowship there are certainly those who are blessed to be a healing presence, as well as those to whom we look for discernment. Among us are daring persons with a word or an action that hits the nail on the head (a prophet), and those who are specially gifted when it comes to introducing someone to Jesus (an evangelist). There are, yes, many gifts - to name only a few.
But should we approach these gifts in a Ďmechanisticí way? It might appear that Paul did just that when he wrote to the Corinthians but, if anything, this twelfth chapter should be to us a caution against just such a move. The one-ness, the complete-ness, the whole-ness of the body of Christ is Paulís focus in these verses. We are not just a collection of parts, we are one. "You are the body of Christ," Paul wrote, "and individually members of it." Note the sequence. In our modern era, we place the individual first. Paul does not.
We have become so lost amid our individuality that many of us havenít a clue as to who we really are, nor can we (on our own) see our purpose in life, nor perceive the resources we have been given by our Creator to live out our calling. Why? Because we have gotten the cart before the horse. We are individuals first and foremost. Our connections to others are secondary. Thatís not the way itís always been. The Bible, for instance, was written with the connections in life - our interrelationships - as being first in priority. Our individuality comes in second. Deep down, I believe, we modern folks long for - we are downright desperate for - this thing called "Community," because it is in the context of this larger body provided by God that we discover all this. On our own, separated from one another, as individual parts, we flounder.
Now, an important point is that we do not create community. We donít Ďmakeí the body. It is a gift from God. The church is Godís creation, not Frankensteinís (so to speak). In Shelleyís novel (written nearly two hundred years ago), a scientist tries to play God. When he finally succeeds in creating life, it turns into a nightmare. He may have pieced together the body parts in an appropriate way, but the result ended up killing everything he held most dear.
Iím not saying that when we try to do this with the church, we end up with a monster on our hands. There may, however, be a bit of truth in that statement. My point is that God is the Creator of this body, not us. As Paul wrote, "God has appointed," "God has formed," "God has chosen" (12:28 NRSV, Message, & CEV) the parts and fit them into a whole. An important task within this body we call the church is to work with what God has given us.
Itís amazing, though, how we often do exactly the opposite. In a marriage, which is a community in miniature, we can spend so much energy trying to make our partner over into what we think this union needs them to be, that we fail to see the gift that God has given to us in them. We operate out of their perceived weaknesses, instead of identifying and running with their strengths. How many times have you seen this happen in someone else and wanted to shake them into an awareness of the gift that is already present in their relationship. Perhaps you are struggling in this area yourself. Do you see the gifts your loved one brings into your relationship? Are you running with their strengths, as yours, or are you fixed upon all the weaknesses?
The same holds in the church. The truth is, we already have the gifts God has created us to make use of for this moment in time. Are we seeing what is already present? Are we running with our strengths as a body, or are we fixed upon our weaknesses? Of course, even our weaknesses offer strength. Often it is the part of the church that we consider the weakest, the person (perhaps) who we are a bit embarrassed about them being in the fellowship, the one we might wish to hide or explain away - often it is this very member of the body of Christ who is Godís most important gift to us as a community.
"The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable," Paul wrote in this very chapter (12:22). "My grace is sufficient for you," Paul heard God say, "for power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9a). "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ..." (1 Corinthians 1:27-30).
Yes, the weakest parts of the body of Christ may be the very glue God uses to help us be what we were created to be. However, we donít run with them as perceived weaknesses. Rather, we see in them the strength God provides. The point is, we discover the strengths God has already given and put them to use, some of which we mistakenly thought of as weaknesses.
When it comes to organization - a word which, by the way, emphasizes that this is an organism (a body), not a mechanism (a machine) - where we often fall short is in not beginning with what we already have been provided. How so? Well, we go about determining what it is we need. "Letís see, there are openings for four new board members. Some of these should be geared toward nurture, others toward outreach, and still others on upkeep of the physical stuff." Weíre basically looking, however, for persons who will say "yes." When we seek out persons to step into the spot where we think we need them to be, sometimes even when they arenít particularly gifted in that area, the result can be frustration, disappointment, burnout. Even with a jolt of electricity, so to speak, things donít come out like you thought they would.
The truth is - itís not really about what we think we need. If the church belongs to God (we believe this, donít we?); if this is truly Christís body, the Holy Spirit has already provided what is needed. Thus, our task shifts. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good," Paul wrote (12:7). Itís up to us, then, to prayerfully and respectfully discern what those gifts are in each person, and what the Lord might have in mind for putting them to use. I confess, gift discernment is an area in which I/we have not spent enough time and effort. There are no quick and easy ways of determining the strengths God gives. We discover them collectively, not individually. Itís essential for us to do so if we wish to function as the living, breathing body of Christ.
What would happen if we more fully shifted our way of organizing, of functioning as a church, and began with discerning what God has already provided, the gifts we each have been given for one another, and from these gifts started seeing this organism that is already in existence? The church is not our creation, after all. It is Godís. Still, what would be different? How might it affect our other relationships? Might we start seeing our spouse, our children, our parents, our co-workers in a whole new way?
Speaking of which, next week weíll head into that marvelous chapter in this first letter to the Corinthians which speaks of this "still more excellent way" (12:31b). Interested?
©2015 (revised from 2004) Peter
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)
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