For the most part, I am pretty glad that I am alive. When I was writing this sermon, that was the first sentence that I wrote down at the top of the page. And I looked at it, and I said to myself, “That can’t be right, but even if it isn’t, it makes a pretty good opening sentence, none the less”. And so I left it there. I think what I meant was that I’m pretty glad that I am alive right now. And by that I think that I mean that I’m glad that I am alive at this particular point in the history of the world. Even with all of the terrible mess around us, and in this world, I am happy to live in the twenty-first century, as opposed to, say the first century, when the followers of Jesus were still trying to figure out what church was all about. Not that we’ve got it down pat, yet, you understand, or that we’ve even come close to getting it right, but I think that now is a good time to be part of God’s church, even though we are constantly having to adapt to unanticipated circumstances like Covid.
To some degree, the followers of Jesus have always been a bit confused about their role in this world, and we have been confused, because we too often refuse to believe the words of Jesus on the one hand, and we are wracked and riddled throughout with sin on the other hand. This has always been true of the church, even from its very beginnings ‘way back in the first century.
At first, most of the followers of Jesus who came together after Jesus’ resurrection, were Jews. Jews had an advantage. They had a good understanding of who God is. They just needed to make the big leap of believing that Jesus was the Messiah. But as time went by, actually before very long, the message of the gospel began to attract some Gentiles. And Gentiles were a problem. They were unclean, they were the scum of the earth, they ate all manner of vile things, like bacon and lobsters, and they didn’t have just one god, they had hundreds of gods. But the worst thing about the Gentiles was that they really had no sense of how to live decently or properly. They had bad habits and bad mannerisms and they just weren’t the kind of people that most good Jews wanted to spend much time with. But the power of the Holy Spirit brought them all together in this brand new thing that we, today, call the church. But that wasn’t all. That wasn’t the worst of it. Quite unexpectedly, some slaves were responding to the good news of the gospel. And that just about pushed everyone over the edge, because Jews and Gentiles alike owned slaves. That was about the only thing that Jews and Gentiles had in common! And slaves are another class of people altogether, as we well know, from the sordid history of our own country.
So what Jesus has done, is thrown three very disparate cultural groups together, who in real life don’t have any reason get along at all, and said to them, have at it. Be the church, work it out. Create something within the power of the Holy Spirit that will glorify my Father in heaven. And the followers of Jesus have been learning to do this for the past 20 centuries, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully, sometimes with tears, and sometimes with great joy.
And so the Apostle Paul opens our passage this morning, essentially saying, folks, we’ve got a situation here. All of you are from different backgrounds, and different walks of life. No one but God would have ever brought you together like this, so let’s get over that part, and get it out of our systems, and let’s allow God to transform all of our hearts into something that really does glorify God.
Right now, Paul says, what is happening, is that you all are behaving very much like human beings. Some of you are behaving like you are nothing less than God’s greatest gift to the church, and the rest of you are feeling like you are of no use to the church or to God whatsoever. So, let’s set some ground rules here. Yes, you are all different. We will not deny that. But you are also all alike. It does not matter at all where you came from. It does not matter whether you are a slave, or a Gentile or a Jew. You now have Jesus Christ in common, and that is what we will focus on.
But because you have been behaving like human beings, let us take a look at the human body, as God has created it; it may be possible to learn something about the church.
It turns out that the human body is a very apt metaphor for the gathered followers of Jesus, but a bit of a warning: the Apostle Paul pushes that metaphor to a point where we may or may not be comfortable, especially in this setting of decency and propriety.
Each of us has only one body. That is so painfully obvious, but it is where Paul begins. Each of our bodies, though, have lots and lots of different parts. And because God has arranged the body to be this way, these different body parts actually get along amazingly well. The strong implication is that if our human bodies are so wonderfully coordinated, then the gathered followers of Jesus, also arranged by God, ought also to get along with one another, and with wonderful coordination.
And so in the human body, while eyes are very important, they wouldn’t be of much value if they weren’t associated with any feet that could carry them around. Eyes are sensitive sorts of things, and it wouldn’t do them any good to go rolling around in the dirt, because before too long, they would be so full of grit that they couldn’t see anything, anyway. Eyes need feet. And so Paul goes through this whole, very comical description of the human body, reminding us all, that every body part absolutely needs every other body part in order to even to function. Eyes need feet, noses need hands, ears need fingers and so on and so on. The bits and pieces of the human body only work well when they cooperate together. Try tying your shoe laces with your ears someday.
But beneath all of the humor, Paul addresses two very critical issues that were plaguing the followers of Jesus at Corinth. In every church there are the folks that we might call “The Also Attendeds.” The Also Attendeds are those folk who actually believe that they are useless to everyone around them. These folks are afraid to participate, or choose not to participate for fear of not measuring up to some of the more prominent members in the church. These people might call themselves, “Little old, insignificant me.” Paul addresses the little old insignificant mes with just two sentences. He says, “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body, And if the ear would 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.” It turns out that little old insignificant mes shouldn’t really exist in the church. Everyone has a role to play, everyone has something to do, and everyone has something to contribute.
And so setting that straight, Paul then moves on to address the attitude of those who believe that they are absolutely indispensable to the church. In modern speak, this attitude expresses itself by saying, ” I don’t know how this church would operate without me.” In Apostle Paul speak, it goes like this: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” And finally, Paul talks about the body parts that no one should discuss in church. These are the parts that should never be mentioned in polite company, and even though he is not afraid to talk about these parts, like all of us, Paul resorts to the use of euphemism here. Paul says, “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker, are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think are less honorable, we clothe greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.”
While the Apostle Paul does not identify anyone, Jew or Gentile in this passage, I am convinced that Paul is making specific reference to slaves when he speaks of the “less respectable” members. In the first century, slaves were a totally separate class of people altogether. They had their place, and their place was definitely beneath both Jew and Gentile. Slaves were property, and both Jews and Gentiles owned them. And nobody, not even the caring followers of Jesus, knew how to integrate slaves into the church. What in the world do we do with people who neither belong, nor fit anywhere? Paul’s answer? Clothe the less honorable with honor, and treat the less respectable with respect. That’s a challenge, but it is also a requirement if we are to be the church of Jesus Christ in this place.
And this is where it all comes together. It does not matter who we are or what we are, or where we come from. Our Lord has died for us all. Among the true followers of Jesus, all are equal, all are necessary, all are loved. When all is said and done, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
Among the followers of Jesus there are no self identified important people, there are no self identified unimportant people; and perhaps most especially, there are no people who are beneath any of us. We are all merely, and wonderfully and amazingly brothers and sisters of one another and of Christ. And we are all the children of a loving God. We all know that this kind of thinking is trash-talk in the world in which we live, because our world still divides and differentiates one person from the other. Sometimes it is by color, sometimes it is by intellect, and sometimes it is by ability, but never by God’s design. And so we boldly proclaim God’s trash-talk to a world that so desperately needs it. And we do it, because this is our life. This is the way that God has arranged for things to be.