What does it mean, ultimately, when one calls oneself a Christian?
Nothing less than that is the question Paul is trying to answer in the passage we have heard this morning from his first letter to the church in Corinth. He wrote to them because they were having problems and had asked him to help. Their church was in trouble and they thought he was the man to fix it. In responding one of the things he tried to get them to understand was that each and every one of them was important, in the church and in the eyes of God. None of them should see any of the others as unimportant or useless, as lacking what was needed.
Hear again some of what he had to say: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
I hope you can hear two very important messages in this short extract: we who belong to the Church are part of the body of Christ; within that body each of us has his or her unique and essential part to play.
What it means to say, as Paul often does, that the Church is the body of Christ is something about which those who study these things argue long and hard. Personally I find it easy to feel and hard to think through with any clarity. Look around you for a moment at those sitting here today. As you do so think about Jesus the man. Think about his body. His human body, born a baby and grown to manhood. What does it mean to say that we, the Church, are his body?
Well, it must mean we are so closely joined to him that we are part of him and he contains us. He is more than us but not completely separate from us. We form an aspect of what he, now, is. Also it must mean that we are essential to what he, now is. A person isn’t the same thing as their body but neither can they step away from it. If we are the body of Christ then he directs us, he uses us and at the same time he IS us and we ARE him, or at least some of him. Reading what the Bible has said to us I don’t see how it can not mean this.
Jesus, remember, is both human being and God. This idea, that the Church is Christ’s body, seems to say that in some way the Church, that is to say US. has the responsibility, and the privilege, of being, at least in part, the human part of that. That’s us, you and me, we have been caught up, remade, born again, if you like, as part of what Jesus was and is. And that seems like a big thing to me.
When we come together like this, to pray, to sing, to hear and to proclaim God’s Word, we are more than just people doing the things people do, although we are that. We are also the meeting point, the coming together, of God with God’s world, with God’s creation. Like Jesus, as Jesus, as the body of Christ, we are at the border between earth and heaven.
When we take care of one another and of our neighbours, when we give those who need them lifts in our cars, when we provide the chance for those isolated and lonely to spend time with other people, when we open our doors to the children of our community and let them play together and let those who care for them meet and talk, when we visit the sick, when we make telephone calls or give advice or do all the other things I know this congregation does, when we do any of this we carry on Jesus’ mission of loving and healing.
When we meet together, as we do on Monday mornings, to talk and discuss, to try to understand what God’s will for us, what God’s word to us, are, then we continue his ministry of teaching.
All of this is what it is like to be the body of Christ and it is through this that I think we can feel what Paul means.
His second message, that all of us have our part to play, that these parts are different, that we shouldn’t imagine some of them to be better or important than others, is no less important.
At different times and in different places I know many of you have served in the Church and in the community in a wide variety of ways. Some of us have been able to do more or less, some of us are fitted to some kinds of ministry, some to others, and some may think they have never done anything important, Paul says we should put all that aside.
God called every single one of us, individually and by name, to be part of the body of Christ. The body is incomplete without anyone of us. We share equally and completely in the honour, as he puts it, of being included in the body, in the Church.
I will close with another extract from today’s reading:
God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Thanks be to God