“The Body is Beautiful”
A Sermon Preached by Matty Strickler
At University Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN
January 25, 2016
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey. Imagine, if you will, a Christian church, a congregation, made up of everyday folk, with little social prominence or political power, except for a few that come from well-known and widely respected families. Among this congregation who were once united, divisions, disputes and disagreements have emerged. There are rival groups jockeying for power and control. There is little concern for newcomers or those who don’t already understand the ways of the congregation, and disdain for those who did not know how to behave, “appropriately.” There are some in the congregation who believe they are endowed with particular knowledge or wisdom in regards to God that others are not privy to, and that they are already part of God’s elect, chosen to reign in God’s glory.
Any of this ring a bell to anyone?
Perhaps there are a lucky few out there who have not experienced congregations with these kinds of disputes and divisions, but we know it is an all too common experience because it was happening even at the time that today’s scripture was written. The first letter to the Corinthians was addressed to one such congregation. That context can give us some comfort, that the struggles of life in community are not new, but ones that have been faced by generations upon generations, and it also gives us some idea of why Paul set about developing this deeply compelling metaphor of Christian unity. He was trying to keep the congregation at Corinth together.
Why did I choose to preach on this passage? As a chaplain, I work with people of a variety of religious backgrounds, various protestant denominations, Roman Catholics, non-Roman Catholics, followers, of Islam, Judaism, Humanism, Atheism, you get the idea. I don’t have the capacity to be an expert in all of this different faiths and non-faiths, so I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what we have in common - about unity in diversity. As a person of faith, and one that is seeking ordination, I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about the specificity of my faith, and what it means to me to be a Christian. I find, in this passage, opportunity to address both, and a nice tie-in to our worship theme, which this year is, “For the Beauty of the Earth.”
Paul talks about the church as a body and so I gave today’s sermon the title of, “The Body is Beautiful.” I wanted to echo the worship theme which challenges us to remain always mindful of the beauty of God’s creation. This time of year is the hardest for me to look out at the world and see beauty. At 15 below, the natural world feels more like an ugly enemy than a thing of beauty.
And so too with the church. For many years the flaws and fallibility of the church were much more evident to me than was its beauty. And so, for me, this metaphor that Paul gives us of the church as the body of Christ in which we are all connected and unique, feels powerful and important.
In fact, as I wrote this sermon, I found myself dumbstruck with the multi-layered capacity of this image. When I first approached this passage, it was with the idea that I would be preaching about unity, about oneness in the spirit. This is indeed a core truth to this passage and to my understanding of the Christian faith. Many weeks here at UBC when we rise in body or spirit to proclaim our affirmation, we state that, “All are one in Christ Jesus.” That language is echoed in this passage when Paul says “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” but then there is an important difference between this passage and the one we often recite.
Whereas we say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,” which I love, this passage says, “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” In this passage from Corinthians, difference is not erased by Christ, but rather Christ is once again shown to be the bridge - both in the big ways - as the bridge between life and death, between earth and heaven, between human and divine - and in more immediate ways as the bridge between Jew and Greek. Slave and Free. By uniting as the body of Christ, the diversity of the members of Christ’s church is not erased, but embraced for the unique capacities of each.
In this society that some claim to be “post-racial” and where some praise the virtue of “color-blindness,” while at the same time affirmative action and equal voting rights are under attack, while young black men are slaughtered in the streets and imprisoned at appalling rates, while presidential candidates spew bigotry and threaten to catalog and monitor our Muslim brothers and sisters, it is vitally important to claim this revolutionary idea that unity does not mean an erasure of identity or a denial of difference, but rather an affirmation of and appreciation for the unique gifts and diverse viewpoints that we each bring and a recognition that it is in diversity that unity becomes functional.
Paul uses the metaphor of the body to talk about that, he writes, “If the foot were to 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 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. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” Each part of the body is different, each part important to the functioning of the whole.
Paul also reminds us, in verse 18, that diversity is a part of God’s creation. God made us to be different. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose.” I hope you’ll forgive my crude grasp of anatomy, but think about the body for a moment. The human body has 206 bones and 639 muscles, connected by ligaments, cushioned by cartilage and fat, supported by blood flowing through arteries and veins. It is fed and cleaned by a variety of organs which communicate and coordinate via the nervous system. And it’s all encased in about 6 pounds of skin. In the human body we see one of many examples proving that the beauty and functionality of God’s creation is in its diversity.
Paul’s metaphor gets deeper when he recognizes that there are parts of the body may be considered weaker or “less honorable.” And here’s where I start to have way more admiration for Paul than I once imagined I could. He takes this body metaphor which in his day was often used to rationalize empire and hierarchies and he turns it on its head and says no, really it’s the weakest parts of the body that are the most important and the less honorable that we should give the most respect.
So this idea of many members of one body, which was used by emperors to pacify those under their rule, Paul takes it, and he turns it on his head. For me this kind of up-ending or right-upping of the accepted order always harkens back to the magnificat - Mary’s song of praise in Luke. In it Mary praises God, “For God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In Paul’s statement that the weakest are the most important and the least honorable the most deserving of reverence, we hear a continuation of Jesus’s radical ministry as the anointed one sent to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive, and freedom to the oppressed.
Paul doesn’t rest there though. In using the metaphor of the body, of Christ’s body, and doing it in the context of this privileging of the body’s vulnerable places, Paul reminds us, that it was ultimately Christ’s humanity, the frailty of the human body that made possible the powerful story of Christ’s death and resurrection. For me, this is the most powerful aspect of this dynamic passage. The idea that God has made, and perhaps continues to make God’s-self vulnerable through the embodiment of Christ is astounding to me, and it is the aspect of my faith that brings me the most comfort. I believe that it is this example of supreme vulnerability that helps makes unity in diversity possible and that leads us to the “still more excellent way,” that Paul speaks of.
This, “still more excellent way” that Paul speaks of is love. Love made possible through vulnerability. I’ve been contemplating this vulnerability that makes love possible for a while now. Almost exactly two years ago I was in this pulpit preaching on “Perfection,” and the ways that the pursuit of perfection can impede our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God and pondering the power of imperfection. Then, while I was in Florida last year I started reading Brene Brown’s books on shame, imperfection and vulnerability, as part of my chaplaincy course work. And then my Mom and I read parts of her book, Rising Strong, aloud to each other on our drive back from Florida. I have found many of her ideas to be useful and much of her writing inspirational.
Brown, through her research on shame, came to understand that perfectionism is a way of avoiding vulnerability, and as she puts it, “hustling for worthiness.” She diagnoses the numbing that so many of us do, through alcohol, drug, food, shopping, business, and the like as avoidance of the vulnerability that can come from owning our true emotions, our fear, our pain, our need for love and acceptance. The opposite of this, she argues is an embrace of our imperfections and a valuing of vulnerability. In her book, Daring Greatly, she writes:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.
It is not only the path to purpose and deep spirituality; it is also the path to love, as she writes in The Gifts of Imperfection:
We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.
And this, my friends, is the powerful heart of the Gospel, it is the upending of our accepted notions of where strength comes from, of what power looks like, and of how we might come together in community. The life of Jesus shows us that vulnerability is not the opposite of strength, but the ground in which the greatest courage is born. Christ shows us that true power comes not from physical force or intimidation, but from the capacity to love and forgive, and most importantly, that those who are the most vulnerable or the least “worthy” are the ones to be lifted up and served. Jesus reminds us that we are called to serve “the least of these.”
And so we must embrace those members of our community and those parts of ourselves that we consider to be “the least.” In my understanding of God’s love and saving grace, I have come to believe that God’s love is unconditional, that I belong in the world as a child of God and that I am worthy of God’s love and the love of others simply by virtue of my existence. And I believe that is true of each of us. My attempts to prove my worth, to save myself by saving the world, can actually take me further from my most authentic self, but when I rest in the assurance of God’s love and let go of having to prove myself to God or the world, I can open myself to that love and let it transform me.
That, I believe, is the true meaning of redemption and it is the power of God’s love. I believe that this transformative love is what makes relationships possible and therefore what makes communities possible. By letting go of our need to prove ourselves and instead embracing our vulnerability and recognizing the power in it, we can build communities that strive for the, “more excellent way,” that Paul speaks of - the way of love. With that love we may truly become the body - the beautiful body - of Christ in the world.