“One fine day it occurred to the Members of the Body that they were doing all the work and the Belly was having all the food. So they held a meeting, and after a long discussion, decided to strike work till the Belly consented to take its proper share of the work. So for a day or two, the Hands refused to take the food, the Mouth refused to receive it, and the Teeth had no work to do. But after a day or two the Members began to find that they themselves were not in a very active condition: the Hands could hardly move, and the Mouth was all parched and dry, while the Legs were unable to support the rest. So thus they found that even the Belly in its dull quiet way was doing necessary work for the Body, and that all must work together or the Body will go to pieces.”
“Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it”.
“You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.”
The story I shared with the children earlier is much older than St Paul. Aesop, who wrote it or collected it, is thought to have lived around 600 BC, and it may be much older still. St Paul, who was an educated man, probably knew it, and thought of it when he drew the analogy about our being parts of the Body of Christ.
St Paul was, of course, writing to the Church in Corinth, and it looks as though the people there had got themselves into a bit of a muddle about who was the most important. Some people thought they really didn’t matter very much. Other people thought that everybody else should be just like them. Still others thought that people with smaller roles to play in the Church didn’t matter as much as they did.
I suppose we know this reading well enough not to fall into those traps, do we? Or do we? I am not sure that I do – I find it all to easy to think I don’t matter very much, and nobody will miss me if I don’t go to Church this week. Well, unless I’m preaching, of course; I think people might just notice if I didn’t turn up when I was supposed to be taking the service. But if St Paul is right, then it does matter.
This last week, one of my teeth fell out; now, you would think a tooth wasn’t very important in the way of things; I can manage perfectly well without it. But I do miss it – there’s a funny gap in my mouth, and it feels strange.
And think what it is like if you don’t feel very well. You might have a tummy-ache or a head-ache, but all of you feels rotten because of it. Or, perhaps more to the point, if you’ve injured yourself in any way. A couple of years ago I sprained my left thumb; not badly, but you know what sprains are like, they go on hurting longer than you would believe possible! Anyway, the point is, I hadn’t realised quite how much I used my left thumb, until quite suddenly I couldn’t. And do you know, the simplest of tasks were quite beyond me – I couldn’t even do my trousers up, and had to wear pull-ons for a few days! I couldn’t drive, because I couldn’t change gear or use the handbrake. I couldn’t even read comfortably. We simply don’t realise how necessary various body parts are until suddenly we can’t use them! And think how much attention they take up when they are hurting – you can’t think about anything else! Our body parts matter, and we matter as parts of Christ’s body.
We mustn’t ever think – and this, I think, is one of the points St Paul was trying to make – that we don’t matter, that we’re less important than other people in the church. We do matter. God has led us to this church for a good reason, and even if all we do is come faithfully on Sundays and then go home again, we matter. We are part of the Body of Christ. And you never know who looks out for you each week. If nothing else, you are praying for us, and those of us who, right now, have a more visible role to pray, we need your prayers.
So we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking we don’t matter. As St Paul says, the ear can’t say that it’s not a part of the body just because it isn’t an eye.
But do we fall into the trap of thinking that everybody else must be just like us? St Paul enquires, forcefully, how we think a body could see if it was all ear. Or how it would smell if it was all foot.... well, perhaps not quite that, but you know what I mean.
But we have problems with that, sometimes, too. Particularly in terms of how we worship. It’s all too easy to assume – and quite often we don’t even really know that we have assumed – that our particular way of being a Christian is the only right and proper way. Other people may think very differently to us; their worship may feel quite different; they may use slightly different faith language, and perhaps have different ideas as to what salvation is all about. But they are still part of the wider Christian family, and we need to accept them as such. Of course, nothing wrong in talking to them, trying to find out where they’re coming from, where you agree, and where you agree to differ; but we need to accept people from other branches of Christianity as equals, as Christians, as other parts of the Body.
I’m thinking rather of Haiti when I say this. You may remember how, just after the earthquake had happened, an American telly-vangelist caused widespread outrage by suggesting that the people of Haiti had made a pact with the devil some two centuries ago, and this was God’s judgement. A singularly unhelpful comment, particularly as the people of Haiti had done no such thing, but the current population was and remains worried because every one of the capital’s 81 Catholic churches was destroyed. And quite apart from anything else, what sort of picture of Christianity does it give to the world at large? Fuel for the Richard Dawkinses of this world, again.
Fortunately, over and against that, there has been the terrific reaction of the global Christian community with aid and money and people to help. Not just Christians, of course – we don’t have a monopoly on helping out in disasters! But many Christian agencies had workers already there in Haiti, loving and caring for the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. And, indeed, several of them lost their lives in the earthquake. They didn’t see the Haitians as any different to them, despite the fact they don’t always express their faith quite the way we do. They saw them as part of the Body of Christ, and were there to help a part that was in particular need. And is in even more need now.
And then, of course, there is the third temptation, that St Paul describes as the hand saying to the foot “I don’t need you – you’re not a hand!” We must be careful not to think of those who do less important jobs – or perhaps don’t do very much at all in the Church – as less important or, worse still, unnecessary.
That’s where Aesop’s fable comes in, of course – the body parts thought that the stomach was quite unnecessary, but they soon found out differently. Now, Paul’s readers would probably have known the fable just as well as he did, being educated Greeks, and probably smiled rather wryly when it was read out to them, realising exactly where Paul was going to go with this one. Because yes, all parts of the body matter, and we can’t manage without each other. If all you can do is pray for your leaders – then get praying! The church couldn’t function without your prayers, any more than my body can function if I don’t eat properly.
Of course, Paul’s analogy isn’t totally accurate; after all, we grow and change, and our role in the Body of Christ changes during the course of our lives in the way that body parts don’t. And change happens, whether we like it or not.
But by and large it is still true. We are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it. And that applies globally as well as locally. Right now, it is the people of Haiti who are hurting very badly, and who need our help. Who knows, some day in the future, if it will be they who are helping us, after some disaster our other?
Those, of course, are the obvious conclusions we can draw from Paul’s passage; this is what he was trying to say to the Corinthians, and, down the centuries to us. But I think there is still some more.
I think perhaps these days it’s easier for us, with the development of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and so on. I know some of you are on Facebook – I’ve been playing Scrabble with you, rather badly – and I expect you agree with me that it’s a wonderful way of being in touch with people without having to stay in touch with them. We are connected. If my friend X posts that her daughter has just had a baby, I can rejoice with her. If, on the other hand, Y posts that his mother has just died, I can share in his grief and send my love and sympathy – and if it’s someone I know well, or who lives close by, I can offer practical help, too. And I can giggle with Z over something amusing his child said, or a ridiculous situation they found themselves in.
The point is, we are all connected. Not all of my Facebook friends would call themselves Christians, although many do. Some of them I’ve never met, other than through a shared interest or hobby. Others are close friends who I see often, or members of my family. One of the best things has been getting to know a cousin – well, she’s married to my cousin, actually, not related herself – who I’ve never actually met as she lives in South Africa, but we’ve chatted frequently and I feel like I know her.
The poet John Donne famously said that “No one is an island”. We are all inter-connected, all parts of the Body of Christ. I venture to say that, even of those who don’t call themselves Christian, because they are connected to me, and I hurt when they hurt, and rejoice when they do.
Now, obviously I’m not saying we should all join Facebook – I’ve just spent the past ten minutes saying that we’re all different and what suits one doesn’t suit another! But what I am saying is that these days, it is possible to be linked with people you’ve never met, who live 6,000 miles away, and still count them as dear friends.
“Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” None of us is more important than anyone else; we all matter. We all belong. This is even truer today than it was in St Paul’s time. And I, for one, thank God for it. Amen.
Let us pray:
Teach me, O Prince of Peace:
to see humans where once I saw soldiers,
to see people where once I saw victims,
to see creatures of God where once I saw enemies,
and to see the conflict that simmers in my own heart
as clearly as that which scars the world.
Oberstdorf as Austria, 22 May
2 hours ago