I wonder what first comes to mind when you hear the word, ‘church’?
For many people, it’s a building; when they say, ‘our church’, they’re referring to the building in which they meet for worship.
For other people, it’s an institution. There used to be a saying that when a young man – it was always a young man in those days – decided to become a priest he was ‘going into the Church’. And you thought it was faith and baptism that did the trick, didn’t you? Apparently in those days they’d forgotten about that!
A third common use of the term is the church as a community. This is usually a local thing; people talk about ‘my church’, meaning the particular congregation of which they’re a part. We want it to be a welcoming community, a friendly community, a community that has lots of activities and programs to support people through the stresses and strains of their lives.
There’s some truth in all three of these common ways of thinking of the church – the church as a building, as an institution, and as a community – but they all fall short of the image that Paul uses in our epistle for today when he talks about the church as a body. And not just as any body, either – as the body of Christ. In other words, the Church is not just here because of human initiatives: the Church is the primary way that Jesus Christ has chosen to be present and working in the world today.
Let’s remind ourselves first of the context. Paul is writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, a church that seems to have been full of the Holy Spirit, with many great strengths but also many problems and weaknesses. If you read through this first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, you find exciting things about supernatural gifts – speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles and so on. Corinth wasn’t the sort of church where people get bored and fall asleep half way through the service! People came together with a lively sense of expectation that they would meet God and see God do spectacular things.
But there were also weaknesses. In 1 Corinthians we read about sexual scandals, and about disagreements about whether you should eat meat offered to idols. We read about divisions in the church, with people splitting of into little cliques grouped around their favourite charismatic leader. We read about disruptions in the fellowship meals, with some people eating more than their fair share so that others had nothing. Paul is very concerned about these things. People seem to have lost their sense of purpose; they don’t know what church is about, and they’ve come to think that it’s all about me. I want to have an exciting time when I come to church; I want to have a thrill, and I want to be seen and noticed and have people admire me for being such a spiritual person. I doubt if anyone in Corinth would have expressed it as blatantly as all that, but when Paul scratched below the surface, that’s what he saw.
To address these issues, Paul comes up with this image of the church as the body of Christ. It’s as if he’s saying to the Corinthian Christians, ‘You folks have forgotten what the Church is for. You need to ask yourselves why God needs a Church in the first place. What was in the mind of God when he looked out over the earth one day and said, “I know what that place needs – it needs the Church of Jesus Christ?”’
The answer is that Jesus needs a body. When he walked the earth as one of us, he had a body, and he used it to do God’s will and to love God and other people wherever he went. He used his legs to walk around and go to new places to share the good news and heal the sick. He used his hands to heal people and to touch the untouchables. He used his ears to listen to what his Father was saying to him, and to listen to the needs of the people he met. He used his mind and voice to proclaim the gospel and teach people how to live into the Kingdom of God. And ultimately, he offered his body as a sacrifice, allowing nails to be pounded through his wrists and feet and a spear to be thrust into his side, showing everyone that there is a price to be paid for doing God’s will, but if you are faithful to God, in the long run God will be faithful to you as well.
So you see, Jesus’ mission during his three years on earth was very physical; without his body, he couldn’t have done it. But Jesus’ physical body is no longer on earth; he has ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father. So how is he going to heal the sick and touch the untouchable and hug the lonely and spread the good news and teach the ways of God to the people of the world?
The answer is that the Holy Spirit is gathering a new body for Jesus – a huge organism made up of millions of limbs and organs and members – each of them a living, breathing human being. It’s you – you are the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:27 Paul says, ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’. When he says, ‘members’, a better translation of the Greek might be ‘limbs’. We aren’t ‘members’ of the body of Christ in the same sense that we are members of the Elks or of a political party. There is an organic connection between us Christians that isn’t present in any other human society.
What is that connection? Look at verses 12-13:
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.
What is the connection? The connection is the Holy Spirit. By the work of the Holy Spirit we have all been baptized into one Body, and we have all been given the same Holy Spirit to drink.
This is important, because this Body of Christ is actually a very diverse group. Paul names here two of the strongest social divisions he can think of in the world of his day – the division between Jews and Greeks, and the division between slaves and free. In the Body of Christ Jews and Greeks, slaves and free met together as equals, all loved by God, all saved by Christ, all filled with the Holy Spirit. And the same is true today. In our church we see people of different ethnic backgrounds, different political opinions, different ages, different theological viewpoints. But we have all been brought into this Body by the Holy Spirit and we have all been given the same Spirit to drink.
In other words, what we have in common is that the Holy Spirit is quenching our spiritual thirst. In John 7 Jesus says,
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).
And John adds the comment,
‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (v.39).
It’s interesting that in that verse Jesus says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”. If Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit quenching our thirst, you’d have thought he would say “into the believer’s heart”. But no – it’s as the Spirit flows out of us that our thirst is quenched. In other words, true Christian spirituality isn’t about ‘me, me, me’ – it’s not about me getting my spiritual needs met. Rather, it’s about me taking my place in the Body of Christ and using the spiritual gifts that God has given me to help Jesus in his mission to the world.
In this mission everyone is important and everyone has a place. Paul goes on and on at great length to drive this point home to us, riding his illustration of the body for all it’s worth. He says that just because a foot isn’t a hand, that doesn’t mean it’s not a member of the body, and just because an ear isn’t an eye, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a member of the body. If the whole body were an eye it would be in trouble when it comes time to listen to people! And if the whole body were an ear, it would be in trouble when it came time to smell your food! No – our bodies have many different types of limbs and organs – some are up front and some are hidden, some are beautiful and some look rather odd! But they all make up one body, and if one part suffers, the whole body suffers with it. It one part is honoured, they all rejoice together.
The church is like that. Look at Paul’s summary in verses 27-31:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.
Every member of the body of Christ is important; everyone has a role to play; everyone has been given a gift by God that they can use to help further the work of Christ. Some of those gifts are up front and obvious: preachers and teachers, musicians and worship leaders and so on. Others are less spectacular, but equally important: administrators, those with the gift of listening and caring for others, those who fix broken furnaces and serve in food banks and build houses with Habitat for Humanity and so on. But all work together for one end – to build up the strength of the Body and to serve the world in the name of Jesus.
So Paul doesn’t see the church as a school bus with a driver up front and a whole bunch of passengers. Rather, he sees it as a team, with a coach or coaches at work helping everyone to discover their gifts and use them to serve the church and the world in Jesus’ name.
So let me close with a few words of application for us today.
First, let’s remember what it is we have in common. Paul says that we have all been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was at work in our baptism, joining us to the Body of Christ and putting the life of Christ in us. But it doesn’t end there; Paul also says, ‘We’ve all been given the Holy Spirit to drink’. Baptism is once for all, but drinking is not – we need to drink again and again, or we’ll get thirsty again. And in the same way, none of this Body of Christ stuff will work unless each of us goes on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit. So pray every day, and keep on praying, that God will fill you with the Holy Spirit and quench your spiritual thirst. That’s the first thing.
Second, let’s discover our spiritual gifts. What’s your place in the Body? What is God challenging you to do in his work in the Church and in the world? Are you a talking person or a doing person? Are you a listener or a teacher? Do you have an artistic mind or an analytical mind? Are you a good musician or a good carpenter? Do you know how to be a friend to the friendless, or are you a thinker who loves to study the Bible and share what you’ve learned with others?
Every gift is vital. To have a healthy Church Jesus needs accountants and fix-it people; he needs Sunday School teachers and musicians; he needs people who can lead public prayer and preach and administer the sacraments; he needs visitors and counselors and people who just know how to be a shoulder to cry on. He needs people who can raise huge amounts of money to help the poor, and he needs people who can get involved in the political process and try to change unjust structures in society. He needs people who can share the gospel with others and help them become his followers. No one person has all these gifts. In the Bible, all Christians are ministers, all willingly sharing their gifts so that God’s work can go forward.
Third, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the gifts we use inside the church building are necessarily the most important gifts. They are certainly very visible, but they are no more important than the others. God needs Christians in working world who will be faithful in living as disciples of Jesus, going to work and running businesses in ways that honour God and promote God’s kingdom values. God needs people who will organize to help refugees and find ways of providing housing for the homeless. And God needs witnesses and evangelists who aren’t afraid to talk about their faith with others and invite them to become followers of Jesus. God is at work out in the world bringing blessing and transformation, and he wants to use you and me to help make that happen.
Fourth, let’s work hard to make our Sunday services reflect this ‘Body of Christ’ image. Years ago, church services were led by a paid minister and an organist; they did everything up front, and everyone else sat and listened. Our buildings are actually still structured that way; I’m standing on a raised platform in front of you right now, and you’re seated in rows facing me, as if I was an actor and you were the audience in the play. But how does that reflect the truth that the Church is a Body, with everyone participating in its work?
Fortunately, nowadays that sort of thing is less common. In most churches, members of the congregation are coming up to do scripture readings. Lay people are leading the prayers of the people and assisting with serving Holy Communion. We have greeters at the back making people feel welcome at the beginning of the service, and people offering special prayers for any who ask for them during communion. And we have lay readers who help lead worship and who preach regularly as well.
And this is as it should be. Of course, at our nine o’clock service we still have a long way to go in making that a reality, while at ten-thirty we’ve gone further down that road. But we need to go further yet. If you read the New Testament you will discover absolutely no reason why one person should stand at the front and do everything during a church service. As far as we can tell, worship was a group activity in the early church. And so it should be today.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus needs a Body. We, his Church, are that Body. There is no other plan. So let’s joyfully take up the challenge, pray for the Holy Spirit’s help, and then move out in faith, using the gifts God has given to us to make a difference for Christ in the world.