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Have you ever wished you were NOT something you ARE? I confess that I do. There are times when I begin a week, look at my calendar, see how much there is to do, I wish that I were doing something else. You may have seen the cartoon that says, "God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, I am so far behind I will never die."
My point is simply this: we are all SOMETHING, and whether we always like it or not, there is a niche we are to fill. We might dream about being something else, but in most cases, those are only dreams and should not prevent us from being what we are.
Historically, the failure to think like that has created problems within the church. It has occurred in every age back to the very beginning. And it has been a serious problem, serious enough for the Apostle Paul to be led to address it. The lesson we read a moment ago indicates that the church at Corinth had problems about WHO was to do WHAT. Some people wanted to be something they were NOT; others did NOT want to be what they WERE. On top of that, some folks who held certain positions within the congregation tended to "lord it over" those who were in supposedly LESSER positions, and THAT created all sorts of resentment. So Paul's message to the church was...and is...THIS OUGHT NOT TO BE!
To explain himself, Paul likened the church to a body, the body of Christ, and used that description to explain how the church should operate. Listen again to what he said: "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body..."
Paul has several points. First, there ARE differences among us. He makes no effort to gloss that over, nor would he wish to. However, he says there is UNITY in our DIVERSITY. We are ONE BODY, and we should remember that as we work, because if we DO, we WILL work together.
Next Sunday afternoon, I am going to watch the Super Bowl. You too? OK, you coaches and Monday morning quarterbacks - think how absurd it would be if the man who takes the opening kickoff would find that his ARMS wanted to return the ball up one side of the field, while his LEGS insisted on going up the other. As it is, assuming he plays his position properly, his EYES will follow the ball in the air as it comes to him. His BRAIN will register the path and speed of the ball and instruct his HANDS and ARMS in grasping it when it reaches him. Then his EARS will hear the instructions of his teammates as to the best route for the return, the BRAIN will register that along with the further information the EYES pick up and set the LEGS and FEET in motion. All along, the HEART and LUNGS will be pumping away to beat the band to allow all the other parts to work. And if any of them decide they do not WANT to work, the other team will BURY him. Each of the parts have their function, and all must perform IN UNITY if there is any hope of the kickoff return being successful.
See what else Paul says about the body of Christ working as a unit. Artificial differences have to be put aside. We cannot worry about nationality or racial background or economic status. Jews, Greeks, slave or free - all are a part of the same team.
What would happen next week, coach, if a WHITE offensive center said he would refuse to carry out his blocking assignment if he had to do it next to a BLACK offensive guard? Right! If the players are not able to put aside artificial differences to be a part of the team, they will not BE a part of the team.
Do you find that in the church? Say it ain't so, David. But, sadly, we know it is. Racial differences, national differences, economic differences ALL have an effect on the way our congregations are structured. And woe to that preacher who would think of upsetting that system.
One thing more Paul says about unity within the body of Christ: he points to the sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, as means by which we are indeed unified..."we were all baptized by one Spirit...all given the one Spirit to drink." Through the years, if you can imagine, even those sacraments have created divisions among us: WHO is allowed to participate, WHEN we participate, and so on. I doubt that Paul would say that one group is right and another wrong in the way we go about it. If there WERE one way that should be the ONLY way, scripture would have made that plain. I DO know that he would say that the divisions between Christians concerning the sacraments are nuts!
The football analogy again. Think of the members of a particular team. There are differences in the way they prepare for a game: the quarterbacks practice passing, the receivers practice receiving, the kickers practice kicking, the linemen practice blocking. But ALL have gotten their instructions from the same coaching staff which is perfectly happy to have them practicing different skills with an eye to performing different functions in the game. Still, there is an essential unity among them: the same game plan, the same playbook and, to be sure, the same head coach. Paul says, YEA, TEAM!
Move a step farther with him now. The apostle explains that even though differences exist, differences in abilities and functions, every part of the body has a job to do. Hear his words:
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
It is hard to improve on an illustration as graphic and down-to-earth as that. Perhaps we can simply add the football analogy one more time. If the offensive tackle says, "Because I am not a running back, I am not really a part of the team," you would not have to be a genius as head coach to point out how vital a strong and cohesive offensive line is to a productive running game: without their particular blocking talents and the ability to open holes in the defense, the runners would be stopped in their tracks. Or if a defensive player says, "Because I don't play on offense, I am not really a part of the team," you would respond that without a good defense, the offense might never have the ball in the first place. Each individual has a role to play, some glamourous, some not so glamorous, but each one is essential if victory is to be achieved.
Now Paul takes the opposite tack. Up to this point, he has worried about those who are not convinced of their own usefulness. Now he addresses those who are SO convinced of their own worth that they think the rest of the body is not necessary. Hear him: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!' On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. His conclusion is, "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it."
Same in football. If the young running back tells the offensive line, "I don't need you; I can do it on my own," the veteran linemen will just smile to themselves and let the idiot try. They will provide what the incomparable John Madden calls the "Look Out Block" - as the defenders rush by, the lineman will watch as they pass then yell, "LOOK OUT!"
Every part is necessary; every part is valuable; every part must do its job...whether on a football team, in the human body, or that mystical body of Christ, the church. There MUST be unity in our diversity if we are to succeed.
Having said all that, Paul finally gets down to the nitty-gritty, the reason for coming up with the image in the first place. There are different functions for different people within the church, and Paul says THAT IS FINE...it is the way it ought to be. He might have said that there cannot be all chiefs and no indians, or too many cooks spoil the soup. Some are supposed to be chiefs; some are supposed to be indians; some are supposed to be cooks; but everyone need not be ALL of them. Look at his list: "...first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues." Different functions for different people.
To get back to Paul's "body language," some are called to be the MOUTH, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in pulpit or classroom or choir wherever we might be led. Some are called to be EYES and EARS, calling the church's attention to areas of weakness or human need that cry out to be addressed. Some are called to be HANDS and FEET, taking on that special servant's role in seeing that those needs are met. Some are called to be the BRAINS of the church, seeing that our affairs are properly administered and that we remain faithful to the mission which God has given us. Some are called to be the HEART of the church, those who so evidence the love of God in their day-to-day lives that we cannot HELP but want to join in fellowship together.
In a way (and I almost hate to admit it), but some seem to be called to be REAR END of the church. I do not want to offend anyone in saying that, but I do it to call attention to the fact that some folks do a certain work for the Kingdom by just SITTING...in the pew...every week...without fail. Their presence is an encouragement to the minister and everyone else who takes note of their loyalty. Now, I do not say that to give you an excuse to do ONLY that if you are called to do something else, but I mention it just to let you know that those REAR ENDS in the church can have a special value.
Over and over I have heard the story of the man who came regularly to worship in spite of the fact that he could not hear ANYTHING that was going on; he was deaf as a post. His minister asked the man why he would bother to come since he really could not get much out of what was going on, and the man replied, "I just want to show the world whose side I'm on." That is a valuable ministry all by itself.
As you know, I am big on church membership. I am glad for anyone who chooses to simply come and worship with us from week to week, but I am absolutely convinced there is no substitute for including your name on the church roll. The very act of joining the church says you realize a responsibility for finding your place among the body of Christ, then exercising your gifts and talents for the benefit of all. All the research in church growth indicates that people choose churches to join NOT on the basis of what can I get out of it but what can I give. Wonderful! Paul would say NOW YOU HAVE WHAT IT MEANS TO BE PART OF THE BODY OF CHRIST.
I heard something interesting this week at our annual Homiletical Feast gathering in Florida. We always begin with a time of catching up with one another's lives, and the big news from our friend Bill Carter was that he had gotten married. Terrific! Bill told of his conversation with the new wife, her two sons and his two daughters after the ceremony. He told them, "We are NOT a family, we are a HOUSEHOLD." Not a family, a household. He went on, "It's just like the church; folks use 'family' language when talking about the church, but the church is really NOT a family. In fact, when we baptize our children, we say not that this child is now a part of the family but rather, this child is now received into the HOUSEHOLD OF GOD." Family members are joined together because of the accident of birth, but households are comprised of people who CHOOSE to be together." Bill said, "We are like that; we are together because we want to be, and we will each find our own niche."
That IS the way it is here, isn't it. You and I are together, first, because God led us to be, and finally, because we want to be." We are a household, and as we find our own place, we become the Body of Christ. When that happens, wonderful things occur. Now, let's get to work, because, as the poet has expressed it:
To do His work today;
He has no feet but our feet
To lead folk in His way;
He has no voice but our voice
To tell of how He died;
He has no help but our help
To lead them to His side.(1)
1. Attributed to St. Teresa of Avila