An unusual body

Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 12

Marian Free

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

In December 2009, in Melbourne, conjoined twins – Trishna and Krishna – were separated in a complex process that took a large team of people thirty-two hours to complete.  You will all remember the details. As the twins were joined at the head, it was a particularly difficult operation. Doctors had studied the brains of both children to identify where the blood vessels and brain material needed to be separated. For months they had practiced on models of the twins until they were sure that they knew exactly what they had to do and how to position the girls at exactly the right angle in order to be able to carry out the operation with sufficient skill to cause the least amount of damage to their brains and to give the twins the best chance at survival.

The surgery required a team of sixteen surgeons including plastic surgeons and neuro-surgeons. Also taking part in the marathon event were anaesthetists, cardiologists, doctors nurses and goodness knows who else. Each member of the team would have been trained over a long period of time to ensure that everyone was proficient and knew exactly what their role was and how to carry it out. The absence of any one member of the team could have jeopardized or delayed the whole operation.

Surgery, particularly complex surgery, is not the only example situation in which individuals have to put their egos aside to work together to achieve a common goal. Fire-fighting, rescue work and the distribution of aid all have the best results when no one person is striving to stand out from the crowd and when each person is carrying out their allotted task to the best of their ability in order to contribute to a successful outcome. The reverse is also true, when teams do not work together or when one individual is seeking their own aggrandisement, the effort is at best ineffective and at worst damaging.

Good team work can save lives. Failure to work as a team can cost lives. Working together can achieve a desired result. Working against each other can be totally unproductive.

There are a variety of ways to talk about working together (or not). We talk about team-work, team building or pulling together. If a team is not working, we use language that refers to the weak link in the chain or to people not pulling their weight. In 1 Corinthians Paul uses the image of body to capture the idea of the interdependence of members of the Christian community. In using the term body, Paul is not being original. The term was used by the Greeks as a symbol of social unity. In fact “body” was the most common expression for unity as was the idea that all people are different and that all members of the body should work together for the greater good.

While it is not original, Paul’s use of the body imagery differs from that of his contemporaries in a number of ways. Firstly, Paul identifies God as the source of both difference and of unity. Second, rather than urging some (usually the less gifted) individuals to subordinate themselves for the sake of the body, Paul argues not only that members of the body should work together in such a way that everyone would benefit, but he makes the extraordinary claim that the weaker members are indispensable and deserve greater honour and respect. Further, when Paul suggests that the Corinthians are one body, he doesn’t mean just any body or the sum total of the community. The body that the Corinthians are called to be is Christ’s body.

Transferred to our time and place, the implications of Paul’s discussion on the body are profound and deserve some serious consideration. For a start, it means that on our own, you and I are not Christ’s body. The body of Christ on earth is expressed best when Christians together exemplify Christ. It means too that we are called collectively and not individually to be the presence of Christ in the world. It means that the community that formed in Christ’s name – the church – has to recognise that each member is dependent on all the other members, and how much Christ’s continuing mission relies on the efforts of the community as a whole and not on our individual efforts. Our part in Christ’s body, our contribution to the continuation of Christ’s mission on earth depends not just on what we ourselves do, but on what the community – with our help – does. What is more, the body of Christ is dependent on our recognition of the value of the contribution of every other member  – not just those whose contribution stands out or is more obvious. “We simply cannot afford for any part of the body to consider themselves unnecessary to the whole[1].” Nor can we allow ourselves to believe that our contribution is more significant than that of anyone else – that we alone make the difference.

In some ways the image of the body is comforting. It is reassuring to know that the continuation of Christ’s mission in the world does not stand or fall according to what I do – or for that matter what you do. At the same time the image is challenging. In order for Christ’s body to be a living reality, we all have to learn to work and grow together, to value, support and encourage each other.

In this individualistic, privatized western world, it is easy to think that it is our personal relationship with God that is all important, that our salvation stands or falls on what we do and how we behave. It is easy to convince ourselves that we can be a Christian without coming to church or that developing our personal spirituality is as important, if not more so than participating in the spiritual growth of the body as a whole. However, the opposite is true. Not only do we need the body, but the body needs us. Whether we are a foot or a heart, an arm or a nose, our contribution is essential to the proper functioning of the body. When we are not functioning, when we are absent or when we are suffering, the body as a whole suffers. Equally, whether we are a brain or a toe, a hip or an eye we will be unable to function properly if we are not connected to and working with the remainder of the body.

Our life in Christ is just that – in Christ – and therefore in the body of Christ – the gathered community of believers. One of the challenges for the twenty first century church is to recover a sense of our interdependence, to learn to recognise and value our place in the whole, to celebrate each other no matter how great or small, how visible or invisible their contribution and to understand that without us (or for that matter without any one of us) the gathered community is in some way diminished and impoverished. Unlike a surgical team, or a rescue crew, our commitment to the body doesn’t end when the job is done. Being part of the body is our life, our Christian responsibility and God’s gift to us.

 

Week after week we affirm “We are the body of Christ.” Let us do all that we can to ensure that that is in fact our lived reality.

[1] Gooder, Paula. Everyday God: The Spirit of the Ordinary.Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012, 113.

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