Grace Presbyterian Church
January 23, 2022, Epiphany 3C
We’re All in This Together
It was a nearly unavoidable song not that many years ago, when the Disney Channel first aired its infectious little show called High School Musical. First it was the television musical, then it became an actual high school musical, and now you can find television shows about productions of the high school musical. And wrapping it all up was the one inescapable, irresistible song that represented the show’s climax: “We’re All in This Together.”
That title happened upon a phrase and idea that has been batted around endlessly, it seems. You could go out and google dozens upon dozens of quotes that either use that phrase as a basis or comment upon the idea. While I don’t want to think about Lily Tomlin’s spin – “We’re all in this together alone” – I have to acknowledge that Johnny Cash might have put the best spin on the quote in his version: “We’re all in this together if we’re in it at all.”
I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul was not much for song and dance, and I doubt he played the guitar or sang songs about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. But he’d be able to appreciate at least the basic sentiment found in this pithy little saying. Being the eloquent preacher and letter-writer he was, however, it befitted Paul to find a clever and illustrative metaphor to demonstrate just how thoroughly we, the followers of Christ, really are all in this together. Borrowing a metaphor found fairly often in Greco-Roman philosophical rhetoric, Paul came up with the theme of today’s reading: the body of Christ.
That Paul chooses the body as a metaphor for the interworkings of the people of God is striking and informative in ways that the apostle himself might not even have imagined.
As noted just now, it wasn’t uncommon for teachers and writers in the Greco-Roman world to use such a metaphor to describe communal life, though no other biblical author makes use of it. Philosophers and political figures were particularly fond of the body metaphor in that culture. For a politician, for example, the metaphor of the body might well be used to suggest that every member of a society had his or place to fill. A body needs a head; that place was to be filled by the “elites” of society – the wealthy, the military elite, those in power. A body also needs hands and feet; here pretty much everybody else in society, those charged with the hard or dirty or dangerous work of society was to fulfill his or her role.
Paul, though, takes a different angle on this metaphor. For Paul, what matters is the utter interdependence of the body – the degree to which the body needs everything in good working order. Parts of the body that might be regarded as weaker, or less “respectable,” are treated with greater care and covered or protected more carefully. In Paul’s scheme of the body, no part can claim to be independent of all the other parts. The eye can see all it wants to see, but without feet and legs to move, or hands to hold or to pick up, the eye is powerless. The head is useless without the rest of the body.
Many of us know what it is for our physical bodes to fail us or betray us. We see what needs to be done but we just aren’t capable of doing it physically. If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers with it. And so it is with the body of Christ, the church; when one member of this body suffers, we all suffer with that member.
Paul wants us to understand, in verse 13, that in being baptized in Christ we are baptized into this one body, no matter the differences between us. Indeed, following on the first part of this chapter we heard last week, the differences we bring to the body are not accidental; they are necessary, both in a given local congregation and in the church universal – we need all those different experiences, all those different backgrounds, for the body of Christ to function rightly and bear witness to the good news.
This is where it gets tricky, though. We are not always good at dealing with difference. We don’t always care for diversity, even as we need it. New Testament scholar Brian Peterson puts it bluntly in noting that “We often confuse unity with uniformity, because it is much easer to gather with people who are like ourselves than it is to reach across the divisions which mark our culture.”[i] We are more comfortable with a church where everybody looks like us, talks like us, is about the same age as us, reads the Bible in the same way as we do – or for that matter, votes like us, goes to Gator games like us, and all sorts of other things that may have very little to do with the life of the church. It’s a natural inclination, but it isn’t really all that Christlike.
In verse 13 Paul refers to two of the great divisions he knew to be at work in the church – “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” Admittedly, “Jew or Greek” is not a huge dividing line in the modern church, and while slavery certainly does exist in the modern world still, such a dividing line doesn’t run through the modern church in quite the same way it did for Paul’s Corinthian readers. We do, though, have lots of dividing lines among us in the church today:
Black or white, or Asian, or Hispanic, or Native American…
Or how about Democratic or Republican?
Maybe rich or poor?
Native-born, naturalized citizen, immigrant waiting to be citizen?
Straight or gay?
How about married or single?
Progressive or mainline or evangelical or fundamentalist?
How are we, as the church, the body of Christ, at truly living in the diversity that makes us work? Or are we still inclined to hole up in like-minded enclaves of homogeneity?
Whether we acknowledge it or not, when any part of the body of Christ suffers, whether they look like us or think like us or sound like us or have anything in common with us other than Christ, we all suffer, and we don’t bear witness to the gospel the way the body of Christ is meant to do. And to the degree that we stand by and let that suffering continue, we are complicit in damaging the body and its witness.
Having worked through this body metaphor, Paul now returns to the diversity of spiritual gifts, or manifestations of the presence of the Spirit, that he had discussed earlier in this chapter. Again the list is incomplete, but Paul now places those gifts in the context of the church as God appoints people to contribute: apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of powerful deeds, healers, helpers, leaders, speakers of various tongues. And just as the body would look rather ridiculous if it were nothing but an eye or a foot, so the church becomes rather ridiculous if it consists of nothing but apostles or preachers or teachers.
But as Paul closes this thought, he actually “teases” us with something even better, a better, “more excellent” way for the church to live or for the body of Christ to function. The diverse and distinctive appropriation of gifts is characteristic and even needful in the church, and the diversity of members matters profoundly as well.
And yet, there is something else that matters more than all of these, or more precisely is the very thing that makes this distinctiveness and diversity work. What is it that makes the body of Christ what it is meant to be? What is it that brings all those diverse gifts and abilities and manifestations of the Spirit together in a way that enables us truly to bear witness to the Christ we say we follow?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #733, We All Are One in Mission; #318, In Christ There Is No East or West; #306, Blest Be the Tie that Binds
[i] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a,” Working Preacher (workingpreacher.org, 24 January 2016 2nd reading), accessed 21 January 2016.