Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 27, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a Commentary
When asked to define “church,” at least some people answer by talking about a place like a building, an event like a worship service, or even a kind of organization that people join. But when Paul defines “church,” he speaks of a living organism into which God’s children are born again, by God’s grace. He speaks of the church as a body into which God graciously grafts God’s adopted children, much like people graft skin onto skin.
But, frankly, it can hard to think of the church as one “body.” In some ways, it’s hard to think of just a local church as a “body.” At least some 21st century churches are, after all, made up of a widely scattered group of people who sometimes come together only once or twice a week. What’s more, members of local churches come in various shapes, sizes and skin hues with divergent interests and skills.
Yet if it’s difficult to think of the local church as a body, think of how even more difficult it can be to think of the worldwide church as one “body.” That body, after all, has splintered into thousands of denominations and millions of local churches. People of almost every language and tribe worship God in countless different ways and languages.
What’s more, it’s hard for God’s adopted children to think of the church as one body when we so often emphasize the differences among Christians. Christians sometimes so emphasize our own theological traditions’ understanding of things like the sacraments and the time of Christ’s return that it’s tempting to surmise that members of other theological traditions can’t be part of Christ’s body with us.
Against all of this, however, Paul insists in verse 27, we “are the body of Christ.” Among other things, that means that the church has one head, one “control center,” who is Jesus Christ our Lord. What’s more, because the church is one body, it also visibly shows the world the invisible Christ.
In a culture that glorifies the individual, members of Christ’s body that is the church work together to fulfill their functions and responsibilities. However, in a culture that also sometimes almost tries to enforce uniformity, the church also celebrates diversity in its membership as well as its gifts and tasks.
1 Corinthians 12:12ff. summons its hearers and readers to thank God for engrafting us into this body which is both God’s local and worldwide church. God’s beloved children thank God for making us, like God made hands and eyes, just as we are. We also thank God for giving us both tasks and abilities that contribute to the church’s well-being and ministry.
On this Sunday, however, 1 Corinthians 12 reminds all who read and hear it that we’re only one tiny part of the body that is Jesus Christ’s church. So it implies that we need to look for ways to make that profession concrete in the lives of those who hear us.
Those who proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday will want to use examples that fit their own contexts. When I last preached on this text, I reminded members of the body that is our local church that we’re part of that body also that includes Christian Reformed churches in metropolitan Washington D.C. However, I pointed out that we’re also part of the body that is Christ’s church that includes area churches such as King Emmanuel Baptist Church, St. Andrew Apostle (Roman Catholic) Church and Northwood Presbyterian Church.
However, those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 12 also remember that we’re part of the body that is the worldwide church that includes Orthodox churches in Russia and Coptic churches in Egypt. We’re part of the body that includes Anglican churches in South Africa and Lutheran churches in Scandinavia.
However, we’re also part of the body of the Christ that is the church in places like Asia and the Middle East. We’re part of the body that includes Christians in places like India and Indonesia, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
Because we’re part of the same body, when, as Paul writes in verse 26, “one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” When, in other words, persecuted Christians throughout the world suffer, all Christians also suffer. In fact, all Christians suffer when even one part of the church suffers.
Think about how this works in the human body. If I have a headache, it can feel as if my feet, back and hands suffer with my head. Some of also know, in fact, how if you have surgery on one part of your body, it’s as if the rest of your body suffers right along with it.
Don’t we also feel some of that kind of pain in the body that is the local church? Those who proclaim this text will want to remind hearers of the pain they’ve felt or feel at the suffering of other members of their church. We may even want to name those with whom we weep and mourn.
This morning, however, we want to remember that we also suffer with Christians whom others persecute for their faith. Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 12:12ff. might consult websites such as International Christian Concern for current examples of such “body aches.”
However, those who mention examples of the persecution of Christians want to be careful. We don’t, after all, want to be too graphic in our descriptions of suffering and persecution. What’s more, those who proclaim this text also don’t want to weight examples so heavily toward, for example, Muslims’ persecution of Christians that we imply that all Muslims are bad, only Muslims persecute Christians and that Muslims never suffer at the hands of Christians.
Some members of the body of Christ that is the Church will come to the Lord’s Table this Sunday. We have deep theological differences with some of them. Others with whom we at least figuratively sit around the Table are suffering deeply for their faith. Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 12:12ff. will want to remind our hearers and ourselves that we sit at Table with all of them.
Yet it can be hard for perhaps especially North American Christians to suffer with persecuted Christians. They, after all, are often both literally and figuratively far from most of us. So those who proclaim this text will want to ask how we can let the Holy Spirit generate empathy for persecuted Christians. How do we learn more and more to suffer with those who suffer?
God’s adopted sons and daughters perhaps begin by taking the time to learn about persecuted Christians’ plights. We also read and watch various new media reports with global eyes. However, Jesus’ followers also pray for persecuted Christians. After all, even as we suffer with them, we remember that, as James writes, the prayer of God’s people is “powerful and effective.”
According to an August 24, 2018 America: The Jesuit Review article entitled, “Religious Freedom Around the World Under Siege”, “Religious freedom around the world has taken a beating over the last two years, according to a number of authoritative sources, including the U.S. Department of State and the Pew Research Center. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that the most severe repression based on religion includes genocide, enslavement, sexual assault, forced displacement and conversions, property destruction, the marginalization of women and bans on children participating in religious activities.
“The Pew Research Center’s ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion also contains distressing news. The share of countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose from 25 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2016, Pew reports. That percentage falls just below the 10-year peak of 29 percent in 2012, which coincided with the Arab Spring uprisings. Meanwhile, the share of countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of social hostilities involving religion—that is, acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society—remained at a historically high rate of 27 percent.
“Overall, 83 countries in 2016 had high or very high levels of restrictions on religion—whether from government or social hostilities. This was up from 58 in 2007, Pew’s baseline year for the continuing study.
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