Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fan of metaphors. Not just using them, but pointing out that our language and our religion are full of them. Of reminding people that the foundations of our language are built on metaphor, and that even the phrase “the foundations of our language are built on metaphor”—is a metaphor.
|About This Sermon
Part 2 of the series “Our Mission”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
July 19, 2020
Deuteronomy 11:18–21; 1 Corinthians 12:12–31
In fact, during one interview about the topic of my book, the interviewer said, “So it’s basically all metaphors, all the time.” Yup. Pretty much.
There is something beautiful about using a concrete term (like concrete, say) and applying it in a non-literal sense to communicate an abstract idea. But when you think of it, there really is no other way to describe an abstract idea without metaphor. See, the trouble with abstract ideas is that, well, they’re abstract. Hard to pin down. Difficult to define. So we take some other word that has a literal meaning and we use it. How to describe that feeling of love when all you can think about is the beloved? Lovestruck—as if love came up and slapped you upside the head. How to describe an experience that has challenging emotional effects? Rough—as if it were an uneven road that jostled you around.
When we use metaphors it’s like admitting that we don’t really know how to describe something but say something anyway. Close enough. You get the idea.
And when it comes to not just abstract truths, but ineffable ones—truths and experiences that are hard to describe even to ourselves—we really have no choice but to use metaphors. Especially when it comes to faith. When we try to talk about God, for example, all we can come up with is metaphor: father, king, shepherd, fortress, rock, eagle, bakerwoman, lord, and on and on.
But it’s not just God that we use metaphor for; we do it for ourselves. For the church. To describe the nature of the connection that members of the church have. There is an ancient symbol for the church—a boat on the sea—you may have seen it. It is currently the logo for the World Council of Churches. We have also referred to ourselves as the New Israel, a Kingdom of Priests, the Beloved Community.
But by far, the most popular metaphor for the church, and one of the most ancient is Paul’s metaphor of the Body of Christ.
II. THE TEXT
In his first letter to the congregation at Corinth, Paul is responding to a number of questions and concerns that congregation has shared with him. One of them concerns “spiritual gifts”—likely the speaking in and interpretation of tongues. To be fair to his Corinthian congregants, the experience of seeing someone speak in tongues could be surprising or troubling, if you’ve never encountered it before. Paul responds directly to this by saying that as pagans they had allowed their lives to be governed by idols that could not speak. Here, now, they are given guidance through the Spirit of God which speaks through human beings.
But then he goes on to affirm that the gift of speaking in tongues or interpreting tongues is but one of many gifts that Christians have to offer.
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.1 Corinthians 12:8–11
There are a number of different kinds of gifts—speaking in tongues is just one of them—and all the gifts are activated by the Spirit of God.
It is then that he employs his famous metaphor:
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. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.1 Corinthians 12:12–14
He goes on to develop his metaphor, pointing out that just as it would be ludicrous for the foot to claim that it did not belong to the body because it was not a hand, or the ear to despair because it was not an eye, so, too, is it improper for a Christian with one kind of gift to feel alienated from the Body of Christ merely because they don’t possess some other kind of gift. If you don’t have the gift of speaking in tongues, that’s okay—you don’t belong any less to the Body of Christ than one who does. In fact, Paul continues, if we were all the same, what kind of body would that be? The diversity in members is an important aspect of what the body—and thus the church—is meant to be.
III. THE BODY OF CHRIST
Paul’s use of metaphor is a powerful one and has been used throughout church history to remind congregations that we are made up of members with a variety of gifts. It reminds us that we all have a role to play.
And this is an important reminder. When we join a United Methodist congregation or restate our vows of membership, we pledge to uphold the congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This is a pledge we all make. But it would be absurd to imagine that everyone prayed alike, that everyone could be present in the same way, that everyone had the same gifts, that everyone served in the same way, and that everyone witnessed in the same way.
Indeed, some folks are able to pray extemporaneously and do so with clarity in a way that others can follow along. Others pray in stream of consciousness that represents the pouring out of the heart before God. Others like to follow along with a devotional or prayer book. Others don’t pray with words but meditate or just clear their minds as they go about a walk or gardening or a hike. All these are valid methods of prayer and all of them uphold the church.
Some folks are present in such a way that when they’re absent you miss them right away. Some folks are one-person hospitality committees, welcoming everyone who walks through the door. Others are present to one or two people, but make those one or two people feel noticed and affirmed. Others are happy to write notes at a distance. Others are unable to attend, but call-in or watch online, and make the effort to reach out individually to people in the community (we’re all getting a taste of this method of presence lately). And all these different methods are ways for people to be meaningfully present.
In the same way, people serve in different ways. Some get involved with every committee they can. Some focus on one thing. Some like being up front. Some like being behind the scenes. Some give of their time, some give of their money. But all of them are part of the body in serving others.
People have different ways of witnessing, from the “Can I tell you about Jesus?” types to the ones who go about the work of the kingdom in silence, but never hiding what it is that drives them to do the work.
And so it is with gifts. The church has always relied on a multiplicity of gifts, from its pastoral leadership on down. And the diversity of gifts makes for a better team.
In one ministry setting, I remember having an early meeting with the woman who would be working with me as my assistant director. We brainstormed a bunch of ideas and programs and I created a Microsoft Word document listing them all and grouping them in certain areas. I enjoy thinking in terms of the broad strokes like that. The next time I opened the document, I noticed that she had added a series of checklists to the bottom, detailing all the steps that we would need to take in order to effect the ideas we’d come up with. I walked into her office and said, “We’re going to get along just fine.” Together, our different gifts—one for visioning, one for detail—came together to produce a team that was capable of doing a lot.
Understanding the church as a body with many members is vital to understanding how ministry is done. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve invited someone to be involved in ministry to be told, “Oh, I can’t do what you do.” Or, “I don’t really know much about the Bible.” Or “I’m not comfortable praying out loud.” As if those were the only ways—the public visible ways—to be involved in ministry. Sometimes ministry looks like helping the pastor to figure out how to manipulate an Excel spreadsheet.
There was an episode of the Drew Carey Show some years ago in which Drew, tired of his job working for a department store and feeling a spiritual tug on his life, explores the possibility of becoming a minister. At one point, he is sitting alone in the church waiting to talk to the minister, when a woman comes in crying and upset. He figures this is his chance to try out ministry and so he talks to her to find out what she needs. She is despondent because she’s lost her job and she doesn’t know how she’ll provide for her family. Suddenly Drew has an epiphany: “I work in HR,” he says. “I can get you a job.” And he realizes that he is able to provide ministry in the work he is already doing.
So many of us think we need to be the hands or the feet to do the work. As Paul says,
“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?”1 Corinthians 12:29–30
All the members of the body contribute to the work.
And so it is that Paul’s metaphor continues to speak to us as a church. A reminder that we each have a role to play. That we each have something to offer. That each of us plays a part—some visible, some behind the scenes—that is vital to the functioning of the entire body.
But there is another lesson to this metaphor. And it’s the one that does not get observed as much. It comes at the tail end of his reflection on the different parts of the human body and the way that God has arranged the parts of the body to function together as one. He caps this section off by saying,
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.1 Corinthians 12:26
Here is where our reflection on what it means to be “Connecting in Christ” really comes together. See, we can have a diversity of roles, we can all offer different gifts and abilities, but if we are not filled with this sense of interdependence and mutuality of support, then we are not a body—or at least not the Body of Christ.
Because the members of the body of Christ bear one another’s burdens and celebrate one another’s joys. When one ails, we all feel it. You can be otherwise healthy but if you break a leg, the rest of you will not be as able to do what you otherwise would do. If one part of your body is in pain, it affects the entire body, as anyone with a bad headache or a backache can tell you.
See, one of the things we tend to forget about our own bodies is how interconnected they are. How the health of the whole is not independent from the health of its members and the health of its members is not independent of the health of its other members.
It’s the same with us in the church. We are bound up in relationship with one another and that means that if some are ailing then the church is ailing. And if one is ailing, we all are ailing.
IV. THE BODY OF CHRIST IN THE WORLD
If we truly wish to Connect in Christ, then it is not enough to simply be a community of Christians who have a collaborative working relationship. Our connection must be one in which we truly understand that we are one body, healthy or ill together.
This is such a counter-cultural attitude to take. From birth we are fed mythologies of rugged individualism and “lift yourself up by your own bootstraps” I can make it on my own attitude. So much so that it’s hard for us to think otherwise. So much so that when you really stop and think about that metaphor—lifting oneself up by one’s own bootstraps—you realize that it’s impossible. (That’s long made me wonder whether the person who coined that phrase wasn’t being ironic and we all just missed the joke.)
The church isn’t a bunch of I’s—the church is a we. And as Paul says, if one member suffers; all suffer with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
A church that connects in Christ, then, wears masks when out in public—not for fear of our own illness, but for the sake of protecting the body’s weaker members. A church that connects in Christ doesn’t need to be physically present in its building to worship and maintain connection, especially when doing so would imperil the more vulnerable members of the body, and suffers no loss of religious liberty in doing so.
A church that connects in Christ cannot witness the suffering of our black and brown siblings under systemic racism and not suffer with them. A church that connects in Christ cannot witness the plight and misery of the poor and not experience that with them. A church that connects in Christ cannot witness the continued second-class status of women and not suffer the same indignity. A church that connects in Christ cannot witness the marginalization and demonization of LGBTQ persons, especially trans persons and persons of color, and not feel demonized and marginalized with them.
A church connecting in Christ stands in solidarity with all because it recognizes that those who suffer are not them—they are us. Indeed, the church that connects in Christ understands, as Jesus did, that there is no us and them—there is only us. Our social witness is not informed by a sense that we, removed from suffering, nevertheless deign to offer our time and attention to the suffering of others, but is informed by the recognition that the suffering of others is our suffering. And when we are able to work toward justice and inclusion then the joy of others will be our joy, too.
In the movie Annie Hall, the main character Alvy Singer is accused by Annie of being incapable of enjoying life. He responds, “I can’t enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening.”
The church does not need to be as joyless as that, but we would do well to embody the idea that the sufferings of others do not exist apart from us. They do not happen apart from Christ.
Indeed, Christ came as the ultimate demonstration of the solidarity of God: not some divine avatar of an aloof and dispassionate deity, but a flesh and blood human being who knew our joys and our sorrows. Who took those sorrows into himself and who died our death so that we might have life.
If we, who claim his name, would embody him in the world, then neither can we be dispassionate and aloof.
We speak in metaphors about the things we cannot understand or that are hard to define perfectly, but that doesn’t make the metaphors any less true. We are a body composed of different members but bound together as one.
We are a community of many different gifts, abilities, graces, ideas, personalities. But what unites us is that we are connected to one another—not through simple working relationships or arrangements of convenience, but in Christ.
And because of that connection we are connected to all—to all the people for whom Christ died—to stand in solidarity in times of need and crisis, to stand in celebration in times of joy and victory, but above all else, to stand together as one people. And in this transformation of our selves and our attitudes, we find ourselves participating in the transformation of the very world itself.
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.
1 Corinthians 12:12–31
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.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
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. And I will show you a still more excellent way.