Thursday, 24 January 2013

The body of Christ - Reversals of Culture?

Peter Lockhart

The body of Christ
 “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

The image of the church as a body, or more specifically as the body of Christ is a well known one for any of us who have grown up in the church. So much so that it might be easy to have the mistaken idea that the image of a group of people being a body is a uniquely Christian one.

If we look back though, into the time leading up to Paul’s letter and contemporary with it, we find that Marcus Agrippa had already made a correlation between the state and the body, even before Christ’s birth. Whilst a contemporary of Paul’s, Plutarch, uses the body imagery to speak to the plebians, the lower echelons within society, to remind them of their place as lesser members of the body as lesser than the Patricians.

What is striking, as the biblical commentator Ben Witherington III points out, is that Paul uses the same imagery though in a reverse direction. Paul uses the body imagery to remind those at the top of the hierarchial pile that the lesser members of the body have a unique and important place as well and should be valued for their place within the body.

By reversing the use of the image Paul is challenging the cultural presuppositions through which hierarchy and authority were being reinforced to present an alternate image of life lived in community with God and one another. I want you to keep that thought of reversal on your mind as we consider 2 perspectives in relationship to the body imagery.

The first is to look at the body imagery that Paul uses within a congregation and more specifically within this congregation here at St Lucia.

At the heart of Paul’s message is that everyone who is here is connected to one another and that what each one of us has to offer matters. Whilst we might value certain gifts more highly than others Paul is concerned to emphasise that the gifts we have are not our own but are given to us and therefore they are not there for our self aggrandizement but for the building up of the whole.

When it comes down to it ‘church’ is not a place we come on Sunday but is something that we are as we live using our gifts for the building up of the whole as God intends us. And, whatever it is that we offer or we think another person in the congregation may or may not offer, all of the members of the body are to be held in respect and esteem.

To be able to be the church as we are called to I believes take the time to get to know one another more deeply than our hour on Sunday allows for and invites us beyond the secure boundaries that our culture has set for us.

Which brings me back to the idea that the imagery of the body as Paul uses it is still about reversal, this still holds true. In our Western, modern world we have been encouraged to see life and the gifts that we are given are for ourselves and for our own benefit. This might be reflected in the fact that one of the most popular songs chosen at funerals is “I did it my way” – which implies an individualism which stands in opposition to God’s love and being the body together.

The other reversal which the body imagery challenges us with is to see beyond our faith as a privatised matter. Many of you may have heard the saying that we should not talk about politics, sex or religion – a statement which not only leads to boring conversation but a subjugation of faith and thought in general.

The cultural indoctrination towards individualism and the privatisation of our faith has been exacerbated by a certain Protestant trend to view faith as a personal relationship between me and God, centred on a person’s salvation.

Yet, if we are to be a church, a community in which we value each other and each other’s gifts, then speaking openly about our faith, and even our doubts within that faith, and about the gifts we offer is part and parcel of what we should be doing as people living the faith.

To draw this into the context of our Church Open Day next week, if visitors do come along who are not regular church goers and interested in why we are here and what we do thinking about how we might answer the question of why we come here is important. If someone were to ask that question and your answer was, “because I always have” you have really told them very little about your faith, God, Jesus, love or hope. But maybe if you answered ‘because I feel a sense of God’s presence in worship’ or ‘I come to grow in faith and be encouraged in my life’ or ‘I have discovered a sense of community and welcome among the people here’ then you are opening the door to something deeper.

In giving answers such as these you may be both revealing your place within the body and affirming the reality of God for the person to whom you are speaking. This is a reversal of the individualised and privatised view of religion so strongly held within our contemporary society which has infiltrated the church as well. In our current culture not only do we need to learn how to speak intelligibly about God, Jesus and our faith we also need to jump of the hurdle of giving ourselves permission to do so.

This leads me to the second reflection I want to make about the body imagery in the context of the broader church.

It may have been that when Paul listed the gifts found within the body he may have expected each house church to find those gifts located within the one community. However, what appears more likely is that Paul’s letter was addressed to a group of Christian communities within Corinth. It is entirely possible that Paul understood that the gifts would be present across the communities not in every single one.

This is an important thing to reflect on as we consider our contemporary situation in which there are many different churches and in which we as a small congregation find that we can offer only just so much.

Just as within the congregation we offer different gifts so too as a congregation we offer who we are and the gifts we have to broader witness of the church to God’s love for the world.

To put it another way ‘we are who we are, we can be no other’. Some congregations offer big gatherings, some have contemporary bands and smoke machines; some are strongly committed to social justice, others to evangelism. Whilst it is important to not have too narrow a focus in who we are, accepting what we offer as a valid and meaningful expression of God’s love is an important step along the way to living a healthy faith as a congregation.

Once again to drag our thinking into the Open Day when we speak about who we are with others we should do that, not speak about what we are not and apologise for those things. We are a small, vibrant and diverse community of faith who have committed to the idea and challenge “living the faith” more meaningfully in 2013.

If our opening is always to lament about what we do not have, for example saying sorry there are not many young people or sorry there are not many families, we are failing to value our place within the body and possible more importantly we are not inviting people to see who we are and what we offer, which is ultimately not ourselves and the quality of our community but the hope we have in God found in Jesus Christ.

In this I think there is a reversal of the consumerist approach to our culture which constantly weighs life up but what we do not have rather than what we already have.

So the body imagery continues to reverse our thinking and challenge us be faithful to what God has done in drawing us to be one in the Spirit, to be the church.

This leads me to make a final comment about being the body of Christ, a church, in our Australian context. Ultimately we are drawn into the body so that God’s love might be known not only by each other but by the whole world. The gifts we are given are for the building up of the whole, that is to say the entire world.

Now yesterday was Australia Day which I think is a day which presents us with difficult messages and reflections about who we are as people. Australia is a great place to live and despite having one of the highest costs of living we also have one of the highest living standards.

But as Australians we like to propagate the myth of being an egalitarian culture, that we are all equal; that we give a fair go to all. Yet we must remember that despite the distance since the First Fleet arrived for indigenous people we are foreigners who stole their lands from them. Most of us are people whose roots go back to the occupation of Australia on one way or another.

Last week I read an article how about the widening gap between rich and poor in Australia.

Recently we have seen ethnic and racial tensions spill onto suburban streets in Brisbane.

And as we meet our country holds refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention centres.

Whilst I can be as parochial as the next Aussie about the cricket or rugby or whatever ultimately the body which we are called to be a part of transcends our national identity. We are Christ’s first and Australians later.

Yet as Christ’s body in this context of Australia we are called to reflect on how the gifts we bring to this country might be used for the building up of the whole, as a witness to the promise of the reconciliation of all things in Christ.

The words of Paul proclaim good news: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Our life in this body is a gift, what we offer to one another comes to us as gift, and what we offer to the culture and world around us is bigger than who we are because it is the very grace of God revealed in Jesus and through the Spirit that is working in and through us.

Take a moment to reflect on God’s word to you this day.

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