3RD EPIPHANY — 27 January 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am
[Not preached, due to hazardous weather conditions that cancelled the service. I reserve the right to resurrect this sermon on this Sunday in 2016!]
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a | Luke 4:14-21
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. [1 Corinthians 12:27]
The human body is a remarkable thing. I think we instinctively know that; most of us, I suspect, have given some explicit thought to it at one time or another. Have you ever meditated upon your own body, or some part of your own body? Even some of the silliest little things are occasions of wonder. Why do we have two hands, and not four? (God knows there are times when four hands would come in handy!) Why don’t we have eyes in the back of our heads? (That might have a certain usefulness too, especially for parents!) Why do children take so long to grow up? I don’t mean, “Why do children take so long to grow up!!??!” but, some little animals like mice grow to maturity in a few weeks. Even big animals like horses and cattle are mature in, what? three or four years. Depending on how you define “grown up,” it takes us twenty years, plus or minus. (A few generations ago it was about sixteen; these days it’s closer to thirty!) Human beings—just as bodily creatures, without getting into all our personal diversity—are astoundingly complex and sophisticated systems. We often discover this precisely when something breaks down: we are very fragile, and malfunctions in some apparently minor part of the body can hamper and even seriously threaten the whole organism. Consider the toothache!
I think we’d probably do well to consider “bodiliness” more deeply than we do. “Bodiliness” is an important way of being. And it doesn’t just have to do with our own individual bodies; it has to do with the way we are in relationship with each other.
The Latin word for “body” is corpus. That may be a boring piece of information; but it’s the root of the English word “corporate.” We talk about our “corporate life”—in the Church, in business, in human society—and what we mean is our life together as a body. In the Epistle this Sunday, St. Paul talks about the Church as the Body of Christ.
In thinking about human society, there are two extreme poles which we need to avoid. One of those poles is “collectivism.” That’s the notion that human society is just like a beehive; it is the group that is important, the individual is not (unless, of course, you are the queen bee!). One person is but a cog in a machine; conformity is all-important. If any of you were television science-fiction fans, you may remember “The Borg” on Star Trek; more recently we might think of “The Observers” on Fringe. More realistically historically, this “collectivism” has been represented in the world by Marxist-Leninist regimes. Part of their internal contradiction is shown in that while Communism claimed to be the party of the “working class,” it had little real care for working men and women as persons; “the people” were simply “the masses.” It’s not surprising that it was primarily the working people themselves who brought about the demise of Marxism, especially in Eastern Europe. But there were also significant collectivist elements in Nazism, which exalted the state and the ethnic and racial identity of the nation above any concern for individual persons; conformity was essential there, too.
The other pole is “individualism.” That’s the notion that every single human being is complete in him- or herself, by him- or herself; that we do not need other people (except in certain instrumental ways), and that dependence upon another is a sign of weakness. Individualism sees human society, and any human relationships, as a matter of practical convenience, no more. Life becomes a matter of competition rather than cooperation; life is a zero-sum game, so that if I am to win, you have to lose; the goal is the self-fulfillment of the individual. Our own society has a very heavy streak of individualism in it, and we are not the better for it. Extreme forms of libertarianism, a la Ayn Rand, would be examples.
As you might suspect, I suggest that the truth is at neither of these poles. It’s not so much a matter of the truth being “somewhere in between,” as if it were a compromise, “half a cup of collectivism and half a coup of individualism, beat briskly for two minutes on ‘high’.” No, human life is really a different kind of thing, not on the scale between those two poles at all. As human persons, we have our own integrity, our own autonomy, our own value, our own importance, and yet we are created to live not by ourselves but in relationship to each other; we are persons in ourselves but we cannot be persons by ourselves. (My seminary professor told us that, and I’ve always remembered it. So should you! We are persons in ourselves but we cannot be persons by ourselves! We are meant to live in “community,” which is a very different sort of thing either than an all-subsuming collective or a mere aggregate of individuals. We are, in short, as human beings, very much like the organs of a body. Our life as human beings is, and is meant to be, corporate. We might note that this is part of what is involved in our being created in the image of God, the Triune God.
And so our life in the Church is corporate; and in fact, the life of the Church, as a corporate community, is meant to be a model for the life of the human world as a whole. It’s a model in which (and this is what Paul is getting at in the Epistle this Sunday) every member has his or her own uniqueness and importance. It’s a model which requires cooperation and participation. It’s a model characterized by mutual responsibility and interdependence (to revive a good expression once common in the Church), in which the common good and the individual good converge. And what makes it work, and what makes the corporate life of the Church a model for the common life of the whole of humankind, is precisely that we are the Body of Christ. It is the grace and power of Jesus Christ’s love which is the life of the Body. For in the end it is only love which makes true human community possible; and it is our calling as Christians to enact and model the true human community in the world.