Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
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It’s easy to get caught up in our small, individual identities — especially in today’s connected world fueled by social status and individual persona. Our digital footprints follow us everywhere. Most of us mere mortals haven’t figured out or wanted to escape them and they’re on display for everyone to judge and condemn (just as we do — to some degree — to everyone else).
This week’s readings are profoundly practical in this light. We’re at a pivotal moment in time. We can live in a way where the ego runs rampant using our digital tools as weaponry to tear others down (either to their face or not) in order to bolster our individual image… Or we can realize just how interdependent we actually are and use the tool of the social web for good.
I want to focus in on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this week. (I’ll include the Message translation in its entirety below because it’s just that good. If you don’t feel tingles down your spine as you read it, I don’t know what to say.)
This letter gives me such profound hope for humanity. Because if we can come to realize the perennial root of wisdom that Paul points to — in whatever way we come to it (no, it’s not exclusive to those who read his letter or even who call themselves ‘Christians’), we might just fulfill the prophecy of the great John Lennon and come together, right now…
Okay, cheesy Beatles references aside, this letter is profound now, but back then, it was paradigm-shattering. People in first-century Near-Eastern culture were used to a hierarchical religion. One based on certain people ranking higher than others in the eyes of God.
Paul lays waste to this notion in this letter...
In it, he points to the spiritual truth that we find our individual power in God when we lay our individuality down.
We find our individual power in God when we lay our individuality down.
Like a body that has many different parts and pieces, the human race makes up the body of Christ. Each part is significant and crucial to the whole. An eye doesn’t wish the ear wasn’t around. The foot doesn’t become envious of the hand with all its rings. All live and function fully as themselves while serving and living amidst the ecosystem of the whole.
Yes, we each have different roles, but no one is more significant than the other. Every part needs every other part.
In Paul’s depiction of this Christ-body, there is no more ranking. We are all forgiven, healed, and restored in the eyes of God. Our role is to recognize this in both ourselves and each other so that we can live as such.
Speaking of living as such, what would that look like?…
Maybe we could see each other flailing through this life and — instead of holding each other to impossible, ridiculous standards of perfection — release each other from it.
Everything works together. Yes, things can get sick and out of balance just like in any system. But when this happens, the rest of the system moves in to support those areas for the whole to begin functioning properly again.
It’s not about getting everyone to look and live the same way. This goes for the church as well. Whether it’s a room in the suburbs full of silver-haired people in button-down shirts and Dockers or a stadium in NYC full of hip young people donning Supreme and skinny jeans.
We see that we are brought together in the Christ consciousness. Life becomes bigger and more integrated. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves — labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free — are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.
We can take this societal approach and turn it inwards on ourselves as well. When we do this, we notice that we have inner elements that we deem good and bad, pure and impure, healthy and sick. But in the body of Christ, all of it is used. In fact, as Paul alludes to, the hidden and shameful parts are the parts where God is working the most intently. We can’t try to hide or suppress those parts.
The awareness of our unity in the body of Christ makes us more significant, not less.
Here it is, from Paul to the Corinthians…
You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts — limbs, organs, cells — but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain — his Spirit — where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves — labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free — are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.
I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.
But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way — the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?
The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.
You are Christ’s body — that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in his church, which is his “body”:
those who pray in tongues.
But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts.
But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.
— 1 Corinthians 12:12–31 The Message (MSG)