I once attended a meeting at another church, and I will tell you, it was one of those meetings —you know the ones. We were there to sort out a disagreement, and it was a meaningful conversation, and it did not lead us to a place of resolution. At the end of the meeting, the pastor led a closing prayer. He said, “O God. We are your body…” Then there was a serious stretch of silence. Then I don’t remember the rest of the prayer because I was stuck on his assertion.
O God. We are your body. O God, I am sorry. We can’t even sort out our stuff, and here we are. We’re what you’ve got!
Teresa of Avila was a mystic from the sixteenth century and she wrote a poem that I find both hopeful and a little threatening. “Christ has no body, but yours,” she wrote.
“Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet.
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours…”
The hopeful part is that it’s up to us to do the work of Christ in the world; of course, the threatening part is that it’s up to us to do the work of Christ in the world. It’s up to us.
Today our scripture comes from one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, and talk about unresolvable conflict, this church in Corinth was a mess. Paul calls them out for jealousy and quarreling, for immoral behavior, for suing fellow church members in the Roman courts, for women failing to cover their heads in church, for some members partaking in the Lord’s Supper and eating all the food, so when the others arrive, there’s nothing left for them. After all the rebuking, this letter to the Corinthians arrives at this passage. “Now you are the body of Christ,” Paul says —to this lot! It’s up to you.
What’s more, just because you’re a foot instead of a hand, that does not make you any less a part of the body. Just because you’re an ear instead of an eye, we need you for hearing. The members of the body that seem weaker are indispensable. Those members that we think are less honorable, we clothe with greater honor. Our less respectable members are treated with greater respect because our more respectable members don’t need it. If one member suffers, all suffer together. If one member is honored, all rejoice together.
The body of Christ might be my favorite metaphor for the church. I love the idea that diversity is not something we clench our teeth and tolerate, but our differences are precisely what make the whole thing work. I love the idea that when one part is injured or weakened, another part becomes stronger to compensate. I love the reminder that we’re so much more connected than we realize.
And look, I know this is a metaphor, and metaphors have their limits, and well, so do our bodies.
Human people are not just a collection of body parts —the foot bone connected to the leg bone, the leg bone connected to the knee bone, and so forth. Our bodies are entire systems. Our bodies are fragile, and usually broken, and usually healing. Our bodies can bleed, and cry, and smell bad, and play music, and make babies, and unload a half ton of food for the pantry, and get up the next day. See the church is like this.
Something our bodies have been trying to teach us for only our whole lives is that we will change, every one of us, and change again. I know this might not sound like good news, especially when these changes come by surprise, when suddenly you can’t do the things you have always done. In some ways, the changing of our bodies reminds us of the mortality we’re carrying in our bones. In some ways, this changing just plain hurts.
It’s like aging is letting go, then letting go some more, then learning new steps. Imagine if our aging bodies could teach us how to let go of expectations, to soften our sense of “supposed to.” Imagine if our bodies have something to teach us about grace.
I am no expert at overcoming physical limitations, not at all, but here’s what I can offer. When I think I should be able to do something and surprise —I can’t!— these days, something I’m trying is to become more and more honest with myself and more and more gentle. When I’m at the bottom of the hill, it does not help me to think, “What happened, Mariah! You used to be able run faster.” Instead, I’m learning to say: “Okay. This is my speed. This is the hill. I’m gonna choose to be gentle.” (And not every time, but sometimes this actually helps me go faster than I thought I could.)
The truth is, the changing of our bodies is more than the diminishing of abilities or the hastening of death.
In this room, there are people who have learned how to run marathons, people who have learned how to receive help. People in here have learned to walk as adults; some of you have learned to dance; some of you have given birth. Our bodies recover from trauma, and addiction, and surgery, and unimaginable grief. We have gotten up from the dead, every one of us. And we’ll do it again.
The only way to live is to change and keep changing. We can fight this or we can become more honest and more gentle, but the choice is not whether we’ll change, it’s how. Same thing is true for the church.
I know this might not sound like good news. As a church we are aging, and growing smaller, and feeling the closeness of death. Part of that’s because we feel the presence of church members who have died. Part of that’s because we know churches who are closing their doors. There’s no guarantee Church of Peace will go on forever.
There is the promise that we will change. Already we are growing in our faith. (Today we’re also growing in number!) We’re not just rehearsing the same tasks because this is what we’ve always done; instead we’re asking new questions about God’s dream for this neighborhood and for our purpose. We try new things in worship all the time; we’ve changed our staff structure, our room layout, our budget, our Sunday School curriculum, our boiler, our website, our communion liturgy… And we’ll keep at it.
As the church, we have the chance to be very honest about who we are and what we have. Then we can choose to be gentle. And not every time, but sometimes this combination of honesty and gentleness will help us grow in ways we never even imagined.
In his body, Jesus ate with people he didn’t know very well. He gave food to those who were hungry; he healed those who were sick. He went up the mountain to pray, and he slept in the back of a boat. He held children in his arms, and stopped a stoning from happening, and washed feet. When they came for his body, he died. Then he got up from the dead. Then he did some more eating. All through the Gospel, his body kept changing, and his body keeps changing the world.
Now we are the body of Christ. We are volunteering to keep changing; we are signing up to be transformed by God’s love, so we can help turn the world toward love, as though it’s up to us. Because it is. Amen.