I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable, sensible worship, or service.
2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
I chose this text from Paul’s letter to the Romans for this morning—our first physical gathering for worship in six months—that’s half a year—because our being physically separated made me want to grab onto Paul’s description of the community that God gathers together. Paul says: “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” I have missed being together with you in our bodies as one body gathered to sing and pray, to share the Lord’s Supper and pass the peace, and to sit at table in Bethany Hall eating sandwiches with our arms touching and talking with our mouths full! I have missed having Raven and Raiden run across the Hall to hug me. I have gotten lots of virtual hugs in the last six months, from people I’ve talked with over Zoom and from people standing 6-12 feet away from me, making a circle with their arms and pretending to wrap me in that fleshy circle.
There is no substitute for real hugs. And, I know, not everybody likes to be hugged. But there is nothing like the energy of being together in our bodies. We need it. In early summer as it became warm enough to begin visiting with some of our older members at their homes, outside, wearing masks, when I arrived at 95-year-old Shirley Mead’s back door and began talking to her through the screen, she opened the door, grabbed me by the arm, and said, “Get in here.” I tried to argue with her. And her response? She said something like, “I’d rather get sick and die than spend any more time all by myself!”
Paul says, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” This is one of my favorite images for the Church. We can all understand this image, this metaphor because we all have bodies. And, if you ever stop to think about your body, you realize what a miracle of fine-tuned, complex, intricate co-operation it is. We probably realize this most acutely when our bodies are out of sync—when we become ill, or are injured, or don’t get enough sleep, or when we’re really stressed out. A little blister on your foot can cause you to walk in a way that eventually gives you a backache. A chemical imbalance in your brain can cause depression or dementia. A shortage of electrolytes in your body can lead to convulsions. I am often amazed at how well our bodies function even though we don’t always treat them well. Minor cuts and bruises heal without our aid. Even major tendon tears and bone fractures can mend themselves over time without medical interventions.
In short, our bodies are a profound example of a great diversity of things—bones and blood, muscles and grey matter, toes and noses, organs and eyeballs, chemicals and chromosomes—an incredible diversity of things working in unity without our ever really thinking about it, until something doesn’t work. It is this reality of unity in diversity that compels Paul to describe the church as a diverse bunch of folk—unique bodies gathered together by the Spirit to live in unity, as a single body. This is who we are. It is what God—Father, Son, and Spirit— have done and are always doing—drawing together a wonderful, wild mix of people to be one body together. We aren’t being asked to evaluate the proposal and decide whether we’re in or we’re out. It is the case whether we accept it or not, and whether we feel it or like it or not. It is a given. It is a gift. It is the outworking of the grace, love, and mercy of God.
The church is one of God’s great alternatives to the propensity of human beings to draw lines, mark boundaries, separate and contend along lines of nation, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political party, ideology, theology….you name it, human beings find cause to build walls and separate. God’s idea is to gather all of these distinctives, all this diversity, and prepare a huge, never-ending banquet to which everyone is invited, and the only rule is that, now and again you sit by someone you don’t know, someone who is different from you, someone who could push your buttons and stretch your heart. The church is in this way a body that is created to NOT conform to the very human pattern of using our diversity as a reason to fight and separate ourselves from one another.
Of course, the church doesn’t always look like God’s great alternative to the human propensity to separate from those who aren’t like us, who don’t agree with us, who don’t think like us, or do things the way we do them. Although the church is one body in Jesus Christ, we have to admit that it is a body that suffers from an auto-immune disease. It is a body which quite frequently, over centuries and to this day, attacks and damages its own self.
Obviously, the church’s being as one body with many diverse members doesn’t work in the same way as does our each having a body made up of many parts. Our human bodies, when they are working well, are a miracle of co-operation. My liver doesn’t compete with my pancreas. Your brain doesn’t disparage your bowels. My little toe isn’t jealous of my big toe. Each body part has its job to do, and the health our bodies depends on all the other parts doing their thing without our having to think about it or cause it to be.
And this is where the metaphor of the church as one body made up of many diverse bodies breaks down. Our being a non-conforming, diverse body functioning in unity is not automatic. So, all week I’ve been wondering, how do we be one body together? How do we live into the reality that already is given as a gift from God? Is it an act of imagination for each of us to think of the other as a part of our one shared body. Can I imagine you as as much a part of me as my left pinky or my pancreas is a part of my body? Can you imagine me as a part of you in this way? Is it a matter of our willing? Is it a matter of choosing and leaning into the reality that we are one body together? Is it a matter of accepting that when you suffer, I suffer with you. That when I am rejoicing, you too have cause to rejoice? Is it a matter of being aware of how the way we think about ourselves impacts the way we think about the other? How does my white privilege affect the way I think about and engage with people of color? How does your maleness shape your regard for women? How does my social class impact the way I relate to you and others?
It’s all of these. Our being together as one body calls for our most robust imagination. It requires our unwavering intention to live into the connections that God gives us. It demands our deepest and most honest self-awareness—we are each beautiful and broken, abled and disabled. And the whole “one body thing” depends entirely on our ability to re-member God’s unconditional love for each of us and for every person. It is this divine love, this grace, this mercy that is the power at work in us, the power that makes of us one body in Jesus the Christ, the power that enables us to live as a non-conforming, diverse, unified body.
It is not automatic. It is not easy. But these months of being separated from one another in our bodies has made me realize how precious, what a gift it is to be a body together. And it is what it is because the God who chose to come into the world in a body, in the person of Jesus has a vision for the whole human race, in all of its beautiful diversity, to dwell together in unity, as one body, sharing life, sharing love. And, for better or worse, throughout the world the church exists, we exist together as a little sign of God’s transforming vision for all people. So come to God’s welcoming banquet table with joy thanksgiving. And whoever you are, where ever you are, from time to time, take a seat beside someone you don’t know, someone who is very different from you, and lean into the reality that you are bound together as one body in love.