This week we explore the Body of Christ, as it is explained in Romans. This is an extra special passage for me, it was my first “professional” sermon, well, at least the first one I was paid for. It was back while I was at college and for the pastor at my parent’s church. He was in a bind and needed someone to do a week of pulpit supply. Having had a year of being a youth director and three years of college under my belt, my parent’s church decided that since they were going to sponsor me they should probably hear me preach.
There are good points and bad points to preaching in front of people who know you, especially those in central Illinois. While they always extend a little extra grace, they also don’t hold back with the counts of “ums” and strange pauses. I actually was surprised when they handed me a check. When I went to give it back, it was refused; the elder who handed me the check said, “you're a preacher, and preachers get paid for preaching.” Then he gave me that look that said, “didn’t you listen to your own sermon?”
The background of the pericope that we are exploring this Sunday is a development that we can follow from Paul’s earliest letters to this one, which falls somewhere in the middle (around 58 AD) of all of his letters. Fundamental within Paul’s letters is an understanding that once one embraces Christianity they must accept that there is no longer a class system. This is problematic within the culture of both the Greco-Roman world as well as the Hebrew. As we know, purity and power were very important in both of those cultures.
But Paul has a working understanding that there is a fundamental problem with the hierarchies. That problem is that when one elevates one person over another, the elevated individual places himself or herself in a god-like role asserting control or power over another. Thus, embarking on the most consistently denounced sins in the whole bible: elevating others or ourselves to being God.
But without a hierarchy, there is huge problem that arises. How we account for differences. This is part of the genius of Paul. While the Gospels witness to Christ and share his teachings, Paul helps us with understanding how we are to live out Christ’s teachings. Granted these are not easy tasks since many of the teachings, while very scriptural and known, were abandoned for cultural traditions. So Paul needed an example to help people understand. Hence the image of the body allows Paul to use something that is well known among the people he is preaching to.
The basic understanding is that every part of the body is important, and when one part of the body is missing, life is exponentially more difficult. I learned this the summer I broke both of my legs and was bound to a wheelchair. While I could get most places, it was not as easy as it would have been. You’ll have to ask me about some of the more funny stories sometime. But all I will say is that while I could overcome the loss I was glad to regain my ability to walk.
The image of the body of Christ works on many levels but mostly it shows how each piece is important. Even though we might be able to get by without one or the other, it does make life more difficult.
So instead of status, ethnicity, or power, the world is broken up into equally distributed gifts. Each of these gifts reflects a different part of the body. This means that while there is equality of status and ultimately salvation, that does not equate to sameness of lives. In fact, it is a realization that only in diversity of thought, understanding, and abilities that we fully live out what we are called to be as Christians.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen