Anyone who has been married more than three weeks knows that you have to be selective about where you put your foot down. You don’t live with your spouse long before you start to discover that she or he does some weird things. You’d always heard that there were people who squeezed the toothpaste tube in the middle without rolling it up from the bottom, but you never dreamed you’d live with one. Who in the world folds towels like that? Your family does what for Christmas? If a marriage is going to last, you have to put the relationship first, above your individual preferences. You have to go beyond thinking about how I do things or how you do things to thinking about how we do things. And since my wife isn’t here this morning, I’m going to admit that I’m really glad that she’s changed me to do lots of things her way.
Paul was writing to people who were in a marriage of sorts, although it was more like an arranged marriage. In Corinth people from every race and class and level of education had been brought together to worship and serve Jesus Christ. Not only were they from very different backgrounds, they had come to Jesus by different ways. Some had ecstatic out of body experiences where they spoke in tongues. Some had been miraculously healed. Some of them had dramatic encounters with Jesus who turned their lives around on the spot. They could tell you the exact date and time that he had changed them forever. Others had come to him gradually, through a slow and deliberate process of learning and nurture. Each one thought his or her experience was the one and only way to come to Jesus. For many whose experience of the Holy Spirit was so powerful, they couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to Jesus any other way. Some insisted that speaking in tongues was how you knew if a person was really a follower of Jesus. Those who could pinpoint the moment they were saved were adamant that if you couldn’t name the moment, then you weren’t a believer. Those who had been miraculously healed were certain that unless you’d experienced a miracle you hadn’t met Jesus.
About the only thing many of the Christians in Corinth had in common with each other was their faith in Christ, and many of them weren’t sure about that. The church there was like one of those families that you look at and wonder how the siblings who are so different from one another could have been reared under the same roof. In making sense out of that diverse family of faith, the church, Paul uses a different metaphor. He describes the church as a body. Each part of a body has a different function. The eye and the ear do different things. They are put together differently and they function differently. Different parts of the body have a different perspective on things. The way your hands interact with the world up here is different from the way your feet interact with the world down on the ground. But for all their differences, the parts of the body exist for the good of the whole. A hand that is cut off from the body is useless, and the body suffers for the loss. That’s how it is with Christ’s body, the church. There is lots of diversity, but it all works for the common good.
Now, in many ways what Paul is describing goes against nature. If you ever took physics, you learned about Newton’s laws of thermodynamics that describe how the natural world works. If there were natural laws like that describing people, one of the laws of social dynamics would be that people tend to split apart to be with others like themselves. And the longer they are together, the more they realize how different they are from each other, so there is always a shifting among groups of people trying to find those with whom they’re most comfortable.
It’s so much easier to break apart and form separate tribes than it is to work together for the common good. We build walls to define our kind and to keep out those who are different. But the book of Ephesians in the New Testament says that Christ came to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. That is what makes the church so different. It is the place where Christ brings together those who, if they followed their natural instincts, would be apart.
Now, that doesn’t mean that in Christ we are all the same. Paul writes, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”
If Christ’s body consists of many different parts, we need to know what makes our part distinctive so we can do our best for the common good. For instance, one of the things that make Presbyterians distinct from other parts of the church are our conviction that God calls us to service as well as salvation. We’re not saved just to get our ticket to heaven, but so we can serve the world in the name of Christ. So we’re a church that is involved in the world. We don’t just sit in our sanctuaries and enjoy being saved. Another thing that makes us distinctive is that we have a disciplined concern for order. We resonate with Paul’s advice elsewhere in 1 Corinthians that all things should be done decently and in order. We shun ostentation and try to be good stewards of God’s creation. We recognize the power of human sin and our tendency to selfishness, so we have a healthy skepticism for all human endeavors. We don’t think that any human institution, whether government or corporations or churches is perfect and beyond need of repair.
Presbyterians aren’t the only ones who value those things. We just emphasize them more than some other branches of the church do. And we have more in common with other parts of the church than we have differences. With Baptists and Episcopalians and Roman Catholics and all Christians we affirm that we know God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We trust in the saving death of Christ on the cross and his promise of resurrection to eternal life. We affirm that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our rule for faith and for life.
Over the years, as we’ve split apart from each other, it usually seemed like the right thing to do at the time. If the church is a body, then bodies do get infections. Pathogens grow in the body that don’t belong there, and if the body is going to be healthy, it has to get rid of the germs. Elsewhere in the Bible, Paul warns against false teachings. There is such a thing as heresy and wrong doctrine. It’s important that we be vigilant and self-critical so that what we proclaim is the truth. But Paul is clear that what is most highly valued is the unity that shows the world that there is one Christ, not many versions of him. God, in God’s Providence, has made the most out of our differences. Over the years, even as we’ve divided into separate traditions and denominations and congregations, we’ve learned from one another in ways that have enriched our faith. We no longer burn heretics or drown Anabaptists like they did in centuries past. The Holy Spirit keeps showing us over and over that no one part of the church has it all, and we are strengthened by other parts of the body of Christ who do things differently.
One of the most powerful witnesses of a local congregation can be how it brings together diverse people to worship and serve the Lord. American Presbyterians don’t do too well reflecting the racial or ethnic diversity of our communities, but we often reflect a diversity of perspectives. Once I was preaching in a congregation that I admire very much. Standing in the pulpit I looked out over the congregation and sitting in one of the pews near the front was one of the presbytery’s strongest opponents of the ordination of homosexuals. Just down from him was the president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays who was leading the fight for their ordination. In one part of the sanctuary was one of the biggest contributors to the state Republican party, and nearby was a Democratic activist. Some people say that the church has to take a stand against the culture by coming down on one side or the other on the issues of the culture wars. But that church was being truly counter-cultural. They didn’t sweep those under the rug. They had some lively discussions in their Sunday school classes about hot-button issues. But the people respect each other and trust that the Holy Spirit, working among them when they’re together, will lead them to see things and do things that they would never do on their own, separated from those who disagree with them on certain things.
Paul told the Corinthians to strive for the greater gifts. Those are the things that draw us together in love, so the world will know that there is one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all in all. To him be the glory and the power now and forever. Amen.