Intro: The other day I was listening to a replay of an interview on CBC radio that Tom Power did with William Shatner on the program Q. During the interview, Tom asked Bill, “Are you lonely at all?” In the course of his answer, Bill said, “Loneliness is endemic to human beings. We are all essentially alone. As much as we are with other people, we are alone. … Is there something at the end of life, is there more, can you reach a communion with someone or something that voids the loneliness that we all feel? I… don’t know. I pose it as a question. To me, loneliness has been a factor ever since I was conscious and going to school in Montreal… and being alone. So loneliness… is a huge factor in my life.”
And Bill is correct in the sense that loneliness tends to be a common feature of human existence. But is that the way that things have to be? Or is it possible that there is something more to life? Is there a way to break down the isolation we feel and have both a strong sense of personal identity and connectedness with others? Let’s reflect on that question as we look at 1 Corinthians 12:12-20 and if you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
Paul’s High View of the Christians in Corinth
As you do that, I would like to share with you some background information that will help you to understand what is going on in this passage. What we have here is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the Christian Church in Corinth. That church was a young church that formed in a pagan society without the benefit of centuries of biblical teaching like the church in Jerusalem had. So there were lots of problems in that church. There were moral and ethical problems relating to family, worship, sexuality, conflict and division. In other words, the situation was much like what we have in our world today. Whenever you gather a group of human beings together, you tend to have problems because each individual in that group is flawed and broken. Bringing us together in groups only magnifies the brokenness that we each have within each of us. For as we rub against each other, our thin veneer of self-control is worn away and all the garbage inside of us is exposed. The human approach to this kind of situation is to apply the law. We want to point out the flaws and we say, “Shape up or ship out.”
But Paul, in his letter to a group of people who are broken just like we are, does not do that. Paul’s approach is to apply grace. Yes, he points out the flaws, but then he says, “Remember who you are and what you have in Jesus.” For example, as we read in the first chapter of this letter, Paul writes,
I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:4-9)
Paul is taking a very high view of these very broken people. Why does he do that? Because God does. As we read in John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) God knows that we are so broken on the inside that we can never reconnect with God on our own and find our way to the good life that lasts forever with him. And because God loves and treasures each and every person in this world, God the Father sent his Son Jesus into this world to become one of us and to suffer, die and rise again in our place so that a door could be opened for us to enter into new creation life with Jesus and with each other.
Jesus Gives us New Creation Life in His Body
You see, through Jesus, our God has prepared a totally new life for us with a new identity, a new status, new possessions, and new purpose. First, Jesus changes us from natural-born enemies of God hell-bent on going our own way into beloved, forgiven children of God who pray and desire that our Father’s will be done because we know that he only wants what is best for us and for the world. Second, the cross and empty tomb unlock our prison cell of life apart from God, strip off our prison clothes, and bring us into God’s family where we are given the new white robes of righteousness that belong to every child of God. Now we have the same access, the same status and the same favour from our heavenly Father that Jesus has. He has taken our guilt, shame and condemnation from us and given us his righteousness, purity and holiness. We can ask for anything from our heavenly Father and know that he will give us what he knows is best.
Usually when we talk about the many good things God has done for us, this is the point where we stop. In the western world, we have an individualistic mindset, so we focus on the individual aspects of the Gospel and ignore the “one another” parts of God’s Good News for us. That approach leaves us with a weakened faith that impairs some of the transformation that God wants to do in our lives and in the world.
The truth is, life with God is not only about me and Jesus. Just like being part of an earthly family, our new membership in the heavenly family of God means that we have been brought into a web of relationships with people who are different from us. To help us understand what life in God’s family means for us, the Bible uses the word picture “The Body of Christ” to describe it. We are a Body in the sense that we are connected to all the other members of God’s family. Just like in a body, each part of the body is important and needed. Most of the time, our toes are hidden and we may take them for granted. But if we ever lost them, it would be very difficult for us to stand and keep our balance. Our face and hair get lots of attention because everyone sees them, but if something goes wrong in our stomach, which is completely hidden, our hair could fall out and our complexion turn ashen. The parts of our body are all different, but all are connected, all play a certain role and all are needed to keep the body alive and functioning well. It is the same thing in the Body of Christ. Each and everyone of us is different. I keep looking around to see if I am ever going to see two people who are exactly the same, but I haven’t yet. Even identical twins, who look alike, tend to differ in their personalities. Everyone is an individual specially crafted by God. That part we understand. But what we often fail to comprehend is that God designed us to fit together into a larger whole.
Not only that, the moment we enter into new creation life through faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit gives us special gifts or abilities, called spiritual gifts, which are added to our natural abilities. Those spiritual gifts and our natural abilities were given to us by God for use within the Body of Christ.
Each and everyone of us has a God-given gift which the rest of the Body needs to be fully functioning. The soft-spoken introvert who would rather die than get up in front of people and speak is perfectly suited by God for forming a long-term relationship with a neighbor and loving them into God’s family. The shy tradesman who never volunteers for anything on Sunday morning has the knowledge, expertise and desire to keep the church building running well seven days a week. The loner who doesn’t know how to sing or play music turns out to be the person who listens quietly at meetings and then speaks up to say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, like God told them to say it.
Being in the Body of Christ Changes Everything for Us
Churches sometimes function like the world and give greater value to the parts of the Body that are more visibly gifted. In its extreme form, churches can become personality cults centered around high-powered people, but recent history has shown us that this unhealthy approach tends to crash and burn in an avalanche of shattered lives. Those pedestals we put people on will eventually crumble and our focus on visible gifts will impair disciple-making and marginalize those gifted with less visible gifts.
The biblical understanding of the Body of Christ is a far healthier way for churches and individuals to function and live. Life in the Body of Christ changes everything for us. There are not many Bodies of Christ. There is only one, and everyone who believes in Jesus is part of it. That one Body of Christ has a very flat organizational chart. There are not multiple layers of hierarchy through which God’s goodness filters down and our prayers are passed upward. There are only two layers, the Head of the Body, which is Jesus, and then there is all the rest of us.
All of us are broken individuals who have been brought into this Body by grace. Before, we didn’t really fit anywhere. Now we fit into just the right spot in Christ’s Body. Before, we couldn’t really do anything that would make a lasting difference. Now, we are part of a Body that represents Jesus in the world and works to bring more and more people into the new creation life with him. And that new creation life will be uncovered for all to see at the end of time. Before, we were selfish and self-centered, focused on building our own kingdom. But our kingdoms are always built with sand and they soon get washed away by the waves of time. Now, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, working alongside others under the direction of our loving Savior and King to bring about the redemption and renewal of all things.
All of this comes to us by God’s grace. These are all totally free gifts from God to us, gifts that we receive through faith. God’s grace is real whether we believe it or not, but faith is what moves us to open up those gifts and use them as our very own. Someone could give us the greatest birthday gift in the world, but if we don’t believe in the gift giver, we won’t even see their gift for what it is, let alone open it up and start using it. It is through faith that we receive God’s gift of life in the Body of Christ.
Conclusion: I think that the unique nature of the Body of Christ is most obvious in times of crisis or challenge. In a conversation that I had recently with someone from our church, they told me that while they were in hospital for a heart procedure, they felt lifted up by all the people praying for them. How is that possible when this Covid pandemic means that we cannot even see one another? That is the Body of Christ works. We have a spiritual connection to each other through Jesus, and we can encourage and support each other even when we are not together.
Another example is the Tariq family who our church is sponsoring to come to Canada as refugees. Yes, we want to help them because of the compassion we feel for other humans in need. But there is more. They are our sisters and brothers in Christ and we are connected to them even though we have never met them. They need us because they are going through a very difficult time right now with Tariq and Sara having health problems and Sara and Eriene still in a detention center. But we also need them. They are just as important and precious in God’s eyes as we are and we need to learn from them how to grow in faith, hope and love. We are incomplete without them As we read in 1 Cor. 12:26, If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. (1 Cor. 12:26).
So the challenge that I am setting before you today is to:
- reach out to Jesus in your times of loneliness.
- Ask him to help you to see yourself and others as he does.
- With the love and grace that he pours into your heart, step into your place in the Body of Christ.
The rest of us need you to be you among us. In the Body of Christ, many form one. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on April 11, 2021. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)