Affirming Differences

1 Corinthians 12-26

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 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? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

The question Todd asks on the worship planner for this week is “Can we learn to live as one body?”  It is an important question because living as one body is fundamental to our faith. In the last few weeks we have been identifying how Jesus learned and oriented his life toward affirming people outside of the traditional circles of belonging.  By reaching out to the outcasts, woman, children, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and even those who meant him harm, Jesus made it clear that God’s care has nothing to do with human evaluation. That is the Good News of the gospel but it is also a profoundly threatening and difficult way to live in real life.

There is a large gap between our ideal of God’s grace and the reality of our human ability to accept it—much less live it. The church in Corinth was finding this out the hard way. The Corinthian church had become a divided congregation in which there was open competition for stature.  Factions formed and bickering abounded. Practical question about who was allowed to share the communion meal, what to do about moral misconduct, which spiritual gifts and leaders should have priority headlined a list of practical conflicts within the Corinthian church. In every century, no matter how often we hear the promise that we are all God’s children, our human predilection is to evaluate one another,  rank one another, and to make comparisons in order to secure our standing in the community and before God.

Paul tells us what not to do as well as what to aspire to. His analogy of the human body to the body of Christ is designed to interfere with human entitlement, self importance and prejudice—and, more positively, seeks to affirm our individual value and our mutual interdependence.  Our claims to differential importance are as foolish as an eye saying an ear does not belong to the body.

Living as diverse members of one body depends upon a radical shifting of how we view the differences between us. Our relationships with one another must be based upon respect rather than agreement (or sameness).  I was working with a couple who had very disparate backgrounds. He was cross country truck driver. She was a PhD in Education. He felt out of place in her social circles and he complained that ‘she acted like she was smarter than him.’  My response was: ‘She is smarter. The question is, does that make her better than you?” It is very difficult to affirm and respect differences. The man felt ‘less than’ and judged because of his relative lack of education. And in real life I’m sure he was frequently judged by that criteria.  He had to learn he could not stop such judgments but that he did not have to accept them. He had to find his intrinsic value apart from the usual secular evaluations. Ultimately that can only come from God.

The Christian faith claim that Paul is making is that differences can not used as value judgments.  Our differences do not determine our standing with God or with each other. In the secular society, that is not true.  You will have advantages if you have more of the desirable traits. You will be discriminated against if you do not. And if you, like Jesus, challenge this way of seeing people, you are just as likely to be attacked or dismissed as an unrealistic idealist.

Throughout history, including biblical history, there has always been an ‘us vs them’ mentality.  Humans almost always think in either/or categories. ‘If you’re not for me, you’re against me.’ ‘ Love it or leave it’. The ‘them’ are people who are different—in appearance or opinion. We advance our own position by denigrating the ‘them’.  We name call, we make massive generalizations and typically will only listen to self confirming views.  None of this is new information but I’m trying to convey how difficult it is to live by the Christian values of inclusion and regard. To commit ourselves to these values—to think with the ‘mind of Christ’— requires a great deal of us.

Ironically, even these discussions stir up comparative value judgments.  The first concern that came up last week when we read, ‘if you have two coats, give one away,’ was guilt.  Are we Christian enough? Are we inclusive enough? Should we be doing more? We want to quantify. We want an assurance that we are doing what we are supposed to.  But that is a secular way to think. It is nearly impossible to avoid. Though we are called to orient our lives toward love and inclusion, it is not natural to us and is a daunting task.  We will fail. And likely, we will fail more than we succeed.

Showing regard for others is difficult and often inconvenient. The expectation far exceeds us.  How often do we defer to the needs of others? Is it like forgiveness?—70 times 7. We do not get to arbitrate what bothers or threatens another human being. (Try telling your spouse, ‘You’re just too sensitive’ and see how far it gets you.)   It is tiring to be mindful of way ‘ordinary’ words can be offensive. ‘Political correctness’ becomes an new ‘ought rather than an ongoing desire to mindful of the diversity around us. Why should we be the ones constantly worrying about other people’s sensitivities?  Why should there even be a Spanish option on the phone? Shouldn’t incoming people adapt instead of the other way around.  These are ordinary complaints but Christians must realize our complaints emerge from our human limitations rather than any ‘right’ we have we have to be less mindful.  There is no limit to the expectation that we show love. There is only a limit to our ability to do so.

Paul calls us to choose Jesus’ way instead of our own. Living as one body does not come ‘naturally’ to us. In real life, it is quite the opposite. We have to work at it. A child needs to receive regard but must be taught to offer it. The same is true throughout life.  It requires us to identify the differences between what Christ would have us do and our primal self interest. It is safer to stay with the familiar and it is far easier to love people we already like.

In FIRL we spoke of two particular ways that group members sought to choose Christ’s way.  The first was prayer. One woman prayed St Francis of Assisi’s “Make me an instrument of your peace…..” every single day.  The pure repetition allowed the words to enter her heart—and has slowly transformed her. She used the prayer as a beacon in her life. Another felt far less loving than she wished when her chronically crying child yet again woke her up.  She was exhausted. But somehow she realized she did not have to feel loving to act lovingly. So she faked it. She too found that something new grew in her. Choosing to love in the face of fatigue and vast differences makes it possible to live as one body. It will transform you.

So, yes learning to live as one body is possible.  But it is a process that is at least counter cultural, if not unnatural to our primal selves.  It requires that we orient ourselves toward God. It requires that we face our limitations and do what we can do.  But finally it promises a peace that does not come from our being in control or ensuring our own safety. It promises a peace that comes from feeling safe with God when everything is out of out of control.  “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

With God’s help, all things are possible.  Let it be so.

Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.