a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all talked about the human body over the past two years more than we’ve ever talked about it in our lives. With daily reminders of a pandemic, we’ve talked about the health of our bodies and how to keep our bodies safe from infection. We’ve talked about how our bodies feel and how symptoms of the coronavirus affect us. We’ve obsessed a time or two about stuffy noses or headaches or scratchy throats. Those who’ve come down with COVID have openly shared and compared their symptoms: “Did you lose your taste and smell? And for how long? “Did you have a fever?” As for me—if you’re curious—it was the repeated sneezing.
We’ve listened to various infectious experts talk about our individual bodies but also about our collective body. We’ve been forced to think about this concept of public health—how each of us is part of this wider corporate organism called humanity. And it’s led to some of our most significant conflicts. As it happens, whether or individual bodies are strong or whether they are vulnerable they are still part of a larger body out there—we breathe on each other, we share air and space, we touch things that others touch. No one has been able to cut themselves off or make decisions about masks or vaccines that don’t somehow affect other people.
Then we hear part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth this morning and realize the ancient world must have talked quite about the body too. They didn’t know about viruses and antibodies, but they did understand the basics of anatomy and the desire to stay healthy. In fact, the people of the ancient city of Corinth were especially in tune to this. They thought about the human body a lot. In their city was a famous temple built to the Greek god Asclepius. In Greek mythology Asclepius was the god of healing. He’s the one that was pictured with a rod entwined with a serpent, the symbol for medicine still today. Asclepius was kind of like the Dr. Fauci of Corinth. Almost everyone would have known about this temple to Asclepius, and since Corinth sat on an isthmus and therefore had two harbors, it got a lot of traffic. People came from all over to this temple to seek all different kinds of physical healing.
Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of clay body parts in the area where that temple stood. Noses, arms, hands, feet…just about any body part you can think of fashioned out of clay. Worshippers of Asclepius, these people seeking healing, would either buy or make for themselves clay replicas of whatever part of their body needed healing and offered it to Asclepius there at the temple. In the shops that surrounded the temple, these earthen body parts could be purchased for worship, and historians suspect that at any given time the inside of the temple of Asclepius was typically littered with hundreds of disconnected clay body parts haphazardly strewn everywhere. I’d hate to be the sexton at that temple!
The point is, the Corinthians were familiar with traditions and rituals surrounding the human body, even if they didn’t participate in the cult of Asclepius themselves. And when the apostle Paul reaches for imagery to explain how they are to live together as a church, as followers of Christ, and he uses images of hands and eyes and feet, they would have most likely thought about all of those clay body parts strewn around everywhere.
And Paul wants them to see that they are not a bunch of random parts here and there. They are fit together into a cohesive whole. Their baptism has joined them as important body parts to one another, and they function best when all are recognized and when all are valued and when all are doing what they’re supposed to do. It’s as if Paul is saying, the god Asclepius is fine to look upon all those assorted body parts as a disconnected, jumbled mess. But the God and Father of Jesus looks on you as members of one body, as each having gifts that benefits the whole mission as God’s people. Your God looks on you and sees members that are designed to function together, each using their God-given gifts to build up the whole.
And don’t be fooled, Paul says, that just because some of you have gifts that don’t seem immediately important or flashy that they don’t deserve to be there. Each gift serves a purpose, and usually the ones we regard as inferior are the ones that are absolutely indispensable. Paul says the members are to have the same care for one another, whether one is an eye or one is a foot. And if one is suffering, then all need to realize that impacts them in a negative way as well. If the throat gets COVID, the you’d better believe the lungs and the nose are going to feel it too. If one member comes down with COVID, or one has to quarantine, or one is nervous about being physically present for worship, or one is frustrated about having to mask up, then the whole congregation takes note of that in some way and realizes we are bound to one another in compassion and love. We can’t just go it alone or, more importantly, demand that others go it alone.
The image of the church as a human body with many parts is a very strong and relevant one. It speaks and probably always will speak, but I have to admit the image for the church and the sharing of each members’ gifts that has really stuck with me this week, is from the recent Disney blockbuster “Encanto.” I realize not everyone has seen this movie, but chances are if you have a young child in your house you’ve at least heard of it. I probably watched it enough times in quarantine this week with my five year old to make up for all of us.
“Encanto” tells the story of a special family, the family Madrigal, who lives at the center of a pleasant village in the rain forest of the South American country of Colombia. You learn at the beginning that each member of the Madrigal family receives a special magical gift when they turn a certain age with the understanding that they will use that gift for the benefit of everyone else around them. One member of the family has the gift of being able to heal people by cooking them a meal. Another member is blessed with superhuman strength, and she can help fix things and haul heavy items around with ease. Still another one has the ability to talk to animals and rally them to his aid. As the family flourishes, the whole surrounding village flourishes with the generous sharing of these gifts, and everything seems to go very well on the surface.
But as the story unfolds you learn that one member of the family has a gift that the others don’t understand or appreciate. As a result, he has been banished. They don’t even want to mention his name. The movie’s hit song, in fact, is a catchy tune called, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” As they sing it, you realize Bruno has been rejected, living alone with the rats in the walls of the house for years. You can hear echoes of the apostle Paul in the Corinthians: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”
I don’t want to give away what happens, but the family has told Bruno they have no need of him and it takes them a while to notice that his banishment is leading to a slow breakdown of the entire Madrigal family system, which is shown in the appearance of cracks in the house. Eventually the members of the family have to learn what Paul was trying to explain to the Corinthians: each individual’s gifts are important, even if they seem insignificant to you.
But even more importantly—and here is where the movie really delves into the lessons that Paul has for the Corinthians—individuals cannot just be reduced to whatever gift they have. The Spirit helps us understand that, as members of a body, or a family, all gifts are important and necessary, but we are not to let those gifts become all that we value about people. When let that happen, we end up using people rather than loving them. Just as it is healthy to look on people and consider what unique things they bring to the table, we can’t let what they offer be all we like them for. The biggest gift is the person themselves. This is how love, the greatest gift, is put into action.
For that is precisely how God views us in Jesus. With love. In the grand scheme of things we misuse our gifts so much—probably more than we ever use them correctly. We reduce our own worth, not to mention others’, just to what we can offer in terms of our work or our skills and talents. And yet God loves us, God treasures us, God renews us each and every day with the promise of forgiveness and mercy. God looks on us through the cross of his Son Jesus and does not see random body parts strewn everywhere but as one big body that has been healed of its sin and knit together as one. No one is banished, no one is disregarded, no one is valued only in terms of what they can do or what their intellectual ability is or how much they can produce. We are set together as Jesus body, taking his lead as he goes about in the world to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives, and the recovery of sight to the blind. And God knows that our greatest witness in those endeavors, our most impactful successes will be in our ability to function as one. The world will look on us and say, I would like to be a part of that body.
We cannot take this for granted, for we happen live in a time when our identity and self-worth are found less and less often in relation to other people but in expressing what is authentically inside ourselves. Many historians and philosophers are saying that in the past several decades we have moved from what is called an age of association to an age of authenticity. That is, for several centuries people by and large defined themselves and their identity in terms of how they fit into various communities and groups. They claimed membership in societies gladly and often as a matter of survival, whether those communities were religious or political or social in nature.
That has now given way to this current age of authenticity, as it is called, where individual focus on expressing their authentic true self and larger organizations or institutions are often seen as hindering that. In the age of authenticity, people are expected to find or create meaning on their own, as professor Dwight Zcheile from Luther Seminary explains. It’s partially why our political parties aren’t functioning like they used to, why no one joins bowling leagues anymore. In such an age or atmosphere, being a member of a body and finding ultimate purpose there, within that web of relationships, no matter how healthy that body may happen to be, is increasingly strange and even off-putting. Bodies are viewed with distrust. I can be my true self and find ultimate meaning, we are taught, on my own.
And against that, God says, you can only be your true self as you function in concert with others and learn to trust them, as we all allow ourselves to be formed by God’s Word together. I was moved hear, for example, that last Sunday, as John Oehler lay in hospice with his family around him in his final hours, they worshiped through our livestream. He, even as he was nearing the end of his life, began mouthing the words to the liturgy, still very much living as a member of this body.
Amid a culture of individualism, Jesus says, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. It is what is truly authentic. For this is the good news: no matter who we think we are, Jesus has stepped into this world to give us his own life and pull us together as one family and through great love and acts of faith be the body— the body that everyone will want to talk about.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.