A Word from Our Sponsor

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

John 11:1-45

I’m a radio listener when I’m driving in the car, and I jump around between a variety of FM stations each day depending on my mood. One thing this means is that I am subjected to a range of radio ads that aren’t crafted by some algorithm to suit my own preferences. In case you were wondering, the jingle is alive and well. I am used to so many by now, whether it’s O, O, O’Reilly Auto parts or (my personal favorite) Gillman Heating, Cooling, and Plumbing (“With the G Man on-site, you’ll know it’s done right!”). The other day as I was driving, however, I heard a new ad that really caught me off guard. I’ve been waiting for it to come up again,  but it hasn’t yet. It was a radio ad for, of all things, getting my burial plot. No jingle, just a calm and insistent reminder that now is never too soon to reserve a plot for me and even my loved one at the local cemetery. As I recall, they weren’t just limited to burial plots; they could even handle my cremated ashes, if that was how I was going to be prepared. And, just to add some urgency, the ad mentioned that prices are rising! “Lock in your burial plot now,” they insisted, “while prices are still cheap!”

I can’t remember which exact cemetery or memorial park made the ad, but in a way it doesn’t really matter. I was more struck that there, in the middle of the love songs and the ads for getting my oil changed was a blunt reminder of my death. Talk about hearing a word from our sponsors! It’s like bringing up the subject that no one likes to talk about, but what in many ways is the real matter at hand.

Today, on this fifth Sunday in Lent, we hear about the real matter at hand. At Bethany by Jerusalem we discover that Jesus mainly wants to address the matter of death. It’s not just an advertisement on the way to something more important. It is the main mission and purpose of Jesus. Death and dying is the thing God wants to talk about. God’s going to confront this issue head on and it is time to listen up.

And this is important to note because so often Christian faith comes across as being primarily about something else, like helping our neighbor or serving the community. We come away from worship or any other church activity (or at least I often do) most likely with thoughts about how to live better in the world. And if it’s not that, then the point of Christian faith often seems to be to look inward and improve ourselves there. We concentrate on things like forgiving our enemies and loving our enemies. We come away from worship encouraged about God’s unconditional love for us and a peace that surpasses all understanding.

tornado destruction in Rolling Fork, MS, March 25, 2023

Jesus does deal with both of these matters, and how they’re inter-related—that is, the pursuit of inner peace and making the world look more like God’s kingdom. But we can forget or even intentionally sweep under the rug the big issue of the messy end of our lives and that Jesus mainly comes to confront that. I wonder what the people of Bucha or Bahkmut could teach us here, if their experiences in the horrors of war would pierce our comfortable calm. I wonder what we’d hear from those waking up in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, as they survey the aftermath of a tornado’s destruction. And for the Reckenbeil family, gathered around the deathbed of their matriarch, Joan, as they were last Thursday, I suppose a hope built simply on good deeds and inner peace in this life might have rung hollow. Our mortality does interrupt life and pretty soon we realize we need a God who has something to say about it.

Jesus is living water, for sure, a source of hope that never runs dry. And Jesus is the light of the world who helps us see God as God really is. Chiefly, though, Jesus is the resurrection and the life who comes to stand at the door of death and speak into it. Jesus is the resurrection and the life who comes to confront the matter we all wish could get drowned out by the music of life.

That is precisely what Mary and Martha, Jesus’ besties in Bethany, discover when their brother Lazarus dies. And it starts when Jesus’ disciples bring him news that Lazarus is ill. Jesus decides to confront the situation, to see for himself what is happening, even though they advise him against it because his own life has already been threatened. But Jesus goes because he knows what they are struggling to believe: that death ultimately has no power over him. In fact, he even delays his arrival in Bethany by a couple of days. It’s unclear why Jesus waits, but maybe he’s doing it to add emphasis to his own confidence that death doesn’t ultimately deserve the anxiety we give it.

When he does arrive, Jesus finds anxiety all over the place. Martha runs to him in anguish, and then a little while later Mary comes to him, too. Both of them seem too distraught to fully comprehend Jesus’ power. I find that in many instances where I am emotionally drained by grief or fear that I can’t think clearly either. Everywhere Jesus turns there is weeping and sadness in people’s faces. Jesus is still undeterred even though he himself is beginning to reflect that grief in his own emotions.

Many people over the centuries find Jesus’ weeping to be very profound. It’s one of the shortest verses in the Bible, but it packs a big punch. People who can confront their emotions and even shed authentic tears with others display a kindness and strength that is rare and healing. But it is difficult to cry, especially in front of others. We’ve internalized so many unhelpful messages about weakness and gender when it comes to crying and sharing grief.

I remember one funeral I conducted in my first congregation. The deceased was an elderly woman who had two grown children who were in their sixties. At the graveside committal the son, who I didn’t really know, came to me with tears visibly welling up in his eyes. And yet his face muscles were tense in a fake smile. He pulled me aside for a conversation, utterly confused why he felt so sad when his faith tradition had always taught him only to be happy at someone’s grave because it wasn’t an ending but the beginning of eternal life. He had been taught it was a celebration of life and that any tears and any sadness was a sign of a lack of faith in God And he didn’t want to seen to have no faith in God, especially at his mother’s death. I wasn’t sure how to help him in that moment but I wish I had thought to tell him that Jesus is OK with tears. Jesus comes to bear our pain and feel our sorrow and also express it, legitimating the real emotions we feel and the real tears we shed.

“The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt” (Van Gogh)

But the tears don’t stop him. He continues in his confrontation of death, driving to the heart of his whole mission as he stands at the opening to Lazarus’ tomb. To everyone’s surprise, he calls Lazarus to come forth and to everyone’s shock, Lazarus comes walking out.

When we look at this event as a whole, we see Jesus seeking to inspire faith in everyone around him. In Martha and Mary, in the crowds that are supporting them, in his disciples, and through his prayer to his Father—Jesus wants us all to have faith that he has power over death, that he is the resurrection and the life. And this faith is not some reciting of specific beliefs or agreeing to certain creeds about him but a trust in God’s ability to bring life where we see death. It is not knowing the exact mechanics of how Jesus will bring about restoration but trusting that he will, even when it seems too late.

Confronting danger, confronting doubt, confronting pain, confronting death itself. These are the things God is really about if God is about anything at all. These are the things that try to separate us from the good God intends for God’s people. Jesus eventually goes to his own cross and his own tomb in order to interrupt once and for all the steady stream of selfishness and sadness the world plays for us. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is God’s promise to put all the dry bones of our hopelessness and the world’s sorrow back together into vibrant bodies that will live forever in his presence.

Lazarus’ tomb in modern day Bethany

The last thing Jesus does as he stands at Lazarus’ tomb is to tell the people to unbind the man and let him go. This is our cue to be apart of Jesus’ resurrection and life now, to then go out and confront the things of the world that decay relationships and that are obstacles to goodness,  even when it is difficult. Jesus wants us to take part in freeing people from the forces that constrict them and keep them in the tombs. That may be a Stephen Minister sitting down with someone stuck in a situation with one of life’s problems to help them unpack what they’re feeling. That may be picking up a hammer for Habitat for Humanity work day on Saturday in order to help unbind someone from homelessness.

Yesterday a group of church volunteers collected the lunches that many of you helped make that were part of unbinding some of our Richmond neighbors from hunger. Moments of Hope is a ministry that confronts that issue directly by handing out lunches and other items directly into the hands of people each Saturday at a location near downtown. Our task was to assemble sack lunches. We needed 500 of them, but when the team arrived at the assigned location yesterday, they were greeted by 547 guests. As our team began to count (somewhat panicked), they realized some people apparently doubled up on their sandwiches, and one person who hadn’t signed up provided 10 lunches, and so they had enough to provide everyone with food. Working with the one who is the resurrection and the life will always involve surprises!

These things aren’t just about making the world a better place, or merely finding inner peace for our souls. This is the ministry of resurrection and life, pointing to the God who confronts death and overcomes it. This is being people who stand in awe of Jesus’ word, who feel the tears on their faces, and moving forward in faith. This is us, interrupting the world’s sorrow with a word from our sponsor.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Reading Water

a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year A]

John 4:5-42

A few years ago a friend gave me a book called How to Read Water by adventurer and nature enthusiast Tristan Gooley, a British man whose main claim to fame, among many, is that he is the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic. Gooley is an expert in natural navigation, which is the science or art—depending on how you look at it—of relying on cues from nature, rather than GPS or technology, to find your way around.

In How to Read Water, Gooley explains to the average person how basic observation of any kind of water, from puddles to the ocean, can reveal important information about the world around you. There is a chapter explaining in detail that there are different kinds of puddles and how they form, and another chapter unpacking how the different shades of blue and green and brown indicate things about the depths of the water. One of the most fascinating chapters is on the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific who have for centuries been able to sail back and forth with ease between small distant islands in primitive watercraft before the first European sailor ever arrived with their fancy sextants and telescopes and written maps. The Polynesians do it simply by understanding how the waves and ripples move over the surface of the deep blue ocean. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s Moana, you know what he’s talk about.

Gooley’s How to Read Water is a great book,one that when on my shelf makes me appear to be a lot more worldly and interesting than I really am. It covers every form of water in the natural world, but nowhere does it talk about living water. To learn about that, we’d have to talk to the woman at Jacob’s Well about whom we’re told in John’s gospel.

At first, she comes across as the expert in water, herself. Jesus approaches her and she lets him know that her ancestors have been coming to this place for water for centuries. She knows how the well works, what the water tastes like in every season, rainy and dry. She knows how it feeds their sheep and goats, just how far to drop the bucket. My people know how to read this water, she explains to Jesus. Where do you get off talking to me about some other kind of water? But slowly she realizes he is different.If we listened to her she would tell usthat we don’t read living water.Living water reads us.

That is one of the main messages of this encounter between Jesus and the person who has come to be known as the woman at the well. Jesus comes to read us—to know us and care for us and share the journey of life with us with all its ups and downs. Jesus comes to read us and the pain we experience and the suffering we encounter. And he finds us right in the ordinary, everyday places where we live and work and go about life.

Vasily Polenov (1900s)

Lots of people spend a lot of timesearching for wisdom and truth and transformationin far-flung places.Jesus walks right into our midstto transform us where we are.It may be in the loving words of someone we know,it may be in the comfort of prayer,it may even be in the community of a local congregation.The point is that Jesus crosses boundaries that we set upand finds us in our situationsin order to make that connection happen.

Jesus is Jewish, and this woman is Samaritan, a rival group. Doesn’t matter. He goes right to their well, a common community location that people would have visited on a daily basis. We should watch for how Jesus might find a way to show up in a grocery store parking lot, or the school lunch room, or the pew next to us, encouraging us to speak with the person who seems different. And while he’s with us, (the Samaritan woman would explain),this living water comes to read the paths we’ve walked and the wounds we’ve suffered so that he knows them and understands them. He comes to make sure God’s unconditional love flows over us like a stream of fresh water from a source that never goes dry.

A lot of the imagery and language in Scripture is a little inaccessible for us living in the United States in 2023and access to water is one of them. We can turn on a tap whenever we want to. Just outside of my office here, in fact, in this hallway that goes toward Price Hall the church installed a new set of water fountains when we did our construction project. One component of that water fountain is a spot where you can fill up a refillable water bottle. Above the waterspout is a little screen with numbers that count up every time you fill it which supposedly corresponds to the number of disposable plastic water bottles we’re saving. Right now we’re up to 2192 water bottles saved, although I bet at least two thirds of that has actually come from filling up our church’s Keurig reservoir, which is a bit ironic because every cup of coffee made sends a little piece of plastic to the landfill. My point is that for someone in Jesus’ time water that is that reliable and that plentiful would have been life-changing. You would never have had to live with thirst because you could always reach for a glass of water.

Jesus likens himself to that unimaginable scenario. He is reliable in a way that an ancient well can never aspire to. The little number counter on him goes to infinity. His mercy, his forgiveness, his understanding, his compassion for us will never run out. In a world that offers so many false promises of care and concern, any number of fly-by-night cures, Jesus never fails. And it gushes up not just for us but eventually within us. And it never runs out so we don’t have to be stingy with it or ration it out. We see this as the woman goes from the well back into her village to spread word of what he encountered in Jesus, a village of foreigners, no less, who had reason to distrust anything that would come from Israel.

Yes, if we want to learn to read living water,it would be good to start with this woman’s testimony.A lot of assumptions have been made through the yearsabout her past and the number of husbands she has had.People have read into this all kinds of things about her moral state,but Jesus makes absolutely no judgment or declaration about her characteror her decisions.Her witness to the love of Jesus—how he knows her story and does not judge her—teaches us a lot about how Jesus embodies God’s never-ending grace.He comes to know each and every story,eventually letting his own life follow the course of every human life,even into death.We will never be thirsty, not even when we’ve breathed our last,for the water he gives gushes up to eternal life.

It will be a long, long time—maybe never—before I hear this particular story in John 4and not think about the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Because we use a three-year lectionary cycle, this happens to be the exact reading we had in 2020on the first Sunday after the COVID shutdown. March 15, 2020, was the Third Sunday in Lent and we had made the decision to try to worship on-line rather than just cancelling church that Sunday altogether. None of us had a clue what we were doing. Except Turner Barger. Turner, our technology and media support person, always knows what’s going on (Hi, Turner).

We decided to cram into the parlor and set up a little altar thereand we used Facebook and Instagram Liveto broadcast a thrown together worship service.Kevin rolled one of the electrical pianos in there so that we could singand Beth Barger held the words up to the hymns,which we had written out on paper and an easel padMarkus Groener was there, and Matthew Barger and Mike Dunavant,and all of us were, as they say, flying the airplane as we were building it.

I don’t know about the rest of thembut I was operating out of survival mode and fearbecause at the time, even though we thought it would be temporary,I couldn’t help but think, “Well, this is it. There is no way we’re going to surviveshutting down for two Sundays.”And of course I was worried about the spread of the diseaseand who might be at riskand what kids were going to do about school.I had all the concerns that everyone else did.

But thank God that Jesus the living water comes to read us. Because it ended up being more than two Sundays. And we’ve thrived. He decided to show up over and over again in the only wells we had to meet at back then: online and the telephone. Council members had the idea to call everyone in the membership roster and check in on them. As we peered into our computer and phone screens, his water kept flowing. As we shared on Zoom and Facebook live he kept us connected and tempered our feelings of isolation. And this was going on in congregations all over the place: Jesus, the living water, reading us in our anxiety and fear, paying attention to our story, and mostly breaking down barriers. And suffering produced endurance, and endurance produced character, and character hope…and hope did not disappoint us.

Nowadays, three years after all of that, we are joined in worship by people in Texas, Connecticut, Florida, Long Island, some of whom hope to catch a glimpse on the screen of their relatives sitting here coming back from the communion rail. One of our regular livestream worshippers calls it “Virch Church,” and I’m kind of overwhelmed by it, to be honest. Our statistics suggest that around 120 people worship with us this way each week. I have no clue who they all are, but I’m thankful they’re here at the well with us.

Did the Samaritan woman know them all back in her village when word of Jesus got out?

Maybe. But probably not. I suppose that wasn’t the point, to revel in numbers themselves, to boast in the success of her testimony, or we in ours. The point is she was overwhelmed—as in by a flood—of grace and acceptance. It is a flood of living water that gushes up and always, through whatever faces us, gives life.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Nagging Questions

a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent [Year A]

John 3:1-17

Nagging questions. John’s gospel essentially begins with one person’s nagging questions…nagging questions about life and faith and the reality of God. That person’s name is Nicodemus, and we don’t know much about him except that he is one of the Pharisees, which means that he is well-versed in what the Scriptures say and well-informed about what God is like. But Nicodemus has heard about Jesus and apparently listened to Jesus and now he has some nagging questions.

Nagging questions keep us up at night, which may be one of the reasons Nicodemus comes to Jesus to discuss things at night. Nicodemus can’t sleep! He lies there on his bed, eyes wide open, mulling over everything in his mind—you know what it’s like—and he can’t make Jesus’ words fit. They raise all kinds of issues for him. He tosses and turns, lights a candle, writes a little in his journal. Finally he just decides to go and pay Jesus a visit and ask him the questions himself. These nagging questions can’t wait and he might as well get them addressed now.

Or, maybe Nicodemus goes to Jesus by night because he needs anonymity. Nicodemus wants to know some things and have some facetime with Jesus, but he doesn’t want his Pharisee buddies to see him because that could get awkward. He lurks in the shadows until the town gets quiet and dark and then he goes to knock on the door in secrecy. This is the conventional theory about Nicodemus’ night visit. He is on the edge. He wants to have a deeper relationship with Jesus and know more, but he can’t do it openly for he is a leader in the Jewish faith.

Nowadays we would take these concerns into cyberspace. There’s a lot of darkness there. We’d find a community that discusses our issues and ideas and we’d create an avatar, something like a “finsta” that would mask our identity and ask our questions that way.

I like either of these theories for Nicodemus’ night visit, and I think both are plausible because no matter why Nicodemus chooses the night Jesus is open to whatever. Jesus is always open and ready to serve, like a Waffle House. Jesus graciously receives his guests, rubbing the sleep out of his own eyes, leaning in a bit closer hear our questions when we’re ready to ask them, always ready to greet us when we knock, always ready to receive us when we’re looking. He is on our schedule, not his. And he will meet us where we are, even if it is in fear and embarrassment. For God so loves the world.

so many late night conversations of deep meaning at this place

It is good that John’s gospel begins this way, because so often Christian faith is presented as set beliefs and rigid conformity. In culture and even in a good number of churches Christianity comes across as a list of things you have to be for or against. Come to think of it, it ends up sounding like the Pharisees that Nicodemus hails from, never wanting to question too much and really liking when people fall in line. I have to check myself at times when I teach things like confirmation class or Bible studies so that I don’t sound like I’m just laying out a bunch of assertions and positions about everything.

There are truths, of course, and there are statements we hold as certain. Even in Jesus’ life there are beliefs and there is some degree of conformity, but this interaction with Nicodemus shows that those things are not the core of Christian faith.  The core of faith is a gift of life, to be born anew. The core of faith is a relationship that brings life and honors our fears and our dreams and our ability to reason and change our minds.

For Nicodemus, the nagging questions center around this new life. Jesus is performing signs that indicate God is at work in Jesus in a new way. He has turned water into wine, he has cleared the temple and declared that it will be torn to the ground. Nicodemus wants to understand how this all can be: how can the work of God be centered in Jesus? How can the kingdom of God be coming in him? What is the crux of Jesus’ mission? And to address Nicodemus’ questions, Jesus talks about the work of the Holy Spirit and how, like the wind, it blows where it chooses.

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be a disconcerting aspect to life with God. I find that, like most humans, I tend to like certainty. We like important things to be pinned down, summed up, and made to order. Paying attention to the wind is much harder to handle. And yet whether it is regarding the answers to our nagging questions or just the basic facts about what is required of us in faith, Jesus doesn’t want things to get too concrete, like there is information we need to download for a test later.

Jesus is more about inviting us into an ongoing dialogue, a life where we will be able to continually discover new things about him. God knows we grow as we go through life and we can be open to new understandings and experiences with his grace. We can be closed off to that dialogue at our own peril, because that dialogue leads to a new birth, or being having a birth from above. Scholars and historians have often been puzzled with how to translate that word, whether Jesus means one must be born a from above or born again. Regardless of which word we choose, the point is that Jesus’ word and Jesus presence brings about new life in a person similar to the way a woman miraculously brings a child into the world from her womb. Just as Jesus is always open to us as we learn and ask our questions, so we too are pushed from darkness into a new faith when we are open to the movement of God’s Spirit.

About a year and a half ago I was approached by a middle aged man and his wife who had some nagging questions. They were looking for a new community of faith, and had been worshiping with our on-line worship services for a while. This particular individual had a background and story that caught me a bit off-guard. It turns out he was a leading infectious disease specialist on faculty at a nearby medical school. He was a very humble man, and as we talked, I learned that the pandemic had been particularly grueling for him professionally, which I could understand. There was not just the overwhelming amount of new data for him to wade through, the statistics to sift out, the comparisons here and there to previous diseases to discern. (These tasks were exhausting on a physical and intellectual level). But there was also, he found, an exhaustion from the ways people were treating each other, and the exhaustion from having to make so many heavy ethical decisions so rapidly.

What brought him to our church and my office was the fact that he had come to understand the need for a deeper faith to anchor him. He had been raised in the Lutheran tradition but had wandered as a young adult. What he shared with me was a yearning to be assured of a love that was at the center of the universe. He felt the need to be rooted in a concrete love, not just some vague idea of morality that everyone can ultimately interpret their own way. Having come through a crucible of an intensity I could never imagine as a public health worker during a pandemic, I think he was experiencing that new birth Jesus talks about. He was sensing the importance of personal love rooted in a story of God reaching out to help humankind with wisdom and sacrifice and judgment. And he wanted this for his children too, two young girls who were growing and likely already dealing with their own nagging questions.

This man and his family ended up attending here for a while and attending Sunday School, too, before he ended up moving out of state to accept a new position elsewhere. But I’d like to think that while they were here we were able to welcome his nagging questions and walk the journey of faith with him.

I think about that man and his bravery a lot, his bravery to seek out and turn over new stones (and old ones), his bravery to admit not know it all. I think about his desire to seek that love and learn from it. And on closer listen, if there’s anything important for us to take away from this encounter this morning between Nicodemus and Jesus is that love is already seeking us. As Jesus listens to Nicodemus in the dim night and invites him to undergo that new birth, to wait for the Spirit to move him like the wind, it is actually love that is speaking to him.

And we hear that is not for God so tested the world, or God so validated the world or God so judged the world. It is not for God so ruled the world or God so overpowered the world and it most definitely is not God so condemned the world. It is God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The birth that comes through faith is to a life that is rooted in the love of God, a love that has lifted up the Son on the cross so that all people may be saved. It is a new life that stretches beyond the grave into a future with God.

And so if Jesus’ begins by listening to our with nagging questions he is also makes sure he begins with his love, too. He gets that fact out there right at the beginning so that it’s loud and clear from the start. That, friends, may be the best way to look at baptism. It’s not simply a religious ritual or a way to become a member of the church or even a promise of heaven’s joys. It is a visible acknowledgment that we’re always going to begin with God’s love, not our love towards him. That the wind does blow to include us us at some point. Before we have our first nagging question, or even simple question, we already are living in a world that Jesus has died for.

Life may end up being a puzzle for us, or a valley of sorrow, or a series of joys for which we never have words to describe, but the water and Word assures us of this: God is ready to receive and ready to embrace and ready to root our lives in his forgiveness before we even know it.

And there is no question at all about that.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

“Who Are We Now?” Images for the Church’s Life – Lent Wednesdays 2023

We Are a Body

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

When I was a young child there was a character on TV named “Slim Goodbody” who would occasionally make appearances on the kids’ show Captain Kangaroo. Slim Goodbody was played and is apparently still played by a guy named John Burstein. Known as the Superhero of Health, Slim Goodbody would come on children’s shows and give brief and engaging lessons about health and human anatomy.

And the thing about Slim Goodbody was that he wore a peach-colored unitard to do it. This outfit was extremely form-fitting and it was painted with the internal organs of the human body. You could look at Slim Goodbody and clearly see the heart with its red arteries leading out of it and its dark blue veins feeding into it. Half of his rib cage was painted on there, along with both beige-colored lungs, his entire squishy digestive tract with the liver and intestines. A basic bone structure was included—femurs in the legs and the humerus in the arms. Thankfully the pelvic bone was the only thing painted below his waist. In the areas left over on the suit there were the red and pink stripes of muscles and tendons. Burstein’s character was so educational and so popular that he went on to win awards for Slim Goodbody, and he is apparently, at the age of 75, still performing. You may have seen him in a Super Bowl commercial in 2014.

NEW YORK – OCTOBER 1: CAPTAIN KANGAROO. John Burstein as “Slim Goodbody” on Captain Kangaroo. Image dated October 1978 (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

But the thing about Slim Goodbody, as I said, was that unitard. I was so embarrassed for him. Everyone else on set was wearing regular clothes, but he was walking around like he was completely naked. There was nothing indecent about Slim Goodbody at all. but he just looked so terribly exposed and vulnerable. I could barely even watch him.

When the apostle Paul is searching for ways to describe how his churches are supposed to relate to one another, it may surprise us that he chooses the vulnerable, awkward human body.           It is as jarring to come across this section of 1 Corinthians as it is to realize the episode of Captain Kangaroo you’re watching might have a guy in a peach unitard strutting around.         Paul’s knowledge of human anatomy was nowhere near as sophisticated as Slim’s or ours, but his intuitions about how the body works together and how we often react to its different parts was spot-on. Some things should be covered up. And some parts we bestow with more honor than others. Some body parts get a lot of attention. Some body parts don’t seem to have a function or a purpose we can immediately figure out but which are still indispensable. And so the body happens to be a great analogy to use for an organization, especially when that organization seems to be having repeated problems with getting along and working together.

And that was certainly the case with Paul’s congregations. All of the letters we have from Paul’s hand came out of his need to address issues and conflicts that communities were experiencing together. Christian faith is not a solitary endeavor even though our relationships with God may be personal. This is really interesting when you think that the overwhelming share of Christian literature written today— devotional books and the like—are addressed to solitary individuals and how they are to live their own lives.

We today are primed to think of Christian faith and live our faith in many ways entirely differently than they first did after Jesus’ resurrection. It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say there was almost no concept of private devotional life in Paul’s day. Christian faith was experienced and lived in community, which is why the body metaphor works. No part of the body can exist on its own, not even for a little while. It can only do what it needs to do when it is connected in a real and meaningful way to the other members. As social activist and author bell hooks observed, “I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.”[1]

As it happens, for the people of Corinth, there was a lot of narcissism going on, and the body imagery would have had special significance. In their city was the great temple to the pagan god Asclepius, the god of healing. People who had an ailment would travel from far and wide to seek healing for a body part at this temple. And a big part of that ritual was to go to a special potter and have a clay version of whatever body part you were experiencing trouble with. You would then take that clay finger or clay knee or clay eye and lay it at the feet of Asclepius in the temple.

Historians suspect that if you had visited the temple of Asclepius during the time of Paul you would have found dozens, if not hundreds, of disconnected clay body parts lying around everywhere. That visual would have been in the minds of Paul’s Christian congregation as he mentioned this image of the body of Christ. Paul emphasizes how connected the body is meant to be. Below the figure of Asclepius  lay a disorganized hodge podge of body parts.

Below the figure of Christ, the head, breathes an intact body, each person with different gifts joined together.

But just stating that and drawing that mental image is not enough for the body of Christ. Paul goes further to explain that the members of the body cannot start determining amongst themselves who is more valuable and who is less valuable. That is a dynamic of human community that happens whenever people are together long enough.  Certain qualities begin to be emphasized and given special status. It may be gifts that people bring to the table, it may be intellectual ability, it may be popularity, it may be skin color or language or school district.

This is a lesson that the church continues to learn and struggle with, even though the days of ancient Corinth and Asclepius are long behind us. We constantly fight against the urge that is always there to glorify certain people and their gifts while ignoring others. It is the urge that ends up creating in-groups and outsiders even without knowing it, the urge to view people only through the lens of what they can offer, not what their needs or inherent human value is. It leads to the urge to make the church sleek or popular or culturally relevant so that we can be competitive in a culture that idolizes things like athleticism and beauty and innovation and business acumen. This is the church that will eventually leave its members scattered all over the place and hurting.

When I was in my church’s youth group we had one or two adult leaders who were always spending time talking to the new kids or the kids who didn’t seem to know many people. We really liked these youth leaders and were often frustrated that whenever the group sat down to eat or had free time, they seemed to go to the people on the margins rather than hanging out with us. It took a long time for my teenager brain to realize that these leaders were modelling 1 Corinthians 12 for us. They were giving greater honor to the weaker members. For without intentional acts of including people at the margins, communities will always naturally become slanted in favor of the most powerful. My youth leaders had recognized them as indispensable, even as many of us youth had not. Our whole group was made richer by their presence and their gifts regardless of whether or not we could acknowledge it all the time.

I often wonder what the apostle Paul would have thought about organizations like the Special Olympics or the L’Arche Communities, places where people with disabilities are given clear respect and places of honor. It is doubtful that those kinds of groups existed in ancient times. Would Paul have found them to be metaphors  for how the church can function at its best, where success is based less in what you accomplish and more in how everyone can find their function within a greater whole?

But no matter what Paul may have thought about those things, it is peculiar that nowhere in all the images for Jesus’ followers in Scripture are we compared to another human organization or institution. For in the end, we are not just an organization or institution. We are God’s own people, called out to testify by our very life together that Jesus, who was crucified, is risen. We are called out to give glory to a God whose kingdom of peace and justice has begun to arrive in our very midst.

And, much to our chagrin, that may actually involve looking like Slim Goodbody than we realize. For what is a human body if it is not inherently vulnerable, exposed? This how Christ intends for us to be in the world—not sheltered from harm, not indestructible, but out in the open, for all to see. He allowed his own body to be vulnerable and exposed on the cross.

And so we admit: bodies bruise and bleed. Bodies become infected and weak. Bodies need to wear masks from time to time. Bodies develop wrinkles. Bodies hurt and bodies need care. Bodies constantly humble us, from the moment we’re born to the moment we die.

Maybe the most obvious point about the body is the greatest lesson Paul intends. In a world of all kinds of individuals and communities, our transparency is our strength. The more open we are in our internal life with our plans, our goals, even our conflicts, and especially with our forgiveness, the more clearly we witness to the One who saves us.

That is, God’s Spirit does not form us as the church to make us invincible, or even so we may encourage others in their ideas of invincibility and glory, but to show the world through our weakness and our awkwardness—and even somehow in our conflicts—that Jesus is Lord. We allow our mistakes and foolishness to be revealed, confident that God’s grace will overcome it. We do not have to win or dominate, we do not have to figure out the meaning of life. We do not have to secure our immortality or get everything right. Because Jesus it for us. Jesus,who willingly takes our lowly body, has conquered the grave in it. And we have faith in the resurrection of the body, in our own future of Christ’s glory which will be bestowed on every last member.

So, then, who are we now? Jews or Gentiles, slave or free: we are one real goodbody—the best!—drinking together from one Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin. Jr.

[1] All About Love: New Visions, by bell hooks