“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

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