Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Many Members, One Body

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

I once read a science fiction novel called The Naked Sun by Isaac Assimov, and its premise has really stuck with me. It is set in a future where human beings have colonized other planets. It focuses on the strange traditions and culture of one interplanetary colony in particular. The people of Solaria have a rigidly controlled population of about 20,000 people. As a result, each person has a large personal estate and lives alone. In fact, they are conditioned from birth to avoid any personal contact at all. Their needs are attended to by robots who largely outnumber humans, and all communication with other people is done through technology. In this society, merely being in the physical presence of another person is considered to be obscene. Even reproduction is managed artificially, at a distance, and in a laboratory.

I read the book in high school but as the years have passed by, and I have observed that there are fewer and fewer reasons for people to have to leave their homes, I’ve often thought the story to be uncomfortably prophetic. The internet in particular has made it so that many do their shopping almost entirely online, they have any number of options for home entertainment, and can even conduct their social lives through online networks like Facebook and Twitter or via text messaging on robot master smart phones. There are even an increasing number of ways for technologically savvy Christians to worship online through live streaming religious services.

Even as we slide closer towards it, I think most us can recognize the world of isolation described in Assimov’s novel as monstrous. In the book of Genesis, when God creates the first man, he declares, “it is not good for man to be alone.” God created us for community, and not merely online community either, but real, messy, and up close community. We were made for relationship with one another.

In our epistle reading for today, Saint Paul addresses the subject of Christian Community. Throughout his letter Paul is addressing some of the complexities of doing life together. Even in the early days of the Church there were difficulties. There was immorality, disorder, factions, and petty rivalries. In other words, it was like any organization of sinful people! In our passage today, however, Paul attempts to express the true reality of the Church and how we should conduct our lives together on the basis of that.  The Church, he tells us, is the body of Christ. What does that mean?

First, it means what we have just been speaking about, togetherness. In order to have real togetherness, authentic community, you need more than just a group of individuals assembled together in one place once a week. A crowd at a movie theater together, riding a bus together, or eating at a restaurant together, may be in the same proximity, but they are not yet a community. In the same way, a group of individuals who merely  sit in church together on Sunday morning, sing the same hymns, and listen to the same sermon are not yet a community.  It is possible for a group to be together, but remain mostly strangers to one another.  This meal that we share together, the Holy Eucharist, is not meant to be taken in solitude like an individually packaged TV dinner. It is a community supper, a fellowship meal. It expresses not only our connectedness to Christ, but to one another.  We cannot be joined to Christ, but separate from each other. If we are members of Christ’s body, we are also members one to another.

So what does it mean to be members of one another? It means being involved in each other’s lives. It means supporting each other, encouraging each other, speaking into each other’s lives, holding each other accountable to God, and even when necessary gently rebuking each other in love. It means that our lives are not entirely our own. We belong to each other. As Paul tells us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

If you are here today worshiping with us, but remain on the periphery of our community, we are so happy to have you with us, but we also want you to know that we long to get to know you on a deeper level. If you have joy in your life we want to rejoice with you, if you have struggles we want you to know that you don’t have to struggle alone. You can always share those struggles with me, one of our Stephen Ministers, or another member of our congregation. We encourage you to become more connected through participating in our classes and bible studies, our ministries, service projects, or one of our many opportunities for fellowship.

The second thing I want to say about community is this, although being in community means being together it does not mean being exactly the same. A group of people that only includes people who are alike is not a real community. It is a clique. If we want our fellowship to be authentic, we must be willing to reach out to people who are different from us, even people with whom we have disagreements.
In today’s lesson, Saint Paul writes to the Church in Corinth that the body of Christ consists of both Jews and Greeks, slaves and free. Likewise, the church today is made up of people of many different cultures, nations, and ethnicities. We are rich and poor, liberal and conservative, gay and straight. Here at Christ Church we are cradle Episcopalians, new converts, attenders from other denominations, high church, and low church. Despite our profound differences, God has called us together in Christ. We are the body of Christ but we are also individual members each different from one another.

Saint Paul says, “the body does not consist of one member but of many” and “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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.”
To use another illustration from the world of science fiction, the Church was never meant to be like the Borg, an alien race from the television series Star Trek, a species of cyborgs that dominate other species and assimilates them into their hive mind, destroying their individuality, and making them identical, mindless drones. Our unity is based on something more than conformity.

This brings me to my final point which is this: as Christians the source of our unity does not consist in sharing a common race or culture, agreeing politically, or even having the same opinions on every subject–although we do share some fundamental convictions in common. The source of our unity is Christ who has reconciled us and brought us near to God through the blood of the cross. Despite our differences, we have all accepted Christ as  Lord and we have been joined to him through the covenant of baptism. Paul writes, “for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

One of my favorite contemporary artists is a painter named Chuck Close. He does these very large scale paintings that are basically composed like a grid. When you are up close to it you can see how each square in the grid is like its very own composition. It has its own beauty and integrity, and yet each unit works together in one unified piece. As you step back and see it from a distance it is revealed that each part works together to form one huge portrait. The painting is one face made up of many individual pixels.

In the same way, as the Church, each individual, each member, has its own uniqueness, but each of us in our unique way is meant to contribute to the larger whole, to reveal Christ to the world. Together we are one spiritual man, one portrait, one presence and revelation in the world, which is Christ. God has given us his Spirit in order that each of us can embody the presences of Christ to one another and together we can embody the presence of Christ to the world.