Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.1 Corinthians 12:27
I want to focus our attention this morning on our second reading (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), and especially on these powerful words of Paul’s: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
You and I are the body of Christ in this world. Think about how incredible that is. Now that Jesus has ascended into heaven, and the Holy Spirit has descended on us, we are the body of Christ in the world. It is now our job to be Jesus in this world. To do what Jesus did. To say what Jesus said. To love as Jesus loved. We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. Pretty amazing. So let’s dig into that today. And let’s think about who we are, as the body of Christ in the world, and what we do, and finally who we do this with.
Who We Are
Paul tells us in verse 13 of this reading that we are all baptized into one body, and that this one body is very diverse. We are all different, obviously, but we have all “made to drink of one Spirit.” We have brought together, and made one, through our baptisms. This may sound like a simple, obvious point. But it was quite radical at the time, and in many ways, it still is. Because what it means is that we are all equally important to the church. No one is more important than anyone else. Every single person serves a necessary and important role.
Paul uses a metaphor to explain this, of the human body. The body has many different members, many different parts, but all are vital and necessary. If the whole body were an eye, he writes, where would the hearing be? Every member of the body of Christ is equally important, because all serve a necessary role. We all have different gifts and different roles to play in the body of Christ. And in order to be the body of Christ as Christ intended it, we all must play our part.
But what part do we play? What part of the body are you? How do we figure that out? In verse 18, Paul begins to show us how. He tells us that God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. And God does this by giving each member different gifts. And those gifts that God has given us give us a clue to what part of the body we are called to be.
The church, this congregation, needs all of the different gifts we have to do the work of the body of Christ. We have many different personalities, many different gifts and interests, many different ways of looking at the world, many different life-experiences, and types of education, and work-experiences, and on and on. None of us are the same as anyone else. And all of us have been brought together into one community to be the body of Christ in the world. Which means that all of us are all needed to accomplish our mission and purpose as a church.
What We Do
That is who we are. But what do we do? But what is the mission and purpose of the church? There are lots of answers to this, but today a helpful answer might be learned by coming back to Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ. Our mission and purpose, simply put, is to be the body of Christ in the world. We go into the world, as a church, to do what Christ did: to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all. We go to do what Christ did. That is our mission and our purpose as the body of Christ.
We heard that in our Gospel Reading today (Luke 4:14-21), where Jesus describes his mission, using words from the Book of Isaiah. That is now our mission. The Spirit of the Lord is now upon each of us, and we are now anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is now our mission. As a congregation, in this community, to do these things. The church is not just about what happens in worship, in other words – it is also very much about what happens out in the world, where people long to receive the love and grace and mercy of our amazing God.
The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church
So, that is who we are, and what we are called to do, as the body of Christ in the world. But who do we do this with? Not just us, right? The way to answer that is to think about baptism. In baptism we become members of the body of Christ. I was not baptized a Lutheran, but it doesn’t matter which church I was baptized in – what matters is that I was. Wherever you were baptized, in whatever congregation and in whatever denomination, Paul teaches us that you were baptized into the one body of Christ that is the church.
The body of Christ, in other words, is more than First Lutheran Church of Albemarle. The body of Christ is more than the North Carolina Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The body of Christ is more than Lutheranism. There is only one body of Christ, and every Christian and every congregation is part of it. Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, non-denominational Christians, and on and on – they are all part of the one body of Christ.
That is why we confess in our creed our belief that there is one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, just as there is one body of Christ. Many denominations, one body. And think about this: Just as we, as individual members, bring particular gifts to our congregation, each denomination brings particular gifts to the whole Church. And all the gifts are important. Baptists bring gifts to the whole Church that Lutherans don’t, and vice versa. Catholics bring gifts to the whole Church that Lutherans don’t, and vice versa. Together, we are the body of Christ, and we all have different gifts and purposes in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
The Gift of Lutheranism
So, with that in mind, I thought I would share with you what I believe are some of the gifts that we Lutherans bring to the body of Christ. This is not to say that these gifts are more important than other gifts, but they are not less important either. And I want to lift up three particular gifts that I believe Lutheranism and the ELCA bring to the church, to the body of Christ.
First of all, we bring a gift of teaching, and an emphasis on learning. There are many Lutheran schools in our country, including a college right here in North Carolina, and a seminary down the road in South Carolina. Lutherans have always emphasized learning, because we believe it is important that everyone be able to read and understand God’s Word. It’s one of the gifts we bring to the body of Christ.
A second gift that our Lutheran denomination brings is an emphasis on social work and social justice. Did you know that Lutheran Services in America is the largest charitable organization in America? Our programs touch the lives of 1 in every 50 Americans every year. Isn’t that amazing? Social work is important to us. This goes all the way back to Martin Luther himself, who instituted a common chest in his community to care for the poor among them. In the ELCA, even our missionary programs tend to focus on social work. My daughter, Katie, has helped me learn more about that, when she was a participant in the ELCA’s “Young Adults in Global Mission” program.
Our focus in the ELCA is not so much on winning souls for Christ, but providing tangible, physical help to those in need, and simply walking with them on their journey through life. It’s not that their souls are not important to us. It’s just that we believe that they have to be fed first. I learned on a mission trip to Africa that this emphasis of ours often does result in people becoming Christian, when they see our love for them. But it tends not to be where we start.
Other denominations place a greater emphasis on evangelism, and we need them to be part of the body of Christ. The world would definitely have been a poorer place without Billy Graham’s work, for example. We need that gift and emphasis. But our emphasis tends toward people’s physical and emotional needs.
Education, social work, and finally a third gift that I believe Lutheranism brings to the body of Christ, that may be the most important of them all. And that is our emphasis on grace. We as Lutherans are all about grace. Our sermons emphasize it. Our Sunday School curriculum emphasizes it. And when we talk to other denominations, we emphasize it as well. We constantly point to the cross, and emphasize what Christ has done for us. We are relentless about it.
As Lutherans, we are kind of like the watchdogs of grace. We make sure that the whole church never forgets the good news, that we are saved by grace through faith. And when any part of the church strays from this teaching, we bark, and warn them to return to the cross, and to the good news that we are saved by grace through faith alone.
In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, the body of Christ. Each denomination, and each person, all given spiritual gifts, all working together to accomplish the mission of Christ. There are countless different ways to accomplish this mission, and each way is equally important. Every member is needed. Every congregation is needed. Every denomination is needed. Because together, we are the body of Christ, and we do what Christ did and what he taught.
But when we fall short, as we will, and as all congregations do and as all of us individually do, we Lutherans will remind each other, and the world, that at the end of the day, it is all about grace. It is all about Christ, and what he accomplished for us and all the world on the cross.
Thanks be to God. Amen.