One body, many members (May 17, 2105)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 

Few things in contemporary American culture receive more attention than the human body. When we read the ads in magazines and newspapers or watch commercials on television or visit a shopping mall, we see human bodies that are luxuriously fed, clothed, beautified, exercised, and medicated. Our bodies express our individuality, our personality, and our vitality. Although at times we refer to the body politic as a way to imagine society, we rarely think of communities as human bodies.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14: One body with many parts
It was a common Hellenistic literary pattern to compare human communities to a living body. Plato, Cicero, Seneca, Josephus, Philo, and other Hellenistic authors used the literary image of the body to underline the need for unity and social concord. Often their purpose was to argue for the status quo by urging the lower class members of the body politic to remain in the role and the status into which they had been born. Upward social mobility was not a characteristic feature of first-century Roman society.

Paul also uses this rather common Hellenistic metaphor of the body, but he does so to make a different point, a point the Corinthian Christians needed to hear. Paul emphasizes both the diversity of the parts of the body and their mutual interdependence. For Paul, it is not only the lower classes, but every member of the community that is called upon to contribute to the peace and unity of the body.

Contrary to the paragraphing provided by most English translations (but in accordance with the Greek grammatical construction), linking verse 14 with verses 12 and 13 makes it easier to see that Paul’s focus here is on the many different parts of the body, not only its unity. By virtue of their baptism into Christ, different groups — Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people — have become parts of the body of Christ. Many different groups in Corinth drank from the one Spirit of God, Paul says. Baptism transforms ethnicity and social status into significant but secondary components of the rich diversity of the body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:15-20: Diversity is essential
Paul personifies the parts of the body and metaphorically gives each of them a speaking part. Each part of the body — and it is the body of Christ — is an essential part. Paul’s point is that diversity is necessary for the body to be the body. Each part of the body has a significant role to play that contributes to the body as a whole. No part is dispensable or relegated to the margin. And no part can claim to be the whole. How ridiculous and dysfunctional a body would be if it were all ears or all noses. God, not nature, has given each part of the body an essential function. To ignore, devalue, or exclude any member of the body is to fly in the face of God’s design for the church.

1 Corinthians 12:21-26: All parts of the body are interdependent
Continuing the metaphorical conversation between the various parts of the body, Paul says the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” and the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” In Paul’s Jewish tradition of Scripture interpretation, the feet were a common euphemism for the sexual organs.

With a clever play on words Paul reminds his readers that those parts of the body that people consider weak, less honorable, or less respectable are precisely the parts of the body that are indispensable, more honorably clothed, and treated with more respect. His main point is that the intrinsic value of each member of the body means that every member must care deeply about every other member. There is no room for what the NRSV translation calls “dissension.” The Greek word is schisma, from which the English word “schism” is derived. The mutual interdependence of all the parts of the body rules out any divisiveness that undermines the unity of the body.

Paul’s ultimate purpose for applying the metaphor of the human body to the life of the Corinthian congregation is to address the serious disunity that threatened to tear apart the body of Christ in Corinth. That same metaphor is particularly fitting in our churches and in our society today.

For discussion
How diverse is your congregation? How diverse is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — and why? What is the difference between unity and uniformity? Do you think unity and diversity are characteristic of your congregation? Would your congregation benefit by being more diverse or less diverse? Is there a relationship between diversity and evangelism?