How the body works
So in Christ, we talked about last week, in Christ we are one body. Our unity as the people of God is not something that we earn, not something that we create by our actions, but is our very nature, the gift of God.
Our unity does not depend upon our uniformity; quite the opposite, in fact; the functioning of the body depends upon our difference.
In the miracle that is life, within the first week after conception, something quite remarkable happens. In the tiny bundle of cells that is beginning the process of growing to become a person the cells are no longer all identical copies of the original; the ones on the outside of the cluster slightly different to ones in the core.
This is the beginning of the process of differentiation; the development of the two hundred or so different types of cell that make up your body; cells each of which has identical DNA, but different structure, different function, different role.
Perhaps if Paul had known modern biology he would have chosen this analogy; we all share the same basic identity; one body, taking its very being from shared DNA; but diverse in roles, gifts, graces.
So how then does the body function? Really, when you get down to this level it’s pretty simple; each cell, each organ, does its part; but more than that, each cell, each organ, does what it does not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others, for the benefit of the whole.
And so it is that Paul calls on the body of Christ to operate: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour”.
I especially love the second half of that: outdo one another in showing honour. It’s as if Paul wants to say “I know you love to compete with one another, that its in your very nature to want to be better than the next guy; so compete – strive to outdo one another – but do it in a way that matters. Be the best at showing honour. Be the best at blessing.
And the whole of the rest of the passage paints a picture of what that looks like. What it looks like for a cell, an organ, a member of the Body of Christ to function as part of the body.
Paul builds this image by layering phrase on phrase:
Do not lag, be ardent, serve the Lord. Rejoice, persevere. Contribute; extend hospitality, Bless, Rejoice, weep. Live in harmony; do not be haughty; do not claim wisdom. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, live peaceably with all. Never avenge yourselves
I’m just going to pull out three of these which struck me; maybe as you were listening to the reading God drew another to your attention. But here are my three.
“Weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice”.
I think the reason this jumped out at me was that I saw something new in it – or rather, something new in myself as I read it. I’d always figured that weeping with those who were suffering was the challenge: that rejoicing with those who rejoice was more a sort of quid pro quo; we get to share in one another’s celebrations because we share in their hardships.
Weeping with those who weep can be hard, especially when it reawakens memories of our own pain, but everyone likes to rejoice, right?
But Facebook has changed my view. I don’t know if you are familiar with the term “bragbooking” – it’s the tendency that people have on social media to post their successes (or, often, those of their children) while they stay silent when things don’t go so well.
Which means that if you are feeling that life’s a bit tough at the moment, if your kids aren’t winning the prizes, passing the exams, achieving great things, all you see is the rejoicing of those who are.
And I don’t know about you, but sometimes that makes it really hard to genuinely rejoice with them. Without at least a hint of envy creeping in to sour the celebration.
The second phrase is one of my favourite texts: extend hospitality to strangers. That word hospitality in Greek is philoxenia. Xenia means ‘the other’, ‘the alien’, ‘the foreigner’; it’s the same root as we have in xenophobia, fear of the one who is different.
And Philos; which is love, but in particular brotherly love, family love.
Philoxenia, translated hospitality, is “family love to the one who is different”.
Paul pairs the idea with “contribute to the needs of the saints” – look after one another within the body of Christ – but don’t stop there. Extend hospitality to strangers. Extend familial love for those are different to those that you don’t know.
In a time in history in which xenophobia seems to be weapon of choice for politicians and tyrants on both sides, in which stirring up fear and hatred of those who are different – those who worship differently, those who dress in a way that marks them out as different, those whose sexuality is different.
Whether it be the White Nationalism of Trump or Hanson or the anti Western fervour of Daesh, or the far more subtle and socially acceptable variants on those themes, fear of the stranger is used to justify the very worst of our nature, whether it be locking those fleeing for safety in detention centres or driving a car into a crowd.
The call of the gospel does not just reject this: it calls us to the exact opposite. Not just to reject xenophobia but to replace it with philoxenia; familial love for the stranger.
And maybe that leads naturally enough into the third phrase which struck me: If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
I love Paul’s realism here; as far as it depends on you. We only control one side of our conflicts; though we know that when we choose peace it makes it possible for the other to do so too, we cannot compel others to live peaceably. But Paul adds another rider as well; ‘If it is possible’. There are times when living at peace with others is not possible, not desirable. There are things in our world with which we cannot live in peace.
Naomi Shulman wrote
Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbours were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.
There are things with which we cannot live in peace. But let those things put our other conflicts into perspective. Most of our conflicts, most of our strife, does not fall into this category. How is it that within the body of Christ we seem to get more worked up about styles of music and positioning of furniture than about what Jesus called “the weightier matters of justice”?
Those are, as I say, just three of the many examples Paul gives in this passage for how we live out our role as members of one another in the one body in Christ. If something else in the passage spoke to you, I’d love to hear about it.
We are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
We have different roles to play, so let us play them for the common good.