“God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:24-26)
This past week I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana meeting up with some old friends, mentors, and professors. We had a lot of great discussion, talked theology late into the evening over glasses of bourbon and the occasional cigar. It was like being transported back to my seminary days. The cares and concerns of our modern world receded a bit as we laughed out loud and shared our challenges and joys with one another. I had the opportunity to meet up again with someone I have gotten to know over the years of travelling back to Fort Wayne each year. Joel and Veronica Krogen were sort of kindred spirits with my other friends. He was a pastor down in Arkansas and had that no-nonsense demeanor that caused us immediately both to like and trust his company. Where he was quiet and somewhat reserved, his wife was the exact opposite. Outgoing and full of excitement, she was probably the only reason we met Joel in the first place. Together they were a couple that we looked forward to seeing each year. Yet, this year was different.
Just shy of 6 months ago I received a text from Veronica asking for prayers. Joel had suffered a massive heart attack and died. In a moment of time her husband, her rock, her pastor, was gone. When I saw Veronica at the registration table on Tuesday she came over and gave me a hug. Without any words she began to cry, and then I began to cry. I introduced her to my wife, who met her there for the first time, and as Cindy hugged her she began to cry as well. Her grief was raw and physical. As she shared her tears with us, I was reminded once again of the true nature of the body of Christ. It may not always look like what we want it to look like. In fact, it might be ugly and frail looking. It might even be painful and neglectful at times, but there is a real connection that exists. There is something about this fellowship that binds us together. Suffering has a way of bringing this connection into greater clarity. I see it when I stand before you and make the announcement that another brother of ours has died or that a sister in Christ has been placed on hospice care. Your eyes betray the connection, the hurt and pain of the grieving is not the sole responsibility of the widow or surviving children. There is a lament that moves throughout the church and there is something wonderful about that.
But it’s not just the suffering, it’s not just grief that reminds us of our connection. There are moments of celebration and joy that can highlight our fellowship as well. When I was down in Georgia, our congregation was made up primarily of military transplants for all over this country. In part what that meant was that people didn’t usually have any sort of extended family around. So, when there was a baby born in the congregation and a baptism to celebrate, the whole church rallied together to make the party something special. It wasn’t uncommon to have a big feast after a baptism, where people hung out all afternoon eating and drinking. We once had a confirmation party with a keg of beer and smoked pork that lasted from after church until dinner time. When one celebrated, all celebrated. Or think of our experience here, especially these last few years. We found ways to meet and receive our Lord’s gifts even though there were massive pressures to forsake such things. There was this infectious joy that spread through the congregation. A unity that was a delight to be part of.
St. Paul gives us a crucial image to understand our life together as the people of God. He says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body.” (1 Cor. 12:12-13) Though we are all different members with different gifts, different strengths and weaknesses, we are all part of the one body of Christ. Just as the eye cannot say to hand, “I have no need of you,” so you cannot say to any part of this body that they are not needed or that they don’t impact the health and wellbeing of the whole body. We are bound together in the body of Christ. This is what we speak about when we confess in the Creed, that we believe in the communion of saints. It isn’t just a nice thing to say, or some esoteric feeling of unity, we are actually made members of the one body of Christ. Those moments of joy and those heart wrenching times of grief remind us again of this reality.
Paul says that this connection is made in our baptism. Your baptism connects you to your Lord. You are baptized into his death; you are bound to him. So much so that Paul can say that it is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me. He lives in you because you are part of his body. Not some accidental gathering of like-minded people seeking to accomplish some earthly goal. Not a voluntary country club that you can leave as easily as you joined. No, Paul says, “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?” (1 Cor. 12:18-19) God chose you, arranged you, declares you to be His body in this place, at this time. And here’s the thing, He doesn’t place a time stamp on this. He doesn’t say that you are going to be a part of the body for a while and then He’ll be done with you. He doesn’t say if you are weak or feeble you have no place or role to play. In fact, He speaks the opposite, doesn’t He? Greater honor is given to those who lack it.
This is why our unity is often highlighted in our grief. For when we lose a brother or sister, when we are torn by the death of a member of the body of Christ, our hope is rooted in a promise that that member is not gone, that member is still part of the body. There is an image I love of the communion rail. What we see here is a semi-circle, where we kneel down shoulder to shoulder as members of the body of Christ. Here we are fed true manna from heaven. Here we participate in the body and blood, given and shed for you. And yet, as we sing in our liturgy, we are joined in this celebration with the “angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.” There is another half of this circle that we cannot see with our eyes, where we are joined with rest of the body of Christ, with the members whose loss still tears at our hearts. They are not gone forever, the grave will not get the final say, for they are part of this same body, part of the same blessings, the same promises, the same gifts. They join us here, they lend their voices to ours. The body remains united, for it is the body of Christ.
As members of this body, it means that wherever you go, so Christ goes with you. Out into this world, out into the various vocations that you have, you are a living sacrifice, a member of the body of Christ. Each of you with your own role to fulfill. You may be an eye or an ear, a hand, or a foot. You might be a strong right arm or the little left toe, I don’t think it really matters. I don’t think the point is that you need to figure it all out. I think the driving force of Paul’s wonderful image is to confess that you are not alone. You are not alone in your grief, you are not alone in your joy, you are not alone in your faith. You are part of something bigger than yourself, which means that even your tears have a place, even your grief has a purpose. One day we will see this body in all its glory. We will see with our eyes what we now believe in our hearts. The great church of God, the communion of the saints will be on full display in that great reunion to come.
And so, as we live out our days here and now, I invite you to look around. Look at those sitting near you, look at those who grieve with you and laugh with you. Those who join their voices to yours in songs of praise and thanksgiving. There is great beauty here in the body that our God has so wonderfully arranged. There is strength here, courage and boldness. For you are loved, you are forgiven, you are not alone.