BIBLE READINGS 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a Luke 4:14-21
Last Sunday – I was having a go at Len – I called him a POM – he, having migrated to Australia from England. He gave as good as he got! His response – “at least I chose to be an Australian! You had noting to do with becoming a citizen here!” OUCH!
Australia Day is just round the corner – and I expect there will be lots of flags and sausage sizzles. There will also be any number of people taking part in citizenship ceremonies that I feel are one of the great ways of celebrating Australia Day. Citizenship ceremonies are less about defining ourselves against anybody else and more about defining ourselves by who we can include. So that seems like a good focus for the day, when people take an oath and officially became Australian citizens. We all sing “Advance Australia Fair!” And in all probability – “I still call Australia home” along with “Waltzing Matilda”.
So our new citizens can call Australia home! Although when you think about it most of them already do call Australia home. What is probably much more of a challenge is to get the rest of us to regard each of these new Aussies as truly one of us. It is not just about how they see themselves in relation to Australia, but how the rest of Australia sees them in relation to us. Many new Australians struggle with this. Just because they are now a citizen doesn't mean they are fully accepted. Even those who seem to be fitting in well (whatever that means) often express a sense of still being an outsider. Especially if English is not the language they learnt as children. I guess many of them see their children fitting in – speaking Aussie English just like their friends and the comfort themselves with the thought that their children will not have the same problems of integration as they have had. No dignitary saying that newly minted citizens can now call Australia home will stop the rest of us from daily reminding them that we think of them as belonging to somewhere else.
There are some similar issues in the reading we heard from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. Paul’s describes the church as a body and how we are all parts of the one body in Christ. He didn’t invent this image himself, rather he is employing and subverting an image that was already well known to his hearers because it was commonly used to describe the nature and make-up of the nation. I don’t know whether the Corinthian national day was celebrated with barbecues and citizenship ceremonies, but you can be sure that the politicians, dignitaries and philosophers who made speeches on such occasions would have made reference to the nation being like a single body and every citizen having their rightful place in it. It would be easy for me to take this passage on Australia Day and fly the flag and say that we all belong in the church and we all belong in Australia and the church has its proper part to play in our national life and good citizenship is good discipleship, and we’d all feel good and I would be seen to have done my patriotic duty. But that would be to misunderstand what Paul is saying. Because Paul doesn’t simply repeat the usual patriotic version of the body metaphor. He subverts it.
In Roman times, when the politicians or philosophers used this image and proposed that the nation or society was like a human body, they were not just saying that we all depend on one another. They were also suggesting that there is a hierarchy in the social body, and that everyone has their place and should be content with their place. You may remember the heretical verse of the old hymn “All things bright and beautiful” that said “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made the high and lowly and ordered their estate.” This is what these Roman leaders were also expressing. Some people are more important and rightly have the more valuable and honourable positions. Other people are of a lower class and there are less honourable and less important tasks available to them. And the nation or society is ‘naturally’ more careful to protect and care for those more important people because they matter more.
But Paul turns this on its head. He doesn’t pretend we are all the same. In fact at the end of our reading he points out that there are different ranks in the church and different people have different roles and that’s all fine. But he leads up to that by saying that every part of the body matters and that nobody can be regarded as expendable. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” There might be differences of role, but there are no distinctions of honour or dignity or importance or expendability. Even when he agrees with the usual line about some parts of the body being less publicly presentable than others, he turns that argument upside down as well by saying that our modesty about those members should in fact be understood as giving them greater honour, not lesser.
Now perhaps one of the most radical and important things about what Paul is arguing here is also one of the most subtle and most frequently missed. Often this passage is explained as being essentially a pragmatic reflection on the state of the church. Everyone has some sort of gift to contribute and the the body will be healthiest when everyone’s contribution is valued and utilised, and by contrast the body will lose out if some people’s contributions are marginalised and neglected. So that pragmatic argument is a bit like saying that just because eating spinach is healthy it doesn’t mean that you will be healthy if you eat nothing but spinach. A balanced diet is required in which spinach has its rightful place alongside sources of other essential vitamins and nutrients. Now that pragmatic argument is no doubt correct, and I don’t think for a moment that Paul wouldn’t agree that we will be a healthier church if we value and benefit from everyone’s contributions. It’s just that I don’t think that is really the main point he is making.
Because pragmatic argument ultimately gets stuck with the problem of valuing people for the benefits they bring to us, and so even if we do our best to believe the theory that every one has as much to contribute as anyone else, we can never quite see it in practice, so we always fall back into giving the most attention and the most honour to those whose contributions seem most important to our collective interests.
Paul’s argument, on the other hand, is not a pragmatic or self-interested one. The reason we are to value and dignify everyone equally is not because it will be beneficial, though it might be, but because of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing. The first line of our reading gave a strong hint about this. I’m guessing that if I read most of it out and asked you to complete it, most of you would get it wrong. It 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 ….” the Church? No, it doesn’t say that. It says “so it is with Christ”, with the Messiah. It doesn’t even say “with the body of Christ.” It just says “so it is with Christ”. We are to be a unified body in which all members are valued and treated with honour and dignity, not merely because it works better, but because we are called to be a reflection of Jesus Christ and that is what he is like and what he is on about. In the next line, Paul spells out the basis of this further. He says “For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” So in baptism we all began on the same footing, and in our day to day experience of being nourished and refreshed by the Spirit we are no different to one another, and all this cuts across all the usual social divides: Jew and Greek, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female, black and white, old and young, productive and unproductive.
We are not engaging in a bit of social engineering with the pragmatic goal of producing a more cohesive and efficient and productive community. We are simply offering ourselves to Christ to continue the work he began in our baptisms of fashioning us into a new humanity, resurrected from the death of the old humanity, to fully reflect and embody the extravagant mercy and welcome and inclusion that is his nature and purpose, his being and his mission. And as we are able to surrender to that and become that new humanity, we will indeed become citizens of a new kingdom where everybody truly belongs, and we will really have a model of open inclusive citizenship to hold up to the nation around us as a challenge, an invitation, and something worth celebrating.
Acknowledgement: Nathan Nettleton