Unity in Diversity: Many Parts, One Body

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“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” (1 Corinthians 12:12).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

According to the Roman historian, Livy, the orator Menenius Agrippa told the quarreling Roman citizens this parable. The other members of the body were upset with the stomach and charged it with being lazy, doing nothing but simply allowing itself to be nourished. So, the hands refused to raise food to the mouth. The mouth declined to accept the food. The teeth would not chew. They all went on strike to get the stomach in line. It was only when the whole body had nearly starved to death that the other members realized their mistake.

It is quite possible that St. Paul borrowed from this fable for the thoughts of our text because he was trained in Stoic philosophy; but if he did, he shows an insight into the body and its relation to its different members to which no pagan mind ever attained. No matter how many times we may have heard it, or how many ways it can be used as an image in ministry, the way Paul extends the conceptual metaphor of the body and its members is simply brilliant.[i] We are all individual parts who form one body. There is unity in diversity. This is all part of God’s plan.

People are generally most comfortable with those like themselves. Paul is asking the Corinthians (and us!) to see the benefits of diversity. Just as the human body consists of unique and diverse members all forming one body, so it is with Christ! The Body of Christ consists of unique and diverse individuals. It includes Jews and Greeks, people of diverse ethnic and family backgrounds. It includes slaves and free, people of diverse political and socioeconomic backgrounds. There are many parts but one Body. Unity in diversity.                                                         

Paul begins with a radical declaration of equality. Each member of the Body finds their value, worth, and identity from the same inexhaustible source: Holy Baptism. We have all been made one through our Baptism. This is a gift of God  and not our own doing, and the fact that any of us have any role to play at all in the Body of Christ is an amazing grace. So, any self-awareness that we may have of our own gifts in life and ministry begins (and ends) in gratefulness.[ii]

This is the other side of the first temptation Paul sees in the Church. It is the worst enemy of gratitude, namely envy (when we look at others) and its self-deprecating cousin, shame (when we look in the mirror). Paul explores this temptation by artfully personifying the metaphor with an imaginary conversation:

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:15-16).

The spokesmen are the parts of the body who may be inclined to compare themselves with other parts that seem more important. So, the foot, depressed by its comparatively lowly status and the drudgery of its work in supporting the whole body, compares itself to the more versatile and skillful hand; the ear becomes discontent with its simple and less-prominent function and compares itself to the more attractive eye.

Disillusioned and jealous, the foot and ear are tempted to quit, discontinuing their service to the body. But Paul insists they cannot opt out. Their only proper place is within the body. God has set each individual part in the body “just as He wished” (1 Corinthians 12:18). Their distinctive functions are part of His perfect plan for the whole, a plan which the individual believer should accept humbly, without envying what another has been given. As one commentary explains:

Every member cannot have the same function, and therefore there must be higher and lower gifts. But pride and discontent are quite out of place, for they are not only the outcome of selfishness, but also rebellion against God’s will. This has two points; it was not our fellow-men who placed us in an inferior position, but God; and He did it, not to please us or our fellows, but in accordance with His will, which must be right. Who is so disloyal as to gainsay what God willed to arrange?[iii]

Envy would seek to steal someone else’s gift for its own. Even more tragically, shame would steal from itself by depreciating its own gifts and its value to the community. Paul’s metaphor cuts through both. The Body simply cannot work unless everyone is involved. And we cannot all be involved unless we acknowledge our mutual dependence on each other. If any single one is missing, the whole thing breaks down. Thus, it is significant how Paul appeals to the eye and ear in verse 17. From classical sources to the present, sight, closely followed by hearing, have usually been regarded as the body’s chief senses. Yet, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” (1 Corinthians 12:17).

Applied to the situation in a Christian congregation, Paul’s observation means that members with lesser spiritual gifts may feel dissatisfied with their less prominent gifts and may feel unneeded. The humbler members may feel their lack of spectacular gifts may well put them out of the Body.

What if everyone could select his or her own spiritual gift? Would most Christians not choose the popular or prominent gifts and ignore the less spectacular ones? The Church would be poorly served under those circumstances as the human body would be if each part of the body chose to be the eye or the ear. The body would become a monstrosity. Fortunately, God has given the parts of the Body of Christ their separate functions, so that the Body and all its members are well served. It is good that the Spirit has also distributed His gifts to His people, so that the Church has all the gifts it needs to function well.

This leads Paul to extend the metaphor further, from how we regard our own role in the body to how we regard the roles of others. But the principle is not simply that we all just tell each other how great we are and get along. Nor is it that those who have the “greater” gifts should condescend in sympathy to the others. Paul’s vision is even more radical, and it comes in a strikingly perceptive insight into how the body itself works. “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.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22).

What Paul is doing here is upending our whole scale for considering what is greater or weak, indispensable or disposable. And he is replacing it with God’s own perspective: “But God has so composed the Body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the Body” (1 Corinthians 12:24).

In the Church, those who seem to have greater spiritual gifts may feel they can get along simply fine without those who have lesser gifts. But they would be very mistaken! Those who seem to have very modest spiritual gifts might well be making valuable and even vital contributions to the congregation.

I couldn’t help to think about the phrase we heard so often at the beginning of the pandemic: “essential workers.” It was interesting, but not surprising to many of us, who was determined to be the “essential workers.” It wasn’t the movie and television stars, the professional athletes, or musical performers that catch most of the attention in “normal times” who were deemed as “essential.” It was those who work in health care, law enforcement, public safety, food and agriculture, critical manufacturing, transportation, education, childcare, grocery stores, and supply stores that were deemed essential. The contributions of many of these vocations are so easily taken for granted that we may not even realize just how important they are until we find the grocery shelves and freezers almost bare, when we’re not able to get an immediate appointment at the doctor’s office, or when we must wait weeks, even months for parts or major appliances.

Those in the Body of Christ that appear “weaker,” “less honorable,” and “unpresentable” are often quietly using their Spirit-given wisdom, faith, and love in inconspicuous ways that make them great blessings to their congregations.

If we feel that our spiritual gifts are so plain and ordinary that they will not be recognized or appreciated, God assures us that He has composed the Church as He has composed the human body, “giving greater honor to the part that lacked it” (1 Corinthians 12:24). God makes up for lack of strength, honor, and respect of such parts of the body with His own recognition of their crucial functions.

God assures us that He has combined the membership of the Body of Christ in the same way. He supplies the recognition and honor the less prominent members of the congregation appear to lack. What they do in their homes and neighborhoods may not seem like much compared with what the prominent people in the congregation are doing. God views things differently; we should, too.

This is the same paradox by which Jesus of Nazareth, beginning with His appearance in the synagogue in today’s Gospel, preaches the greatest to be least, the first to be last, and vice versa. This also becomes the basis for our genuine empathy and fellowship within the Body of Christ. We are sincerely concerned for one another. When one suffers, we all suffer, and when one rejoices, we all rejoice.

We are the Church, the Body of Christ. Here, you find unity in diversity. Though each unique, we are all united by Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). We are all the blessed recipients of Christ’s love and mercy. We are all “the poor,” “the captives,” “the blind,” and the “oppressed” to whom Jesus came to preach His Good News and proclaim His message of liberty and healing (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bestow new life and identity by grace through faith. His Word and Sacraments unite individuals into the communion of saints (Galatians 3:26-18). In Holy Baptism, He baptizes us into Himself, His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3). In Confession and Holy Absolution, we individually and corporately confess our sins and receive Christ’s Word of forgiveness. In Holy Communion, we who are many, are one Body, for we all partake of the same Christ. In, with, and under the bread and the wine, we all receive the very Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.

 We all rejoice in this Lord who has saved us and appointed us to serve (1 Peter 2:9). In gratitude, we willingly die to ourselves, thus serving Christ, glorifying God, and winning souls who will subsequently bless and serve the Body of Christ (Matthew 16:24-25).

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Epistle: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (Epiphany 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/epistle-1-corinthians-1212-31a-epiphany-3-series-c.

[ii] Epistle: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (Epiphany 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/epistle-1-corinthians-1212-31a-epiphany-3-series-c.

[iii] A. Robertson and A. Plummer, The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 274, citing Rom. 9:20.

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