Third Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday 23 January, 2022
1 Corinthians 12.12-31
The eros of belonging ©Suzanne Grimmett
To say, ‘we are all members of the one body” is the most erotic thing that can be said.
For a start, there is the obvious physicality of the image. But there is also the sense of giving ourselves to one another and of intimate connection. This image finds it greatest expression at the Eucharistic table, telling us that our membership in the body of Christ is about breaking…sharing…touching…tasting…
The words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians about the church as one body are well known, and have been sometimes hijacked to serve different purposes in communities. I know my children who went to a Christian school groan every time they hear it as it was evoked regularly in their schooling and always felt to them like a moral lesson to learn to get along with one another while accepting that not everyone could become a rock star.
This is far from the intent of this passage.
Paul was not the first, of course, to use the image of the body. The idea is one found in ancient sources to symbolise society or political systems which functioned harmoniously when order was retained and hierarchies of power respected. In other words, those at the bottom of the social ladder should stay put and be grateful for the guidance and protection of their natural superiors. While we might think this is foreign to the way the church would imagine our life together, when we look at the way church has benefited from an alliance with empire, we may have to reconsider. It is not hard to imagine these words about different parts of the body- some weaker, some less honourable- being co-opted by the powerful as a justification for maintaining the status quo. This is heard clearly in that infamous, but now hopefully forgotten, verse from the hymn, “All things bright and beautiful”;
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate;
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
The words about the church as a body challenge any comfortable acceptance of social order and class. Paul is reacting against those who would exclude and devalue, particularly as was being seen in the Corinthian church at the Eucharist. There were some in Corinth, particularly those of higher station and wealth, who were excluding others with lesser means. The wealthy were overeating and drinking and the poor were going hungry. Paul is taking this image of the body that had been used to confirm the powers of rank, status and wealth and turning it on its head to assert that there is no part greater than another. More than that, though, Paul is telling us that our unity and belonging one with another is not something we manage on a good day and can be debated at other times. Our embodied intimate connection is just a truth, and it was never created by our efforts anyway. Belonging is already our reality in Christ.
But why use words like erotic and intimate? Aren’t they, well, a little out of place in a church?
The theologian Willie Jennings likes to use these words when he describes the life in the body of Christ. There in Jesus’ body, and here in our own bodies, the Spirit joins us to support and speak, touch and listen to the world. Once when Jennings was sharing these ideas around a dinner table, one gentleman interrupted him saying;
“Intimacy and eroticism is what I share with my wife, not the church.” I asked him if he thought holding someone’s hand in prayer was an intimate act. No response. I then asked him if listening to someone share their hurts and frustrations, fears and hopes was an intimate act. No response. “Was hearing the words, Sunday after Sunday—this is my body, this is my blood, take and eat—was this an erotic act?” He said nothing. Then I asked the most crucial question at that moment: “To whom do you belong?” To this he responded, “I belong to myself and to God!” This theologically trained gentleman needed a better vision of belonging, a Christian vision.
I wonder how much we experience of the truth that through the body of Christ we all belong to God, and to each other? How is our Christian vision?
If the feeling of belonging and being valued is true for some and not others, it is time to seek the voice of the crucified one in our midst. Jesus is amongst us, clothed in the raiment of those we exclude, disrespect, defile or degrade. They can be our teachers so we can find our way back to one another, piecing together the fragments of our communities and finding that true Christian vision- the hidden wholeness that is already ours.
Once we are joined to the body of God we also become joined to the desire of God. This desire will always seek out those outside us- whether that be a world outside of nation, tribe, religion, politics, class, gender or sexuality. God’s desire is that we desire one another and the flourishing of all, knowing that our lives are already intertwined. Here at Indooroopilly we are mostly a privileged people, and the problem of privilege is that it sometimes can be invisible, hiding from our eyes those around us whose experience of life and access to resources is so very different. When things don’t affect us, we can fall into the trap of assuming everyone’s experience is the same as our own.
In church circles, for example, it is easy to introduce a husband or a wife, but do we notice that it may be less safe or comfortable for a person who is gay or lesbian to make known their same sex partner? When we breeze through the checkout and never have our bags checked, do we realise that many others do not have that same experience because of the colour of their skin? Do we stop to consider when we invite someone to share a meal with friends at an expensive restaurant or even when we presume others to have access to what is seen as normal technology, that these things are beyond their income? To be the body of Christ means to be sharing and touching the life of others so we see the world through their eyes because we belong to one another. What can we learn about ourselves from those who belong with us, but are not present, or feel they would not have an equal place at the table?
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus shares a vision where the poor finally know good news, those bound up and imprisoned are released, those who cannot see, develop vision and those who have only known oppression are set free to be themselves. This scripture was fulfilled by Jesus’ presence there and in the ages to come through the Spirit-filled children of God- a both now and not yet promise of the way things can be in God’s dream for the world.
We are one body, and in this country we are called to make this truth a lived reality as we acknowledge our history and seek not only reconciliation but reparation for the great harm done to Aboriginal people, land and culture. We need to ask God to help us see clearly so that we live into our shared identity as the body of Christ before we embrace our other identities. All too often in our colonising history we have placed our Christian mission inside the greater project of our own cultural and economic aspirations, resulting in a god like the one from the hymn ordering the estates of rich and poor. It is also a god that smothers diversity and seeks to assimilate all in its likeness. Aboriginal people and their cultural identity have been forced to live inside the aspirations of those who colonised them. If we place our belonging in Christ first, the vision is quite different. The body of God has a place for the dreamings of all. It is a body of many and varied different parts, where none is greater than another and we have the humility to know our need of and dependence upon one another.
This belonging is our place of beginning.
As we ask for the vision to see one another, to hear one another clearly, and to touch the hearts of each, may we know the presence of the Spirit making God’s dream our dream, and our bodies one body through Jesus, the crucified and risen one.
 Jennings, Willie James. After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Theological Education between the Times) (p. 21). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition