Sermon for Sunday, January 23, 2022 – “The Well-being of the Body”

Third Sunday after the Epiphany – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Decorah, Iowa

Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus. Amen.

In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul talks about the whole church – including us – when he says, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 

When we hear that word member we often think about the groups we’ve decided to join. I’m a member of that choir, this orchestra, my school’s soccer team. We’ve been members of this congregation for five years, before that we were members somewhere else. In the United States, membership is usually something we choose, something we can opt out of if our interests change, or we move away, or the group doesn’t work for us anymore.

So, in our context, the word member may not be the most helpful translation of the Greek word that Paul uses here. The word can also be translated as “part” or “limb” and those words may bet- ter help us grasp Paul’s meaning. Paul isn’t saying that it would be good for us to join the body of Christ, he’s saying that we simply are a part, a limb, a member, of the body of Christ, the whole church on earth. This is who we are. This identity is given to us by the Holy Spirit. This identity is announced in baptism and in reminders of baptism. We all are the body of Christ, and you are an essential part of that body.

This remains your identity even if you can’t gather with others for worship right now. This re- mains our identity as God’s people even in these divisive times. Certainly we can, and do, ignore our collective and personal identities. Yet when we do, we cut ourselves off from the source of our life and our ability to be most fully who we are.

We are each a body part that can’t thrive on its own without the larger whole. No matter how strong a leg is, it doesn’t work when disconnected from the body. And, we are each a significant part, a part the body needs to function well. The body won’t die without a leg, a foot, or a toe, but things go much better when all the parts are working together.

The question before the whole church on earth, then, is not how we can become one body – we already are Christ’s body on earth. The question for each of us is not whether we’re interested in being a part of Christ’s body – that is who we each are. Rather, the questions are: How will we live well together in this body? How will we care for Christ’s body on earth, so that it can experience energy and vitality and do the work it was created to do?

We know from life in our own personal bodies that things don’t go well if we emphasize a few parts to the exclusion of others. If we live only in our heads and never move our limbs, our heads and our bodies suffer. If we ignore the small parts of our bodies, like our toenails, we can be in for a world of hurt if they get ingrown or infected. We need to pay attention to the whole body.

The Apostle Paul says the same thing about the body of Christ. He says caring for this body involves honoring and tending all the diverse members. This is not how the metaphor of the body was used by others in Paul’s day. Ancient politicians and philosophers worked with the image of the body to talk about families, households, cities, or countries, but they used it to reinforce hierarchy and oppression. The body needs a head, the thinking went, and the head is most important. 

Those who are the hands and feet need to be slaves of the head. Every other part of the body should seek to conform to the mandates of the head.

Paul turns this thinking on its head by stressing the importance of each part and encouraging us to show greatest honor to the parts of the body that seem least important. Paul turns our gaze away from the head, away from the strongest parts of the body and towards the weaker parts, the parts that most need care and tending.

This wisdom feels so important right now. It is so easy to fixate on leaders who we think are doing the wrong things. It is so easy to get frustrated with others in the body of Christ. It is so easy to only want to be with others who look and act like we do. Yet all that can paralyze the body of Christ into division and inaction. If we can, instead focus on honoring and caring for those most in need. Then we can live out the purpose the Holy Spirit has given us as the body of Christ, the mission that was first given to Jesus.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes it clear that his mission is to uplift those who are overlooked and ignored – those who are poor, imprisoned, impaired, and oppressed. He has come to bring good news, forgiveness, healing, and release for all, but especially for those most in need.

This is Jesus’ mission, and it is the mission we are given now as Christ’s body on earth.

We may disagree about how best to do this, we may employ different strategies in the work, but this one mission unites us. This mission uplifts those who are in need, but it also helps the whole body, all of us, to experience vitality and energy. None of us can truly be free and well when others are suffering. We are part of one another; we are bound to one another. As we honor, care for, learn from, and accompany those society overlooks, we all experience the healing in the body that God longs for us to know.

Living out this mission is challenging and countercultural. Yet God gives us what we need to sustain us as the body of Christ. 

God gives us rest and renewal as we worship. 

God provides nourishment through Holy Communion and the scriptures. 

God reminds us of our identities in the waters of baptism.

God gives us prayer to open us to the Spirit that empowers us.

We are the body of Christ.

You are an essential part of this body.

We are given all that we need to live well as this body.

Most especially, we are given a mission that uplifts us all.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.