The Rev. Luther Zeigler
The Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
January 24, 2016 (Epiphany 3C)
We are the “body of Christ” and “individually members of it.” In one of the more memorable images of the New Testament, Paul describes Jesus’ followers as a “body,” and not just any “body,” but the body of the risen Jesus himself. In our time together this evening, I want to explore this image with you so that we might together discern what Paul is getting at, and how it relates to us, here and now, in this particular part of Christ’s Body in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As a starting place, it is, I think, important to know that Paul was not writing on a clean slate. The metaphor of the “body” as a way of understanding human community and social life was well known in Greek and Roman culture. You are, no doubt, familiar with Aesop’s Fables. Although the details of Aesop’s life are shrouded in mystery, Aesop is generally believed to have been an ancient Greek storyteller who lived during the seventh century BC, and whose stories, or fables, were elaborated over the subsequent centuries. There were a number of collections of Aesop’s fables extant during the first century of the Common Era when Paul was alive, and as educated citizens of the Empire, Paul and his friends in Corinth no doubt knew of these fables.
Among the oldest and most well-known of Aesop’s fables is one called “the Belly and its Members.” Unlike most of Aesop’s other fables, which involved animals as characters, this one is about the human body and its member organs. Here is Laura Gibbs’ recent translation of this short tale from her Oxford edition of the fables:
“Back when all the parts of the human body did not function in unison as is the case today, each member of the body had its own opinion and was able to speak. The various members were offended that everything won by their hard work and diligent efforts was delivered to the stomach while he simply sat there in their midst, fully at ease and just enjoying the delights that were brought to him. Finally, the members of the body revolted: the hands refused to bring food to the mouth, the mouth refused to take in any food, and the teeth refused to chew anything. In their angry effort to subdue the stomach with hunger, the various parts of the body and the whole body itself completely wasted away. Eventually, they realized that the work done by the stomach was no small matter, and that the food he consumed was no more than what he gave back to all the parts of the body in the form of blood which allows us to flourish and thrive, since the stomach enriches the blood with digested food and then distributes it equally throughout the veins.”
Plainly, one of the morals of Aesop’s fable is that there is a fundamental interdependence in the social order, just as there is among organs in the human body. We are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and rely upon each other in different ways. And yet, while the Greeks and the Romans well understood this basic insight about interdependence in human community, their interpretation of the metaphor went in an entirely different direction than Paul takes it.
Classical culture extrapolated from this metaphor the further claim that there is a natural hierarchy in the social order, just as there is hierarchy in the body. While there is interdependence, to be sure, just as clearly, some organs are more important than others, and the key to a well-functioning body is for every member to know his or her assigned role. The wealthy and the powerful of Athens and Rome were quick to deploy the metaphor to rationalize a stratified social order, where a powerful elite ruled over the lesser parts of the body politic, just as the head or the stomach rules over lesser members of the human body, such as hands or feet. You get the drift. Thus, one first century Roman commentator’s pithy take on Aesop’s metaphor was this: “The publick is but one body, and the prince the head on’t; so that whatever member withdraws his service from the head, is no better than a degenerate traitor to his country.”
Greek and Roman civilization weren’t alone in deploying this body imagery to warrant hierarchical social orders. Most of the other developed civilizations in the ancient world did as well. Thus, as Professor A.D. Taylor notes in his recent book, Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence, we can locate one of the earliest appearances of the body metaphor in the Rig-Veda, the collection of Sanskrit hymns that is the oldest religious text of the Hindus, where there is an account of the gods sacrificing Purusa (who is the archetype for the human race) so that they might create different social classes from the different parts of his body:
“The Brahman [the priestly class] was Puruasa’s mouth, and from both of his arms were the Rajanya [the warrior class] made. His thighs became the Vaisya [the agrarian shepherds], and from his feet the Sudra [the servant class] were produced.”
The traditional caste system of Indian culture has theological roots in, among other things, an ancient interpretation of the “body metaphor” not dissimilar from how the Greeks and the Romans interpreted Aesop.
With this background in mind, we can now appreciate just how radical is Paul’s elaboration of this metaphor in his letter to the Corinthians. Notice how he turns the orthodox interpretation of Aesop on its head (so to speak!). In a direct rebuttal of the classical model, Paul writes: “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 members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Stated differently, Paul is exploding all the traditional categories of social hierarchy and insisting upon an utterly egalitarian interdependence. This insight, becomes for Paul, the driving impulse of Christian community. We labor together, worship together, celebrate together, suffer together – Jew and Gentile alike, man and woman alike, elite and slave alike. The Body of Christ, the Church on earth, becomes a foreshadowing of the community, and sorts of relationships, that define God’s Kingdom.
Paul, of course, is not making this up as he goes, but rather, he is giving theological articulation to the core of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Indeed, Paul’s conception of the Body of Christ as an egalitarian community is but an extension of the message we hear from Jesus in today’s gospel, where Jesus, in his first public sermon, quotes from Isaiah, saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” Jesus promises to inaugurate a year of Jubilee, that holy year of liberation and universal pardon, first spoken of in Leviticus, during which captives are to be freed, land and life is to be restored, debts are forgiven, and everything is once again made whole.
This gospel message is, of course, profoundly counter-cultural still because it refuses to honor the insidious boundaries we human beings tend to create between the haves and have nots, between those who are in and those who are out. Instead, Jesus fashions a human community that welcomes everyone, honors each person’s distinct gifts and talents, and celebrates difference without allowing such difference to become the basis for division or exploitation.
God, you see, created us to be in relationship. We find our ultimate fulfillment in relationship. A relationship of mutuality. As individuals, we have distinct talents and gifts, to be sure, but no one has the full complement of gifts. It is only in community that the rich diversity of human gifts and talents can be fully and completely expressed and shared. Indeed, in this sense, our life together, and fulfillment together, is but a reflection of the Trinity itself: God Himself lives and has being in the eternal dance of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is relationship. And we too are called to be in this same divine dance, not as atomistic individuals, but as a community of persons who need each other, who want each other, who depend upon one another. Christian community is not always easy, it is not always pretty, it is not always what we wish it to be; but it is always holy and, ultimately, it is the only place where we can find our truest self. Amen.