The body metaphor lifted up in our passage was not original to Paul. Others in the Roman world, especially politicians and philosophers, used the same image regularly. Most often it was used to support the existing social hierarchy.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
January 23, 2022
Dr. Todd R. Wright The body metaphor lifted up in our passage was not original to Paul. Others in the Roman world, especially politicians and philosophers, used the same image regularly. Most often it was used to support the existing social hierarchy. They argued that the family, or the city, or the empire, needed a head, an authority, that would direct the rest of the body. And then as now, the assumption was that the wealthy, the powerful, the elite were the ones qualified to take on that role. And, since every body needs hands and feet to do the dirty work, that was the role for everybody else. So when Paul says, “just as the body is one and has many members … so it is with Christ,” I’m sure he had people nodding their heads. But then he takes the metaphor and turns it upside down by saying three radical things: First, by baptism and communion, the church body is made up of drastically different people. Second, the emphasis is on the interconnectedness of parts, not individual glory. Third, the weaker parts are just as important, indispensable even!
Do those assertions seem radical to you, or have you heard enough sermons on the text that all the hot sauce has cooked away? Of course the church is made up of different people! The Corinthian church was and we are. Maybe not Jews and Greeks, slave and free, exactly, but different. The equivalent to those four groups for us would be people who have been connected to the tradition forever (life-long Presbyterians) and those who have chosen to be part of this church even though they grew up as something else or nothing at all. Or people who feel trapped and powerless, economically, and those who have some level of power over their own pocketbooks. These are different people with very different outlooks on things … and yet all have found a place in this church as God’s people. But are we really all that different? Every year Rose Ann fills out a statistical report for the denomination and it is striking how similar we are – all white, mostly aging, though still mostly able-bodied. Where is the diversity of race? Where are the multitudes of languages? Where are the differently abled? Tony Campolo, a major voice in the evangelical left, would often shock congregations by asking them with a straight face where all the prostitutes were! He figured that Christian congregations should be just as diverse as the groups of people that followed Jesus, so we should be just as welcoming to sinners and outcasts as he was. So look around. Who isn’t here that we need to make this body whole?
Paul also treads on Corinthian toes when he says the church doesn’t elevate certain people because of their special gifts. Rather he focuses on the need for all the parts. He does not say to them, like the politicians and philosophers, that a healthy church needs a strong head and everybody else just ought to fall in line. That was unwelcome news for those who grabbed the spotlight in Corinth by speaking in tongues – as if only they had a direct connection to God, so everyone should follow them. So what is best for the good of the whole? How can the body thrive? Paul seems to think that the God who makes eagles and moths, lions and mice, is just as confounding in doling out gifts to church members. Some are flashy and some are easily overlooked, but all are necessary.
Paul doubles down on the idea when he starts talking about weaker or less respectable parts. He says they are indispensable! I heard someone glumly talking about how they felt like they should be doing more with their life: saving starving children, reading best sellers, sending letters to their senator. Her friend responded “All those things are important, but we’re all part of the body of Christ, and we have a role, however small. So what if you’re the nose hair? You’re there for a purpose. You may not have any idea what good you’re doing, but that’s still your job: to be a nose hair in the body of Christ.” I’d rather be an eye, or a thumb, something useful, something vital. Apparently the Corinthians would have too. But we cannot all be. Some are nose hairs. But let’s not be too quick to dismiss nose hair! Experts say, “Nose hair is an important part of your body's defense system. It helps keep dust, allergens, and other small particles from entering your lungs. Removing too much hair may make you more sensitive to these kinds of debris.” And with the COVID virus and the common cold seeking a way in, nose hairs are heroes! So have you noticed the people who do the unmentionable tasks around the church? This season of COVID has certainly opened our eyes to the heroes doing such tasks in our society.
Paul doesn’t say it, but being a healthy church body takes an effort, not just awareness of who we are called to be. Can we pull it off? Can we welcome in people who are missing. Can we celebrate different gifts? Can we retool who we are? Dani Clode may have proof it is possible. She designed and built a robotic third thumb that attaches on the opposite side of the hand and is controlled by sensors manipulated by the toes. Unlike normal prosthetics, this thumb is not replacing what has been lost, it is adding function that never was there before. The key question she was asking was could the brain embrace this third thumb. Participants in her experiments require training and practice, but before long they were capable of holding an extra ball or stirring a cup of tea with the same hand that was holding the cup, or grasping multiple wine glasses without spilling! I think Paul would have laughed at the image! But I think he also would have used it to add to his letter. It might have sounded something like, “For just as the mind can embrace an extra thumb, so the body of Christ can welcome someone who has never been part of the body before. To quote the prophets, ‘God is doing a new thing!’ Their gifts will soon become part of the normal functioning of the body, allowing the body to do wondrous things. So welcome everyone God welcomes and the body will be whole!” Can you imagine? Paul can. But only because he was once an outsider to the Christian body and his role as an apostle as probable as a third thumb! God never ceases to amaze! Amen
 see Brian Peterson’s comments on the text for the Christian Century, 1/24/16  from “A nose hair in the body of Christ” by Brian Volck, 1/21/13  see https://www.healthline.com/health/plucking-nose-hairs#is-pulling-nose-hair-dangerous  see her TED talk about her work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UD_LwZD2Kls