Members of the Body
Let us pray:
God of justice,
the poor hear the good news, and rejoice;
help us to receive the grace of Christ
and leave the cages of injustice and sin,
to accept the freedom that you alone can give;
in Jesus’ name. Amen.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
(Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll)
Words interest me a lot. One of the Christmas presents Karen gave me was a couple of books that explored the origins of certain expressions. For example, when a golfer sinks the ball one under par, it’s called a ‘birdie’. Did you know that in the 1800’s the word ‘bird’ was used rather like the way ‘cool’ is today. So a ‘birdie’ was a cool shot.
And if you’re ‘out for a duck’ in cricket you’re out for no runs. That comes from the way a duck’s egg resembles a zero.
And ‘Drongo’ was the name of a racehorse in the 1920s who was often tipped as a winner, but never managed to win a single race.
The way words change their meaning interests me, too. One of the prayers in the old 1611 Book of Common Prayer starts like this:
Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings…
Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings? What, does that mean prevent us from doing anything? No, it doesn’t. When this prayer was written in the 1500s, ‘prevent us’ meant ‘go before us’. So we might pray
‘Go ahead of us, Lord, in everything we do…’
And that makes so much more sense. To use ‘prevent us, O Lord’ in a prayer these days invites misunderstanding.
But did you notice a word in our reading today from 1 Corinthians that might cause some misunderstanding? It’s here, in 12.27:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Does anyone know which word I’m talking about?
It’s that seemingly-innocent little word ‘members’.
The dictionary says that a ‘member’ is a person belonging to a society or a team. You’re a member of a golf club or the bowls club. You’re a member of Probus or Rotary.
The dictionary also says that an ‘archaic’ meaning of the word ‘member’ is ‘any part or organ of the body’.
This older meaning is the meaning in today’s passage from 1 Corinthians. We are ‘members’ of the body of Christ. We are members in that we are organs, tissues, limbs of a body. We’re that kind of member.
Members of a golf club may have varying degrees of commitment to the club. They can just turn up to play, or get involved in committees. They can make a lot of friends through the club, or be relatively unknown. They can get involved in the politics of the place, or ignore them.
This is how many people think about membership in the church. In fact, we talk about being ‘church members’. Some people are really involved, some come at Christmas and Easter. Some want to have their say in the politics of the church community, others want a quiet life.
But this isn’t what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians. He is using the ‘archaic’ meaning of member—so when you’re a ‘member’ of the Body of Christ, you’re part of his flesh and bone. The members of Christ’s Body are helpers, carers, sharers, administrators, teachers, healers. They are held together as parts of the body of Christ.
If your body is working properly, everything is working for the common good of your body. If my right arm suddenly started behaving as it liked, and did its own thing, you’d wonder what was going on. You expect the members of my body to work in harmony with one another. You expect the members of my body to work for the common good of my whole body.
You expect my heart to pump blood out, and not hoard it for itself. You expect my liver to do its work to cleanse my system. You expect my lungs to breathe air in and out, and not complain that they’re badly done by.
My kidneys can’t say they don’t like the way I think, so they won’t do their job any more. My eyes can’t say they won’t work unless I eat more ice cream.
If the members of my body do complain—if they are in pain, or they aren’t working properly—then I have an illness of some kind, and I need help.
My members are meant to work as a single whole. They’re not members of my body like you can be a member of the golf club. The members of my body are held even closer together than the members of a football team. They exist only to help the whole body function properly.
I really think we should question how we talk about being members of the church. We aren’t members of the church, if that’s anything like being members of a club, with its varying degrees of commitment. We are members of Christ’s Body, meant to work in harmony for the good of the whole Body.
H and H have been baptised today. They have become members of the Body of Christ. In our Baptism service we said:
H and H
have been brought for baptism
that they may be grafted into Christ
as members of his body the Church,
to grow up into the faith of Jesus Christ
and become his faithful witnesses and servants.
They have been grafted into Christ, like a plant is grafted into another. They receive life from Jesus Christ, just as a plant that has been grafted receives life from the parent plant.
And they are, right now, ‘members of Christ’s body the Church’. Not members of a club called ’the church’, but members, parts, of a living body, the Body of Christ.
As members of the Body of Christ, H and H have a part to play even now, as infants. I believe that their part is to remind the rest of us that the Church exists for others, in particular for those who are helpless and in need. And they do it so well! One day, they’ll find other parts to play, other gifts that match their unique selves. But for now, let’s allow them to be reminders to us of our need to care for Christ’s Body.
‘Members’ should be a strong word for us. A member of the Body of Christ is a body part, an organ or a tissue. A member of Christ’s Body exists for the sake of others, just as Jesus Christ lived for the sake of others, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and sight to those who could not see.
And that’s the way we are called to live as we are baptised into Jesus Christ.