Belonging

(1 Corinthians 12.12-29)

Jason Procopio

Today we’re taking a break from the gospel of Luke to spend some time in our Advent series. (Advent is the time during the month of December leading up to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.) This will not be a typical advent series, so I’d like to take just a few minutes at the outset to talk about what exactly we’re doing and why.

Eglise Connexion has changed pretty radically over the last three and a half years. For the first year or so, we had (I think) three married couples, including me and Loanne, one child—Jack—and about twenty-five singles, mostly between the ages of 20-25. Today, I haven’t actually counted how many married couples we have; but we have quite a few kids, and in the last year four babies have been born in the church. And between now and June at least four more will be arriving. 

God has blessed us so much—we are thrilled to see a slightly more diverse church than we were three years ago. Don’t get me wrong: singles, we love you, and we’re thrilled you’re still with us (obviously—you still make up the majority, I think). I’m not saying we wish there were fewer of you. But a healthy mix of singles and families, young and old, is what the church should look like. (We’re still praying God sends us some more people over forty, or even older.)

Here’s my point: Eglise Connexion is becoming more and more filled with families. Singles stop being singles—they get married. Husbands and wives stop being simply husbands and wives—they have babies, and become parents. And the more time goes on, the more of this we see.

So our Advent series was influenced by two realities. Firstly, Christmas is almost universally recognized as a family holiday—even if you’re an unbeliever, Christmas is one of those times when most people will take a break from work and go spend time with their parents, their children, their brothers and sisters. 

Secondly, at Christmas we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ—and the reasons why he came. There are a few reasons why he came—it wasn’t just to save us from our sins. He came, in part, to create for himself a family. This is why Christians call each other “brothers and sisters in Christ”—Jesus came to this earth in order to conform us into his image, to make us brothers and sisters, and to be the firstborn in this family.

So given the change in the makeup of our church which we’ve been undergoing over the last year or so, and given the reason for which Christ came was to make for himself a family, we thought that as we work toward celebrating and being thankful for the birth of Jesus Christ, it would be fitting that we think together about what it looks like to be the family of God: a local family filled with individual families, all of whose goal is to live centered around the person and work of the baby whose birth we’re celebrating.

We’ll be doing this over the next few weeks using a handful of verbs. We’ll talk about what it looks like to belong to our local family of God; what it looks like to live as a local family of God; what it looks like to multiply within our local family of God (and beyond); what it looks like to cherish Christ as a local family of God; and what it looks like to look forward to Christ’s return as a local family of God.

So today we’re going to talk about what it means to belong to our local family of God—what it means, not to be a Christian, but rather to belong to a local body. (In our context that local body is Eglise Connexion, but for other people listening in other places, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m saying you can only be a Christian if you come to Eglise Connexion.) I’m aware that some of what I’m going to say may make some people kind of angry, and no one expects to hear anything controversial in an Advent service—that’s okay. Everything I’m saying, I’m saying because I love you and I want you to be the happiest you can possibly be in Christ. And part of that is teaching what the Bible says about belonging to a local church body.

The body (1 Corinthians 12.12-27)

In this passage Paul speaks about the church, the family of God, using the words body of Christ. Jesus Christ lived, died for our sins, was raised, and ascended to heaven in his body: so Paul’s not saying that the church is literally Jesus’s physical body. He means that as long as Jesus is with his Father, his presence is seen in this world through the church—it is through the church that the world gets to see Jesus. So the way in which we live as the body of Christ is of the utmost importance.

Now before we get started, we need to note the context. The context of this passage is that of how Christians are to act when they gather for worship. There was apparently a good bit of dysfunction in the Corinthian church at the time: they were neglecting some members of the church to the detriment of others, then coming together to worship as if everything was fine. So in chapter 11, Paul talks about how Christians should take the Lord’s Supper when they come together for worship; and in chapters 12 to 14 he talks about how Christians should exercise the gifts of the Spirit when they come together for worship. (Sorry, we’re not talking about the gifts of the Spirit today—we’ll get there eventually, I promise.) 

So remember that: everything he says here is said in the context of the people of the church GATHERED TOGETHER (for us, that would be our Sunday services).

In v. 14-26, Paul is going to talk about what it means to belong to the body of Christ: but he bookends what he says by two separate statements that show exactly what he’s talking about. The first bookend is found in v. 12-13:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 

So here’s the first thing—before you become a Christian, you are identified by who you are. I am Jason, I was born in North Dakota in 1981. That’s me. But now that I know Christ, now that I have been baptized in the Spirit into the body of Christ, I am now identified by who I am in Christ. I’m still an individual, but I’m not only an individual—I’m a part of something bigger. Rather than being an ultimately self-determining satellite, I am one part of a much greater whole—the body of Christ. In other words, my identity is no longer individual, but collective. 

Now, if we’re honest, we already do this. People already identify themselves (at least partly) in terms of their families—I am Jason, born in North Dakota in 1981; my last name is Procopio, because that’s my family’s name. I’m the husband of Loanne, the father of Jack, the son of Glenn and Rhonda, the brother of Jeremy and Jared. That’s who I am. But now, Paul’s saying that even my collective identity has been rerouted: I am no longer simply a Procopio, I am a Christian—a member of the body of Christ. That’s the universal body of Christ—all Christians, all over the world, together, make up the body of Christ. For in one Spirit we were ALL baptized into one body. 

Now, we need to skip ahead quickly to v. 27, because that’s where we have the second bookend: 

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 

Notice how his language changes. In v. 12-13 he’s extremely inclusive—ALL of us. ALL believers, ALL of us who have been born again, ALL Christians everywhere, belong to the body of Christ.

But in v. 27, he goes from “us” to “you”—YOU, Corinthians. He’s writing to a specific church (the church in Corinth) at a specific time (in the middle of the 1st century, A.D.). And he says to them, You are the body of Christ. 

YOU, church in Corinth. YOU, Corinthian Christians—YOU ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST. Not “a part of the body”—you are the body.

So here’s the picture he’s painting: “the universal church” is composed of all Christians, throughout all the world; and that universal church is made manifest in specific places, at specific times, through local churches. Local churches are like embassies of a specific country in a foreign city: they don’t make up the totality of the country, but they represent the country, and carry all the benefits and priveleges for the citizens of that country. 

And as such, what is true about the universal church is also true of the local church: as our church’s statement of faith says, “The universal church is manifested through local churches of which Christ is the sole Head; consequently, each ‘local church’ is in fact the church, the house of God, the assembly of the living God.” As the universal church is called “the body of Christ,” each local church is also rightly called “the body of Christ.” 

 You see what Paul’s saying? When he talks about the body of Christ in v. 14-26, everything he’s saying is not just talking about the universal church, but about the local church as well. 

So the question is, What should the body of Christ, as a local church, look like? Paul will tell us by giving us a picture of the things we share with one another as the body.

We share a common need (v. 14-20).

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.  21 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.” 

As Christians, we have been united to one another in Jesus Christ—in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body: the body of Christ. And because we now belong to a body, we can see that we are not made to operate on our own. 

Fewer things could be more offensive to our results-oriented, performance-based culture than the idea that you are not complete as an individual. That in order to be truly complete, you need other people. And this is true whether you’re a Christian or not: we were not created to function on our own—we were created to function in community. This is why in every city, you’ll see people group together, usually based on similar interests. Even those people who will adamantly fight for self-sufficiency and individual freedoms will fight for them alongside other people who fight for those same things. 

The other day I was on the métro and there was a guy sitting next to me reading a book called (honestly) How to Make Friends. I tried to give him a friendly smile, and he looked at me like I was crazy. We all need this, but we live in a place which makes it really unnatural.

What makes us different as Christians is that we are very clearly told who it is we need: other Christians. The church has gotten this wrong in the past—for example, there has been in a lot of Christian churches an insane pressure put on young singles, saying, “You have to get married. You have to find a wife; you have to find a husband; you have to have kids. Single folks who stay single their whole lives are weird. You won’t be complete; you won’t be able to stay pure; you need to get married.” 

Let me make it clear: singles, marriage is good. Having children is good. We always rejoice to see two Christians coming together to form a family centered on Jesus Christ. But in order to do what God has created you to do, you don’t need a husband; you don’t need a wife. What you need is other Christians.

Paul’s image of the body is perfect. Each part of the body doing something different, bringing something different to the table, but working together for the same goal, going in the same direction. This is what the church is supposed to be—people who are very different, coming together with very different backgrounds, very different gifts, but all focused on the same center—Jesus Christ—and going in the same direction. If the eye wants to see anything besides its bedroom wall, it needs the feet; it needs the legs. If the hand wants to know what to touch, what to pick up, what to write, it needs the eyes.

This seems so obvious, but clearly Paul felt the need to write it, to say it anyway. And he felt that need because the Corinthian church was functioning the way many of ours do: as a simple group of individuals who meet from time to time, take what they need, and leave. We treat church the way we treat an all-you-can-eat buffet: we show up, we pile up whatever looks good for us, we eat, and then we leave.

Now here’s why we need to talk about this: because despite everything we know, most of us still think we can do this pretty much on our own. We read our Bibles and we see the commandments; we say, “I’ll never be able to do this alone!” and then we close our Bibles and forget that we can’t do this alone! We say we need each other, then we go out an live as if we were ultimately self-sufficient. How many of us struggle with sin, and are ashamed to tell anyone, and think, “That’s okay—I’ll handle it on my own, then I’ll tell people about it after I’ve got a better handle on things”? How’s that working out for you? 

Brothers and sisters, we need each other. No matter how self-sufficient you think you are, you’re not. We are all weaker than that—and that’s okay. God didn’t design us to be able to do it on our own.

We share a common honor (v. 21-25).

21 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.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

This section is very similar to what we saw before—the difference is that here, Paul's telling us what church should be like, but he’s going further, taking into account the fact that we’re human beings, and so have different needs and strengths.

Look at the way he talks about “treating the unpresentable parts of the body with greater modesty.” There are some body parts you never expose to the world, partly because they’re “weaker” (as he says in v. 22: if they went unprotected, it’d be risky); and partly because they’re “unpresentable” (v. 23: they’re the body parts you don’t want to show to anyone).

You can see what he’s getting at. It happens inevitably, every time you have a group of people coming together for a common cause, that some people are quickly identified as being “important”—the ones whose talents are easily visible, those who are natural leaders or possess a certain maturity or charisma—and then there are the rest. And the tendency—the sinful tendency—is to imagine that those who belong to “the rest” are there simply to fill the spaces between the important people. 

And yet, Paul says, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” There are parts of the body which we naturally consider more honorable, more presentable, more useful than others—but in the body of Christ, all these distinctions are GONE. Paul is redefining for us what “honorable” means—he’s leveling the playing field. But at the same time, he’s recognizing that we are different, we all need different things, and we all bring different things to the table.

So he calls us to “show honor” to one another—v. 23:

on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.

Why? Because (v. 24): 

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

Those members we see as “honorable” are called to show greater honor, to care for, those whom everyone else would overlook—because that’s the truth of our situation. Every member is different, but no member is more important than any other.

Or to say it differently: he’s calling us to get over ourselves. Christians can be among the most self-important people in the world. (Just look at the Pharisees—their spirit is alive in well in churches all over the world.) They look at those people in the church who seem “weak,” and they feel like things would just be so much easier if those people would go away and let us get to work.

How dare us. We don’t throw anyone out. We are very poor judges of what is important and unimportant. Every member is as important as every other. And if someone is limping in their walk with Christ, we come alongside them and say, “Let’s do this together. You can lean on me as long as you need to.”

But this is harder to do than we would imagine. In order to truly honor someone, in the way Paul is describing here, you must know how to show that particular person honor in their particular situation. And to do that, you have to know a) who they are; b) where they are weak; c) where they are strong; d) where your strengths can compliment their weaknesses; and e) where their strengths can compliment yours. There is an intentional compatibility at work in the body of Christ.

And this requires a lot of work. It requires vulnerability, honesty, encouragement, patience, and lots and lots of time. It means spending enough time with one another to know each other this well. It means letting others see those parts of our lives and character we’d never put on Instagram.

But what happens when we do that is wonderful. When I do that, I see that the person I thought was weak actually has a lot that I need; and I allow others to see that I’m not really as great as I thought I was. The playing field is leveled.

We share a common experience (v. 26)

 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  

This is so simple, and it is devastating, because if we follow what he says here to its logical conclusion, we see that we have been doing so rarely looks like what church life is meant to be. 

Our experience as the body of Christ is meant to be common—not our experience of church, not experience of Christianity, but our experience of life. This doesn’t mean we’ll all go through the same stuff; it means that what happens to you guys affects me. If you lose a family member, it should wound me. If you lose your job, it should concern me. If you have a baby, it should make me rejoice. If you lose a baby, it should make me grieve.

Living as a body means not just knowing what others are going through; it means feeling what others are feeling

How seldom do we do this? How seldom do we exchange prayer requests, say, “OK… I’ll pray for you,” without ever really feeling the weight of those requests? Because I guarantee you, they’re feeling the weight. 

We are called to a common experience: If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

So how do we do this? It's not as if we can choose to get emotional with someone else when they're suffering—is that what he's talking about?

No: he's talking about what will happen naturally if we live as he's just been describing: if we live like the body of Christ, like members who are intimately linked to the other members, and who are dependent on the other members.

If we truly realize who we are in Christ, and we live as if it were true, we will see a depth of relationship and unity and belonging that is far beyond what many of us experience in the body of Christ today.

But it takes work. It takes honesty and transparency with others that goes beyond just saying, "It's been a tough week."

It's a risk. And it can go bad—people will disappoint us.

Yes, it can go bad; it can be painful. But it’s worth it.

Why is this so important for us?

One of the great joys of my life over the last three and a half years has been seeing this church grow from a tiny group of ten or twelve people to the almost unmanageable beast it is today. In three years the size of our church has grown by thirteen. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

But it comes with a caveat. Part of the reason we have grown so quickly is because of where we are in Paris, and the fact that it’s been primarily made up of young people. Our church is easy to get to, and young people are game for anything; so it’s caused us to grow rapidly. Here’s the problem: I know dozens of people who say they “go to Eglise Connexion”, but what that means is, when they go, they go here. They come here on Sundays, but don’t ever see other Christians during the week; or they come here on Sundays as long as they don’t have something better to do.

Brothers and sisters, I love you. But because I love you, as your pastor I have the responsibility to put you in front of what God calls you to be, and many of you are failing in this. As one pastor friend put it: coming to church and listening to a sermon is nowhere in the Bible presented as God’s plan for his people. God’s plan for his people is not that they go to church, but that they belong to the church. 

And when you refuse that belonging, when you treat the church as just another place to fill your consumer appetites, you rob yourself. You may have a good time, you may “feel fed;” but you’ll never really know anyone else. And you’ll never really be known. And you rob the church as well, because the church needs you. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” Your brothers and sisters need you, because you’re a part of the body. And you need them.

Now there are a million reasons why one might resist this. You may be freaked out by that kind of vulnerability; you may have a lot of stuff in your life you don’t want anyone else to know about; you may simply not know where you’ll be in a year. But I’m sorry, none of those excuses will wash. If your time in Paris is limited, that’s okay—God places us in specific places at specific times. God will call some of us away from this place one day, and Lord willing many of us will hopefully be here for years. We don't know what he's going to do with us in a year, or in two years, or in ten years. But right now, this is where he's put us. This is the body of Christ he has joined us to. And no matter what happens afterward, no matter what baggage we may be carrying around, no matter how afraid we might be, wherever we happen to be at this moment is where he calls us to invest. We do not get a pass on being members of the body of Christ just because the future is uncertain or because we’re scared. 

And in case you’re thinking I’m being harder on you than I need to, I’ll confess it: I’m terrible at this. I'm preaching to myself every bit as much as I’m preaching to you.

But no matter how we feel about it, we have to see that this is what we’re made for. We were not created to attend church, listen to sermons and go our separate ways. We were made to belong to the body of Christ. Any Christianity that doesn’t lead into this kind of belonging may be nice; it may be pleasant; but it is not complete, biblical Christianity. It is Christianity at half-mast; it is bargain-bin Christianity. You are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 

I won’t go so far as to say it’s all or nothing; but it’s definitely faithful or unfaithful. 

Brothers and sisters, let us be faithful to God’s call for us. Let’s be the body of Christ. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.