We know that Paul did not know Jesus in the flesh. He tells us that, and informs us that he has not received the Gospel from other sources, oral traditions or some writing, but has in fact been privileged to receive the Gospel firsthand as revelation from Christ.
Paul, it seems, takes this knowledge with great respect, and from time to time, he clearly points out when he is talking from his own conclusions, and when he is speaking directly from what he received.
In 1 Cor 12: 12-30, we receive from Paul no sense that his conclusions about the body of Christ are his own ideas. Rather his instruction is clear and precise. We are all of the body, and whatever part we have in the body, we are a necessary part of that whole, and but for us, there can be no wholeness. All parts are of equal value, even though some parts garner more attention than others. All gifts of the Spirit are essential to the full and complete functioning of the organism.
Speaking to the Corinthians, these words must have made much sense, for everyone knows that a body missing a foot or the ability to hear, or a hand or an eye, is dysfunctional to one degree or another. Paul’s larger point, that Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman, we are all part of the essential whole, was no doubt more difficult to digest. . Speaking to either Jews whom he wished to convert to the new movement, or to Gentiles, whom he wished to reassure, Paul’s words (or Jesus’ words if we may be so bold) ring right and true to us today.
We wonder how it was in Colonial America that these words did not strike deep at the heart of the slave owner, or the Puritan who was all too quick to dismiss as wicked the Catholic or the Quaker. We wonder how they missed the obvious, that ALL are necessary to the proper functioning of the good body.
Surely they themselves, Puritans especially, were most familiar with being shunned for their unfit beliefs and practices? Surely they saw themselves in the stead of slaves or Gentiles whom Paul welcomed as equally important members of the new community of Christ.
Yet, of course, they most certainly did not see the larger point Paul makes, nor do they realize that to the Gentiles of Corinth, the majority no doubt of that city, they were being asked to sit side by side with slaves or former slaves as equals. Were they not being asked to see something so much bigger than we might today? Today, we say, well of course, EVERYBODY knows that there is no rightful distinction between people!
Yet, there is though we are loathe to admit it. We separate people into groups of us and them, every single day. Paul’s listeners were being asked to stretch their minds around a larger concept, a concept that is most obvious to us today.
Yet, we believe that one of the strengths of scripture, is that however you envision it, whether as the actual perfect word of God, or as the inspired word of God, or as the honest, truthful, and thoughtful beliefs inspired by the Spirit of otherwise fallible humans, one of the things we revere most about scripture is its timelessness. Wisdom literature is noted for its ability to inspire us hundreds and thousands of years after the fact, in new and very different circumstances.
We read scripture asking it to speak to us today, in our lives, in our society.
And if we apply that to Paul’s remarks in Corinthians, are we not being asked to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone as well?
What is the body? If we believe that our God is the God of all peoples in all places, in all circumstances, then the faith tradition is not important, and the social mores are not important, nor the various orientations of our peoples are not important. Atheists, and Muslims, Sikhs, and Transgenders, Native Earth Religions and Pagan belief systems, are not ours to reject, for they too are part of the body, and necessarily part of a well-functioning one. If there is to be rejection, it is far beyond our poor efforts to comprehend, and far beyond our choices to judge.
Is that not the horizon we are asked today to seek? To see all people as God’s people, with gifts to offer us and each other, with each giving an essential something that is necessary if we are to be complete. This is not about actions that are harmful to others–we intuitively realize that we must reject actual harm offered by anyone to others. We are talking about who people ARE as beings.
We reject people for being “different” or for not following the social mores that we deem appropriate at our peril. For we are talking about excising a portion of the body. We are choosing to be less than fully human in our humanness, and in that, we are making the body dysfunctional.
Paul calls us to consider again the Body before we reject those who seem for whatever reason, different, alien, or wrong-thinking.