One evening long ago I tripped over a toy in the darkness (those of you who are parents are probably familiar with that experience) and managed to bend my toes forward and come down on them with a crunch. I was sure that I had broken one toe in particular and sure enough in the morning it was black and blue and made walking around a painful experience. I taped it up to the next toe and let it go for a day, and then I thought to myself, “Well if it is broken, I don’t want the bone to set wrongly,” so I went along to an urgent care and as a new patient I had to present my insurance and fill out a bunch of forms, and at the top of one of those forms was a question I can honestly say I’ve never been asked before, “DO YOU HAVE A SPLEEN?” It occurred to me that there is a question I have no safe way of verifying so I eventually put down, “I assume so.”
But that got me thinking, what is it that the spleen does anyway? I mean I know it’s an organ, and I’ve learned from all the medical trauma shows that they are frequently ruptured in car accidents and removed, so they aren’t a vital organ you can’t live without. But what do spleens actually do, and why am I being asked if I have one? Well, I learned that at one time we were unclear as to what exactly the spleen did and didn’t view it as all that important, but now we know that the spleen is responsible for the destruction of old red blood cells, the holding of a reservoir of red blood cells and other formed elements and we are now discovering that the spleen has an important role in the lymphoid system. Specifically, when the spleen is removed, people become far more susceptible to infections and particularly septicemia.
So here is a part of the body we don’t see, and we aren’t aware of its functioning as we are the more critical organs. I mean you can see your lungs operating as you breathe in and out, you can feel your heart pumping via your pulse, and if an organ like the kidneys or the liver fails, you know about it pretty quickly from the effects, but that doesn’t mean that the spleen isn’t important and that we wouldn’t be impoverished by its loss.
Truly, the Body is, as the Psalmist confessed, fearfully and wonderfully made by God. He has created its parts to work together in harmony, even the ones we don’t see or acknowledge or even know much about. We are dependent every day on the functioning of all those parts together, and when a part fails, we become unwell. Our health can depend upon a myriad of little glands and ducts and valves which may seem unimportant and yet their failure can be more serious than the loss of a more obviously “important” member of the body like a hand or a foot. If you don’t believe that, consider what can happen to you when a tiny portion of the lining of a blood vessel in your brain ruptures. We call that event “a stroke,” and as you know, the results of that can be devastating or even deadly.
The body of Christ, the church, is equally fearfully and wonderfully made and each of its parts is very important – even those that don’t seem to be that way. The church obviously isn’t a building or a denomination, rather the church is made up of people who have become part of the body of Christ. God creates all the parts of that body, knits them together and gives them each their own functions in the whole. Simply put, we may not always realize it but we NEED one another, both as the entire church and as a particular church. In my time as a pastor, I have been reminded of that fact again and again.
I have been given a few gifts, but not enough that I could be the church all by myself; I am totally dependent on the other parts. There are ways in which that is obvious, for instance in the administration of the church. I cannot handle the treasury or keep the books, that is something I must depended on others to do, but I also depend upon the elders who help with the teaching, visiting, and ruling of the church, the women who take care of hospitality, child care, and food, the men who help whenever there is a need, the members who disciple, the members who evangelize, the members who encourage and exhort, the members who pray without ceasing for the body. I have no problem telling you that without prayer, forced to depend upon my own means, I would have left the ministry long ago. So remember that you who are members of the body are all needed and without you, the body would be greatly impoverished.
Unfortunately the Corinthian church at the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to them had obviously forgotten that, they had forgotten that the body of Christ is one body. From what was going on at the Lord’s Supper, we can tell they had forgotten about their oneness and were carrying their social, racial, and economic divisions into the church. The rich were mistreating the poor, lording it over them, and shaming them and they were also dividing into factions and parties around various leaders. The body of Christ in Corinth was being rent by internal schisms.
So Paul wrote this to them to remind them and teach them:
12 For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.
13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.
14 For in fact the body is not one member but many.
15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?
16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling?
18 But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.
19 And if they were all one member, where would the body be?
20 But now indeed there are many members, yet one body.
21 And 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 No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.
23 And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty,
24 but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it,
25 that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.
26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.
(1 Cor. 12:12-27)
The Corinthians had forgotten that the inward regenerating and renewing work of the Spirit, which is the inward and spiritual reality that is symbolized by our outward and external baptism, had joined them all to the same Christ and that ultimately they all shared in one communion and were partakers of the same Spirit who gifts each Christian differently. They were given different gifts, but it is the same Holy Spirit which saturates all believers and as a result those things that once divided us have been removed and taken out of the way. They had been joined to Christ, and in Christ there is no division, except according to function.
They were also prone to say of others, “What good is he or she? He has none of the great spiritual gifts we need. He doesn’t prophesy, or speak in tongues, or heal. What good is he?” And that spirit of inferiority was infecting others. So that they would say, because he or she didn’t have the gifts they viewed as most important – the gifts perhaps that they themselves had – they were of no use to the church.
Now Paul illustrates the silliness of this by pointing out that the various members of the human body all have important functions. The eye is important, for with it we see, but just because neither the nose nor the ear have the gift of sight, this doesn’t mean they are unimportant compared to the eye. With the nose we smell, with the ear we hear. They can do things the eye is not gifted to do. They are all part of the same body, they are all necessary to the body, and if you take them away the body is impoverished.
Paul goes on to point out that if we all had the same gift, we’d be in a sorry state. He uses the eye as example, if the body were one big eye, we would have no ability to hear, or to smell. And if everyone had only one gift, let’s say the gift of preaching, then the church would not be able to function. Preaching may seem like the most important gift and yet it is just one of a diversity of necessary functions.
Paul even goes on to use the example of the parts considered most dishonorable, that is the parts of the body that in Greek philosophy in particular were least exalted, dishonored, and considered most base. He identifies those parts as the “unpresentable” parts, the parts that we modestly cover up or adorn with clothing, but he says that they too fulfill a vital role. We may not think very highly of them, but they are still absolutely vital. They seem weaker, but they are necessary.
In the same way members of the body who seem less presentable, weaker, are still necessary and often God will give greater honor to them and there is a probably a great truth here that will be fully realized in glory.
I read (to my dismay) that Joel Osteen is the most influential and recognized Christian in America and that got me thinking. Have you ever stopped to consider how many men highly exalted by the church, the big name pastors and Christian musicians and strategic thinkers or popular theologians, will in glory receive little or no reward because in the end it will be revealed that they were working for their own glory or building with wood hay and stubble and that they had the rewards they were looking for in the acclaim of men? Joel, for instance, has his reward. On the other hand, people the church has never heard of, unknown pastors, women who prayed and worked for the good of the body, people who poured themselves out on others, served Christians in need, or quietly but deliberately evangelized, will receive great acclaim and recognition in heaven, and I sense nobody will be more surprised than them. They worked ceaselessly but not for themselves. They worked for the good of the body. They listened to Christ’s call and they cared for one another even when it meant dying to self.
Lastly, Paul reminds them that the body rises or suffers together. When a king receives a crown, that crown is placed on his head. But we would never say the head is receiving the honor, because we know that it is the man who has received the honor. If we remember we are one in Christ we will remember that when one part of the body advances, all the parts advance with it. Similarly when one part of the church suffers we all suffer. That is why we pray for the persecuted church and why the Author of Hebrews wrote: “3 Remember the prisoners as if chained with them — those who are mistreated — since you yourselves are in the body also.”
Let me leave you with two final applications
1) In a medical emergency it is sometimes necessary to remove a body part rather than allow an infection to kill the body. This should be a reminder that sometimes it is necessary to remove a heretical or immoral member of the church who refuses to repent. Church discipline may be painful, but it is necessary if the health of the body is to be preserved. To eliminate church discipline is effectively to remove the immune system from the body. Without it, harmful infections will spread and the body will become weak and diseased. Unfortunately, that is an accurate summary of the state of many denominations and congregations today that have eliminated church discipline.
2) Beware of the danger of only wanting or acknowledging the “Big Gifts.” A church where everyone wants to preach and teach but no one wants to pray, clean, keep the books, or do all of the “less presentable” tasks will not function either and will probably be overrun with pride, the same sin that caused the fall of the devil (Isaiah 14:12-15). Remember that your rewards for doing the tasks that don’t attract attention here on earth will be greatly rewarded in heaven (Matthew 6).