The Apostle Paul is writing to a church in trouble. A church riven with disagreements and strife. They are fighting over Paul. They are fighting over teachers. They are fighting over sex. They are fighting over spiritual gifts. They are fighting over food. They are fighting over how best to celebrate the Eucharist. They are even fighting over the resurrection of Jesus. All of this is, of course, wrong. And Paul is rightly angry and hurt about it.
He is angry not because these actions are sinful (though they are). He is angry because these sinful actions have become a barrier to the Corinthians engaging evangelically with their city. Their witness to Christ—their pointing to Christ—is bring hindered by their refusal to live as though, through Christ, everything has changed.
Paul’s solution, repeated in various ways is to direct them back to the source of their unity—to Christ. Preached in the word of the Cross that calls all to repentance regardless of station. A word that is foolishness to Gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews, but to those who are being saved, the wisdom and power of God.
For Paul in 1 Corinthians, the Risen and Ascended Lord has three bodies. Each is treated separately as a point of conflict in the Corinthian Church.
Let’s begin with the third body Paul speaks of—the resurrection body of Jesus as Paul talks about it in 1 Cor 15. The body that was not merely resuscitated but one transformed into an entirely new mode of existence. Here was human being rendered fit for full life with God.
And the Corinthians were fighting about this body. Some could not bring themselves to believe that God had, in fact, done this thing to Jesus. Bodies were, in their minds, the very things we were to leave behind if we were to be rescued by God. To be “saved” was to be delivered from the material world. And Paul says no. There is a resurrection of the dead. We know because Christ has been raised. He appeared to Peter. He appeared to 500 people at one time. He appeared to me last of all. If Christ is not raised, we Christians are the most pitiable of people.
This human body, the body that was crucified, dead, and buried, insists Paul, was reanimated and raised into a new and transformed existence so that he who was crucified now reigns over all creation. And is now, by the power of the Spirit, subduing its enemies, reconciling all creation to itself, and in so doing displaying the true end of human history. In denying the resurrection, the Corinthians were denying the very event—the very body—on which their faith was founded. And that made them pitiable, in Paul’s eyes.
Now, consider Paul’s second body: the Body of Christ in the Eucharist—which was our Epistle for last week taken from 1 Cor. 7. It seems that the Corinthians were even divided here. The wealthy members were turning the Eucharist into some sort of party at which some even became drunk. They consumed all the bread and the wine they brought and left none for poorer members who could not afford to bring their own.
To eat and drink in this way, says Paul, to celebrate in such a self-centred manner, was to eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ. It was to eat and drink judgment instead of salvation. So it was that for some of the Corinthians, the medicine of immortality had become a source of weakness, illness and even death.
Now the third body of Christ: our Epistle for today. It is the Corinthians themselves. United by the Eucharistic body to the resurrection body, Paul insists that the Corinthians’ divisions were entirely nonsense because they were themselves the body of Christ, composed of different parts and united under one head. Their strife, their divisions, their infighting was on a par with a person hating their own body, and trying to dismember it. And that is not only irrational, but also truly horrific.
They were abounding in spiritual gifts, gifts that marked them out as different from each other that were yet gifts of the same Spirit that united them to Christ, that made them his body. And here they were, this gifted and dynamic and knowledgeable congregation, dismembering the body of Christ, tearing themselves apart, because they lacked the greatest gift. The gift of Love.
The Church as the Body of Christ, for Paul, is no mere metaphor, no picture to express an otherwise bland organizational theory. It is not a picturesque way for Paul to say, come on, guys, let’s all pull in the same direction. After all, we are following the same Lord. It is a fact. It is an organic reality. The Corinthians were, by the presence of the Spirit on public display in the celebration of the Eucharist, united to him who is the head. United to him who is the Source of their common life. They were the Body of Christ in Corinth. They were the ongoing presence of Christ in their city.
The Corinthian church is a riven church. A broken church. A partitioned church. A church which pit teachers against each other. A church which fought over whose ministry was the more important. A church which fought over food both ordinary and sacramental. A church, that seemed intent on dismembering the Body of Christ, to the horror and shame to the city in which they were to be that Body.
And Paul’s remedy is to remind them of their future—they would rise and reign just as Christ is now risen and ruling. He reminds them of their present—they were the ongoing presence of Christ in their community. And he reminds them of the site where future and present meet—the Eucharistic feast in which the many were made one.
Now what does that have to do with us as we reflect on the showing forth of Jesus and our mission?
It is, it seems to me, a powerful reminder to us of the source of our unity in mission. The Source of our Unity is Him whose Body we are, whose word we proclaim, whose work we continue.
Paul tells us that Jesus is the Source of the church’s unity in mission. The unity of the church is Christ’s life flowing into us at the Eucharistic meal; mission is Christ living through us in the world. It is not anything we can manufacture. It is not a programme or technique. It is not a secret that we can discover. It is a gift that we can only receive. Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in the one bread.
Here at the altar rail is where we come to receive that gift. Why, like the Corinthians, are we so adept at finding ways to evade, avoid, and refuse a gift that the Lord gives us every week when we come to the table? Let’s narrow that question a little. Why am I?