September 3, 2023 (Proper 17)
“You are the hands and feet of Jesus alive in the world.”
John 21:25; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
I love that verse that ends the Fourth Gospel. The first time it really jumped out at me was when I was listening to Amy Gopp, who was at the time the director of Week of Compassion, preaching on the last chapter of John.
The rest of the chapter is probably more familiar to most of us; it’s the story of how Peter and several other disciples decide, after Jesus was raised and had appeared to them, to go back to Galilee and to their previous work of fishing. They fish all night but catch nothing, until a stranger on the shore tells them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat—whereupon they catch more fish than they can haul up!
The stranger, of course, turns out to be Jesus, and he’s got a fire going and is cooking them breakfast. Then he has a conversation with Peter in which he asks three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter answers three times, “Yes, you know I do”; and then Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my lambs”/ “Tend my sheep”/ “Feed my sheep.”
After that there’s a short conversation about the Beloved Disciple, and then the author signs off with what was probably a standard literary device, the verse Shawn just read. “Jesus did lots more than what is in this book; if everything he did was written down there wouldn’t be enough space on earth to hold all the books!”
When I heard Amy Gopp read John 21, that verse really leapt out at me. What could it mean? Church tradition—and the cycles of the Christian year—tell us that 40 days after Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of the Father. Did he do all that stuff in 40 days? Or does the author have something else in mind?
(Keep in mind that of the four Gospels, only Luke tells us about Jesus ascending into heaven. Matthew and John both end with Jesus resurrected and with his disciples, and there isn’t anything in either of them, or in the original ending of Mark, to tell us where Jesus went or did after the resurrection appearances.)
I think this verse points to something important, just like the second reading for today from 1 Corinthians 12 does.
We’re a lot more familiar with the next chapter, the so-called “Love Chapter.” But that chapter comes in the middle of an extended discussion of spiritual gifts that begins with chapter 12, verse 1, and goes all the way through the end of chapter 14. If we read it in that context it says something a whole lot different from what we hear when it’s read at a wedding or a funeral.
The Corinthians seem to have had a really bad habit of finding every possible way to divide themselves up. At the very beginning they’re apparently determining who is most important based on who baptized them. Then in chapters 9 and 10, they’re assuming some of them are better because their faith is strong enough to withstand eating idol-meat, while others have scruples about it.
In chapter 11 Paul chastises the Corinthians for bringing divisive practices into their common meal, a meal that included the remembrance of the Last Supper. We wouldn’t even know the early church, before the Gospels, before the worship and church life manual called the Didache, celebrated Communion, if not for the fact that Paul was upset because the Corinthians were Doing It Wrong.
And in chapters 12 through 14, it appears the Corinthians had set up a hierarchy of importance based on what spiritual gifts people had, possibly with speaking in tongues at the top. In the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists out a number of gifts that Christians receive from the Holy Spirit. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, discernment, tongues, interpretation of tongues: Paul lists these, but I don’t think he means for this to be an exhaustive list, like everybody has one of these eight and nothing else we’re potentially good at can be claimed to have come from the Holy Spirit.
Another reason I don’t think this is meant to be an exhaustive list is that this isn’t the only place Paul or anyone else talks about spiritual gifts in the New Testament; and each time a list is spelled out, it contains different gifts.
But the specific gifts listed here or anywhere else are beside the point. The purpose of the gifts is what’s important.
Here in 1 Corinthians Paul says the gifts are given and meant to be used “for the common good.” In Ephesians, which may or may not have been written by Paul, the purpose is spelled out in a bit more detail: “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
The Corinthians who had dramatic, public gifts like speaking in tongues may have been using them to show off how much more “spiritual” they were than others who had less public and dramatic gifts, like keeping the church kitchen well organized or wiping handprints off the glass doors. And the people with the less public gifts may have come away feeling like they weren’t valued, weren’t important, maybe didn’t even belong in the church. So in the verses before our reading from 1 Corinthians 12, Paul emphasizes that there are lots of different gifts, but they are all given by one and the same Spirit, and they are all meant to be used for the good of the community as a whole.
In chapter 14, which we don’t really hear a lot about, he comes right out and says that if you speak in tongues but there isn’t somebody who can interpret, then you’re just puffing up your own ego, and you’re not doing anybody else any good.
But where I want to go in this passage—where I think it relates to that last verse from the Fourth Gospel—is with Paul’s extended discussion of the church as the body of Christ.
Mostly he’s talking about how the church is one body, with many parts that have different functions, and each part being essential to the proper working of the body. Biology tells us today that we’ve got some parts we could probably get by without, like our appendixes or wisdom teeth. Paul wouldn’t have been thinking about that, and if we are, we’re carrying his metaphor out too far. He just wanted to make sure all the Corinthians knew they were part of Christ’s body, the church, and their gifts, whatever they happened to be, were needed there.
But let’s spend a few minutes thinking about what it means that we’re the body of Christ.
When I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, I heard a lot of talk about the Second Coming of Christ. We learned to expect it—and I still do—and we looked at the Scriptures, especially the book of Revelation, to help us recognize signs that it was about to happen. (We didn’t really spend a lot of time with the Scriptures that say even Jesus didn’t know when it would happen, and that speculating about it is sort of a waste of time.)
Yes, one day Jesus will return in glory, and the message of Revelation is that on that day, the redemption of all creation that began with the Cross will be completed. But I think there’s another reason why it’s a waste of time to try and figure out the exact date when the Second Coming will occur.
I think it’s because, in a way, he never left.
The creeds do say, and the church year enshrines with special days, that Jesus ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of God. I’m fine with that. But in one sense, Jesus left his body behind, here on earth, to continue his life and work.
If the church is the body of Christ, then we are, in a substantial way, Christ’s ongoing presence here on earth.
Several years ago I was leading our high school youth group through a video series. It was like a reality show, in which a group of kids traveled all around the United States, meeting with people who were living out their faith in pretty radical ways.
One episode, might have been the first one of the series, had the kids traveling to inner-city Philadelphia to meet Shane Claiborne, of the neo-monastic community called The Simple Way. Over the course of the day they spent with Shane and his community, he told them something that really jumped out and grabbed me: “You are literally the hands and feet of Jesus alive in the world.” And so, for the night when we watched that video and discussed it, I made up little cards for the kids to take home with them. They were basically the same as the cards you have in your bulletins this morning; I put them there in the hope that you will take them home and stick them on your mirror or your refrigerator, or another place where you’re likely to see them every day.
If the church is the body of Christ, each of us individually members—or limbs, or organs, or however you want to translate the word—then we are indeed the continued presence of Jesus alive in the world; and each of us adds our story to what the Fourth Gospel calls “many other things that Jesus did.” When the church acts, it is as though Jesus himself acts. When the church speaks, the world hears Jesus speaking.
That is an awesome responsibility!
Whatever the body of Christ does, it does as the ongoing, continuing presence of Jesus. I think that ought to call us to pretty fair amount of humility, as well as careful discernment. We’re not necessarily here to get our own needs met, and we’re sure not here to make ourselves look good; we are here to show the world that Jesus is alive and active in and through us.
Our discernment can start with the question, “What would Jesus do?” but we mustn’t stop there. Next it’s important, with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course, to study—individually and together—the Gospels, which are the record of what Jesus did do, as interpreted by those who followed him most closely during and after his life on earth.
We are the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus alive in the world. If we look at the matter in this way, then John’s statement at the end of his Gospel is true: the body of Christ has been alive and working in the world for two millennia now, Jesus’ hands and feet alive in the world, and if everything that the body of Christ has done over those two millennia were written down, the world would absolutely be piled high with books.
And in one of those books, on one of the pages, we would find the story of what this part of Christ’s body, First Christian Church of Butler, Missouri, has done to show the world the love, grace, and mercy Jesus demonstrated during his earthly life.
 Ephesians 4:12
 Actually some scientists think the appendix does serve a purpose in intercepting infectious materials in the intestines. But it does have a tendency to cause trouble in some people, and people seem to do just fine without it. Evolution may be taking care of our wisdom teeth; many people these days don’t come equipped with a full set of four of them—I only had one and my sister only had two—and I suspect in a few hundred years they’ll be completely forgotten.