Body Image (I Corinthians 12)


–Frankenstein monster, Mark Newman

In chapter 12 of I Corinthians, Paul tells a bunch of loose-cannon Christians that they can’t be for themselves and against each other and still be a church. How, he asks them, do you dare give pride of place in a congregation to only some talents and ideas? How can you regard only a few specially-gifted members as important? Imagine what your body would be like, he says, if one organ incapacitated all the others—if, for example, your eye or your liver took over and tried to run the whole show. A body can’t thrive convulsed with self-importance, envy and contempt.

Imagine instead, Paul proposes, a community that rejects divisive standards of human worth— gender, wealth, family, education, orthodoxy—and honors you if you exhibit the slightly insane virtues of confessing your sins, serving the least, and loving your enemies. Imagine a body whose many parts harmoniously perform indispensable, inter-dependent functions. Imagine a church wherein members harness the passion that flows in diverse forms from God’s one Spirit to engineer the common good. Imagine a body so united that “the suffering of one is the suffering of all, the honor of one is the honor of all.” Imagine a fellowship of body-builders, all dedicated to sculpting one wondrous physique, gift by gift, call by call—or to switch the metaphor, as Paul often does—living stone by living stone.

Imagine, indeed! The truth is that it’s hard for us to imagine such a church, except maybe wistfully. Corinthians are alive and kicking in many of our communities, still overly-proud of gifts that should humble them, still quarreling about whose calling is more important and whose ideas about the church are right, still trying to outdo each other, still advancing private agendas, all in the name of the Holy Spirit.

Now, there are days when I wish we had even more Corinthians in our congregations! To be sure, their hyper-spirituality requires discipline, a dose of selflessness; but if Corinthians manage to temper themselves, the church flourishes on their skill and passion. Our churches seem more susceptible to depression than Corinthian rambunctiousness: in many congregations, the people’s gifts are unidentified, undeveloped, or simply withheld; only a few members express the conviction that we are a body meant to grow healthy and strong; to be a member means to be a pledging unit with a vote, not a living stone edifying Christ’s body; we lack confidence that we have the resources to build his life and share it with the world.

There’s a billboard on I-291 in Springfield touting an auto body shop. It features a big green monster right out of Frankenstein—head bolted to a thick neck, limbs stitched roughly to an ungainly torso. The sign says that this is “the only body we can’t find parts for.” You could slap a picture of some of our congregations up there and say the same thing! Our body needs serious work, and good serviceable parts are scarce. It doesn’t look like the community Paul describes as the gifted body of Christ.

All the same, some metaphors have so much power that even the worst failings do not weaken their grip on our hope. Some things remain real and true even when we can’t see or touch them, even when we don’t believe or live up to them.

A seminary faculty that shall go unnamed once passed through a long period of serious and painful difficulty, some of its own making, some not. At times it seemed like they were being torn limb from limb. Their custom had been to begin every academic year with a retreat. Even during this awful time, they continued to gather. One September, at the height of the troubles, they came together as usual, and to kick things off they did an ice-breaking, community-building exercise based on Paul’s image of the body.

First, they were asked to think about the gifts they possessed, the unique contributions each made to the seminary. Then, each was to decide which body part best summed up his or her presence and activity in the school. They thought about it. Then they paired off to share their reflections. “I think I’m like an eye,” one told the other… “I function like a neck,” another said.

And that, they thought, was the exercise. But then they were instructed to get up and actually make a body, one part arranged next to another as it would be in a human form. And what a misshapen thing they made! It had two heads, three hearts, no brain and no belly, four eyes, a foot, a neck, six hands, and one part that remains unidentified to this very day.

Right away they saw that their body was unbeautiful; but it was oddly charming, too, in a pathetic sort of way. More importantly, they realized that their awful-looking, tired old body needed tending, and they felt compassion for it. Its weird appearance also made them laugh so hard that they began sensing that maybe there was life still in it, the life that had gotten them through all those years, more than enough life to get them through another one. They found wondrous grace in funny flesh and bone.

This wondrous grace was well-known to Paul. He gave us other images that speak with real pathos about this body we are —priceless treasure held in fragile clay jars, boasting of real weakness, thorns in the side. When Paul told the Corinthians that the body they formed was Christ’s, he wasn’t suggesting that this beloved body was perfect and buff. He knew that it is a body imprinted with the nail marks of human brokenness, signs of sin and frailty carried in Jesus’ flesh even into resurrected glory. Paul was speaking of a body that has yet to attain full stature, whose sufferings, he says daringly, we get to fill up in our humble love for each other and our service to the world.

We usually read this text and dwell on the undeniable imperfections of the body we are. We hear Paul scold us for our unwillingness or inability to play the part we have been given, all the ways we want to be a part we are not, to be honored and spoiled. We feel bad that we are more like warts on Christ’s body than its beauty marks. All this is true, and striving to be healthier, stronger, and more coordinated is called for, no doubt. But if the body we are is truly the body of Christ—the one who knew our frailty and took it as his own, becoming obedient even unto death on a cross—we also need to learn to perceive its deepest secret glory, the loveliness God sees in its unloveliness, in its perpetually-underdeveloped quads, its trifocals and bad hair days.

Along with exhortations to take our rightful positions and perform our necessary functions in humility and zeal, the Spirit also offers us the gift of laughter, tenderness and compassion for this odd, ungainly little monster we are. She offers the gift of awe as well. For how could we not be awed when we see through God’s eyes that this mystic body—imperfect, misshapen, and marked with nails—is still by grace quite full of life and still by grace capable of life-imparting. It’s a mystery, to be sure, but the truth remains: for God we are nothing less than body beautiful.

And for that we say, Thanks be to God.

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