This week, I ran across this quirky little article in the latest copy of Wired magazine called, “Our Most American Miracles.” It's about modern American inventions that perhaps aren’t the most glamorous or get the most amount of buzz but instead might be considered the unsung heroes. As such, the author doesn’t list Blue Origin rockets or VR headsets; instead, she wrote about the smaller, perhaps more mundane modern miracles of science and ingenuity like… humidifiers, eyelash enhancers, and glue.
Yeah, glue. In particular, wood glue. The author lists wood glue as one of these most American miracles.
I don’t do a lot of carpentry. None actually. I do zero carpentry. But if you do, you might know this. The way that most wood glues work is that when the glue is placed on the wood, the wood fibers begin to swell. As they swell, they become entangled with each other. They start to intertwine. But then, as the glue dries, the wood fibers shrink back down to their normal size — except once they shrink back down, they’re still intertwined and still connected, so much so that that’s how the bond is formed. That’s how the glue works. And the bond is virtually unbreakable.
As I read this piece and pondered the science of wood glue, I couldn’t help but think about the scripture we receive today from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the fledgling Christian community in Corinth because this entangling and joining and bonding to create something new is precisely what Paul is describing. It’s precisely what happens when the Holy Spirit gets involved in our lives to join us one with another — each of us from different hometowns with different backgrounds and family traditions, different political persuasions, different genders, different status, different Enneagram numbers, whatever it might be — joining us and binding us to create the body of Christ, Beloved Community. Each of us, individual fibers entangled and intertwined to become something new that is virtually unbreakable.
This week, we’re picking up where we left off last week. We’re spending the season of Epiphany with a few chapters from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, pondering together the ways that God is made manifest and revealed in and through beloved community. These passages are part of the lectionary, or the calendar of scripture readings appointed for churches to share in from week to week.
In other words, we’re receiving these texts; we didn’t pick them. And there’s no requirement that we have to use the lectionary, but it does allow us to instead simply receive and discover where the Holy Spirit is leading us. And as we looked ahead at the lectionary readings and prayed about what we needed to hear, 1 Corinthians just seemed right. As I mentioned last week, it felt like Paul wasn’t just writing to an ancient community of people in Greece nearly 2,000 years ago, but that he’s also writing to us in our current time and place.
But first, a little context by way of reminder to situate ourselves. As we mentioned last week, Corinth was a central hub of industry and commerce thanks to its geography. It was convenient for trade routes and also among port cities. And Corinth was also the home to a fledgling community of followers of The Way. It was home to a church that the Apostle Paul had established — made up not only of Jewish converts but also of Gentiles — those who weren’t Jewish.
And anytime you bring different groups of people together to create something new, there’s bound to be some friction. Some disagreements. Real authentic community is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard work. And that was undoubtedly true in Corinth. They argued over all kinds of things: Different practices and ways of doing things, what was okay and what wasn’t okay, who had greater status. As we noted last week, one scholar described how the community was threatened by, in his words, “the forces of pride, rivalry, and self-indulgence.”
The struggle was real. And Paul catches wind of all of this dissension and division, and in response, he pens this letter seeking to offer clarity, diffuse some tension, remind them where they came from, and help them find a faithful way forward.
Last week, we heard the first section of Chapter 12 about spiritual gifts. Paul was writing to a community that was posturing, using certain gifts to demonstrate a certain level of spirituality and piety. Human nature getting the best of them. And so Paul’s writing in response to that, saying that these gifts God has given you are just that: gifts, and because they’re gifts from God, they all have equal value. There’s no hierarchy. No status to be earned from them. All gifts carried equal weight. And Paul also reminded them that, by the way, these gifts aren’t for your own personal gain but were to be used for the common good — for the good of the whole.
And so today, Paul is furthering this argument by sharing an illustration: a metaphor of a body with many parts. The message is pretty simple. It’s pretty easy to understand. One body, many parts — and all of the different parts are required to function. It may not be the first time you’ve heard this passage. But you know semantic satiation? I learned that phrase from Ted Lasso. Semantic satiation is the phenomenon of how words start to lose their meaning when they’re repeated over and over again.
In the same way, this passage can lose its power because perhaps we’ve heard it many times before. If this is your first time hearing it, you’re in for a treat. But if it’s not and you’re tempted just to skip ahead and say, “Yeah, yeah. I got this message, I’m good,” stick with me, because I want to point out a couple of pretty interesting things about this passage. You’ll find that Paul’s doing something clever here.
First, there’s some subversion. He’s being a little cheeky. What you need to know is that using the metaphor of a body to give a framework for the structure of society and culture isn’t novel to Paul. It was common in the Greco-Roman world, just not in the way Paul describes it. Those in power and with privilege would point to the body and say, “You see? Some parts of the body are stronger than others, some parts of the body are more beautiful than others. And on the other hand, some parts of the body are weaker, and some parts are less attractive. It’s just the way things are,” they’d say. And that would give them the grounds, appealing to the natural order of things, to simply maintain the status quo. To keep things hierarchical. It would let those with privilege keep their privilege while the poor and weak remained marginalized, poor, and oppressed because, well, that’s just the way things are.
And so what Paul is doing by appealing to the body is subverting that argument. He’s disrupting that argument. He’s saying, “You want to talk about the body? Let’s talk about the body.”
And he proceeds to offer an image of the body that isn’t about maintaining the status quo. It doesn’t imagine a community with rank and hierarchy — some body parts more important than others. Instead, he envisions a body wherein there is unity in diversity. He paints a picture of a body wherein no part is worthless or unneeded. And where the body isn’t marked by uniformity or sameness but by particularity and difference, and that’s precisely the point.
The second point that Paul is trying to make here is that there is an interdependence in the body of Christ. A connectedness. And he does this by appealing to humor. By being a little silly. A little absurd. That’s what he’s doing when he asks rhetorical questions like, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”
Many of us have heard this passage too many times, but if we were part of the Corinthian church a few millennia ago hearing it fresh, we’d be rolling right along with them. We’d be laughing with Paul, who, like a good stand-up comedian and in a masterclass of instruction and preaching, is inviting the Corinthians to repentance by pointing out the absurd and inviting them to laugh at themselves.
The bottom line here is that we need each other. We’re dependent upon each other. This body isn’t just a smattering of parts that happen to be coexisting. It’s not just a group of people who happen to find themselves part of a community. Paul describes how in this community, this beloved community, in the body of Christ, the parts are interconnected. And therefore, there’s no such thing as every man for himself. There’s no such thing as independence or personal freedom because the different parts of the body are interconnected. They’re joined into something new. There’s no personal freedom apart from the freedom of the whole. If one member suffers, all suffer. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. And along the way, we discover that those parts the world might deem weaker are actually indispensable. The ones who are oppressed, marginalized, and forgotten are precisely those who are honored. That’s how God has arranged it.
Paul is saying that there is an interconnectedness and an interdependence inherent. And he does all of this by reminding the Corinthians that their social body has its grounding — its origin — in the broken, mutilated, weak, and crucified body of Jesus.
I’ve been thinking this week about what this means, what this looks like, when, in so many ways, it feels like our communities have never felt so fractured, so distant, and so disconnected. I feel it, too.
While there are several ways we can live this out — several ways we can live out our baptismal calling as the one body of Christ, as simple as a quick text to check on a friend or as challenging and arduous as working for voting rights or to combat climate change or working to give honor and status to those whose bodies may not look like ours — but here’s one thing in particular that I think I need right now.
I remember a story my pastor-friend Jerry tells from when he offered Holy Communion, bottled water, a bag lunch, and a pair of socks each day in a park in Denver — primarily among the unhoused population. And one day, this man came up to Jerry as he was offering Holy Communion and Jerry said the same thing to each person as he offered them the bread and the juice. He’d say, “This is a reminder of how much God loves you.”
And usually, the recipient would say “thank you” or “Amen” or “thanks be to God” or something like that. But instead, this man stopped, looked Jerry in the eye, and said, “Still?”
As if to say, “Still? God still loves me? After all I’ve done? After all I’ve been through? Still?”
And Jerry said, “Still.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, there are days when it’s hard to believe. Hard to hold it together. Hard to know which way is up. Hard to put on that brave face amidst the worry, the stress… all of the things. It’s a lot. And if you have days like this, I want you to know that you’re not alone. But the good news is: It’s not all up to you. The gift of this body, our diversity and particularity and our interconnectedness is that when you’re not feeling it, you’ve got someone — whether you know it or not — who’s willing to feel it for you. Willing to believe when it’s hard for you to believe. Willing to trust on your behalf when you just can’t today. Until you can move it from your head to your heart. Willing to stand in the gap for you and say, “Still.”
Because we are the body of Christ, entangled and interconnected, and I thank God for you.
In the name of the one who, like wood glue, binds us together: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.