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A Part of the Whole

Thomas J Parlette

“A Part of the Whole”

1st Cor. 12: 12-31a


Once upon a time, on a beautiful summer evening, a little league coach was getting frustrated. His team of ten year olds were playing their game, having a great time – but the coach was getting close to his limit.

Finally he turned to one of his players sitting on the bench, “Do you understand what cooperation is? What a team is?”

The little boy nodded his head.

“Do you understand that what matters is not whether we win or lose, but that we do it together, as a team?”

Once again, the little boy nodded his head.

“So when a strike is called, or you’re thrown out at first, you don’t argue or curse or attack the umpire. Do you understand all that?”

Again, the little boy nodded.

“Good,” says the coach. “Now go over there and explain it to your mother.”(1)

Sometimes we all need a little reminder about teamwork, cooperation and working for the common good. That’s what we hear today in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – a little reminder about how to get along, how to play nice with others and how to appreciate each other’s gifts and abilities. Today, Paul reminds us all, that we are a part of the whole.

The church in Corinth was one of Paul’s favorites, while at the same time being one of the most contentious Christian communities. It’s actually likely there was not just one group of believers, but a number of small gatherings, house churches, that made up the church in Corinth. For instance, we know that a woman named Chloe was a convener of one of these house churches in the port neighborhood of Cencherea, not fgar from the center of the city of Corinth. They were also an interesting mix of people. The church in Corinth was the only one of Paul’s churches that had a mix of the wealthy and the poor. This was largely due to architecture, believe it or not. The houses of the wealthy in Corinth were actually villas on the busy city streets. The family would usually live in the upper floors and the street level space was rented out as shops and stores. While Paul was in Corinth, we know that he worked as a “tent-maker”, making tents and possibly backdrops for the theater that was in Corinth. It’s quite likely that he worked in one of these street level shops in the bottom floor of a villa. As Paul preached to people as he did his work, he probably came into contact with some of the wealthy people who owned the downtown villas – they liked what they heard – and they became followers. So the Corinthian church was mix of the “haves” and the “have nots.”

The city of Corinth itself was also a very unique and important place in Paul’s day. Located on the Isthmus of Corinth, it was an important commercial city. Goods, and people, from all over the world came through Corinth – it was a wealthy, cosmopolitan place. Corinth was the host of one of the four major athletic events of the time, the Isthmian Games. We tend to only remember the games at Olympia, the inspiration for the Olympic Games, but there were also athletic festivals held at Nemea and Delphi, as well. These games brought not only pride and prestige, but also a lot of money in to the area. Corinth was also noted for it’s Temple to Apollo, the son of Zeus, and it’s Temple to Esclepius, the god of healing.

In terms of our passage for today, the Temple of Esclepius is particularly interesting because people would visit the Temple and leave plaster replicas of body parts that had been healed – feet hands, arms, legs, ears and such –  as thank you’s to the Gods. It’s quite likely that Paul would have visited these Temples and he would have seen the plaster body parts. Perhaps those hands and feet and arms and legs were on his mind when he wrote this passage about the foot saying, because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body… and so on. His friends in Corinth would have smiled at Paul’s metaphor – they knew what he was talking about.

This image of the church functioning like a body was not exactly new, it was commonly used in Paul’s day. But Paul does shape it for his own use. Usually this metaphor of a community or a society functioning like a body was used by the upper class to keep the lower class in their place. The body of course was ruled by the head – which is the ruling class, the wealthy, the elite. The lower classes, the workers and slaves were more like the feet and the hands. They did the work, being controlled by the head.

But Paul flips the metaphor here. Instead of using the image of the body to keep people in their place, Paul uses it to point out that each part of the body needs the other. Each part of the body has its own unique purpose. They can’t function independently. A body needs all of its parts. One part is not better than another, all are parts of the whole.

Noted preacher Fred Craddock has pointed out that the church was not born fully grown. It needed to grow in it’s self-understanding. What was the church? How should it’s life be shaped? And there was no shortage of models to draw upon.

For example, they could have patterned their church life after the Temple. They loved the Temple. It was THE place of worship, the place to go to offer sacrifices to God. It was God’s house. But they didn’t pattern their life after the Temple because the Temple was exclusive. It was dominated by the clergy…

Or, they could have patterned themselves after the Synagogue. Synagogues were led by the lay people. They were different from the Temple. Lots of towns and villages had their own Synagogues, informal places where people gathered to read and hear and discuss the Scriptures. They all knew synagogues well. But they didn’t model their corporate life together after synagogues either.

They could have remained as simply an informal movement with no formal organization at all – just the power of the preacher and the word. But the early church wanted something more. Ultimately, the church came to understand itself as a body. The body of Christ, with Christ himself acting as the head – a unified whole with many parts dependent on one another.(2)

Paul reminds his friends in Corinth and his friends in Rochester that we must acknowledge and appreciate our differences. We are not called to be exactly the same. We are not called to believe exactly the same either. We are called to use our God-given gifts for the good of the body. Yes, we are all different. We have unique abilities, strengths and interests. We all have our individual opinions and ways of understanding things. And sometimes that leads to disagreement and conflict. But we are all different because that is what God intends.

All God’s gifts, given through the Spirit are important. None are better than any other. Dr. Bob Reccord tells an interesting about the time in 1981 when President Reagan was shot and was hospitalized for several weeks. Although Ronald Reagan was the nations chief executive, his time in the hospital didn’t slow the country down much at all – things went on as usual. The government continued. On the other hand, consider the story about when the garbage collectors of Philadelphia went on strike. That city was not only a literal mess, the pile of decaying trash quickly became a health hazard. The city came to a stand still. So consider this – “Who is more important, the President of the United States or a garbage collector?”(3)

In the Kingdom of God, all of us are equally important. And if any of us fail to do our part, the church is poorer for it. We are called to use our gifts for the common good, to build up the body of Christ and accomplish God’s work in this world.

A number of years ago, there was a Peanuts cartoon that featured Snoopy nursing a broken leg. There he was, perched on top of his doghouse and looking at the huge white cast on his leg.

“My body blames my foot for not being able to go places,” he says. “My foot says it’s my head’s fault, and my head blames my eyes… My eyes say my feet are clumsy, and my right foot says not to blame him for what my left foot did…”

Then he looks out at the audience and confesses, “I don’t say anything because I don’t want to get involved.”(4)

I don’t want to get involved. A lot of people are like that. “I’ll take what I need from church… and that’s it. I don’t want to get involved.”

But in reality – that’s not an option. We must get involved. That’s how God wants it. We don’t all have to do the same things – we can’t. But we must get involved.

I’m reminded of the story of the man who fell into a deep sleep. He dreamt he went to heaven – he was so excited to see what heaven would be like. He opened a door and went into a grand banquet hall with long tables filled with wonderful and exotic foods. There were people sitting at the tables, trying to eat – but here’s the crazy thing. Their arms were twice as long as normal, and they had no elbows. Their arm’s wouldn’t bend. They were trying desperately to eat, but they couldn’t get the food to their mouths.

But then, at the far end of the room, there were two people that figured out the puzzle. Using their extra long arms, they fed the person across the table from them. Instead of feeding themselves, they feed each other.

We need each other to function as the body of Christ. We are  a part of the whole, we are called to use our unique gifts for the common good.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegard once told a parable about a community of ducks. Each Sunday these ducks would waddle off to duck church to hear the duck preacher give them a message. The duck preacher would quack eloquently and passionately about how God had given the ducks a special gift. The gift of wings with which to fly. With these wings, the duck preacher assured them, there is nowhere ducks can not go. With these wings there is no God-given task the ducks can not accomplish. With these wings, we can soar into the very presence of God.

As the duck preacher exhorted his congregation, shouts of “Amen!” and “Quack it brother!” rose from the congregation. Wings were lifted in praise. And then, at the conclusion of the service, the ducks left, commenting on what a wonderful message they had heard. And each duck quietly waddled their way back to the pond. They did not use their gift at all.(5)

It’s a sad thing to have a gift and never use it. And that is not what God intends. God intends that we use our gifts for the common good.

St. Therese famously put it this way:

“Christ has no body now but yours…

No hands, no feet on earth but yours…

Yours are the eyes through which He looks with compassion on this world…

Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good…

Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world…

Yours are the hands… Yours are the feet… Yours are the eyes… You are His body.”(6)


Paul reminds us that we are called to part of the whole.

May God be praised. Amen


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 28, No. 1, p. 32.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, p. 23.

3.    Ibid… p. 24.

4.    Ibid… p. 24.

5.    Ibid… p. 26.

6.    Ibid… p. 26.