(The first of two posts on Rom 12:3-8.) I remember the first time I encountered the work of Oliver Sacks, a gifted writer whose neurological case histories read like mystery novels. The book was The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. The improbable title derived from a particularly bizarre case in which a man was unable to recognize his exasperated wife’s face, clutching at it repeatedly because he thought it was his hat. He was perplexed, because he was neurologically incapable of realizing his error.
Sacks describes other equally strange but compelling stories. One of the most memorable is that of a man who was found sitting on the floor next to his hospital bed, dazed and bewildered. Due to neurological damage, he had lost all sensation in one leg. He had awakened that morning in horror; without the appropriate sensations, he didn’t realize that the seemingly dead leg he was gazing at was his own. Thinking himself the victim of a monstrous joke, he threw the offending leg out of the bed. To his utter amazement, of course, the rest of him went with it.
Reading Sacks opened a new but disturbing window on life: I had little idea how much I had to take for granted just to make it through the day. It had never occurred to me that complex neurological processes had to be operating properly even just to know the obvious: this is my leg. This is a face.
It makes me wonder just how deeply Paul means the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ to go:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom 12:3-5, NIV)
The earlier chapters of Romans suggest that in the mixed congregations to which Paul was writing, both Jews and Gentiles had their own ways of thinking a little too highly of themselves. One way in which their minds needed to be renewed was in their estimate of each other’s place in God’s will.
Taken as an anatomy lesson, what Paul says here–and in his longer discussion in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27–seems pretty obvious. The human body is made up of many parts, which serve different functions. But they’re still one interdependent whole. The body can’t be just an eye or an ear; that would be grotesque. The head shouldn’t think it can get along without the feet, and the feet can’t complain that they don’t belong just because they didn’t get to be hands. Eyes and ears, hands and feet; all are necessary. The various parts need each other for the body to be whole and to function properly. They belong to each other, because they belong together.
It’s been said that this is a model of “unity in diversity,” and so it is. But often it seems as if we take Paul to be saying, “Try for unity, despite the diversity”: diversity and differentness take center stage, and unity means little more than mutual toleration. Imagine telling the head, “Look, I know the feet are different from you, but just try to get along, okay?” Somehow, I don’t think the body would get very far before it fell.
Paul is describing a deeper reality: a unity that needs diversity, that would be deformed without it. Adding Oliver Sacks’ voice to Paul’s, there may be parts of the body that work invisibly–but without them, even the most basic of functions can’t be accomplished.
We need each other.
Do we take our own place in the body as a given, ignorant of the invisible contributions of others? Do we think we don’t have a place, because we can’t do the things we admire in others? Or do we just want to stay on the periphery, and assume that someone else will do whatever needs to be done?
Like it or not, God has designed a congregation to be a unity that needs diversity, a gathering of people who think rightly about their place in the work that God wants to accomplish through the church, through what is now the earthly body of Christ–his hands and feet, eyes and ears and voice.
We may be too spiritually self-centered to realize the ways in which we need each other to do God’s will.
But then again, God’s not finished transforming us yet.
Lord, show us the ways in which we think too highly of ourselves or our in-group. Save us from a conceit that overvalues our contribution. Save us from a shortsighted lack of faith that undervalues it. Save us from the lie that we have no contribution to give. Teach us the true meaning of unity in diversity, to the glory of your name. Amen.