The rather long second reading at today’s Mass is about body parts, and the way the variety of different parts of the human body make up a unity. Fairly obvious, you might think; it’s an idea we are quite familiar with. But there is a little more to it than meets the eye, especially when you link it up with what we heard last Sunday, from the earlier part of the same Chapter, when St Paul said that there is a variety of gifts all given by the same Spirit. Even that reading was not as clear as it might have been, because it cut out the opening verses of the chapter, which explained why St Paul started talking about all that in the first place.
The situation seems to have been this. Some Corinthian Christians continued to have spiritual experiences like they used to in their pagan days, being carried away, having ecstatic visions, and suchlike; and they thought themselves more holy and important than those who did not have such experiences. Inevitably this had caused rifts in the community. It is a bit like the earlier problem that Paul had talked about: that some people came to the Eucharist already well filled with food and drink, and despised the poor who could not afford to do this. St Paul does not just issue an edict: ‘Don’t do this’. He goes into the theology of the Eucharist, and shows how the behaviour of some dishonours the very presence of Christ among them.
So too here. He is not content simply to say: Don’t be stuck up and think yourself holy because of your experiences. He grounds what he wants to say on a glimpse into the mystery of God. All good gifts, whatever they may be, come from the one Holy Spirit, and they all complement one another. As they are all gifts, there is no room for human pride, as though it was your own achievement or a sign of your personal holiness. And having said that he goes on to draw this out by using the image of the human body, in which all the various parts, though profoundly different from one another, work together as one whole. The good of one benefits the whole; the suffering of one is shared by the whole.
Of course, nowadays we know much more than Paul did about the intricacy and interdependence of the human body. It’s a far more complex affair than he could ever have imagined. But that does not diminish the value of what he says. In fact he is using the image of the body in a new and quite profound way. It had been a common idea in the time of Paul and earlier that human society, like the human body, is a unity made up of all kinds of different groups and individuals. Generally, though, this image was used by writers and philosophers in antiquity to justify a hierarchy in society: the head is more important than the little toe, so the ruler is more important than the slave. Paul is doing just the opposite. There are varieties of gifts and services and activities in the Christian community, but they are all given by the same Spirit and Lord and God; and so each one is of infinite value as coming from God. As he says: In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body, Jews or Greeks, slave or free; and we were all made to drink of the one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13).
Moreover, note what St Paul does, and does not, say. He does not say: Just as the body is a unity made up of different parts, so too is the Church. Instead he says: So it is with CHRIST. ‘Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with CHRIST’ (12:12). We are not baptised into an organisation that happens to be structured rather like a human body. We are baptised into CHRIST. Underlying what Paul says here is the profound reality of the Incarnation: God taking on human flesh. The Word was made flesh. We are baptised into the Word made flesh.
Here St Paul joins hands with Matthew and John, who both have their own different ways of stating the same profound truth. Matthew has the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where Jesus says: ‘Inasmuch as you did this to one of the least of these, you did it to me’. And in St John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus says: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’. Words such as these lead us into the heart of the mystery of God made man. They help us to see ourselves and one another as we truly are, in Christ.