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Second Sunday after Epiphany
“All Christians Share Equally in Christ”
Seminarian Paul Norris, Vicar
16 January 2022
Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In my former years, I had the hobby of keeping a saltwater reef aquarium. In my large 150-gallon fish tank, which dominated the front room of our house, were all kinds of sea creatures. There were live rock, coral, various fish, starfish, shrimp, algae, and even microscopic organisms. They were beautiful to look at, but each creature had a special task within the tank. The Tang fish would clean the rocks and sides of the tank by eating algae. The starfish would sift the sand at the bottom of the tank removing debris and detritus. The coral would filter the water and eat the microscopic organisms. And then at night, the most magnificent display of God’s masterful design would happen. As the lights would dim, the Skunk Cleaner shrimp would climb to the top of the tallest rock and extend his long antenna inviting the Tang fish to receive a cleaning. The shrimp would meticulously clean the gills and scales of each Tang as they each waited patiently in line for their turn. Each creature in that aquarium, even the ugly ones, had a task that God gave them to ensure the welfare and health of the small ecosystem.
In the same way, God gives his children different gifts to serve the body of Christ. The reef aquarium may not be the perfect way to describe Christians. Many times in scripture St. Paul uses the simile of a body to describe the equality of all Christians and the common faith of all believers. These gifts should never be regarded as making one better, happier, or more righteous than another in the eyes of God. In a body, all the members perform certain functions because they are members of one body, and no one member has its place in the body through its own merits. The different members act and perform their functions because they are members of the body. Any one member is only strong because it is used when the need arises. Some parts are used more often than others. No Christian can boast that his own efforts or works have made him a member of the body of Christ.
I once heard some children talking after Sunday school about this teaching and which body parts they might be. One little boy exclaimed that he was the strong arm that would crush the enemies of God, while another said he was the leg that would kick the Devil. But just as I thought perhaps they were understanding the simile, they proclaimed that the smaller boy in the group was just the big toe! Sin reared its ugly head and entered into what should have been a holy conversation. But in their slight, they failed to realize that the big toe serves a valuable function to a body. When you walk or run, the big toe plays an essential role in stabilization. Without this stabilization, your foot would have reduced shock absorption and very limited propulsive force. You would not be able to run. The big toe is important to the human body. And this little boy, even if he’s just the big toe on the body of Christ, he is vital to it!
Unequal abilities and vocations of the different members don’t nullify the equality that they share as members of the same body. No single member can claim superiority over any other member as all the members are needed to complete the body. All Christians, whether they are weak or strong in faith, perfect or defective, share equally in Christ. Brothers and sisters in Christ, do not confuse function or vocation with importance. The disciples in their sinfulness asked Jesus many times who would be the greatest in his kingdom, and the answer was always the same. If you think you are the greatest then you are the least.
Because of our sinful nature, we are conceited, self-righteous, and unable to recognize our equality in the body of Christ. We even stir up factions and distinctions among fellow Christians. In Luther’s time, “Priests aspired to be better than laymen; monks better than priests, virgins better than wives. The diligent, in praying and fasting, would be better than the laborer; and they who lead austere lives, more righteous than they of ordinary life. This is the work of the devil, and productive of every form of evil. Opposed to it is Christ’s doctrine in our text. Under such conditions mentioned, faith and love are subverted. The unlearned are diluted, and led away from the faith to works and orders.” (CSML Vol IV, p24)
We are not immune to conceited and self-righteous attitudes towards other members of the body of Christ. We are tempted to think of ourselves as better or more important and we forget the equality we all share as members of the body of Christ. We look down upon those who do things we view as unimportant or beneath us. There are some in our congregation who give encouraging words to others. Some clean, cook, and wash dishes. Some take out the trash, perform maintenance, provide security or do repetitive office tasks. Others act in love and mercy to their fellow brother or sister in Christ.
The list is too long to recount all the unnoticed works that the members of our congregation do for the body of Christ. Many of these acts of love are done anonymously so that even the recipient does not know who God used to help them in their time of need. But all are important members of the body of Christ. These members are just as essential as those who perform the more public and visible duties of the church. As a member of the body of Christ, God has appointed certain duties and abilities according to your capacity. Embrace them and abide in them. Don’t think of yourself as better than others but rejoice in their work and their office as you would your own. Even if you think it is less important than yours.
God intentionally gave us different gifts so we might complement each other while we serve him. When we sin by becoming self-righteous or conceited in our vocation within the body of Christ, we must turn to the cross of Christ. Jesus bore our sin of arrogance, self-righteousness, and jealousy on the cross. Forgiveness of this sin and all sin has been won for you by Christ. The cross of Christ makes you equal with all other Christians, and all other Christians equal with you. All Christians share equally in Christ.
What is the mark of the true Christian? The second portion of our Epistle reading gives us the answer. The ESV reads, “Let your love be genuine.”(Vs.9) Perhaps it is better to use the Greek word used here “hypocrisy” and translate it as “Love without hypocrisy.” In the ancient world, actors wore masks on stage, and the Greek word for them was hypocrite. Christian love is not acted out or pretend love, it is genuine love. This love is phileo love; or brotherly love. In brotherly love, we all stand alike on the same level. But, equality does not mean the absence of difference. There are differences in familial love as a child, parent, or grandparent. Each is equal in his or her standing as a cherished member of the family, each is different in their position and vocation within the family. In Christ, we are happy to help honor one another. We do not seek honor for ourselves but live in harmony together as equal members of the body of Christ.
We are given many gifts from God, which we receive for the benefit of the whole body of Christ. God also continues to give his members the gifts of his Word and Sacrament. As one body of Christ, you received one baptism for the forgiveness of your sins whereby you were marked, crucified, buried, and resurrected with Christ. Your baptism is your identity in Christ. By his death on the cross, Jesus rescued you from your sentence of death. Jesus continues to give you the life-giving gifts of his true body and blood at the altar. These gifts are given by God to sustain all of you unto life everlasting, the members of the body of Christ Jesus.
Therefore, we give thanks to God for giving us the different gifts according to his grace, making us all cherished and vital members of the body of Christ. You may think you are just the big toe, but you are the big toe on the body of Christ! What joy we have as we endure this sinful world together in brotherly love as we wait for the return of our Savior, and the blessed eternal future we have in Christ Jesus.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.