The body of Christ is not whole without all its parts. That also means it is not whole without Christ’s disciples who have disabilities. Here is another sermon in my series on disability.
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
(With allusions to Luke 14:1-24)
I don’t think the congregation at Corinth intended it to happen, but some church members found themselves feeling unneeded, unimportant, and unwanted. How did this happen? Just like people in the world around them, the Corinthians were preoccupied with where they stood on the social ladder, the status ladder, and the authority ladder. Who was strong, who was weak, and who was somewhere in the middle?
Some claimed that a special allegiance to Paul, or Apollos or Peter placed them on the upper rungs of the church. Others asserted that their superior spiritual gifts placed them at the top of the ladder. Now consider what this meant to those who didn’t have special connections and flashy gifts.
This state of affairs—division—was even apparent at the communion table, THE place where divisions are supposed to disappear. In Corinth, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated along with a regular dinner. Reflecting the Corinthian social ladder outside the church, wealthier church members enjoyed lavish meals before the poorer working class people even arrived. Just like the first-class passengers on an airplane, the upper class church members enjoyed better food, and those who didn’t have such resources were put to shame. Some were completely left out. There wasn’t a place at the table for them. They went home hungry.
With all this judging and comparing going on, no wonder some of the church members were labeled weak. They may have even labeled themselves weak, second class, not valuable, not needed.
There’s a class of people in the modern world that all too often knows what it is to be labeled and left out. In many ways the world tells people with disabilities that they are second class. In a recent Presbyterian Outlook magazine, former PC(USA) General Assembly Moderator Marj Carpenter described the hostile responses she experienced when she was using a wheelchair and traveling frequently by air. She wrote, “I found out that the average person on the street—and in the airport—simply does not care. They only care about their schedules and their space.
“It’s a horrifying and helpless feeling. If you are manipulating your own wheelchair, you may find the door in front of you actually closed in your face. Also, persons rushing down airport concourses will literally hit your chair as you go by, almost spinning you around. You’re lucky if your wheelchair doesn’t get pushed over.
Marj went on to describe a very bad experience in the Detroit airport. Following airline rules, she was using an airline wheelchair. Left alone at the gate with several hours to wait for her flight, Marj decided that she needed something to read.
No attendants were around, and since the wheelchair was not one you could operate yourself, Marj took her cane and used it to “row” her way toward a newsstand. SheI picked up a newspaper and rowed over to the cashier to pay for it, whereupon the cashier scolded her: “You’re not allowed to move those wheelchairs! You must have an attendant!” and there was a big commotion.
The loud and clear message Marj got was “Lady, you’re in the way! You make us uncomfortable!”
And this is mild compared to what the world dishes out to children with disabilities and their parents. They often have to fight to get an education. Other parents and even some educators resist spending money to educate these children. They’d rather it be spent on so-called “normal” children. They wish people with disabilities would just go away.
Even churches secretly wish people with disabilities would go away so that they don’t have to make the extra effort it takes to include them fully.
People tell themselves that they aren’t important and they aren’t needed. How many church members have I heard declare themselves to be second class because of disability? A whisper in some deep place in their heart tells them that they are only as valuable as what they can physically and mentally do, even in the church.
Paul had a strong response to this up-and-down, ladder sort of thinking. “Don’t you know you Corinthians are one body, the body of Christ?” he exclaimed. “Now imagine the human body acting this way. Suppose a foot said, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand. And suppose the whole body consisted of just one part, say an eye. How could the body hear?
“And what if some parts of the body said to other parts, “We don’t need you. You’re weak and unpresentable, and we don’t need you.”
“This is ridiculous,” declares Paul. “All the parts of the body need all the other parts. The ones that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” But how often does the church recognize that?
Jesus thought it was absolutely essential that people with disabilities be included at God’s banquet, and many churches understand that. But how often do they recognize that people with disabilities are indispensable to Christ’s body, that the body is not whole without them? The church often makes people with disabilities an object of its ministry, a mission project. But how often does the church open its hands to the gifts God plans to give the church through people with disabilities?
Some people with disabilities do not realize how much they have to give, but many others are aching to participate actively and contribute. Presbyterians for Disability Concerns has an excellent video in which people with disabilities speak for themselves. A middle-aged woman in a wheelchair said, “God’s power is made perfect in weakness, in limitation. The church should be on the lookout for that.” This woman leads a Bible study in her home and teaches Sunday School at church.
An elder, a man who had polio as a child declared, “I want to do my part along with everybody else.” He also added, “The more physically accessible a church is, the more spiritually accessible it’s going to be.” A woman who used a listening device to be able to hear the worship service said, “I don’t like to be left out of anything.” A deaf man added, “Hearing people encourage deaf people to become active. We work as a team.”
“People with mental retardation are people first,” said a woman who advises the members of her church who have mental retardation. “They come close to Jesus in a simple way, and we can learn from them.”
The lessons may come in a surprising or uncomfortable way. Brett Webb-Mitchell who is on the faculty at Duke Divinity School has worked with many people with retardation. He describes the unforgettable lesson a young man named Kyle taught his congregation. One Sunday there was a baptism. All was quiet in the sanctuary as the participants gathered around the font. Kyle quietly moved closer to the front so he could see better. He carefully watched everything that was happening. After the words of baptism, Kyle clapped and cheered. Soon others in the congregation joined the celebration, and moved to the front to surround the family. Kyle recognized the call of the Spirit to rejoice. Baptism is a big deal!
Perhaps some were offended and wrote it off as in appropriate and wished Kyle weren’t there. But to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, Kyle led the congregation to praise God.
Accessibility is a two-way street. We take steps to embrace people with disabilities in our fellowship, and we also let them embrace us. A pastor who is extremely short sums it up this way: “The church makes a mistake when we only look at a person’s disability.” What God sees is a precious child, another person who needs the Lord Jesus Christ, and another person with much to give in his service.
All the members of Christ’s body are to have the same care for one another, says Paul. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. All the members need all the others. All the members have gifts to give. If even one part of the body is missing, the body is not whole. God’s not going to be satisfied until all the parts are there—including those the world says are weak and undesirable. For God has arranged his body so they receive greater honor.
We are getting our building ready with a ramp, and the effort to make our facilities welcoming will continue. Are our hearts ready to receive the ministry of those who will use the ramp?
Let the word go forth from this place. Come one and all, all people who need the Lord. Come receive the salvation of Jesus Christ. Come give your lives to him. Come on foot, with wheelchairs, canes and walkers. Come with broken bodies and broken hearts. Join this fellowship. You are wanted. You are needed. You are our friends. You are the body of Christ.