The old man looked at me solidly in the face as he spoke, “The ancient Incas did not commonly use the personal pronouns I or me,” he said to me. “It was the Spaniards that brought this concept of such individualism.”
The man with whom I was speaking was himself a Quechua—the name that the people of the old Inca Empire called themselves. We were standing on a street in Cusco, in Peru.
Cusco is the oldest continually inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere, dating back at least one thousand years and probably much more. It was to that city and to the Andes Mountains that rose above the city that the Spaniards came five hundred years ago in an attempt to annihilate the Quechua nation—the Incas.
My Quechua friend continued, “The Incas most often used the plural pronoun we,” he told me. “The people of that time saw themselves as part of one nation and not merely as many individuals.”
I wondered about the practicality of what he was telling me. “What if a man was thirsty?” I asked the old man. “Would he not say, ‘I would like a drink of water’?”
“No,” my friend responded, “not if he was in a group of people. He would say, ‘We would like a drink of water,’ and if some of the group did not want any, they would simply decline. But all present would be included in the petition.”
A Comparison of Two Civilizations
Despite the fact that I knew that there were also many terrible and inhumane things about the ancient Inca civilization, when my friend spoke of the “we” instead of the “me” of the Incas, I could not help but think that there was something in this that is noteworthy.
I contrasted this perspective with our own contemporary culture of America. We, in North America, are exceedingly individualistic. We admire individualism. We read in our own history books of the “rugged individual who carved a living for his family out of the wilderness.” In some ways, in the founding of our nation, individualism was a necessary characteristic.
However, in other ways it might be said that we have allowed our admiration of this trait to grow to an extreme. The Incas may have had their human sacrifices and other forms of ritualistic abuse, but we ourselves today have also made some very questionable sacrifices on the altar of our admiration of individualism.
We may not perform human sacrifices as did the Incas, but in the name of Individualism, many values of great significance have been sacrificed.
As an example of this perverted perspective of the preoccupation of self in our culture, we have seen corporate executives of some large companies somehow convince themselves that it is acceptable to enrich themselves to the point of obscenity at the cost of the common worker. Some CEOs and others have embezzled even the retirement money of the common workers and have left them with nothing but debts to pay.
All of us know what is meant by the phrase “looking out for number one.” We may not have the influence or positions of power as a CEO of a large company, but each one of us have had opportunities to take an unfair advantage over another.
Also in our contemporary culture we see some individuals become famous, not because of their accomplishments that brought any benefit to mankind, but merely because of their talents in sports or entertainment. Perhaps they actually do possess admirable skills; however, in our inflated view of these individuals, we often go far beyond mere admiration of the talents of these people. We idolize the people themselves.
We have sports idols and rock star idols that are held in excessive esteem. We even today use the phrase “rock star status” to describe any person who has reached such a height of popularity on the national level that his or her flaws and wrongdoings are minimized or ignored, and only the more admirable traits of this individual are emphasized.
Perhaps some future civilization, five hundred years from now (if the Lord has not brought things to a conclusion by then) might even say of us that in some ways we, in North America, worshiped individualism.
Relevancy to the Church
Taking all of this into consideration in regard to the church, we must also always remember that there are elements both of the individual and of the group that are relevant in all the aspects that make up the church. However, it is finding the correct relationship between the individual and the group that is especially of concern to us.
For example, many of us grew up hearing the need for a “personal relationship with Christ.” I believe this to be very true. Unless I, as an individual, have personally responded to the offer on the part of God through Jesus Christ to enter into a covenant relationship with him, I shall never be part of the people of God; I can never be part of the church. Each of us is important as individuals, and what we do individually is also important.
However, the people of God are more than a collection of individuals who have had a common experience. A group with that description would more correctly be called an “organization” or a “club.”
Rather, we are what constitute the church, and the church is much more than many individuals. To illustrate this truth, and as we have seen in previous Sunday messages, we have several images in the Bible to help us to understand what the church is. One of these is the image of the body—the body of Christ.
As the Quechuan gentleman was explaining their ancient culture to me, this image of the body came to my mind. Coincidentally, I had just been talking about the church as the body of Christ in the class I was conducting in his city that day.
The Apostle Paul taught us this: “For even as the body is one and yet has many members,” Paul has written, “and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ…for the body is not one member, but many” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14 NAS).
This image of the church as a body is very instructive. It is at once easy to comprehend, yet it is so profound I do not think that we can ever understand it in its fullness.
What we can all understand, however, is that every part of the human body is necessary for its proper functioning. Even some parts of our physical bodies that were once considered entirely without purpose, such as the tonsils and the appendix, are now believed by many to have usefulness to the body as a whole, and should not be removed unless it is entirely necessary.
It is also quite easy for us to see that, were it possible in a human body, for the fingers, for instance, to decide to leave the rest of the body and create their own “body of fingers.” The thought is ridiculous. As important as the fingers are to the body as a whole, they are useless apart from it. Of course, the same could be said of the eyes, ears, or any other individual part.
If it is so easy for us to see this analogy in our own bodies, why then is it so difficult for us to make this application in our churches? I fear that sometimes we have concentrated so much on making our life in Christ individually relevant to some sector of society, some age group, or to individual likes and dislikes, that we have forgotten the importance of the body as a whole.
The Revelation of the Body of Christ
We are the body of Christ. Again, as Paul has said: “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ…for the body is not one member, but many” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 14 NAS italics added).
In this important part of Scripture, Paul is teaching some basic understandings of what it means to be part of the body of Christ. We also learn, for instance, that each member is important as an individual, and that there is not anyone who is not important.
“On the contrary,” Paul tells us, “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23 NAS).
These are all fundamental teachings on the subject of the body of Christ. However, we miss understanding even these basic truths of the body of Christ if we do not understand something that is even more fundamental. This Paul talked about in the passage previous to the one in which we have just quoted.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24 NAS)
This passage is in 1 Corinthians 11, and we normally study this scripture as separate from 1 Corinthians 12, since the two chapters each deal with slightly different subjects and each contains more teaching than we can fit into one Sunday morning message. Nevertheless, we should not lose the continuity of what Paul is teaching in this letter to the Corinthian church.
The Lord’s Supper as a Teaching for the Body of Christ
Although we have been speaking of the church as being the body of Christ, when the Lord Jesus took the bread on the eve of his crucifixion, he broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you.”
In saying this, Jesus was certainly not at that time referring to the church as being his body, since technically, the church was not yet actually in existence. However, neither do I think that was Jesus referring literally to his own physical body, since he was already there physically in the room with the disciples. At least, his disciples would not have understood Jesus in this way. They were accustomed to hearing Jesus speak in parables, and to them, this would have seemed like another illustration in which they should capture the meaning of what he was teaching them.
I think that in saying what he did, what Jesus was trying to do was to teach his disciples something very significant about the body of Christ through this illustration of the bread.
We are, of course, familiar with this part of Scripture. This is the passage concerning what we have come to call the Lord’s Supper, or communion. But in our teaching of this passage, we often get so involved in all of our higher theological discussions of transubstantiation and consubstantiation and all the rest that we miss the most fundamental truth of what Jesus was trying to help us understand.
When we read and study this passage, we are often so intent on digging out the deeper interpretations from the depths of the meanings of the words, that we miss the treasures that are lying right on the surface.
When Jesus spoke these words, he was soon to leave his disciples in physical form, but he wanted them to carry on his ministry. To do that, Jesus was giving these men an illustration on how they were to fulfill that role of continuing his work. Just as Jesus had used illustrations to teach his disciples many other things throughout his time with them, here he used the illustration of the bread.
Of course, this passage is unique, and I do not wish to diminish the importance of what Jesus was doing at this time. Jesus Christ was instituting an important ordinance of the church. As I said, we have come to call it the Lord’s Supper, or communion. The Roman Catholic Church has taken this passage to make it the foundation of the Holy Mass.
The Dangers of Communion
Since the Reformation, this passage has been steeped in so much controversy in the church (even among the Protestants), that we can hardly discuss it amongst ourselves without raised emotional levels. In what I see as our pride, we assume that we can explain even the deep theological implications of the Lord’s Supper in terms that we can comprehend. We have not learned that there are eternal truths that cannot be explained by using temporal words or concepts.
I do not mean to say that these discussions are not important, but we should be careful of our motivations in discussing our opinions. One danger that we should avoid is to assume that we can come upon just the “right” answer to this deep teaching that Jesus was giving. The depths of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper we will not know in this age. The other danger we should be careful to avoid is that we do not become so entrenched in defending any certain understanding, that we allow our discussions to become so important that we miss even the most basic of the truths of the passage.
I think that the most basic of these truths that Jesus wanted to teach his disciples was in what manner he was to be present in the world after he departed from their midst. It was not to be the same for the disciples after he left, and they should not expect that it would be. Jesus would not walk the roads with them and teach them on the waysides as he had before. Instead of He Himself in physical form being the teacher, it would be the Holy Spirit who would come to fulfill that ministry.
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you,” Jesus told them (John 14:26 NAS).
Nor was the ministry of Jesus to the world to be the same. It would no longer be Jesus in physical form who would demonstrate his love to a people in need of healing and redemption. This ministry was to be carried out by those whom he was commissioning. This ministry is to be accomplished now through his church, which he calls his “body” here on earth.
When Jesus took the loaf at the Last Supper, he broke it and distributed it among his disciples. “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me,” he said.
These are enigmatic words. It is difficult for us to know exactly what Jesus meant by them, but I think one of the things that he wanted to convey in relation to the ministry of the disciples is in how he distributed the bread to them.
We see that Jesus broke off each piece of bread from a single loaf and gave the pieces to the disciples. When Jesus gave the bread to the disciples, he gave them individual pieces, but the small portions of bread came from a common loaf.
Often, when we take communion in these days, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Take, eat; this is my body, which is broken for you.” But Jesus did not say that his body was broken. In fact, Scripture specifically says that his body was not broken (John 19:33). During the Last Supper, when Jesus shared the bread with his disciples, the loaf was one in essence, but it was shared among the many.
We remember that when Jesus fed the five thousand, the bread was multiplied, demonstrating his power to provide. Here, however, at the Lord’s Supper, the bread was not multiplied, but simply broken and shared by those present. The disciples and Jesus all ate from the single loaf. “This is my body,” Jesus said.
As the disciples ate the bread that Jesus had likened to his own body, they were to understand that they were now to be the ones to carry on the ministry of Jesus to the world. In a very real sense, the disciples, as the incipient or the beginning stage of the church of Jesus Christ, were commissioned to be the demonstration of the love of Jesus to the world.
Controversy in the Corinthian Church
Now, in the passage that we are considering in 1 Corinthians, when Paul picks up this teaching to the Corinthian church, he is writing to a larger church, but it is a church that is rocked by divisiveness. In the very opening of the letter Paul sets the tone when he writes, “For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, that there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:11).
This controversy in the Corinthian church came, in large part, because the people did not have a correct appreciation of what it meant to be the body of Christ. They had divided themselves into factions, each claiming to have a more complete understanding of the gospel than any of the others.
Some were claiming to follow the teachings of Paul himself, others of Apollos and others of Cephas. Each claimed to be more enlightened than the others. Some were saying that they followed the teachings of Christ, but even this was done in a prideful way—in such a way that it was exclusive of all others.
Individually, the people of the church in Corinth had become spiritually proud. They had lost much of the concept of what it meant to need one another in the body of Christ, and had simply become a collection of individuals. It was as if, as we had noted in our earlier example, the “fingers” of the church had separated themselves to form a “body of fingers,” and other parts of the body were doing the same.
Paul was not flattered that some claimed to follow him, and asks them some pointed questions: “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul” (1 Corinthians 1:13 NAS).
The loaf from which the Corinthians ate was not a single loaf that was shared among them. They had divided the body of Christ and thought of themselves as factions within the church. They lost the concept of the body and thought excessively in terms of individuality.
Unlike the example given by the old Incan man with whom I spoke on the street of Cusco, in the Corinthian church, it was not, “We are thirsty, may we have a drink?” but, “I am thirsty and I am not really concerned about the rest.” The church in the city of Corinth lacked a basic understanding of what it meant to be part of a body.
The Body of Christ Today
How is it that we, in our own culture, are often so individualistic that we have lost so much of the concept of what it means to be part of the body of Christ? Should not the concept of the body be part of the natural culture within the church? Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven”? It is not “my father.” It is not, “Give me my daily bread,” but, “Give us our daily bread.” We should relearn the value of thinking of ourselves in a corporate manner. After all, we are the body of Christ.
We do see distinctions among the individuals within the body of Christ, but these distinctions are not so that some individuals might be exalted. The distinctions exist so that the church should be edified and enlightened and that Christ Himself be exalted.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.
There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
(1 Corinthians 12:4-7 NIV italics added)
It was because of this need that Paul wrote the instructions for the Lord’s Supper. As important as the concept of the individual is, we must never lose the reality and necessity of the body.
There should be no division in the body, but the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:25-27 NAS)
As we saw, Paul would also later use this phrase of “the body of Christ” and again apply it to the church. We must never forget this truth of the church. The church as a body is not something that we try to create. It is simply a fact. It is what Jesus has instituted.
Our part is to see to the health of the body of Christ. We can fail in our task and create factions within the body, causing one part of the body to work against all of the rest, or we can function as a healthy, unified body, where every part contributes to the rest and in turn is fed and receives the ministries from the entire body.
Now if we are in Christ, we are the body of Christ, and each of us is a member of it. God has composed the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division among us, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.
(Selected and adapted from 1 Corinthians 12:12-27)