You are reasonable people. Decide for yourselves if what I am about to say is true. When we bless the cup at the Lord's Table aren't we sharing the benefits of the blood of Christ? And when we break the loaf of bread, aren't we sharing in the benefits of the body of Christ? And we all eat from one loaf, showing we are one body. And think about the nation of Israel; all who eat the sacrifices are united by that act. -- 1 Corinthians 10:15-18
1 Corinthians is a letter almost entirely devoted to persuading the community in Corinth to stop dividing themselves over their differences: differences in belief (one group follows one leader, another group follows another leader, etc.), in practice (whether to eat food sacrificed to idols or not), and in spiritual gifts (some are teachers, some are healers, etc.). Paul's letter is full of metaphors of unity: one bread, one body, one foundation, one mind. Paul uses the word "one" dozens of times in this letter.
The world today is very much in the same frame of mind as the ancient Corinthians. We separate ourselves from other people because of differences in beliefs and customs, even the way we look separates us from each other. If we are too different, we can't belong.
Each day in the lectionary lately, there have been stories about lepers. Lepers were the epitome of the social outcast in ancient times. They were not only isolated because of contagion and deformity, they were thought to be morally "diseased" as well. If they were ever by chance in a public place, they had to shout "Unclean. Unclean."
Here too, things haven't changed much. In, "The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural and the Healing Power of Hope," Dr. Allan Hamilton shares many interesting stories from over 30 years of experience in the medical field. While reading this book this week, two stories especially resonated with me as I pondered the Scripture readings.
One story regards a leper colony in Africa to which he gave medical care. Dr, Hamilton writes that even though leprosy is a treatable disease, and there was no need to remain in the colony once cured, all of the lepers who left to join the larger society would eventually return, because they were still ostracized outside of the colony. Only within the colony were they fully accepted.
Dr. Hamilton shares a similar story about children who have been the victims of serious burns. All that these children want is to return to their former lives, return to school and friends, but they all end up returning to the burn unit of the hospital because facing the ostracism they find everywhere else is too painful.
Has the world always been like this? Always pushing out the stranger, the one who is different? Has it gotten any better since biblical times?
Lynne McTaggart, in her book, "The Bond: Connecting Through the Space Between Us," states that we have an inherent need to belong and an inherent need to agree. So perhaps that is why we seem to be on this downward spiral of placing ourselves in smaller and smaller groupings. And why, for example, churches (especially Protestant churches) continually break apart and form new denominations (at last count there are something like 30,000 Christian denominations). And why communities build great walls around themselves.
These gated communities, she writes, reflect "the relentless move toward atomization within our society, our present tendency to create smaller and smaller groups that are more and more homogeneous. ... Our idea of community is now largely one that, like our relationships, must consist of sameness -- a giant group of "I's" -- in order to work." (pg. 183)
Even gated communities are getting smaller and smaller. I drove my son to one this week for a slumber party. The huge new development we drove to consisted of one gated neighborhood after another, all with approximately 30, almost identical, tan-colored houses, each separated by very tall tan-colored block walls.
As I wrote last week, our differences are there for a reason. We can either separate ourselves from "the other", continually, until we are completely alone -- the course we seem to be presently taking. Or, we can learn from each other, and finally see the necessary bond between us.
Despite Paul's language about unity and "being of one mind", he didn't intend to convey the message that we all need to be the same. No, in fact, he says quite the opposite. Using the metaphor of "one body", he writes, "A body is not one organ, but many. Suppose the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body', it does belong to the body none the less. Suppose the ear were to say, 'Because I am not the eye, I do not belong to the body', it does still belong to the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell? But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body, as he chose." (1 Corinthians 12:14-18) .
We need to be with people who are different, think differently, live differently, even look differently, so that we can be alive and whole. When we embrace our differences, we learn and grow, and move beyond our small, and isolated, individuality. Our differences are actually more important than our similarities. For without differences we would stagnate and die.
Instead of isolating ourselves in homogeneous groups, or pushing others out over differences, we ought to be seeking out individuals, getting to know their unique gifts, and learning from them.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world in which diversity was actually valued?
Dear Lord, teach us to honor the differences between us, teach us how to share our own uniqueness with the world, and bring us into lasting understanding. Love always, Pam