I just spent a week at “House of Hope” in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. House of Hope (Casa Esperanza) is a clinic/school/orphanage that meets the needs of the children of the Mosquito Coast of eastern Honduras. It is sponsored by a ministry called Send Hope. Send Hope was founded about 20 years ago by Dr. Tom Brian, a dentist in Allen, Texas. He started out fixing teeth, and gradually the ministry has expanded to include a school, a milk program for malnourished children, and an orphanage for disabled children. I went to Honduras with Dr. Tom, Laurie Hosack, a registered nurse from First United Methodist Church of Allen, and my 22-year-old son Matt McKenzie. We spent the week painting children’s rooms, playing with them and holding them.
It was hot. It was sometimes buggy. We Texas folks who are used to living in our air-conditioned ice box houses and offices had to sweat and sweat some more. We ate beans and rice and plantains. The electricity went out several times, always at night. To people used to a level of comfort and convenience, values around which life in suburban North Dallas is built, the week involved a level of physical discomfort. I worked hard not to get fried by the sun or bitten by mosquitoes. I was glad for the Spanish I had learned and determined to know more by the time I returned.
I spent a lot of time holding young children that week. That’s one of the most important roles of volunteers who go to the House of Hope. As I sat in the heat holding one, then two, sometimes three young children at one time, I couldn’t help but think of Paul’s beautiful image for the Church as the Body of Christ. For one thing, La Mosquitia is cut off from the rest of Honduras, with no roads and few natural resources. The rest of the country seems to say to it: you are a part of the body we don’t really need. For another thing, I was aware of a level of discomfort in my own physical being and of the level of the need for affection of the children clambering onto my lap. I felt love for these children and felt surrounded by their need for love.
Says Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 “For 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. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” He continues, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”(1 Cor 12:27)
What made Paul think of this body metaphor for the divided church at Corinth? Paul had a splinter or a thorn in his flesh, a persistent affliction that had not let up for 14 years. He doesn’t specify what it is when he talks about it in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Scholars have varied theories: migraines, a struggle with depression, pain caused to him by his opponents’ criticism, or a persistent weakness of his eyesight (See Galatians 4:12-15). Whatever the thorn was, maybe he woke up one morning and it hurt worse than usual. And maybe on top of that, his eyes were bleary and his joints ached. And he said to himself, “When one member of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. “ “Why don’t the Corinthians feel that?” Paul must have asked himself. “They’re a body!” What made Paul think of this body metaphor for the divided church at Corinth? Maybe later that day he decided to escape the heat and crowds of Corinth and went and sat by the pool at the shrine to Asklepios. Asklepios was the god of healing and there was a shrine in his honor in Corinth. If you had an infirmity, you presented him with an offering of honey cakes, and then slept overnight in the shrine. The god would appear to you in a dream and heal the affected body part. Then you would have a terra cotta model of it made and place it on display at the shrine next to the bathing pool. (Williams, 89) Maybe, as he sat by the pool at Asklepios’ shrine, Paul contemplated the body parts on the wall, replicas of all kinds of body parts supposedly healed by the god: heads, hands, feet, arms, legs, eyes, and ears as well as other body parts not normally displayed this openly. And maybe he thought, “What life do any of the members have unless they are joined together in a living body? Why doesn’t the Corinthian Church get that? They’re isolating themselves from one another, which will surely lead to spiritual death.”
Whatever made Paul think of it, the body is the perfect metaphor for baptismal unity! It’s perfect because in the body no member can say it is more important than any other. We are all imperfect members, but we all belong to Christ. And we are all in the process of becoming more like Christ as we go out into the world in his name. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18; 15:1,2) Becoming more like Christ (being saved) is a process in which we gradually come to feel the sufferings and joys of others as keenly as we do our own. As Paul says, “When one member suffers all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) The restoration of health to one part of the body is felt throughout the body. 1.
As I sat with children in my lap, melded together by our sweat, I remembered that we are all being held by God. I remembered that, when God’s Son came to earth, one of his favorite things to do was embrace the children who came to him for a blessing. I pray for the work of Dr. Tom Brian and Send Hope at Casa Esperanza in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. I give thanks for the ways it ministers to children’s bodies, minds and spirits. Having the privilege of holding, comforting and playing with the children there reminded me that, as Paul knew long ago, “We are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.”
Alyce McKenzie is a Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology and blogs at her Patheos Expert Site.
David J. Williams, Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999). Anthony C. Thistleton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).