Temporarily able bodied - St Bride's: Reflection

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Temporarily able bodied

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

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12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.

13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

14 For the body is not one member, but many.

15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?

16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?

17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?

18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.

19 And if they were all one member, where were the body?

20 But now are they many members, yet but one body.

21 And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.

22 Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:

23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.

24 For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked.

25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.

26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.

27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?

30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?

31 But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

Temporarily able bodied
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During the 1990s, when I was lecturing at a theological college, there was a particular year in which the group of students that we admitted to our part-time training course was unusually memorable, for a very unexpected reason. They were a small group - about ten in number - and very diverse in terms of their ages, their backgrounds, and their church traditions. What was unusual about them was that, by pure chance, it turned out that every single one of them was living with some form of disability or impairment - in some cases very obvious, in others much more hidden.

One student was in a wheelchair, suffering from a rare form of muscular dystrophy; another had been profoundly deaf since birth; one of them struggled with dyslexia; another had a very marked stammer; yet another suffered from early-onset arthritis - and so it went on.

And perhaps it was because they were so aware of their own limitations that the members of that particular group were unusually good at supporting each other, in a very quiet and unselfconscious way.  I would observe the man with the stammer help a student with mobility problems to the altar to receive communion; I discovered that the student who used a wheelchair was providing tremendous help and encouragement to the student who was dyslexic, who was finding the academic work quite a challenge. On one occasion a visiting lecturer brought in an audio recording for the students to listen to, which of course was hopeless for the woman who was profoundly deaf. But without a second thought, the dyslexic student spotted the problem, positioned herself directly opposite the woman who was deaf, and mouthed to her the entire content of the recording as it was played, so that she could follow it by lip-reading.  

It was really very moving to see this ordinary, and in many ways, very challenged group of human beings ministering to one another's needs in such a low-key, but profoundly genuine way. Indeed, one member of that group said to me at the end of their first year: "Do you know, I came here feeling very self-conscious about my own inadequacy, because there are certain tasks that I find it very difficult to do. But as a group we have so many complementary strengths, that we make up for one another's weaknesses."

At the time, I felt that I was observing all of this as an onlooker, in the sense that I myself, of course, was hale and hearty and in perfect health. However, as I was soon to discover, I was in fact, as we all are, merely TAB - Temporarily Able Bodied. Because subsequently, over a period of about five years, I lost my hearing. Many people have no idea that I am deaf - because thanks to a combination of very discreet state-of-the-art hearing aids, lip reading, and guess work, I am able to live a perfectly normal life most of the time. However, as my close friends and family are aware, there are some contexts - where the acoustic or sight-lines are difficult, or where an unfamiliar person speaks very unclearly, where I can't manage without an interpreter. And at those moments I become very aware of my own dependency. And in a culture that values self-reliance so highly, that can be a hard reality to grasp.

Seeing that group of students working together suddenly brought to life for me that passage from Corinthians that we heard as our second reading this morning, in which St Paul speaks of the Body of Christ being made up of a whole range of different constituent parts, each of which has a distinct role - and yet, without the support of the rest of the Body, none of the individual parts can fulfil its proper function.

And that is so very true of us as human beings. As the community of Christ in this place, we are charged not merely to love one another, but also to recognize our need of one another. Which is why a true community is so much more than simply the sum of the individual human lives within it. But the real significance of this goes far beyond merely the need for us to make up for one another's inadequacies. Let me illustrate what I mean by this.

I have been conducting wedding services for almost thirty years, and I am struck by how often it is that I have heard those preparing for marriage describe the feeling of completeness that their relationship with their life-partner has given them - they speak about feeling 'whole' in a way that they simply didn't beforehand. And, more interestingly still, they had sometimes been unaware that there was a part of them missing until the gift of that relationship was given to them. It is as if that person, that relationship, that experience of loving and being loved, had redefined who they were, and who they could become, in a radically different way.

There is a wonderful poem by Roy Croft entitled simply 'Love', which begins with these words:

I love you
Not only for what you are,
But for what I am
When I am with you.

I love you,
Not only for what
You have made of yourself,
But for what
You are making of me.

When we know we are loved - really loved - then we begin to discover who we truly are; we begin to discover new and better things about ourselves; we begin to discover that we are capable of new and better things. And if we are able to do that for one another, frail and fallen and weak and challenged and temporarily able bodied human beings that we all are - how much more true that is of the love of God. A God who calls us, in love and compassion, to the fullness of life that can and should be ours to enjoy.

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus, speaking to the congregation in the synagogue at Nazareth, proclaims that the truth foretold by the prophet Isaiah has been fulfilled in their very midst: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.' The power of God's transforming love was becoming manifest around them. But it is important to remember that what Jesus was bringing was not simply a convenient solution to life's inconvenient and challenging difficulties - curing this individual sickness; solving that specific problem.  Because if that were all there was to it, at the end of the day, we would all still remain TABs - Temporarily Able Bodied: heal one ailment, solve one problem, and another will arise in its place- that is the reality of human life. 

No, what Jesus did was far more profound and earth-shattering in its importance: it was to open the door, for all of us, to a new way of living; a way of living that has at its very heart the certain knowledge that, whoever we are, and whatever we have been, we are loved and accepted - profoundly, and extravagantly, and unconditionally. The challenge for us is to discover how to receive and to respond to that love - by how we behave to those around us, in the good that we can help to draw out of them, and, by his grace, in what we allow ourselves to become.


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