Body Language
May 28, 2024

Body Language


Text: 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

The day of Pentecost has past but I have a fondness for Pentecost. It’s partly because of the drama of the events: wind and fire and gifts of language. It’s also because I have always felt an affinity for the idea of God’s spirit at work. This part of God that is dynamic and creative and connective. And the beauty of Mennonite (one of many) is that unlike the Lutherans and the Episcopalians we don’t need to limit our celebration of Pentecost to one day only. We can have a second Sunday of Pentecost, rather than diving straight into ‘Ordinary Time.’ (Though the Spirit continues to work in the ordinary as well!)

The text we heard from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a fairly familiar one. Probably because when we find a text that is so evocative and visual we grab onto it. The metaphor can be spun out endlessly. And, in fact we’ll be engaging with it again next week in different ways.

This is a Pentecost text because it is about the fullness of the Spirit’s action in the new church.  The Spirit is actively filling the members of the church - at Corinth and in every place and time - with gifts to be “activated” in service of the church (and I would say also the world - but that’s me not Paul.) The gifts work together the way a body works together.  And they can also work against each other. 

When I was seeing a Quaker Spiritual director - someone with decades of experience in attention to the way of presence in Spirit - I was helped to see the spiritual gifts as innate.  Our gifts are so a part of ourselves that our gifts become almost our native language.  Like language and culture, we tend to more highly value our own than that of others because it doesn’t have meaning for us.  And when we can’t understand someone else’s gift, when it doesn’t mean something to us, we may feel it's unnecessary or unimportant. That lack of understanding can be the cause of conflict and misunderstanding.

I’ve recently heard that the pop-psychology idea of “love languages” has been debunked. But I can tell you that it was helpful to me for a time. The idea of “Love Languages” was developed by psychologist Gary Chapman.  I was introduced to it in couples counseling as a way to help my spouse and me to understand each other and communicate.  Each person has a different “Love language”: Words of affirmation, physical touch, receiving gifts, quality time, acts of service.  When we’re “spoken to” in that language we feel loved and connected to our partner. 

For example, my primary love language is “acts of service” but my spouse’s is “words of affirmation.”  So we often talk past each other when trying to express our love and appreciation.  I’m looking for someone to do the dishes after dinner - that says love and to me.  I don’t necessarily hear “I love you” in the expressions of gratitude and affirmation for a delicious meal.  But also because words of affirmation are not my love language - I forget to articulate my own appreciation and encouragement and gratitude, which is how my spouse feels loved.

This idea can also be applied to the way we think about personality types. Whether that’s the Enneagram or Meyers Briggs or any other categorization. As humans with a variety of gifts, even when we have intentions of being loving and kind toward each other, we can miss the mark in our communication of that. And when our intentions become something more akin to unkindness or conflict we move ever farther from where the Spirit is inviting us to follow.

This is the passage that leads into the love passage to the Corinthians.  The one we heard a few weeks ago.  Even though we’re not hearing them in order, it seems right that this should be the first step. Before we can really love each other, we need to speak each other's language, or at least understand it.

There’s one story line in the movie Love Actually that never really made sense to me. (There’s a lot in that movie that really doesn’t hold up.) This is a movie from 20 years ago or so that follows 9 different storylines, one of which is about and English writer in Portugal and his beautiful housekeeper. They don’t speak each other’s language but (spoiler alert) they end up engaged.  How can two people who literally can’t understand each other know how to value and understand each other as people?

That love passage - and this one - aren’t about a couple, though, they’re about community and how we can value and understand each other as a body. Someone who does not “speak” the spiritual gift of prophecy, might find that gift to the church annoying or distracting or troublemaking.  Someone who doesn’t speak the gifts of hospitality and service might think that’s all just unnecessary busy work. 

But prophecy - the telling of truth to power and naming  injustice pushes the church body to be more Christ-like.  Hospitality and service ensures that spaces feel welcoming and that people are fed and cared for and supported. The body will communicate between its members more fluidly if the hand is learning the language of the eye is learning the language of the ankle.

Many years ago I saw a Cirque du Soleil performance in which I spent almost all of the show with my mouth agape and gasping in awe at the way the acrobats and dancers engaged their whole bodies in the performance - and at how their bodies worked in concert with each other.  Even the musicians. Even the clowns. There was no part of the body that was not used with intention and beauty and strength and grace.  

It takes a lot of training and practice for one of those acrobats to be able to do that. Years! We have some circus kids among us. They know! One person trains to manage their body and all its parts - and then you see multiple acrobats and performers working together in synch or in harmony so that it’s like together they’re one body, catching and releasing and throwing and balancing each other. So much practice! It takes practice for the Body of Christ as well.

I’m 100% positive that on the way to the perfectly unified performance, the athletes and acrobats in the cirque stumbled, fell, dropped someone, didn’t make the leap or the throw or the flip. We all fail on the way to becoming the body. And through the Spirit we pick each other up.

One of my favorite hymns in both the new hymnal and the blue hymnal is “We Are People of God’s Peace” with a text my Menno Simons. In the new version, Mennonite Hymnal Committee added another verse to Menno’s original. Verse 2 (797 if you want to look it up) which ends, “Though we falter and we fail, Christ will still renew us. By the Holy Spirit’s power, God is working through us.” 

The Holy Spirit is working through us. Helping us to learn each other’s languages and movements. Helping us to understand and respond to each other. Help unite us not in unanimity but in the diversity of our way of moving and being in the body. The Spirit’s gifts are meant to be used together the way a body works in fluid motion. (Or maybe slightly less fluid depending on our age, am I right?)

May we seek to listen for and to understand the language of the Spirit, understand each other’s gifts and offer our own. May we have grace and understanding with our own gifts and ways of being don’t translate immediately for another. May we continue the work of - gift-interpretation as the body of Christ and in that practice may we strengthen the body. Amen.


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