It is hard to imagine a reading that is more relevant to this worship service, today, than today’s suggested reading from 1 Corinthians 12. In light of the fact that we follow the suggested readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, I can take no credit for this worth noting nonetheless.
The passage offers an extended meditation on one of the most beautiful metaphors for the Church, this cross-cultural, multidenominational, intergenerational, global community of Christ’s followers – describing it as a Body with many parts, each of which has an important role to play if the body is going to function properly and accomplish what it is meant to do. Just as a human body only functions to its full potential and capacity when all of the parts are working together effectively, the author of 1 Corinthians suggests that no part of the Church should act in dismissive or demeaning ways to any other part, since the effective functioning of the whole was dependent on the effective functioning of each individual part.
The passage uses this extended metaphor in a number of different ways – as a way of reminding the members of the church in Corinth (which, it should be remembered, was often riven with disputes and debates and factions) that they were called to work together, in spite of their differences, and not to assume that homogeneity was necessary for effectiveness; but the author also uses that same image of the Body to illustrate how people with seemingly different levels of power, prestige and ability were supposed to view each other in the community of faith. Rather than minimizing the importance or the role that each part of the Body played, or trying to compete for status and prominence – the author reminded that ancient church community that, in a human Body, the smallest, seemingly most vulnerable parts of the body were given more protection, sometimes even more honour. Celebration in one part was to be a shared joy; and suffering in one part was to be a shared struggle. Which is absolutely true in a body – after all, as anyone who has stubbed their smallest toe will know, pain in even the smallest part of the body is felt throughout the whole of the Body.
This concept of unity in the one Body is important for us to ponder, even today. After all, the church in this world is certainly not absolutely of one mind on every issue. Like the ancient Corinthian church, there are disputes and differences of thought and opinion, differences of emphasis and approach, different perspectives on a whole range of theological, spiritual, ethical, moral and social issues – so how can we speak of the unity of the church? What is the basis for any hope of a unified and mutually supportive Christian presence in this world?
This passage offers an intriguing possibility. The author of 1 Corinthians did not suggest that the identity or unity of the one Body was to be found in some form of absolute spiritual dogmatism on every issue of faith, or absolute agreement on every social issue, or some form of homogeneous “group think”, or a lack of any differences of differentiation in the community that formed this one Body. Absolute uniformity was not necessary for unity, any more than every part of a person’s Body looks or acts in exactly the same way.
So, then, what was it, according to the passage, that was the basis for the form, the shape, the unity of this one Body?
According to this passage, the basis for that vision of, and quest for unity was baptism. Consider, after all, the opening words – “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.”
Which brings us to this morning. This morning, we have witnessed a baptism, a simple moment when a small child has been brought into the Body of Christ, initiated into the community of Christ’s followers in this world. As such, the Body of Christ, in this world, is a different Body, a changed reality in relation to what it was only a few moments ago. Lauren is now a part of the Body of Christ in this world, connected to each of us across any difference of culture or ethnicity or ideology. And, like every part of the Body, she has an important role to play in this one Body, with gifts to be shared with all of the rest of us in this one Body if we are to fulfill our true potential as fully as we can. The vows that her parents and godparents have taken – and the vows that we all have made as representatives of the Church not only in this place, but in this world – are promises, commitments, that we will all do what we can to help her to find her place in the one Body, to discover her God-given gifts, to open to her the mysteries of grace, to encourage her to follow Christ and be a person of faith, of hope and of love in this world.
But she is still small, still vulnerable, still seemingly powerless – though I am sure that she has, over the past couple of years, shown that she can exercise a certain degree of power over two grown adults when she wakes up in the middle of the night! But it is precisely this seeming powerlessness and vulnerability that the passage addresses when it speaks of the smallest, most vulnerable members of the Body being afforded a place of protection and honour. Regardless of her size, or power, she is a part of the one Body, with gifts to share and a role to play.
Which is not only true for Lauren. Rather, a part of each one of our own spiritual journeys, in this world, is the calling to seek our place in that One Body, to discern and exercise the gifts and abilities that we have been given, but also to be aware of the others who make up that One Body – to be aware of the gifts that they bring, to honour the abilities that they have, to work together for the common purpose of loving and serving this world, even as Christ himself did. And, in our shared following, even our common desire to imitate him, we are called to work together to continue the work that he began — to heal broken spirits, to feed physical and spiritual hungers, to serve the poor and the excluded, to embrace those who are deemed unclean and marginalized, to speak words of truth, of grace, of kindness, of forgiveness, of peace, to be willing to cultivate lives marked by trust in God and a commitment to seeking to worship God in spirit and in truth – in short, to do the work of Christ’s kingdom, even as we open ourselves to mystery and majesty of the God who has called us, through the waters of baptism, to be part of the one Body that continues the work of Christ.
Which reminds us that this journey through the waters of baptism into the one Body is not an end in itself. It is only the beginning of the journey. The waters of baptism are not meant to be viewed as some magical, formulaic, superstitious act that somehow “saves” us from an otherwise corrupt and broken world. To the contrary, what baptism does is it marks us, it calls us to , and clarifies for us our shared vocation in this world, reminding us that we are not called to see ourselves as having been “saved” from the world, but rather servants of a world that is deeply and dearly loved by God. a world that has been, and can be redeemed and transformed, a world that might seek to crucify love, but in which love will, ever and always, emerge victorious.
And it is this –- to love — to which we are ultimately called in the waters of baptism. And lest we forget this, lest we overlook the fact that it is love that is to be at the heart of our life together, I would remind you of how the chapter from which today’s lesson is drawn actually concludes. Today’s reading suggests that we conclude the reading in the first part of the last verse of 1 Corinthians 12.
It is an interesting stopping point, but it was not meant to be a stopping point in the flow of ideas that this part of the letter was trying to convey.
Rather, after this long and extended meditation on the image of the one Body, and after a focus, in the latter verses, on the fact that there were many different forms of gifts and giftedness in the various parts of the one Body – gifts that would distinguish some as leaders, some as teachers, some as healers, some as having the ability to speak powerfully and compassionately, leading the author to encourage his readers to strive to use and improve their gifts, the author then reminds his readers that there was one overarching gift towards which they should all strive, one gift that was meant to be embraced and exercised by all, one gift that the members of the church in Corinth, so long ago – and that the members of the Church of Jesus in every age, every place, every generation are all called to strive for and to exercise, one gift that every baptized person is called to cultivate in their own lives.
In fact, the last part of the last verse of 1 Corinthians 12 reminds them of this one overarching gift that was meant to be the very lifeblood, the unifying characteristic of the entire Body, regardless of any other difference between its various parts.
After listing the various parts of the body, and the various forms of gifts, and the various roles that needed to be played if the one Body was to fulfill its calling, the author wrote, “I will show you a still more excellent way”.
And what was that still more excellent way, that gift towards which all were called to strive?
The answer was found in the next passage, the next chapter.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have all prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
It was all about love.
But more about that next week…
The reading from Nehemiah is set at the end of the exile, as the people are returning to Jerusalem with the desire to re-establish themselves and restore their community. Rather than simply rebuild the walls and buildings, however, they realized that they needed to restore a sense of how they were to live together, how they were to treat one another, how they were to live with God. And so, the long reading of the Book of the Law, or the Torah, marked a time of renewal for the people. True community could not be built with bricks and stones alone.
Even though today’s Psalm touches on a number of themes, there is a similar celebration of the role and purpose of the Law woven into this text. Perhaps pay attention not only to the Psalmist’s celebration of the glories of God being revealed in the heavens, but also the role that obedience to God’s law brings enlightenment, peace, guidance and joy – which also reflect God’s intentions for life.
The passage from 1 Corinthians, which will be the main focus of today’s sermon, takes a slightly different theme – celebrating the image of the Body as a metaphor for the community of Christ’s followers. And like a body that has many parts, each of which has been given gifts in order to fulfill the various functions, the overall purpose of the body can only be realized when all of the parts are honoured and given the opportunity to exercise those gifts.
Finally, today’s Gospel reading – like the passage from Nehemiah – depicts a gathered community listening together to a reading. But in this case, the reader is Jesus himself, who boldly states that what had long been expected and foretold by the prophets was now coming true. Even though his words were beautiful, bold and exciting, the reaction to those words (as we shall see next week) was not entirely encouraging.