Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Power of the Spirit: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

The passage I’ve just read is a little disturbing. It’s also a little funny. We giggled a lot, over certain portions of it, in Bible Study this week. It’s a little disturbing, it’s a little funny, and it is either the worst news we’ve ever heard or it’s the best. Wow. That’s a lot to pack in to 20 verses of a letter written nearly two thousand years ago. But that’s what we have in front of us.

To recap: We are accustomed to referring to the Bible as “the Word of God,” and while that may be true, it is not so helpful in understanding the sheer diversity found within its pages. The bible contains many different kinds of literature—it contains history, and poetry, and even one or two books that qualify as “novella.” There is prophecy and gospel, which in the Greek is rendered “good news.” And there are letters, communications between individuals and groups. First Corinthians is a letter that has been written by an individual, Paul, to encourage and instruct the members of a congregation that is flailing around a little bit, floundering, you might say.

I talked a little last week about some of the things troubling the Corinthians. There were personality conflicts. There were disagreements about which particular gifts and talents were a sure sign that you were really God’s favorite. And there were divisions along class lines, along lines of wealth and status. This issue reared its ugly head on Sundays.. Remember that this is the era of the house-church. The more well-heeled members of the community could host the weekly gatherings in their big homes, which added to their prestige. The gatherings, supposedly re-enacting the Lord’s Supper, took the form of elaborate banquets. Both the hosts and the wealthy members who were not the hosts could arrive early, get the best seats in the house, and start in on the food and wine hours before the day laborers were released from their employment. By the time the working stiffs arrived, the food would be gone and the wealthier folks would be tipsy, if not ready to put lampshades on their heads. Evidently, for those who arrived later, that didn’t feel much like the sharing of the “good news.” The day laborers and peasants were not exactly feeling the love.

And so Paul has a daunting task before him, in the writing of this letter. He is trying to highlight for his readers a certain inconsistency between what being followers of Jesus Christ should teach them, and their outlandish, decidedly selfish behavior. I don’t think he wants to scold them. But he wants to drive home to them the reality of their relationships to one another, now that they are members of this faith community. He wants to help them understand the power of the Spirit. He starts with a lesson in gross anatomy.

You see, says Paul, there’s such a thing as a body. You each have a body. And your body is one thing, one entity, a unity. But it has lots of parts, doesn’t it? It has hands and feet and arms and a face. It has other parts we won’t mention except indirectly, for the sake of your sense of modesty and propriety. That’s fine. And all the parts of the body are needed, aren’t they? (I have no doubt Paul’s audience consisted of at least some folks who had lost parts of their bodies; the day laborers, stone cutters, woodworkers—a finger here, an arm there. His point would have been driven home to them all the more.) You need your foot every bit as much as you need your hand, don’t you? Of course you do.

And, you know those parts you don’t want to mention directly? Out of modesty, and out of a sense of propriety? How do you treat those body parts? I’ll tell you how, says Paul. You treat them like royalty. They get special attention as to whether they are clothed or not. They receive greater honor than the hand or the foot, which anyone is allowed to see.

Fine. We all understand all these things about the body. Now hear this: by virtue of being baptized into membership in the church, by the power of the Spirit, you are, each and every one, a part of the body of Christ. And you, who are hands, need to deal with the fact that there are also feet. And you, feet, have to stop putting yourselves down because you’re not hands. And you who think these folks here are slightly disreputable, like those body parts we don’t mention by name, you need to understand that that means you must treat them, not with less respect, but with greater respect.

As I said when I started, it’s kind of disturbing. What it all boils down to is a profound misunderstanding of “membership.” We modern day Christians are accustomed to thinking of membership in terms of voluntary association. We pay our dues and we go to meetings, or we receive the newsletter, and so we are “members,” of AARP, or the Glee Club, or Young Republicans. But that is not what Paul means by membership. What Paul means is that we are members in the same way the hand is a member of the body. Try to pull this body apart, and you are dismembering it. Try to pull this body apart, and you have carnage. It’s a bloody mess.

If you have ever been unfortunate enough to have been witness to a serious division in a church, a serious split, you know what I mean. I served one church in which I couldn’t figure out why the Christian Ed. people and the music people were so standoffish, so suspicious of one another. Turns out it had to do with a split over a minister that had happened 20 years earlier. We divide this body, we take sides and face off, at our peril. We have to ask ourselves: is it really worth it, all that pain for all those years?

And then there is the matter of pain and suffering. I was trying to remember the last time I was in pain, and otherwise I felt fine. You know, when I had a toothache, or had pulled a muscle, but aside from the specific pain of my injury or illness, I felt just wonderful.

Surprise, surprise, I could not remember such a time because such a time does not exist for me. Each and every time I have had an illness or injury that caused me pain, every time I have had so much as a paper cut, the pain of that cut has distracted me so that I had a hard time thinking about much else. My friend Jeffrey says, Pain has a way of getting your attention. Naturally, there are degrees of pain. The gall bladder attack that landed me in the emergency room got my attention more dramatically than a paper cut ever did. But pain does have a way of getting your attention, of getting our attention.

And so, Paul says, it is, with the body of Christ. When one member suffers, we all suffer. I don’t know about you, but our family has discovered “Glee.” “Glee” is this year’s break-out TV hit about a high school Glee club, with all the expected (and some unexpected) stereotypes. We have the diva. The cheerleader. The kid in the wheelchair. The young Aretha Franklin. The gay kid. The jock. All these young people come together, not necessarily willingly, I might add, to sing. They sing their hearts out. And while they are singing, life is happening to them.

There are levels of prestige in Glee. There are social strata. The jocks and the cheerleaders, latecomers to the Glee club, are the popular kids. The original Glee club kids, various levels of dorky, are not. But still, they come together to make incredible music. And that is how they become like the members of a body. They develop an undeniable connection to one another. And time and again, in storyline after storyline, whether they are reaching out to the young couple who are trying to cope with an unplanned pregnancy, or trying to figure out how to get the boy in the wheelchair to a big competition, or coping with any of the rest of their high school crises, they realize again and again how deeply they are connected, how very much they need each other, how the pain of one causes the suffering of all. And then, just because it’s “Glee,” the episode usually ends with their singing something like “Lean on Me” to one another, just to drive home the point in show-stopping fashion.

When one member suffers, we all suffer. We are all connected, perhaps more intimately than we have ever realized, more permanently than we signed on for. That is one reason why the heartbreaking stories that continue to pour out of Haiti continue to rivet us. As the estimates of deaths rise to the 200,000 mark, we cannot look away. We are connected. That’s our body that’s suffering.

This is the nature of the power of the Spirit. It binds us together so that when one weeps, we all taste the salt of their tears. This is either the best news we’ve ever heard or the worst. It is not easy to live with a constant sense of exposure to the pain of others, but that is what happens in community. We become thin-skinned… we feel more. But if we feel more pain by virtue of being bound together, we also have the opportunity to feel more joy. When one suffers we all feel the pain. When one rejoices, every heart lifts. You see that on “Glee” too. The jubilation when the diva hits her high note or the jock decides not to abandon Glee for football.

So. I put it to you. Is this good news or bad? This connection we have with one another, courtesy of the power of the Spirit? I will be honest with you. Is makes some people want to flee. Sometimes the thought of being “one” with certain people confronts us with a level of intimacy that is more than we can bear. So tell me: are we willing both to carry this burden and to share this joy? Are we prepared to weep at the suffering of those we love and at those we will never know, God’s children wherever they might be? Are we ready to join in the celebration at one another’s joy? Are we willing to let the power of God’s Spirit do its work on us? Thanks be to God. Amen.


Mompriest said...

Wonderful - thoughtful - good news, I'd say, difficult sometimes, but good.

August said...

I've heard dozens of sermons on this passage over the years. Yours is, by far, the best.

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Magdalene6127 said...

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