Sometimes Sunday's sermon has to wait a few days until it is pretty enough to go on the blog. This sermon was an ugly mess last Sunday.
A Sermon For The Third Sunday Of Epiphany, Preached at Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB Texts For Sunday, January 27, 2013, Lectionary Year C: Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." (1 Cor 12:2-21)
What would it be like to be part of a community which valued every member equally, so that everyone was indispensable? Wouldn't that be an amazing, validating experience, to feel that you really belong, especially if you had never felt that way before? When Paul was building one of the first Christian churches, in the Greek city of Corinth, he was reaching out to many people who felt dispensable, or, if they had any value at all, it was for being human machines with a certain monetary worth but no intrinsic dignity. If you've ever watched a film like "Gladiator" or "Spartacus", you will have some sense of what world the church in Corinth lived in. Society in the Greco-Roman world was built on inequality and subservience. A few very rich ruled at the top, then free citizens of varying incomes, then a mass of slaves valued only for their unpaid labour. it was a society where people knew their place, and were mostly kept there, often brutally so.
In the midst of the world was the apostle Paul, telling people that that in deciding to follow Jesus they had joined a new society where all are equal: "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" (1 Cor 12:12-13). In these verses, Paul is saying to the Corinthian church that whatever their previous identities in the world, whether free or slave, whether identifying with Judaism either ethnically or as a convert, or Greek" as in someone ethnically, philosophically and religiously from the vast and complicated world of ancient Hellenism, wherever you were from, whatever class you belonged to, whatever or whomever you owned or were owned by, that no longer matters.. Paul is talking, as he often does in his letters, to people who are recreated, made new creations by the transforming love of God in Christ.
In Paul's language, the phrase "in Christ" is hugely important. The body of Christ is a community unlike any other that existed in Paul's world. It is a spiritual community, in the sense that all are what Paul elsewhere calls "saints", people called from their old lives of sin and death into new life. As a spiritual community it is animated by gifts of the spirit, so its members can love, forgive, teach, and instruct one another. It is also a political community, in the Greek sense of the word polis as city or community. The body of Christ is a polis, a political entity, in that is has a physical address, real people, a real presence in the world. The polis or city of Christ has no internal divisions of class, worth, or race. Whatever roles they may play or whatever spiritual gifts they may have, all are equal. All are loved equally by God. All are part of the body of Christ.
We may feel that Paul rather flogs the horse in developing his metaphor of the body and how each part of the body is indispensable. While he may belabour the point, he was most likely trying to settle in this early church as to which gifts were most important. Paul's answer flies like a straight arrow from his initial premise that all are new creations in Christ. All members, and all their gifts, are of value, he says: "As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you" (1 Cor 13:20-21). In the heart of this detailed and perhaps overlong metaphor is a simple message, that the words "I have no need of you" are words that have no place in the life and thought of the church, for it denies the gospel.
I think we probably know at the gut level that these words are wrong. In the life of our community on a military base, we can easily find counterparts to Paul's analogy of the body, where the words "I have no need of you" would make no sense. A lot of you play ice hockey, and you knows that on every team there's always that person who thinks they score themselves rather than pass the puck. If enough people think that they have no need of their teammates, they won't be an effective team. Likewise, for you soldiers, you know that if an infantry unit goes off on exercise and says they have no need of signallers or logisticians, that unit won't be combat effective for very long, hence the term "combined arms". The same is true of the church. A church needs ministries of bookkeeping, greeting, and hospitality as much as needs the ministries of its clergy and worship team. But this idea of interdependence goes deeper than a simple, prosaic division of labour.
In our gospel reading today, we heard Jesus innagurating his ministry by naming those he was concerned with - the poor, the sightless, the captive - precisely people to whom the society of his day had said "I have no need of you". Now think of the church's place in the world today. Think of how many people regularly hear the words "I have no need of you". The old person in a youth-obsessed and age-denying culture, the worker whose job is outsourced, the working poor holding down two or three part-time jobs who are told they are part of the "47%" of takers, all hear the words "I have no need of you". We give in to "I have no need of you" thinking when we live in the gated community, when we arm ourselves against a coming collapse, when we subscribe to identity politics of people like ourselves, and when we limit the life and mission of the church to that of a pious enclave. The church today fears for its relevancy at a time when increasing numbers of the poor and the disenfranchised hear the words "we have no need of you". Today in the New York Times the well-meaning Thomas Friedman writes that to get ahead in today's economy, where increases in productivity no longer translates into increased prosperity for many, people will need more initiative, more education, and more passion to "demonstrate how they can add value better than the new alternatives". Economically, it may make sense to show how one is valuable to the bottom line. However, the church speaks for God's economy, and just as the scrolls were opened in Nazareth and Corinth to preach "the year of the Lord’s favor" (Lk 4:14-21), so must the proclamation of our good news remain today, that God never says "I have no need of you". Amen.
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