Epiphany 3 C 2019
Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-10
1 Cor. 12:12-31A
Today is the third Sunday in Epiphany. It is not by accident that we read First Corinthians at this time in the church year. The scholars who put the lectionary together knew what they were doing because God's epiphany is intimately tied up with God's call to us to be Christ’s body, the Church. Of all of Paul's letters, I love First Corinthians the best. That's because of all of the letters Paul wrote to the churches I think the issues and struggles in First Corinthians come closest to the issues and struggles we are dealing with in the church today.
We don't hear many people arguing now about whether we need to be circumcised in order to be a Christian, and we don't hear much today about the fears held by some communities 2000 years ago over the imminent return of Jesus that turned out to be not so imminent. But what we do hear about in First Corinthians are issues of pride, of some members within the community looking down on those who are less fortunate or who may be different. We hear of members of the church treating others with different gifts and abilities dismissively. We also hear about questions of marriage, sexual morality, and how difficult it is to maintain Christian beliefs living in an upwardly mobile society that placed high value on achievement and social status. What we hear about in First Corinthians is how the body of Christ was to be the church given the social climate in which they lived.
Corinth was a very metropolitan city of almost 100,000 at the time of Paul's writing. It was on an isthmus and had two ports of great importance. It was a major east-west trading route. The population was Roman and Greek and was made up of Roman officials, and of slaves that had been freed and that were looking for ways of becoming upwardly mobile and who were entrepreneurial in their outlook and dealings. People came to Corinth for both business and pleasure and there were new people, foreign people, coming into the city everyday changing the landscape and bringing new ideas and beliefs to the city. People came to Corinth looking for a better, more prosperous way of life. It was a very diverse and exciting place to be. One of my seminary professors likened it to San Francisco during the gold rush or, maybe a more contemporary example, New York City during the waves of immigration in the 1920's and 30's. The Church at Corinth mirrored the diversity that was the city and the Christian Corinthians were finding out that living with such diversity was very hard work.
Paul founded the Church in Corinth and spent 18 months there building it up. As was his custom, he would get the church going, build up its leadership and then leave to start a church somewhere else. By the time his first letter to the Corinthians was written he had been gone from Corinth long enough to have questions, doubts, and problems creep into the community. Paul had heard that there was substantial dissention in the church at Corinth. Members of the community were bringing lawsuits against one another. Factions were developing that followed different leaders in the church. At the celebration of the weekly Eucharist, those with more resources were treating those with less resources very poorly and dismissively. The spiritual gifts that Paul recognized and helped develop within the community were now not seen as gifts from God to build up the body but as status symbols that were causing hard feelings between members.
It was a very difficult time in the life of the Christians in Corinth and Paul saw this time as a real crisis. The church had to decide if it was willing to work together or choose to come apart as a result of their pride and religious rivalries. The young church had to choose whether it would be one Body in Christ or just many individual members who worshipped together.
Despite all of their problems, despite their infighting, backbiting and nitpicking, despite all their moral failings, Paul tells them they are called to be saints. They, along with everyone all over the world who believed that Jesus Christ was God made man was sanctified, was made holy in serving God. Being holy was not about being perfect. Being made holy, being called, was about being set apart for God's purposes. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that it was God that called them into life. Not just individually into life, but into life as a community, as a particular fellowship of believers.
The Corinthian Church was called to be a witness, a manifestation of the great love story between God and all that God created and redeemed in Christ. The Corinthian Church was called to re-imagine what the world should and could be, to reimagine how they could live their lives now that they were a part of the great story of salvation. The question before them was what did it mean for them to be called as God's holy people in their place and in their particular time? It was hard work. But Paul tells them that God has given them everything they need to re-imagine and make possible a new way of living in Jesus Christ.
Paul reminds them that because God is faithful, God will strengthen them in their calling. Paul writes that although they are individuals, all come together to be the ONE body of Christ in the world. Through their baptism they all participate in building up the church that is the Body of Christ. No one part of the body was less than the others. When one suffered, all suffered and when one was healed, the entire body was healed. Paul recognizes the differences that each member of the church brought to the community. And Paul recognizes that each difference enriched and played an important role in the working of the whole. "If all were a single member, where would the body be?" writes Paul. "As it is, there are many members yet one body."
Is the Church today really so much different than the first century church in Corinth? There continue to be deep and painful divisions. God knows we struggle with spiritual pride. Unfortunately, sometimes that pride leaves us with a smugness suggesting that because we see ourselves as being more faithful, more educated, more knowledgeable, that we are somehow more gifted than other members of the body who are unlike us or who don’t see things quite the same way we do. We are living in a world that is increasingly diverse and pluralistic. We are members of a faith tradition that is ever more diverse and we are finding out that living with such diversity is very hard work.
Like our brothers and sisters in first century Corinth we live in a time and culture that admires individual achievement and upward social mobility at the expense of what it means to be called into a community, into a fellowship of believers, into the Church. Being part of the body of Christ and how we relate to the rest of the body and the rest of the body to us, is a pressing question and a deeply relevant one. What Paul was telling those first century Christians and is telling us twenty-first century Christians is that we are part of something much, much larger than ourselves. We are not just part of an historical story in our own time and place, but a part of God's larger salvation story. As a result, we can never say, “I have no need of you.” We are not independent of one another as much as we are interdependent on one another. The simple fact of the matter is that we all need each other and what each has to offer in order to faithfully live into our calling as God’s people, here at St. Luke’s, here in Granville, Ohio.
Paul tells us just as surely as we are called to be God’s holy people, God gives us everything we need to live into that calling, that in being set apart for God's purposes, God will give us everything we need to come together to build up the Body of Christ.
We are one body because we proclaim one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We are one body because we share in the one bread and the one cup. We are one body, because we share in the one mission; to proclaim the love of Jesus Christ.
In my remaining months with you I will be asking you to consider the gifts you bring to this place, what part you need to play and what your role could look like given your membership in the body known as St. Luke’s.
Mary Tuominen and I, along with about fifteen other parishioners, have been looking at the subject of spiritual gifts and how we can both identify and use our gifts individually and corporately to build up the body of Christ here at St. Luke’s. St. Paul tells us that everyone has at least one spiritual gift. EVERYONE. And that we are given spiritual gifts to use for the common good. Mary and I are hoping to offer the course again and I hope you will think about joining us in learning about your specific spiritual gifts and the opportunities available for you to use them.
As difficult as transition periods can be for a congregation, they can also be a wonderful opportunity to develop a new understanding of, commitment to, and appreciation for the spiritual gifts that all of us have been endowed with and how the diversity of all of those gifts coming together can enrich, enliven, and engage St. Luke’s. Each one of us has an important part to play in the building up of this congregation.
As diverse members of God's family we will become one as we share our faith at God's table and our gifts with God’s world. In all that we do, always remember that God is faithful and because of that, God's love in Jesus Christ will strengthen us as we meet the challenges ahead.