Note: I am greatly indebted to my spouse, Rev Shannon Mang, for much of the groundwork that went into today’s sermon. Some of these words are hers, some are mine, some are quoted from or influenced by other authors, and I trust that the Holy Spirit has been at work knitting it all together! – GW
The community of Jesus followers at Corinth were a messy bunch. The apostle Paul loved them deeply, but no other community that we have a record of in his New Testament letters evoked such passion. This was a community made up of people from very different religious and cultural backgrounds- Jews and God-fearers, followers of Greek mythologies and other religious traditions from around the Roman Empire. It was a mix of people who wealthy, merchants and their families along with Roman soldiers, their slaves, and ex-slaves who had either bought, or had been given their freedom, and as a significant port city and commercial centre was known throughout the Mediterranean for its prostitution industry, centered around the Roman Temple of Aphrodite.
In his letters to the Church in Corinth, the apostle Paul responds to a list of complaints from the young church family trying to figure out how to not come apart at the seams. They were fighting about everything. Some were followers of Paul and others argued that Apollos was the more faithful leader. They were trying to figure out sexual ethics in the middle of a city built on sexual licentiousness. They were sorting out what their religious practises were in the myriad of cultural practises in their city. And… they were full of the Holy Spirit— with all its wild and wonderful manifestations. As Mary Hinkle Shore writes about the Corinthian church:
The Corinthians were the original enthusiasts, giving every evidence of having swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. Many of them seem enthralled by the more dramatic external manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work.
In the first half of today’s reading, Paul speaks of these Spiritual Gifts, and the pridefulness that was getting attached to them. Clearly, the gift of speaking in tongues had become the most sought after prize, and while Paul didn’t want to ban the use of ecstatic speech, he wanted to emphasize two things: first, all of these were gifts of the Holy Spirit, not personal assets or achievements. Karoline Lewis points out that the Greek word translated “gift” has the same root as the word for “grace” and we would do well to think of them more as extensions of God’s grace rather than a gift tied up with a bow! Second, all of the gifts – especially the more showy ones – needed to build up the entire community, not puff up one individual. Regardless of which of these specific gifts an individual had received, all of them had to be secondary to the gift given to the entire community and indeed the whole world: the gift of Jesus Christ and his new realm of peace, justice and powerful love.
In the second half of our reading, Paul moves from a catalogue of gifts to a metaphor that continues to have meaning for the Church two millennia later, the metaphor of the whole community of Jesus-followers as members of Christ’s own body. This body, like the body of any living being, has many different parts—but it is one body. Paul goes into a humorous little rant about different body parts arguing with each other, with the hand and foot duking it out, and wondering aloud about an eye trying to hear or smell.
There is something more going on here, than just a funny story. In popular Roman writings back in the days of Paul, the metaphor of the body and its different parts was common in explaining the ‘logical’ or ‘self evident’ natural laws of the Empire. This metaphor presented a vertical hierarchy with Caesar as the divine head and the rest of the Empire the rest of the body; and the pattern was repeated at all levels of society: a master was the head of his household, the rest of his family were next – the “more important” or “more attractive” body parts, and the slaves, well, they were there to work; they were the hands and feet, blistered and bruised and callused and cut from hours of daily grunt-work. This body imagery was trotted out to explain how dissent of any sort, especially if expressed by the workers or slaves, was against the natural order and would ultimately bring illness and death to the whole body.
Paul took this hierarchical body metaphor and replaced it with one much more organic and equitable. Rather than embracing the Imperial view of the body, with less important or less presentable parts of the body subservient to the head, Paul said that in a Church congregation, one part of the body must not lord its unique abilities or gifts or position over other parts. In the body of Christ, power was to be held in a supportive, horizontal manner, not top-down vertical.
In the new communities of Jesus followers, the living, breathing expression of the Body of Christ – the servanthood of Jesus was to be their pattern. Within this metaphor, masters, merchants, Roman army officers, all were expected to serve the needs of those over whom they had authority; and together, everyone of influence who was in a local Church was to use that power and honour and influence to build up and serve those in the community of Jesus followers who had no honour or power outside of the family of faith—outside of the Body of Christ.
No wonder the early Christian communities grew like wild fire among the slave and lower servant classes. I wonder also, if Paul was being specific and purposeful in his risqué mention of the “less presentable” members of the body, knowing full well how widespread prostitution was in this port city and making sure that the faith community did not judge or exclude these people. By taking the image of the body and using it in a very non-Roman way, these earliest Christian communities were perceived by the powers-that-be as posing a direct threat to the very fabric of the Roman Empire. This is what sparked the mass persecution of the early communities of Jesus-followers, and over and over again through the 2000 years of Christianity, the most significant reforms have been Christ’s own call to those who form his living, breathing body in the world: a call back to this radical community which serves the last and the least.
As we prepare for our Annual Meeting this morning, a time of reviewing the service offered and the lessons learned in the past year, how do these words of 1st Corinthians speak to us?
For twenty-two full months now, we have spent wayyyy more time apart, than together, first of all because we did not fully know how this variety of coronavirus was transmitted and vaccines were nowhere near roll-out, and then because we did know how transmissible it was, especially in tightly-packed lightly-ventilated gatherings, like many of the things we do in a Church building. With that being the case, our mental picture of our Church congregation may be much more like gallery view in a Zoom call, each of us in our little Hollywood Square, rather than a group photo of folks gathered elbow-to-elbow, hip-to-hip in our beautifully loud little sanctuary. But now is a time for us to imagine and re-imagine who we are, how we are, what we prioritize, as one entity, one collective form of the Body of Christ. As we look at our programs, our public pronouncements, as we look at adaptations to our building that can re-open the doors to all people, we are called to switch our mindsets away from “how does this impact me” to “how do our efforts, together, serve the needs of the wider community and speak truth to power, as the Body of Christ must always do?” And while the Rundle congregation does not have its AGM until a month from now, I want us to start seeing these “community” questions in a broader way than just Canmore and its neighbouring hamlets and villages; I want us to see the opportunities and gifts that can be brought to the needs of the Bow Valley, Banff and Canmore and Mini Thni and all communities in between. In this past year we have started to see more and more of the advantages that can be brought to service, when we work together as Ralph Connor & Rundle.
1 Corinthians 12 brings that perspective, of being a collective rather than a bunch of isolated individuals, to our AGM and our next steps as congregations. At the same time, It also lifts up the gifts entrusted by the Spirit to each individual, and the very different types of work that need to be done for the body to fully function. Sometimes we need the work of the heart and mind but we also need lots of work done by hands and feet, not to mention some fire in the belly and some backbone. So as you read the written reports and have the chance to ask questions, I invite you to imagine your experience, your skills, your aptitudes, your Spiritual gifts, your calling, being used in new ways… and I want you to know how valued your service has been, in the ways you have contributed to the health of Christ’s Body in this past year.
Earlier in this sermon, we heard of the ways that over and over again through the 2000 years of Christianity, the most significant reforms have been Christ’s own call to those who form his living, breathing body in the world: a call back to this radical community which serves the last and the least. A dozen years ago, Shannon’s sabbatical was shaped around communities of faith that were doing new things and finding new life. What she found, in Canada, in the US, in the UK, was that the communities of Jesus-followers that are thriving in our time and place are the ones that have reclaimed the call to BE the Body of Christ in the world. Whether they had started out as big Churches or small Churches or were brand-new entities in rented space, the communities of faith that were healthiest were those who focused on service and the upholding and honouring of those who have suffered the most in our society and culture. How might these learnings, and indeed this calling, impact our next steps?
Much of the time, an open question can be of greater value than a pat answer, and I hope and pray that as we reflect on what has been and what is and try to perceive who God wishes us to be moving forward, that the self-reflection and curious questions posed by the Apostle Paul will keep us open, and questioning, and ready to serve in ways familiar and unfamiliar. Thanks be to God, Amen.
Hinkle Shore, Mary. https://www.biblia.work/sermons/1-corinthians-21-12-13-16-commentary-by-mary-hinkle-shore/ and https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/day-of-pentecost/commentary-on-1-corinthians-123b-13-3
© 2019-2022, Rev Greg Wooley, Rev Shannon Mang, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church and Living Spirit United Church.