This is the text of a sermon I preached for the Episcopal Church at Yale on January 27, 2013. The text is based on two of the week’s lectionary readings, one from Nehemiah 8 and the other from First Corinthians 12.
I had a Biblical Studies professor in undergrad who told us one day that when we all went off and were working in ministry we should wait until we had been in a church for at least a decade before we even touched Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians with a ten foot pole.
The makers of the lectionary apparently didn’t get his advice.
This letter is one of the most difficult and controversial pieces of Christian literature ever written. There’s a whole lot of stuff in this letter that challenges our modern sensibilities. For example, there’s an interesting passage about women wearing head coverings that nobody knows what to do with. And there’s a line about women being silent in church, which is sure to be a winner every time! And there’s something in there about baptizing the dead that only Mormons seem to feel confident interpreting…
And yet, nestled in the midst of all of this controversial, confusing stuff is the famous text that underlies most eucharistic prayers:
On the night that Jesus was betrayed he took bread…
And there’s that famous passage on love that everybody reads at their weddings:
love is patient, love is kind.
And there’s our text for today about
the body with many members.
The reality is all of these texts, both the infamous and the famous ones, are connected.
Paul, contrary to popular belief, was not always the most linear of thinkers (which I can related to…). But even at his most stream-of-conscious there is still a theme that runs through each of his writings, a common thread that holds the patchwork of fabric together.
In the case of first letter to the Corinthians this theme is unity.
Paul was writing to a church in Corinth that was tearing itself apart at the seams.
They were breaking into severe factionalism, with some members aligning themselves with Paul; some with Apollos, another apostle who had visited Corinth; some with Peter; and some claimed to be aligned with none other than Jesus Christ.
Aside from the cults of personality that were forming in Corinth, there were also severe class divisions emerging in this young church, which seems to have invented the practice of having more than one service on a Sunday. It seemed to have worked like this: the rich people went to the first service, where they feasted on the bread and got drunk off the wine, while the poor were made to show up to the later service in which the eucharist was barely served.
And then, to top all of that off, family drama and the ensuing gossip were filling up the conversations at coffee hour in Corinth. A lot of what is controversial in this letter has to do with what Paul writes about sexual ethics, and when we read what Paul says it’s important to remember that he didn’t just up and decide one day to write a treatise on the subject, he was responding to things actually happening in this congregation. There was a man having an affair with his step-mother, and everybody knew about it and was talking about it. There were couples in which one member had unilaterally decided the Christian faith called them to celibacy with the result often being their shunned partner seeking affections elsewhere, and everybody knew about it and was talking about it. There were people telling young couples in the congregation to get married immediately and others telling them to break up because marriage just wasn’t worth it. And everybody was talking about it. There was more drama happening in this church than in an entire season of Downton Abbey!
And all of this was tearing this poor congregation apart.
Paul tries to address these things and call the church to unity by setting aside the drama and the factionalism and the class divisions and embracing one another as fellow Christians united in a common faith. Throughout the letter to the Corinthians Paul calls on this church over and over again to set aside the things that divide them and work together as a united community.
But what does a united community look like?
If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past week, or if you regularly watch The Daily Show, you know that the two most significant things to happen in DC lately have been the appearance of bangs on Michelle Obama and a controversy over whether or not Beyonce lip-synced the national anthem.
Unbeknownst, it would seem, to most of the commentators both of these events were actually part of a larger, constitutionally mandated event: the swearing in of President Obama for his second term. And if you watched the inauguration and the inaugural speech, you know that a significant part of what happens at an inauguration is a call for national unity, a call for us to set aside our differences and unite as one nation.
The story we heard from Nehemiah tonight is a similar kind of event to a presidential inauguration.
Israel had a long and tumultuous history in the ancient world that involved a series of systems of government at home and a series of foreign rulers and conquests. In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the rising Persian Empire had given permission for the Israelites exiled under the Babylonian empire several decades earlier to return home and rebuild their cities. What is happening in Nehemiah chapter 8 is effectively the reading of a new constitution for a newly re-established people of Israel in Jerusalem, a call for the people to join together in unity and solidarity and commit to a common life of worship and service to one another as they embark on a new journey not unlike, in the minds of most of the people there, the journey their ancestors had taken centuries before when they were liberated from slavery in Egypt.
It was a momentous day for the people. And, accordingly, many people wept, overcome by the emotion of it all.
But this display of emotion wasn’t particularly pleasing to Ezra and Nehemiah, the two leaders of this new community. Surely people shouldn’t cry on such a holy day, they thought. So they made the people stop their crying and they sent them on to celebrate the feast inaugurating this new age in sheer solemnity.
This story reminds me of an experience I had a couple of summers ago.
I was working for an Episcopal camp in New Hampshire planning and organizing the daily worship services that took place there. While chatting with some visiting clergy one day I was told about a compline service several years earlier at the camp that had gotten particularly emotional, leaving people weeping and crying.
The story ended with this clergy person saying to me, “We decided we couldn’t do that sort of thing anymore, it was just such a mess.”
Now, what I’m about to say is not in advocacy of using emotionally charged music to pull on people’s heart-strings and lead large numbers of people to break down in tears.
That said, I think there’s an assumption that was behind this man’s statement to me and is likewise behind Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s reactions to the people of Israel.
The assumption is that we all react the same way to things.
Which, it turns out, is a tough assumption to fight.
For example, its hard for us to understand when people get excited about a political candidate we vehemently disagree with.
Its hard for us to understand when our friend really likes that guy or that girl that we just can’t stand to be around.
Its hard for us to understand and its challenging for us to deal with people who are wired differently from us.
And its easy, given this assumption that operates subtly in the background of our thinking, to assume that unity means agreement. That people who are wired differently, who view the world radically differently, who react differently to things, can’t work together, can’t play for the same team, can’t be part of the same group.
Its very easy for us to react the way that Ezra and Nehemiah did and expect for everyone to conform to our way of thinking and our way of doing things.
But it turns out such conformity isn’t especially healthy for a community.
I read a really amazing post from evangelical feminist blogger Rachel Held Evans earlier this week. Rachel was reacting to a trend in her own community that sees faith as highly intellectualized and downplays emotional responses to faith. She was lamenting the way in which her own emotional response to faith is often discredited for not being rational enough. One passage of her post struck me in particular. She writes:
What makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority? What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?
It’s easy for us to react the way that Ezra and Nehemiah did and expect for everyone to conform to our way of thinking and our way of doing things. But when we do this, it often comes at the price of asking others to set aside a significant part of what makes them who they are, to ignore their own conscience, betray their own understanding of love, and become a shadow of themselves.
So given how different we all are, how differently we see the world, and how differently we react to things, is unity an unattainable goal?
Paul didn’t think so. In fact, in our text today from First Corinthians Paul argues that unity must come through our differences, not in spite of them.
That kind of unity is exactly what
the body with many parts is about. Its about a group of people with different talents and abilities, different points of view and opinions, different reactions to the world and different personalities, all coming together and working together as a united community not in spite of their differences but because of their differences.
Because of our differences, not in spite of them.
We need one another to balance each other out, to compliment one another, to fill in gaps in our own experience and knowledge. We need one another because my conscience may not catch everything that your conscience catches. We need one another because what I think it means to love our neighbors might compliment what you think it means to love our neighbors. We need one another because when we all try to look the same we inevitably become a shadow of ourselves instead of living into the full reality of who we were made to be.
But its hard to overcome that assumption, hard to get away from that automatic inclination to want others to be like us or us to be like others.
Even as Paul is writing about a
body with many parts he senses the resistance.
The last line of our reading today, which is translated by the NRSV as
but strive for the greater gifts, could also be translated from the Greek as a question:
Do you strive for the greater gifts? Embedded in that question is the drive to conform and make others conform which Paul is cautioning against. The kind of unity that Paul is talking about, the kind of unity that comes about because we are different and yet work together, that kind of unity requires that we learn to accept one another for who we are and learn to accept ourselves for who we are.
After this question:
do you strive for the greater gifts?— the gifts that everyone thinks they need to have to conform to the ideal– Paul responds with a line that wasn’t included in our reading tonight but that I think is important:
I will show you a better way, Paul writes,
I will show you a better way: the gift of love. And it is here that Paul begins to write about a love that is patient and kind, that does not harm, that does not boast.
Love is about learning to be in community with those who are different from us. Love is how we find unity through our differences. Love is how
the body with many parts remains
one body. Amen.
- Modern Commentary on 1st Corinthians by Fr. G. T. Montague (jkarblog.wordpress.com)
- Homily for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany – The Third Side (emmanuelchatham.typepad.com)
- 1 Corinthians 12:15-16 “If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” (calvinistview.com)