Monday, June 13, 2011

The Day of Pentecost, Year A - June 12, 2011 (1 Corinthians 12:3b-13)

The apostle Paul was the master of metaphor. To illustrate a point he was trying to make, he could employ with great skill any number of images and analogies which had a wonderful way of sticking in the imagination and standing the test of time. When you read Paul’s letters in the New Testament, you will hear him talk at times, for example, about faith with agricultural symbolism. The church, in this case, is a field where church leaders are like farmers that toil to grow faithfulness and witness. The Spirit produces fruit in the life of believers, fruits like joy and patience and kindness. This was a clever way of speaking about the activity of faith for even those in an urban setting—and some of his were—could understand how the community created by the gospel might be, in some ways, like a place where growth was supposed to occur.

In other places Paul is fond of athletic metaphors. Faith, in this instance, is a “race to be run,” bearing some resemblance to a challenge that requires practice and discipline. In much the way athletes train their bodies to perform a contest, the faithful Christian trains his or her intellect and will to accomplish great feats in witnessing in spite of hardships and suffering. Nowadays, of course, such metaphor might resonate a little differently for those who are, say, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers and fans of the Washington Redskins. But, no matter where your team loyalty lies, the life of faith being related to athletic competition somehow makes sense. These metaphors—both agricultural and athletic—have stuck with us.

But of all the metaphors and descriptions Paul used to describe the life of faith, perhaps none is as well-known and easy to grasp as the church as the body of Christ. In at least four of his letters, Paul spills a lot of ink trying to explain how the community of believers is like a human body with structural features like ligaments and feet and organs like eyes. Anyone who has a body can relate to this image. You don’t need to be involved in a specific field like agriculture or athletics to understand what Paul is trying to say about the church when he uses this metaphor. That is, the community of people who believe in Christ as Risen Lord is a functioning whole; no one part is complete by itself. Likewise, the character and vitality of the Christian faith cannot be summed up in one specific believer. It is a community enterprise.

Perhaps that is why when he is speaking to his conflict-ridden and controversy-prone congregation in Corinth, Paul finds the body analogy to be especially helpful. One of the many things over which the congregation there had been fighting was the presence of the Holy Spirit’s gifts. There is no way of knowing exactly what the specific hullabaloo was about, but it seemed as if some of the congregation members in Corinth had forgotten the body-like aspect of the Christian faith. They thought that certain gifts of faith, whether uttering wisdom, or working miracles or healing, or speaking in tongues were naturally better than others, signs that some people had received more important talents and skills and therefore did not really need the rest of the community. It was a big problem, one that may have eventually torn the congregation apart.

To counter their indivualistic and hierarchical way of thinking, Paul reaches for the body metaphor: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, or one body, so it is with Christ.” Notice he does not say, “so it is with Christians,” or “so it is with those who follow Jesus.” He explicitly names them Christ. They—that is, the Corinthians—are, in some way, Jesus. They are one organism, as it were, and he drives the point home even further by telling them “for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews, Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink one Spirit.” Just as breath animate a human body, God’s Spirit gives them life. From here he goes on to explain that no one person, no matter how glorious or glamorous their gifts may be, can ever really survive without the gifts of all the other people present. The flourishing of the whole is absolutely dependent on the participation and the presence of each and every one. It is a follow up on the main lesson in the section we have this morning as our middle lesson, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit” Paul says, “for the common good.”

For the common good. And that’s the key for this metaphor. That is, there are many different types of gifts, many different ways of serving—many different ways of skinning the cat, so to speak, when it comes to being a follower of Christ—but the gifts are never given solely for individual betterment. The gifts of the Spirit are never given for people to pursue their own happiness or their own personal path of spirituality. They are given to individuals, yes, but with the express purpose that they will be worked out and practiced within the body, whatever that body is doing.

This lesson has needed to be driven home to this slow learner countless times, but the occasion I remember most, for some reason, was by a woman named Shirley when I was working as a summer camp counselor at Lutheridge in Arden, North Carolina, where two of our college members happen to be working now. This particular week I had been assigned to work with a group of campers with mild to moderate developmental delays. They were wonderful individuals of all ages—mostly adults—who all had been diagnosed as having some significant special needs but who were not deficient in any way, (as our area director had taken great pains to remind us during our training), in regards to gifts of the Spirit. A week of working with that population always involved a talent show at some point. They could sit for hours as they, one by one, got up in front of the whole group and performed either a vocal solo or told jokes, danced or shared some other skill they were proud of.

Now, it just so happened that a group counselors and I had been racking our brains that week trying to remember all the verses of that annoying song about Noah’s Ark. (Youth group members know which one I’m talking about). It goes on and on forever:

“The Lord said to Noah, ‘There’s gonna be a floody-floody!
The Lord said to Noah, ‘There’s gonna be a floody-floody!
Get those animals out of the muddy-muddy!’
Children of the Lord.”

So, rise and shine…and give God the glory glory!
Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory!
Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory…children of the Lord!
In all seriousness, the song has something like twenty verses, and, for the life of us, we could not remember the last verse. These were the days before Google and smartphones, so we couldn’t just look it up on a computer. There were no songbooks, even. We had to rely on what people could remember and store in their brains, and in that regard we were coming up empty, which was exceedingly frustrating because the song couldn’t end (and it really needed to!) No one on camp staff could remember it!

But, as we learned that week. it just so happened to be Shirley’s favorite song. Shirley wasn’t able to do much for herself. She couldn’t eat on her own. She wasn’t able to see much because her eyesight was so poor. She needed help walking and getting dressed in the morning. But—you guessed it—she knew every single line to that song. Sometimes she’d get stuck in a loop and repeat a line or two a few times, but when she got up on that stage in front of all of us, it was one of her gifts to be shared for the common good. You can’t imagine our relief when she stood to receive her applause. She had taught us all the verses…and thankfully the Spirit had made us still enough to listen.

That example may seem somewhat simplistic in the grand scheme of things, but what I learned in that moment at that talent show goes right along with what Paul was trying to get across to the church at Corinth. And, as different as our situation may be from what the Corinthians may have been facing, it is a message that God’s Spirit is still trying to teach to the church in North America in the twenty-first century.

An article in a recent edition of The Christian Century ponders the church’s current challenges of people to join congregations in the ways that they used to in earlier decades. The challenge is especially acute in those of my own age group. Many folks these days are content with attending a congregation or various congregations, sometimes even quite regularly, without ever actually committing to membership in one particular congregation. They remain loosely connected to one or several communities of faith, never really venturing very far into the life of any one community. Some say it’s a result of our consumerist culture, where options for everything overwhelm and tantalize. Whatever the reason, people are not belonging to churches in the way they once did. Congregations are handling the challenge in different ways, some getting rid of any type of formal membership at all, others ramping up guidelines for affiliating, demanding more. Leaning more to the side of inviting modern church people to commit to definite, formal membership, one Lutheran pastor is quoted in the article as saying, “that is the secret gift that unfolds as you become integrated into something that is larger than yourself. You find yourself saying yes to possibilities that you would never otherwise imagine.”

Meredith Sizemore Photography
Possibilities that we never could imagine. Verses to songs that we never could remember on our own. Lives transformed by God’s grace that we never could fathom. Gifts of the Holy Spirit that we never could experience unless we were up close and integrated into the body of Jesus. It sounds like Christ himself is at work! For, you see, I think we get the part about each of us having unique constellation of gifts, and I think we even get the part about recognizing the gifts in others. It’s always good to hear that again and again. Where we might could use some reminding is the part about how they’re used for the common good. In Christ’s church, we find ourselves involved in possibilities we never could imagine when we begin sharing our gifts not simply for our own objectives, no matter how noble we may think they are, but for the sake of everyone, for the sake of Jesus who is now apparently loose in the world through our life together.

So for this Pentecost, as we welcome aboard two new members to this ark of salvation through the waters of baptism, let’s claim all of Paul’s metaphors for this hapless yet marvelously gifted community we call the church. We're probably going to need them: the field and the athletic field, as well as the body. The Spirit is doing something here, as it is in every church in every age in every language God has created. The Spirit is animating something here, and we are excited about it.

Yes, let’s claim all of Paul’s metaphors on this birthday of the church and then, if we may, add one from Shirley. The Spirit has given each of us our own unique verse in God’s grand song of love and redemption through Jesus Christ. It is a song that is sung with tongues of fire through the life of his community, imperfect and out-of-tune choir that we may be. You’ve been given your own verse in the song, and ain’t nobody gonna be able to sing it but you!

So, let's hear it, then! Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, children of the Lord!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.