Sermons That Work

Because of the Long Tradition…, Epiphany 3 (C) – 1998

January 25, 1998

“Now you are the body of Christ and individual members of it.”
I Corinthians 12-27

Because of the long tradition of American individualism, most of us have a hard time really understanding how the Bible sees us.

How of have you heard someone say, I can worship God better in nature than I can in church?” We often express or feel the idea that the rest of the congregation gets in the way of our worship, of our contact with God. This is especially true when there are tensions or conflicts in the congregation. Many times I have heard people say something like, “It would be much easier to serve God if I didn’t have to deal with all these people.”

The Bible however knows nothing about individuals apart from the community. Abraham was called out for the express purpose of being the father of a people. Moses was called for the express purpose of leading the people out of slavery into the Promised Land. And for forty years, because of the stubbornness and willfulness of these people he had to struggle with them in the desert. So much so, that as a result of his anger at them he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Our lesson from Nehemiah tells of the re-establishment of the rule of the Law of God after the Babylonian Exile. The Jews had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it under the leadership of Nehemiah as their governor, and one of the first things that Ezra, their priest and scribe, had to do was to re-establish the pattern of worship which had been destroyed, because their service of God was radically incomplete unless and until their common worship was restored. This morning’s lesson tells about the process he followed to teach the people who had returned from exile what it meant to be Jews living in Jerusalem. What it meant for them to be God’s people, because that had been lost in the exile. They had their faith, but they did not have their identity as the people of God.

What is made clear here, is that there is no such thing as an individual Jew separated from the people, and the Law and the Prophets, and the worship of the temple. Any promise of God was made to the whole people together and not to any single individual. The individual took his or her relationship to God from his or her place among the people. The Law of God was for all of them together and individually only as part of God’s people. The is not easy for us to understand or accept, because of the long tradition of individualism we live in. With its roots in Classical Greek and Roman thought, on through the Renaissance and Reformation, and down to the present, most of our sense of ourselves is as separated, distinct individuals. Each of us personally responsible for our acts, our faith, our relationship to God. And to some extent that is true. BUT, this is not the way the Bible looks at people. The Bible always looks at individual people, even an Abraham or a Sarah, or a Moses, as part of the people of God, as being himself or herself most clearly and completely not alone, not as an individual, but in the context of the body of the people of God. In this Old Testament this is expressed in terms of being one of “the chosen people,” in the New Testament it is expressed it terms of being part of the “Body of Christ.” And this is not easy for us, because we look at ourselves and others as being most completely ourselves when we stand alone, uncommitted, uninvolved, uncluttered by other relationships.

When Jesus read the lesson from Isaiah in the synagogue and then began to teach his former neighbors about who he was, their immediate problem was that they saw him only in the context of the relationships they knew him in. They could not get past the fact that he was “Joseph’s son.” He had grown up among them. They knew his family. He was part of the familiar world. How could he possibly be other than that? In a way, the same thing can be true for us. We have all grown up with familiar interpretations of who He is. We have all grown up with familiar and more or less comfortable interpretations of who we are. And moving out of the familiar way of seeing a person or understanding a person, whether ourselves or someone else, is not easy.

What was it like for the people of Nazareth, when this man they had know all their lives and/or all of his life, suddenly came to them not as “Joseph’s son,” but as “God’s Son?” How were they supposed to deal with this change from the familiar to the radically other? It is very hard for us to imagine, because all of our lives we have known Him as “God’s Son.” It is well nigh impossible for us to step outside our own experience and out own knowledge of Him. A brand new Christian, someone from a non-Christian background may have it easier here. But even they will have had some exposure to the Christian tradition and cannot come at the issue as did those who had grown up with Jesus.

However, when we look at the difficulty these people had, we do get a clue as to how difficult it is for us to shift our understanding of our relationship to God, from the individualism we have grown up with to the Biblical perspective of being part of the Body of Christ. The great lesson from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, which was this morning’s Epistle is one of the clearest expressions of this Biblical understanding. But, let’s set it in the context of the letter.

Paul is writing to a congregation be founded. But it is now a congregation in conflict and the conflict is not simple. Some of it is involved with people who are interpreting their forgiveness as an excuse for immorality. Some of it is involved with people who are claiming to have special knowledge of God. Some of it is involved with a conflict familiar in our time, between those who are more “charismatic” and those who are less dependent on “speaking in tongues.” Paul has scolded, has promised discipline, and has called on them to live in love and charity with one another. Then he turns to the gifts they have been given after their conversion and clearly points out to them just before this morning’s lesson beings, that all the gifts they have come to them from God. They didn’t make them, they don’t “deserve” them, they were freely given them by God and they are stewards of those gifts who will be judged on how they have used them.

Then Paul turns to the great description of the people as the Body of Christ, using the simile of the human body, so each of us is necessary for the good of the Body of Christ. None of us has all the gifts of the Spirit. Each of us has the gift we have been given and each of us is responsible as steward for that gift.

Now, we need to be honest in facing the fact that some of the gifts seem almost to be in conflict with one another. We need those who have prophetic voices about the sins and failures of the church and society. But we also need the voices of those who build and maintain the institutions which are the historical means of continuity. We need those who make the Eucharist table centered and comfortable, so that we understand better how God uses the commonplace. But we also need those who make the Eucharist magnificent and colorful and mysterious, so that we understand that we are in the presence of the God of Gods and Lord of Lords and being fed with the Body and Blood of His Son. We need those who have the gift of tongue, not only to remind us of the way in which the Holy Spirit can break into our world, but also in terms of those who can translate the Gospel into the myriad tongues of humanity. We need those who have the gift of healing. For there are many who need to be healed and there is much to be healed. Some of it is healing of the body; some of the mind; some of the soul. Some of it is the need for the healing of the ancient wounds of racism and bigotry, and pride. Not all healers have the same gift, but we need them all. Some are prophets speaking out against the injustices of society and the economy and the educational status quo. Some are prophets speaking to the worldliness of the church and the failures of the clergy, and so on. All of them call us back to the truth that we are fallen. And we need all of their voices. Yet we also need the voices of the reconcilers, the builders, the compromisers, the dreamers of dreams. All of these gifts have been and are given to the Body of Christ and all of them are manifested in different people. None of us can say we do not need the others. None of us has all the truth. None of us sees or can proclaim all of the Love of God. None of us can comprehend all of the gifts of God.

Like our bodies, the community of the faithful is a mixed bag of the necessary, the nice, the occasionally good-looking. And also like our bodies, as St. Paul so clearly tells us, we, in the Body of Christ, all need all of our parts, and are dependent upon one another for the fullness of our life. Also like our bodies, not all of our parts in the Body of Christ are very nice, or very polite, or generally spoken of in public. The God who made us, made all of us, knows all of us, loves all of us, forgives all of us, and binds all of us into His Body.

And, for me, at least, that is the most important thing to remember. We don’t make the Body of Christ. God does. We don’t provide the gifts which keep the Body of Christ alive and functioning and doing His work in the world. He Does. We don’t define who or what belongs in the Body of Christ. He does. And as he went to Nazareth “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the acceptable your of the Lord,” so He calls us to the same tasks in our time and place. We are to use all of the gifts of the Body of Christ to do His work in His world. We are to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, in His Body, doing our part whatever that may be. Not as isolated individuals, not on our own strength, not with our own wisdom, but as among those whom He has bound into His Body to manifest His Love for all in our time and place. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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