Sunday, May 7, 2017
Sermon: Becoming Christ
1 Corinthians 12:4-31 (May Renew Group reading)
James Sledge May 7, 2017
Today’s reading does not come from the lectionary as it does most Sundays. This week we hear the passage chosen to facilitate discussion among our congregation’s Renew Groups that are meeting in members’ homes to discuss who we are as a congregation. This passage is from a letter that addresses a congregation experiencing tensions and divisions. Paul has just chastised them for the way they do Lord’s Supper, introducing the notion of “discerning the body” in that meal. Now he continues to use this image of “the body” as he discusses spiritual gifts.
Most all of us have things that we’re good at, some sort of gifts or talents. That’s not to say that the world recognizes all talents as equals. If your talent is throwing a football, designing software applications, or doing intricate surgery, that may bring you a great deal of income and prestige. But if your talent is teaching young children, carpentry, or growing a lovely garden, you will likely not have such lucrative career options.
Of course we don’t value gifts and talents just from a financial standpoint. Sometimes we just wish we had a certain talent. There are many talents I admire, but the one that makes me envious is musical talent. I love music and wish I were more musical. I tried to play guitar when I was young, but I just don’t have much talent, and I’m a little jealous of those who do.
The notion that some talents are better than others or more desirable than others shows up pretty much everywhere, including at church. Different congregations have different pecking orders. In one, deep biblical knowledge and teaching ability might be greatly esteemed. In another it is a beautiful singing voice. In another, certain leadership skills, and in another, gifts for caring and nurturing community. Often you can tell a good bit about a congregation by the sorts of gifts that get you noticed or admired.
I suppose it’s only natural that certain gifts are more esteemed. Some are in short supply and harder to find. If a congregation really values the role of music in worship, musical talent is going to be at more of a premium than in a congregation where music is less emphasized.
However this can lead to problems. A hierarchy of gifts can develop that divides a congregation into actors and spectators. Some people are happy just to be spectators, but many want something more. It’s hard to feel really a part of community if you don’t feel like you contribute to it in any significant way.
Some years ago, a huge mega church outside Chicago allowed a researcher to study their membership losses. This church had over 20,000 people attending its Sunday services, but huge numbers of regulars often disappeared after a few years. The researcher contacted them and surveyed all who would respond to him.
Some had moved or experienced other life changes that caused their disappearance, but more typically, people said that two factors led to their leaving. The first was that they never really got to know anyone. With thousands of people in attendance, they often didn’t even see anyone they recognized from week to week.
The second reason for leaving was there was nothing significant for them to do. The worship services and most of the church programing were done by professionals. There were almost no opportunities for people to contribute other than as spectators.
Over and over, research on congregations large and small has shown that people are not likely to remain in a church community if do not have something they participate in besides sitting in a pew at Sunday worship. That only makes sense. Why would I want to be part of a congregation where I don’t really matter?
The Apostle Paul seems worried that a lot of folks are being made to feel they don’t matter in the congregation at Corinth. Divisions caused by wealth are part of the problem, and in the verses just prior to our reading, Paul chastised the Corinthians for the way they do the Lord’s Supper. This was sure enough meal in Paul’s day, more of a potluck, and the wealthy members were bringing food and wine and going ahead and eating and drinking before the poorer members can get there after their day of work has ended.
But along with the division between haves and have nots, there is another division based on spiritual riches. We’re not talking about human talents and abilities here but obvious signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence in someone. And for the Corinthians, the gift par excellence was speaking in tongues. That was the gift that made you someone in that congregation.
It can be difficult to hear Paul speak to our context. Most of us have never even seen anyone speak in tongues, much less aspired to do so. For that matter, we’re not real clear on the whole notion of spiritual gifts, and so we tend to hear Paul as though he were speaking about human talents and gifts when he says we all play a part in the body. Paul’s analogy of the body certainly works with talents such as musical gifts, cooking talents, and so on. But Paul is talking about gifts activated by the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
It’s one thing to say that everyone has something to offer, a way to contribute to the mission and ministry of a congregation. It’s quite another to say that the Holy Spirit is at work in each member, giving everyone newfound gifts to help us be Christ to the world.
Being Christ is the key. When Paul begins his analogy of the body he says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ”. Paul doesn’t say, “So it is with the church;” he doesn’t even speak of the body of Christ; he says “Christ.”
If a congregation values and employs the varied gifts and talents of all its members, it will certainly be able to accomplish some significant, even extraordinary things. But it wouldn’t become Christ. That surely is beyond us, even if we all did our part.
But if the Spirit is indeed given to each of us, if God is at work in each of us, making us new and equipping us to play our part in the body, then we are more than just a gathered group of people. We are more than a community. If the Spirit is really at work in each of us, activating gifts and making us truly alive, then there is more here than just us.