Year C, Epiphany 3
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
In my junior year of college, I studied in Italy. I was living in Florence, but had several opportunities to visit Rome. I was able to attend one of the Wednesday papal audiences. It was in a huge auditorium with thousands of people from all around the world. The pope, John Paul the II, spoke in several languages and the Bible was read in several languages. The energy in the room was powerful. Part of it was the presence of the pope, but part of it was all the Roman Catholics in one room singing, praying, and rejoicing. It was one of the most profound religious experiences of my life and one of the reasons that it was so hard for me to leave the Roman Catholic Church. What I loved about the Church was that I was part of some bigger and I knew that almost wherever I went in the world, I would be able to find a Catholic Church to worship in.
Then I took my first class at seminary in Episcopal history. That was where I learned that we are part of something bigger…this thing called the Anglican Communion. We are part of a communion that covers 165 countries and we have our roots in the Church of England. What appealed to me about the Anglican Communion was that there was a relationship, but not the same kind of hierarchy as in the Catholic Church. Each country celebrates their faith in a different way, yet we share the same history and very similar liturgies. This is an overly simplistic depiction of the Anglican Communion and I will talk about it in greater detail in our adult forum next Sunday, but this covers the basics.
For this reason and others, I, like others, found it very distressing when the primates of the Anglican Communion reprimanded the Episcopal Church last week. Many news outlets have reported it as: “The Episcopal Church gets kicked out of the Anglican Communion for approving same sex marriage.” This is not accurate, but we have been reprimanded and this is not the first time. We were called out in 2003 after consecrating an openly gay bishop and we never resolved that difference of opinion. It’s not that the Episcopal Church didn’t care that there was now tension in the Anglican Communion, we just were not willing to make a compromise. We believed, and still believe, that while we have this common heritage and this relationship, we also have differences. I would contend that those differences are not a bad thing. If handled well, they can make us stronger.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, there were not multiple Christian denominations. There was a group of people who had been inspired by Jesus and his followers. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that he had died for them and was resurrected. Yet this does not mean that they did not have divisions. Their divisions were not between large groups, but individuals. Their divisions were often based on things like class and ethnicity.
Previously, people who worshipped together shared more than merely a way of worshipping. They were in the same social class, the same ethnicity, sometimes the same family. When Jesus came along, he opened God’s love to everyone. As Paul said, “It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body. All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit.” The Christian Church became a montage of people who would never normally spend time together…but there they were in the same room, sharing a meal together and drinking out of one common cup. What Paul was saying was revolutionary. Today that would be like putting together senators and homeless people with mental challenges—tea party members and Bernie Sander’s campaigners–vegans and strict adherents to the paleo diet. That would be an interesting church!
Paul even went further. He wasn’t simply telling people to look past their differences, but to honor those differences. Now we consider diversity to be something that we somehow find a way to live with. Paul was saying that this diversity was God ordained. This glorious montage was God’s gift to the church. I am not just talking about diversity in terms of ethnicity (although that is a very important topic) but diversity in all things–how we think, how we live, even what our gifts are. One of the things that the Corinthians were arguing about was what gifts were most important. Paul was saying that all the gifts were important, that we needed all of these people with these different gifts to work together. Furthermore, we needed to honor each of these gifts because they were gifts given by God.
Paul used the metaphor of the body. This was not a new metaphor. Previously the metaphor had been used to describe the hierarchy of a community. Even today, we use that same language. The leader of a group is the head of the group. Paul was not using the body to describe how the community was organized, but how the community worked together…how they were in relationship with one another. The toe never seems like a big deal until you break a toe….and then you remember that toe and how important it is with every step you take. Recently I had a problem with one of my teeth, which messed up my jaw and then gave me a two week headache, which made it a lot more tempting to procrastinate writing my sermon. Small parts of the body can make a really big difference in how we live our life. It is the same with a community of people. When one member of the community is upset, it can affect the whole group. When one person is ostracized, we lose part of what make us beautiful.
One of the things our new Presiding Bishop likes to talk about is the Jesus Movement. He tells us that we (the Episcopal Church) need to be part of the Jesus movement. That transcends politics. It transcends denomination. It transcends everything. But here is the thing about the Jesus movement…there is movement involved. And we all know that for a body to move, it has to have all its parts working together. When the Anglican primates sanctioned the Episcopal Church, they also said something that the news’ outlets are not reporting. They said that we will continue to walk together…side by side. There will be times when we find that we are too different to walk as one, but as long as we are a part of the Jesus movement, then we must find a way to walk side by side.
Some of you might be wondering how this relates to us at St. John’s. We are not as diverse as we could be, but I guarantee that if you were to poll the people here in this church, you would find that we all have different back grounds and a wide variety of opinions. Even when it comes to what is happening in the church, there will be some things we might never agree on. That is not a challenge to overcome. It is a gift that has been given to us. It is an opportunity to model for the rest of the world how different people can still find ways to worship together, to have fellowship together, to communicate. There will be moments when we do not always feel as though we are moving as one body. The knee might be mad at the thigh because it’s not doing enough, the ear might be irritated by the mouth it just won’t stop talking. Yet we cannot give up. Because on Sunday morning, we all come to this altar table and we share the same bread and drink from the same cup. We pray that we can find a way to love one another not despite of our differences but because we are different.