Saturday, January 26, 2013

We Are In This Together

We Are In This Together
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
January 27, 2013
William G. Carter

            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. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

            I realize it was now over a month ago, but we are still working through the implications of Christmas. A child is born, the shepherds are called, the wise men bow down. A great star in the sky announces to the whole world that the child comes as savior of all. We trace the family tree for Jesus, and it goes all the way back to the beginning – all the way back! The son of God is also the grandchild of Adam and Eve. We have a God who takes delight in us, who desires our company. These are implications of Christmas.

            Today, Saint Paul adds one more: "Christ has a body." That's his way of describing the followers of Jesus as a community. The presence of the Risen Christ is enfleshed in a single organism of interconnecting parts. We hold God's gifts in common, and our life together is a unity — a "common unity," or community. As we heard Paul say it last week, the Spirit works through all the faithful. Everybody is gifted to work for the good of all. That's true of every Christian community. It's written right into the DNA of every Christian church.

Isn't that the way it is with this congregation? We join together to pray and everybody has something to do. Between us and among us, the Word takes flesh in practical ways, and this is God's gift. In last Sunday's text, Paul told us how God gives to the church every essential ability. God equips his church to do his work in the world. Even in a congregation as small as Corinth, which scholars believe may have had fifty or sixty members at most, there was enough diversity to do the unified mission of God.

Sometimes you see this with great clarity. Six summers ago, I spent a little time in a monastery located two hours from nowhere. There are thirty men, bound together by prayer. They call themselves "Christ in the Desert," and live at the dead end of a fifteen mile canyon. Even though they live in seclusion, God gives them what they need. A couple of monks are world-class scientists who set up a solar power operation. Some raise bees and sell honey, others oversee a thrift shop in distant Santa Fe. Two of the brothers oversee a micro-brewery a hundred miles away, and joyfully share the product of their labor with others. One night they were whooping it up after the last prayer service of the day. The abbot winked and said, "There are two secrets to a good monastery: Christ and good beverages."

It was a picture of people living together in Christ. The Christian life is a communal life. It is a life lived with one another. There can be no such thing as a solitary Christian or an individual believer. That would be a contradiction in terms. We belong to God, and through God, we belong to one another. Maybe you remember the words of a favorite hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love:
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
Before our Father's throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares

This is a good description of the Body of Christ. The human body is a great metaphor for the church. It's a dynamic model: a body keeps moving and working unless it's dead. The body was muscles and bones to bear burdens. The body is material; there is no such thing as theoretical skin. A body has a life cycle: it is born, it grows, it matures, it declines — and for a body to have a future, it must reproduce.

And frequently the body has some kind of dysfunction. We can only guess what it was in the Corinth church, because Paul declares, "The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ From a far distance, Paul writes to that small church  that he founded. Apparently they experienced some competition, some exclusion, some arrogance. Paul declares it to be a spiritual crisis. All of us need one another. Without one another, we are incomplete.

To draw on another image, the quarterback can't say to the front line, "I have no need of you." Back when I played high school football, we had a quarterback who talked that way. He was pretty good, and more to the point, he took all the credit for being pretty good. "Did you see those three touchdown passes that I threw?" (Well no, we were busy blocking at the time.)

He'd say, "I don't know what this team would do without me." It got to be a bit much. Even the opposing team would murmur to us, "How can you stand that guy?"

So one day, right after he threw a touchdown pass that clinched the game, he started bragging about expertise. The coach called one of the linemen over and whispered something to him, and he came back and whispered it down the line. The quarterback called for the hike, and all of us on the line just stepped aside. The defensive line roared through and tossed him to the ground. Over on the sideline, the coach was rolling with laughter.

The furious quarterback picked himself off the ground and called a time-out. "Coach, what's so funny?" The coach said, "You are - - especially since you keep forgetting that everybody else makes you look good."

For the Christian life, truth resides in the community. No one person has it all; we gain it by living together, by sharing life, together, by looking out for one another. It is out of order to look at another Christian and say, “I have no need of you,” because that it simply not true. We do need one another; perhaps we don’t yet know how we need one another, but if we stay at it, we begin to see.

At the same time, there is no room for bullying and manipulation, no room to dominate or demean. Not in a community where Christ says every single life has value. To live together as Christ’s body means that we always have to adjust for one another, or make room for one another. Sometimes we have to wait for one another – and the patience will do us good. The world out there is so domineering, so competitive, with people conditioned like bulldozers to push around everybody else. But in the life of Christ, we exist for the benefit of everybody – love does not “insist on its own way.” Love is for others.

            It’s hard to keep that straight, but that is the way of Christ. To live for the building-up of other, and not for our own swaggering self-importance. The truth of Christian life is this: we are only as fast as the slowest person among us, and the lowest person in our circle has the ability to reach as the one with highest reach. That is how it is, when people live together by love.

Here's a phrase to apply to the church and other teams: we are a complementary community. That's complementary with an "e." Not to say we shouldn't give one another compliments with an "I" — every group of people could benefit by letting the compliments outnumber the criticisms by a hundred to one. That would be a blessing! In fact, next time you are tempted to criticize somebody, try to replace it with three compliments. If you can't find at least three compliments to drown out the negativity, you may be the one who deserves to be criticized!

But I suggest we are "complementary" in a deeper sense: all of us complement one another. Others provide for the group what we cannot provide for ourselves. In the mysterious economy of God, the whole group is given exactly what it needs, to do in that moment exactly what it needs to do. One of the clearest ways to discover what God wants us to do is by asking what kind of resources are already given to us. Who is here? What are they good at? God's call will not emerge out of thin air, but out of this gifted community.

Everybody has a part to play. So what has God given for you to do? I call this the "Samuel Glenn Carter" principle after my nephew. When Sam was a little shaver, he was a bit literal-minded, so I liked to mess with him. I ask him, "Does your nose run? Do your feet smell? Then you are built upside down." He looked at me and said, "I don't get it." In his thinking, the nose should smell, the feet should run. And I pointed out, that when he ran away from me, he wasn't running with his nose.

Around the church, a nose is a nose. A foot is a foot. Everybody has something to do. God gives each one of us an essential gift for the church's ministry in world. That's the easy truth. The more difficult matter is figuring out which gift is yours, or yours, or yours. It begins by paying attention to one another — look around the room. Look deeply: how has God gifted each person here? What has God given to you, as your gift to enrich the rest of the community?

As some of you know, I returned late Friday night from five days of study leave. Each January I get together with a group of ministers. This was the twenty-third consecutive year. We study the Bible together, we play a little bit, but the whole experience is far more than work and play.

In our group is a man recovering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and a woman who has been clear of breast cancer for eleven years. Each has been a big help to the other. Three of them have survived the flooding of their communities in the past eighteen months; they share that in common. There are some of our group who are content with their lives, others who are frustrated, and a couple who never quite seek to be happy. Our group is a safe place for them to talk it out and find encouragement.

And talk about complementary abilities! Bob knows his Bible, Carl has a thousand stories. Virginia keeps us honest, Rob keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. Terry has a way with words, Pam keeps us practically grounded. Everybody feels like they have something to offer, and everybody keeps coming back.

So why do my friends get together year after year? To tell you the truth, they are some of the same reasons why people connect to a church: all of us belong. All of us share more between us than we could ever grasp alone. All of us have a God who keeps on giving, so there is more possibility and creativity here for our life than we could ever have imagined on our own. Our risen Lord Jesus Christ has a body and this is what it looks like.

One of my friends discovered she has a gift for hymn writing. Here's how she puts it:

There are many ways of sharing / But God's Spirit gives each one.
There are different ways of caring / It's one Lord whose work is done.
God, whose gifts are overflowing / May we hear you when you call;
Keep us serving, keep us growing / For the common good of all.

We've been baptized in the waters! / We've been given work to do.
When you call your sons and daughters / You give gifts for serving you.
God, we join in celebration / Of the talents you impart.
Bless each baptized one's vocation; Give each one a servant's heart.

All are blest by gifts you give us / Some are set apart to lead.
Give us Jesus' love within us / As we care for those in need.
Give us faith to make decisions / Give us joy to share your Word.
Give us unity and vision / As we serve your church and world.

For Paul says, "You are the body of Christ, and individually members of him" Look around: these people you see? They are the means by which Christ lives out the gospel in the world. Look around: we are the muscle and bones of Jesus. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved

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