A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 17, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.11 All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
The lectionary passage for this morning is one of the more well known and often preached ones, mostly because it has such great and important parallels for our times, but like all of the letters of Paul, this one has a real context. It was a real letter from a real person to a real group of people, dealing with a real situation, in a real and actual place and time, but two things about it make it so important for us as a reading today, well three, because one could claim that it has importance for simply being a part of the canon, a part of scripture, found in the Bible, but beyond the importance it has as being a part of the Bible, there are these two undeniable facts, and they never change. One of them is God, his presence, his promises, his power, all of it, it doesn’t change, God is as real and present now as He was then, and the other is us. People are people, and the issues of the early church are very much present all throughout history because people do not change, at least not all that much. Many if not all of the problems of today’s church were present from the very beginning, and so Paul’s letters often read as if they were written directly to us in our own time, and many read them that way, and I want to as well, but I want to start with their historical context first because I think it gives us some needed perspective about our own situations.
If you read all of this letter, Paul goes into great detail in the beginning about the issues that the fledgling church in Corinth is going through. The biggest issue is division within the body. They’ve got all kinds of subsets in the body. They’ve got former pagans and former Jews, and each has their own unique perspective, because all of their life they have seen God in a certain way, and change is difficult for everyone, especially full change. They have accepted Christ as their Lord, but Paul says they are still developing in their faith. He says that they are mere “infants in the faith” in chapter 3, and the big difference is about them being worldly rather than spiritual, and this gives the sense that they are still holding onto what they use to know: the old ways, the old thoughts, whether Pagan or Jew, polytheist and monotheist. There are differences in the body of Christ, and Paul uses the language of Spiritual versus worldly to make those claims. Another division they have among them is they are connected to who it was that first taught them the gospel, who baptized and introduced them into the faith, some of them claim Paul, and some Apollos, and some Cephas, or Peter, and even some say Christ himself, Paul deals with this issue in chapter 1, straight off the bat, saying: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you Baptized into the name of Paul?”But still the divisions remain. Another set of anger deals with the way that communion is eaten, whether all at once or whether they should wait for everyone to be present, who should be served first, last, included, not included. Some others about what rituals need to be observed, the questions surrounding the necessity of circumcision, the question about food and dietary laws, how food is prepared, who food has been offered to, has it been part of a pagan ceremony. People claiming wisdom on one side, others on another, people proclaiming that their way is the way to be authentic, their path of conversion, their journey, their symbols, their rituals. Divisions have arisen, and the main focus of this letter is addressing those divisions. Paul is offering his wisdom and advice to them, since he took part in the beginning of this church he is concerned about them and how they should function.
This is the background of our passage from this morning. These are the divisions, this is the context. So let’s look at it before we connect it home to ourselves. The first piece you get is about what connects them together and thus a reminder about exactly what is important. It says remember that no one could say “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit, and no one who has been filled with the Holy Spirit could ever say “Jesus is Cursed.” Now this seems strange to us because obviously people can say anything. It isn’t hard. People talk all the time, and I don’t want to think about what percentage of the stuff coming out of someone’s mouth is heartfelt and authentic these days, but we have to remember the context. And it is important to know why Paul addresses in the way he does, saying both, Lord and cursed, because that is the way the persecution questions would be. We talked briefly about Roman persecution in the fall, and in Sunday School we talked about it in some depth during Advent, looking at the situation surrounding the writing of Revelation. Basically for the most part, when persecution wasn’t super hot, basically they had a don’t ask don’t tell policy when it came to Christians. You were fine as long as they didn’t find out about it, and if you were ever caught you would be brought before a tribunal of sorts and asked if you were a Christian. And if you said no, you would then have to curse Christ, and we should remember that in those days the original statement of the faith, was not the apostle’s creed, as the name would suggest, but simply what Paul writes here, Jesus is Lord. So when he writes this in his letter he is saying, hey don’t forget, you all are all in this together. You’ve all taken the same risks, you are all in it together, If you are to stand up to persecution it isn’t because of you, but because of the holy spirit, and that is truly what matters, and all of you are bound together, grouped together, and each time you are assembled together you are all taking that same risk, together. Don’t take that lightly. The person to your left, who you are now divided from for some trifle, is taking on the same risk as you. Let that, and the Spirit that makes it possible be the central truth that binds you together.
And then he goes to the second part, about the need for mutual forbearance, and respect for what others are called to do, remembering that everyone is different, everyone’s function is different, and everyone’s function is valuable because it is connected to that same spirit that makes all of it possible. If you are bound together don’t forget that all of you are equally important in that venture. Everything you do, comes from the Holy Spirit. The word that Paul uses is translated in the RSV, which I used this morning as inspires, but that is a little weak because inspires has that spirit root to it, literally its what inspire means, to spirit, but the NRSV uses the word “activates” which is cool because it is more than just the idea, but the thing that puts it in motion too. It reflects that Pauline notion that none can glory in the doing, but giving all honor to God. It is not us, but the spirit, who is the activator of all, the ability to stand up to persecution, should it arise, the ability to be joined together, and the ability to perform the unique purposes, it all comes from the Holy Spirit. It isn’t just giving us the idea, and then it is up to us, but the activation of it all. He is the activator, the catalyst the beginning, the process, and the end of it all, with that in mind, what divisions can continue to exist. The divisions as Paul said are of the world, but not of the spirit, for it is one spirit, one body, one God at the center of everything this church does.
Then he goes on with the metaphor of the body. . . one body but multiple parts with each having their unique roles. I was looking for a poem to use for the Preparation in the Bulletin, and remembered this section from one of my favorites, Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man.” Pope takes straight from this passage, writing:
What if the foot ordained the dust to tread,
Or hand to toil, aspired to be the head?
What if the head, the eye, or ear repined
To serve mere engines to the ruling mind?
Just as absurd for any part to claim
To be another, in this general frame;
Just as absurd, to mourn the tasks or pains
The great directing mind of all ordains.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul:
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same;
Great in the earth as in th’ ethereal frame;
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent:
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.
Do you see it? It is powerful. . . I’ve always liked Pope, but there are many things different about his time and ours. He lived in a very structured society, and he liked it that way. The world told you who you were, what your role was, how you were born determined such things, and there was no movement, and passages like this one from 1 Corinthians were used often to add permanence to the structure of society. It wasn’t as much about respecting the gifts and talents that others were given, but to accept your role in life, no matter what it was. We live in a different and challenging time where freedom has become a reality, and that puts the onus on us to discern, rather than be told by the powers of the world what our gifts are.
And this leads me to us as a church. We have many things that join us together, but we have things that divide us as well. If you think about it, most people from the outside, from the world would look at this congregation and think there is not much diversity, but that would show the race blinded ignorance of the world we live in today. The world might see us all as white, predominantly a part of the ever shrinking middle class, working folks, of a mostly older generation, but they would miss the glorious individual differences and groups that could form here. but really don't. There are geographical differences, some live in Gordonsville, some Louisa, some Charlottesville, some Orange County, some Greene, people come to this church up 15, down 33, from 132. These things could divide us, but they don’t seem to. There are differences in faith history and journeys, people who have found their way to Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, by way of Baptist Churches, and Methodist Churches, and United Church of Christ Congregational churches, Episcopalians, other Presbyterian denominations, some have attended Catholic Churches, but somehow we all found our way here, and many different reasons, for some maybe a former pastor, maybe because it was the most convenient to your house, maybe because you were turned off from somewhere else, maybe your old church closed, maybe you moved here, or maybe this is the only church you’ve ever known. These things could divide us, but for the most part they don’t seem to. Another somewhat unique situation we have here is that we have a number of folks who are regular attendees, have come for years, are in every way a part of the family of this church, but are not technically members, it could be something to divide us, but it doesn’t seem to. We have a great number of elders, people who have served in leadership roles in the church, and then those who haven’t yet been called to such posts, but we don’t seem to be divided on that issue either. Other than the little squabbles that go on in all churches, and then just seem to go away, there is only one aspect of the church that seems to be a repetitive source of division, and frankly it is one that in many churches it is taken care of and unseen because of the great numbers, but here with fewer of us, these issues become very difficult, and can be quite frustrating for people. We are divided about what we each feel most called to do here, in service to each other, the community, and the church. And I could stand up here and say it is a good thing, that we are each doing what we are called to do , that we are trying our best, and that it is good, and that we are each functioning in the roles we are called to, that those who feel called teach, teach, and those who feel called to sing, sing, those who feel called to serve soup, serve soup, those who feel called to be lay readers are lay readers, those who feel called to clean clean, and the list could go on and on, and that is my first reaction. People are doing what they feel called to do, and we should each happily carry our own cross, do our own duty, what we are called to do, walking parallel, without envy, anger, resentment, of others who are not called to the same work we are.
That is my initial reaction and reading, but I’m not sure it’s good enough. It doesn’t push enough. It’s too easy to say, though it may be true, and an important thing for us all to remember, there is and must be more that is connected to it. There are two sides to this coin, and much of it is brought on by the advent of freedom. In Pope's time, structures were solid and unquestioned, you just did what people said you should do, ministers, leaders, those in authority, tradition was strong, but these days those structures have long ago been questioned, and many of them have fallen away. You could say that it is a shame, that much has been lost, but the potential is there for much gain, because it allows us to actually will, and be connected directly to God and how the Holy Spirit is working, but we can't take that connection lightly. On one hand, no one can say to you, you need to do this because this is a church, and this is what churches do, no one can say to you we've always done it this way, this program is part of the church and needs to be preserved, no one can say to you, you are a bad Christian because you don't X, Y, or Z. No one can do that, no one should do that, no one, including me is in the position to do that, and because this is true, some programs, some traditions, some parts of the church will and must change, and that's hard for folks to deal with, I know. . . but on the other hand, if you are going to live in that place of freedom and ownership of yourself, you really need to discern what you are, what you are being called to do, and how the spirit is working in your life. The spirit needs to be the Activator that Paul describes. We don't live in a time where there is persecution, other than people crying about Starbucks' cups and people saying Happy Holidays, so saying Christ is Lord isn't quite as hard for us. . . we might just be able to say such things without the activation of the spirit, but for many of us it is possible that, that is all we're doing, and it would seem that there is more to it than that. Like I said it is a two sided coin. We cannot control what others do, but each of us has a relationship with the spirit that can and should push us beyond ourselves. . . beyond infancy in Christ, to more, and if we are all striving for such things, activated by the same spirit, this church, and all churches will be united, and sustained, for Christ is Lord, and if not, the wind will blow the candle out, for there would be no activation possible or necessary. Amen.