Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 9 February 2014: Year A, Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I once heard it said that political parties were ‘a coalition of different interests’. What that means is: the people in a political party have some ideals which unite them, which bring them together in order to work together. But within a party there will be people who have different emphases, who will support different ways of putting their beliefs into action. The Conservative Party, for example, has its Eurosceptics, and those who are pro-Europe. Some Labour Party members will be happier to be called ‘socialists’ because they have more left-wing views. All parties are like that- a coalition within one party!
And quite often, we use the phrase ‘a broad church’ to describe party, or some other organisation or movement, which encompass different kinds of people and with different ideas. The phrase originated in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Church of England had two wings, a High Church party and a Low Church party (see ‘Broad Church’ in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; and Chambers Dictionary), and the Broad Churchmen wanted a liberal, inclusive way between the extremes. In fact, religious communities like are a bit like political parties in that respect. We are a coalition of interests, even in the same denomination, even in the same congregation. It was ever so.
The Judaism in Jesus day was a broad Church. We hear, in the Gospels, of the different religious parties in the Jewish faith- Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. Each had their differing interpretations of the Jewish tradition. For example, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22.22), which was a relatively recent idea. The Pharisees, on the other hand, had taken the Law of Moses and added all kinds of extra rules and traditions to it. For example, they did lots of fasting, something Jesus’ disciples don’t seem to have done at all (Matthew 9.14). And so there was the potential for conflict among all these people who were supposedly at one in worshipping the one true God.
Of course, we can say all this about the Church today. That’s why ecumenism, church unity, is often difficult for us- we find diversity difficult. The diversity of Christianity can sometimes make it seem as if it is not so much one religion, but rather a family of different faiths with very little in common. A Pentecostal service in shop front in Harlem is quite a different experience from a Russian Orthodox liturgy. A few years ago there was a slogan which was supposed to help Christians make decisions about contemporary life: ‘What would Jesus do?’ Well, perhaps we should expand that and ask, ‘What would Jesus do on a Sunday?’ Would he necessarily go to a Presbyterian Church? Perhaps he would just go to the nearest Church, regardless of denomination! He certainly went along to his local synagogue- and when he arrived in Jerusalem, worshipped at the Temple.
We’ve been thinking recently about how the church which Saint Paul founded in Corinth was a very diverse church. Some people think that the Church in the dim and distant past had none of the problems which today’s diversity brings. But the Corinthian letter were written because the Church at Corinth was already in crisis, when it was only a few years old. The Corinth Church was Paul’s difficult child: he had founded it just a few years before. When problems developed, they had obviously written to their founder looking for guidance. If you read between the lines, you can figure out what their questions were. So, for example, at the beginning of Chapter 12, Paul writes, ‘Now, concerning what you wrote about the gifts from the Holy Spirit’.
People understood that the Spirit of God had given gifts to members of the Church. There are various places in his letters where Paul lists some of these gifts (1 Corinthians 12.8-10, 28; Romans 12.6-8; Ephesians 4.11). At the end of our passage for today (1 Corinthians 12.27-30) Paul writes about some of the different ‘offices’ which had developed: there are apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, people who are gifted at leadership or helping those in need, as well as a mysterious group who apparently spoke ‘in strange tongues’ as part of the worship of the community.
The problem was that people were starting to say that some people in the Church were more important than others, because some gifts were more important than others. In particular, it sounds as though the people who could do the ‘strange tongues’ were threatening to overwhelm everyone else (see John Barclay in The Oxford Bible Commentary, p1129 on 14.1-40). This still happens in Church- we think some gifts or roles are more important than others. And so Paul ponders this diversity of gifts and personalities which was threatening to tear the Corinthians apart- a problem which besets the Church to this day.
Paul tells them that all these are all, indeed, different gifts from God: ‘There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit gives them’ he says in verse 4 of this chapter; and at verse 11 he says, ‘it is one and the same Spirit who does all this; as he wishes, he gives a different gift to each person’. So each of us who are Christians have our own gifts, given by God, in order to build up our common life within the Church. We all have a role to play, a gift to bring.
Paul develops this with his analogy of the body. In a lovely flight of the imagination, Paul compares the Church to a human body. There are many parts to a human body, each with a different function. So the foot can’t say, ‘I don’t belong to the body, because I’m not a hand’; and the ear can’t say it’s not part of the body because it’s not part of the body because it’s not an eye. A body that was just a eye couldn’t hear, and if it were only an ear it couldn’t smell. Instead, says Paul, ‘there are many parts but one body’ (1 Corinthians 12.20). And without one of these parts, even the parts that seem, in some ways, less important, the body is less than it could be: the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ and the head can’t do without the feet. In the same way, everybody has belongs in the body of Christ.
Paul imagines a foot saying that because it’s not a hand, it’s not part of the body. I think he said this because he realised that in the Corinthian Church there were clearly people who felt left out. Perhaps they weren’t charismatic worship leaders, or were a bit tongue-tied to be teachers. ‘I can’t do the fancy stuff that everyone applauds, so I don’t belong here’, they thought. But to them, and to anyone who feels somehow left out in Church, Paul says: you also belong.
I think that Jesus often must have felt that he did not belong to the Jewish community. He had this radical message of hope and justice, but many people didn’t want to change. It was as if they were comfortable with being oppressed. I know there are people in the Church who could identify with that. They long to see the Church really take the Good News to the poor. But what they experience is a Church which would rather be comfortable, a Church which all too often sides with rich and powerful, with the oppressors. Paul’s message to them, I think, would be: ‘hang in there! We need you to be part of the Church. We are lessened without your voice reminding us about what the Gospel is really about’.
Or we have young people who feel that Church is not a very lively place, that excitement is to be found elsewhere. Paul imagines the eye saying to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’; and often our young people feel that people in the Church are saying that to them, ‘We don’t need you!’ To such young people Paul says, ‘You are also part of the body of Christ. We need your gifts of youthful energy, for without it the Church is poorer’.
Or to older people, feeling a bit left out because they are unable to get to Church much nowadays. Sometimes someone like that will say to me, ‘I used to be a Church member, but I can’t go any more, it’s all so different from my day’. But we must find ways of making sure that they do not feel left out, for they are also part of the body of Christ. Without the people who listen to the services at home on CD, or who can only celebrate Communion when I go to visit them, the Church is not quite complete. For they also have gifts: gifts of wisdom or the gift of prayer, gifts that can be exercised even if they are unable to physically come to Church.
Later in the letter Paul tells the Corinthians that the spiritual gifts are meant to ‘build up the Church’ (1 Corinthians 14.12). Our diversity of gifts are not meant to cause conflicts and problems; instead each person, like a part of the body, has their own role to play, their own unique contribution to make to the life of the Church as we try to bring the Good News of God’s liberation to the world. Jesus sometimes found going to the synagogue hard, but he stuck with it. And so each of us must make the most of whatever gifts we have, and value and encourage the gifts of others. There should be a place in the Church for everyone. And rather than treating our differences as a problem, Paul helps us to see that we should rejoice in our diversity: many parts, but one body, many gifts, but one Spirit which gives the gifts.
Jesus says we are to be a city set on a hill, giving light to the world. And he talks about the danger of hiding our light away, or letting it grow dim or be uncertain. We cannot help sometimes having some of our divisions being seen in public. But our light will be dimmer if our the tone of our arguments is bitter or personalised. Christians at loggerheads make for a dimmer light.
Jesus also says his followers should be salt for the world. Salt makes things taste better. The church is a better place for a bit of seasoning in our discussions, debates, and conversations with one another. So, in our church meetings, we should put as much effort into listening as we do into our talking. We should have respect for other people’s points of view. In the next chapter of First Corinthians, Paul speaks about love, and says, ‘love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs’ (1 Corinthians 13.5). If our conversations, debates and discussions were salted with that kind of approach, our light would shine brighter.
Our Church should be a place where all kinds of people feel welcome, where all sorts of gifts are shared for the good of all. Let us build a house where all are welcome, where all can share their special gifts. For a Church which was really like that would indeed be good news for Inverness- a shining city on the hill!
Ascription of Praise
To Jesus Christ,
who loves us
and has set us free from our sins with his blood,
who has made of us a royal house
to serve as the priests of his God and Father –
to him be the glory and dominion for ever! Amen.
Revelation 1: 5-6
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimm