Epiphany 3, 2022 – Sermon

Well, I won’t pretend this is ideal.  Doing church this way, through a computer screen, has borne home to me how disconnected I feel from all of you.  How are you?  Are you doing okay?  Have you got anyone asking you those questions face to face these days?  All of the distance the pandemic has created between us has also made me think about how profoundly true it is that one person cannot be all things to all people.  You know, when Claude is here, I tend to be content to let him try and fill that role.  Claude was the conduit for me to all important information about what was going on in people’s lives.  That’s how I found out who was sick; whose relative had died; who had a new grand-baby.  The rest I could fill in when I saw you on Sunday mornings.  But now, Claude’s not here, and neither are you, except through a computer screen.

But the pandemic is only one factor in my sense of disconnection from all of you.  After all, I could pick up the phone, couldn’t I?  Don’t think I haven’t thought of it numerous times over the last two years.  The reasons I mostly haven’t done that are personal failings I cannot, unfortunately, blame on a virus.  Inertia is one.  It is, after all, much easier not to do something!  Another other is energy.  On the introvert/extrovert spectrum, I’m in the 90th percentile on the introvert side.  Literally, conversations exhaust me.  Which gets twisted up with how much I love you and want to know about your life.  Result: inertia.  The third reason is depression, which either causes or is caused by the other two; I’m not sure which.  But man: it is January.  It’s dark, it’s cold.  I am so over this pandemic.  And so depression has set in.  And that just coats inertia and exhaustion with a nice brain fog.

So the result is that while I think about you all the time, and I’m worried about how you’re coping with the dumpster fire that is our lives these days, I am wholly inadequate to do anything about it.  But thankfully for me and for all of you, that is not how being brothers and sisters in Christ works.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he gives what is, in my opinion, the most useful metaphor about what Jesus’ Church is.  It is a body, full of distinct parts.  Eugene Peterson said about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “When people become Christians, they don’t at the same moment become nice.  This always [seems to] come as something of a surprise.  Conversion to Christ and his ways doesn’t automatically furnish a person with impeccable manners and suitable morals.

“The people of Corinth had a reputation in the ancient world as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people.  (Now, I’m not drawing any parallels here!)  When Paul arrived with the Message and many of them became believers in Jesus, they brought their reputations with them right into the church.

“Paul spent a year and a half with them as their pastor, going over the Message of “good news” in detail, showing them how to live out this new life of salvation and holiness as a community of believers.  Then he went on his way to other towns and churches.

“Sometime later Paul received a report from one of the Corinthian families that in his absence things had more or less fallen apart.  He also received a letter from Corinth asking for help.  Factions had developed, morals were in disrepair, worship had degenerated into a selfish grabbing for the supernatural.  It was the kind of thing that might have been expected from Corinthians!

“Paul’s letter is a classic of pastoral response: affectionate, firm, clear, and unswerving in the conviction that God among them, revealed in Jesus and present in his Holy Spirit, continued to be the central issue in their lives, regardless of how much of a mess they had made of things.  Paul doesn’t disown them as brother and sister Christians, doesn’t throw them out because of their bad behaviour, and doesn’t fly into a tirade over their irresponsible ways.  He takes it all more or less in stride, but also takes them by the hand and goes over all the old ground again, directing them in how to work all the glorious details of God’s saving love into their love for one another.” 

Today’s reading, with this extended metaphor about the Body of Christ comes in chapter 12 between a discussion of the proper use of spiritual gifts, and that classic discourse on love, 1 Corinthians 13.  You know the one.  “Love is patient, love is kind …” The Corinthian Christians, rather than using the gifts of the Holy Spirit to edify and build up the church collectively, were competing with one another for who could be the showiest with their gifts, and look the most “spiritual” at their gatherings.  No no, Paul says.  That’s not what you were filled with the Holy Spirit to do.  If you speak in tongues, it should be to edify the Body.  If you prophesy, it should be to build up the community.  If you lay hands on people and they are healed, that is so that the whole community will be strengthened.

We only function if we work together.  If what we do is not for our own aggrandizement, but to benefit the whole community.  “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.”

So I want to say thank you for keeping in touch with one another.  However that’s happening.  We all matter equally as members of this community, this microcosm of the Body of Christ that is St. Mary’s.  We all must take care of one another, however that’s needed.  So as you feel prompted by the Holy Spirit, make a phone call, or send an email.  If you can make it out for coffee, or if you’re not completely sick of Zoom or other forms of video messaging, do that.  Above all, please continue to pray for each other.  I know you pray for me, because I feel upheld by those prayers.

The other thing I want to point out and rejoice over in this passage is that Paul is celebrating diversity in the Corinthian church.  “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.”  It was unheard of in the 1st century Roman Empire for Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free peoples, to belong to the same group as equals.  Economically they would have interacted, of course.  Slaves belonged to the households of free people.  Commerce went on between Jewish people and the other cultures encompassed by the Roman Empire.  But no one considered all these people to be equals.  But in the church, the One Body, all are baptized with the same baptism.  All are filled with the one Spirit.  “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour.”

There are lots of ways in which we are similar to one another at St. Mary’s.  We may not at first glance seem like the most diverse group possible.  But you know, we come from different walks of life.  Some of us have more money than others.  Some of us have kids; some of us don’t.  We range in age from one month old to — well, let’s just say some of you are getting up there!  We come from different family backgrounds.  We have different political beliefs.  Each of us in our unique way is a part, a member, that makes St. Mary’s function as a single Body.  The Body of Christ.  And that Body is God’s hands and feet in this city.  We are one and we are many, and that is God’s gift to us.  The same Holy Spirit in each of us is the bond that holds us together.

In the season of Epiphany, our Scripture readings focus on the times and places in which Jesus revealed to the world who and what he is.  Our Gospel reading from Luke chapter 4 concluded today with a simple declaration: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  With the anointing of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says, he has come into the world to bring the good news that justice and equity are possible.  Of course, this is perhaps better news for the have-nots than the haves.  If you are in prison, Jesus proclaims your release.  If you are disabled, Jesus proclaims the return of the full use of your body.  The year of the Lord’s favour refers to the Year of Jubilee that Moses had proclaimed to the people in the Law.  It was meant to be one year in every 50 in which all debts were cancelled, all slaves and indentured peoples were freed, and all lands were returned to their original owners.  That’s great news if you are in debt, indentured, enslaved, or forced to sell your land.  If you happen to be a lender, or a slaveholder, or a person who bought some land, the Year of Jubilee is less of a thing to celebrate.  Equity is easier to sell if it means that all are raised up to the highest level to be the same.  In the real world, though, equity means that some come up and some come down.  I imagine this is why there’s little evidence this was ever actually practiced in Israel, and hasn’t really caught on anywhere else either!

What does it mean to have equity and justice amongst the members of the One Body of Christ?  Well, we could be like the 1st century church in Jerusalem, where everyone pooled all their resources and the deacons and elders redistributed the wealth, to each according to their need.  I’m guessing we won’t get a passing vote on that resolution at the annual meeting next month!  So what does equity and justice look like amongst us?  The truth is, this is never something we could do for ourselves.  True equity and justice can only ever come from God, who is perfect.  Instead, God extends to us grace.  Remember Eugene Peterson: “Conversion to Christ and his ways doesn’t automatically furnish a person with impeccable manners and suitable morals.”  But conversion to Christ and his ways does put us in the path of grace.  And as we have received, so can we give to one another.  A helping hand where it’s needed.  Accepting one another’s differences.  Rejoicing in one another’s victories.  Sharing each other’s sorrows.  When this Body takes care of itself and its many parts, then it is healthy enough to turn outward into our city and take care of those God puts in our path.

So thank you for your love and care for one another, especially at this time when we have so many physical barriers between us.  I am so grateful that God brought me to this community.  And I love the ways in which Jesus is revealing himself in and through us.  Amen.