A sermon preached on January 24, 2010 based upon 1Corinthians 12:12-27 and Luke 4:14-21.
The guy who thirty years ago shot Pope John Paul was released from prison this past week. If you are old enough, you may remember how when the pope was still recovering from his wounds he went to visit his would-be-assassin in prison, forgiving him for the violence he had committed.
The man had some odd things to say upon his release from prison. “I am Christ eternal,” he declared. He indicated that the New Testament was flawed and he would soon be coming forth with a revised version.
He was, obviously, something of a nutcake. But he did get me thinking about the language we use in the church. Every Sunday morning I greet everybody saying, “We believe that newcomers are Jesus come in disguise to bless us.”
Why do I say that? Well, because Jesus himself said essentially the same thing when he said, “Whenever you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.” One of the most readily available opportunities we have to come in touch with Jesus is through an encounter with someone who is vulnerable.
The significance of the stranger in our midst is that he or she is almost unavoidably vulnerable. We who have been here a good while and feel pretty comfortable may overlook this fact, but to walk into a church where you don’t know anybody is invariably to feel ill-at-ease, fragile, wondering whether perhaps you should make a dash for the door at the first chance you get.
The people of Haiti are intensely fragile; probably the demented man newly released from prison is as well. As such, they are people through whom we can encounter Christ.
But the demented man is not, in and of himself, “Christ eternal.” Nor is the newcomer in our midst. Individually, none of us is the body of Christ.
There has only been one man who was in-and-of himself the Christ, and our Gospel lesson from Luke this morning tells the story of how he began his ministry. Having spent forty days alone fasting in the wilderness, he had faced his own deepest vulnerabilities, and now he comes forth in the power of the Spirit. He goes about Galilee with charisma, creating a safe space for others who are grappling with their own fragility and vulnerability, inviting them into a new wholeness and freedom. He arrives at his hometown, gathering with the people in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is handed the scroll of the Scriptures, where he opens up the prophet Isaiah, and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, release to the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he declared, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
He is the one and only Christ, and the most compelling evidence to the truth of this statement came forth afterwards when the community that arose once he had finished his work on earth began to embody all that he had said in that opening mission statement. The church of those first decades following the resurrection of Jesus embodied “good news for the poor” and “liberation for the oppressed.” It was a community unlike any others the world had seen up to that point – astonishingly inclusive — where slaves and Roman citizens lived together as kin, Jews and Gentiles forgot their differences, and men and women freely shared authority, and in general, people experienced the liberating power of the Spirit to transform their lives in life-giving ways.
It was indeed the new kind of community that God had always intended for the world. But human nature being what it is, sustaining this new way of being proved problematic. The early churches found themselves descending into the old divisions, factions, and squabbles that characterize the world.
And so in our epistle lesson the apostle Paul reminds the congregation of Corinth of the truths that had originally given birth to their church: You were all baptized by the one Spirit which overcame those age-old barriers of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.”
This image of the church as the body of Christ expresses two things at the same time, both of which need to be held onto.
First off, there is a celebration of our individuality. We don’t have to be clones of one another; that’s not what God had in mind. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” You are, in your essence, the person God wanted you to be, (though you may well be failing to live out your essence.) The particular combination of gifts and limitations that distinguish you is precisely what God intended. Don’t rebel against who you are, and embrace the particular gifts you were given to share with the body. Make a point of finding out what these gifts are; the help of others will be essential in this process. Also, accept the fact that you weren’t intended to be good at everything. Accept your limitations, which are part of what it means to embrace the fact that you are designed to be vulnerable. It is through your vulnerabilities that Christ’s light shines.
The second thing that goes hand in hand with our individuality is the fact that there is a bond between us that is far deeper than we are prone to acknowledge. Says Paul, “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.”
It is precisely people who are quite different from ourselves, who contribute something altogether different to the Body from what we can contribute, to whom we are tempted to say, “I don’t need you!”
But we do. We need the diversity of gifts, of vulnerabilities, of perspectives to be the Body of Christ. There are things God speaks to us through the very people who are most unlike ourselves that we may not otherwise hear. To break off relationships with such people amounts to shutting God out.
If the people in a congregation pretty much all look the same–if they all dress the same and talk the same and think the same — well, it’s not a good sign. If Christ is present among a group of people – if those people collectively are allowing Christ to act through them – then there will be an ability to love people where they are, rather than where we need them to be in our own self-centered view of the world. If people in a congregation have no capacity for loving those who are different from them selves, then what you have is a club where membership depends upon everybody being clones of one another. You don’t have the Church; you don’t have the body of Christ.