Although Many, We Are One The Rev. Amy Spagna
Epiphany 3C – January 24, 2016 1 Corinthians 12:12 31a
Last May, I had the great privilege of participating in a CREDO conference for the first time. If you aren’t familiar with it, CREDO is a clergy wellness program put on by the Church Pension Fund. Ideally, the average priest or deacon will be able to attend at least two conferences over the course of a career, and each time, will spend a week taking a serious look at how they are living out God’s call in all aspects of their lives, including how they deal with their finances and tend to their own spiritual lives. In service of CREDO’s dual mission of building community among participants and promoting their good health in body, mind, and spirit, conference planners take full advantage of the many scenic locations afforded by Episcopal conference centers around the country. For my particular conference, which was specifically intended for those within their first five years of active ministry, some thirty participants and faculty gathered at Trinity Center in Salter Path, North Carolina. It is located in an area known as the Outer Banks, and sits right smack in the middle of one of the barrier islands lining that part of the Atlantic seaboard. On one side of the island, there are woods and salt marshes, and on the other is the beach. So of course, as soon as we’d gotten off the bus from the airport and dropped off our luggage, nearly all of us made a beeline for the water. One of the first things we noticed along the path leading over the dunes was a large sign warning of the dangers of rip currents. In big red letters at the top, it read: DO NOT SWIM ALONE.
It’s good advice – not just to a bunch of priests eager to stick their toes into the ocean, but for anyone who is called to participate in the life of God. The community of faith is built on the simple principle that we can’t do it by ourselves. We HAVE to rely on others to help us out every now and again. It’s in our very nature to need each other. Remember back to the creation story in Genesis, where people were created in part to care for the world? Even Adam couldn’t manage that feat on his own, so God had to make him a suitable helper. As their family grew, Adam and Eve were also faced with the sad discovery that it’s also in our nature to argue about who’s better or who’s more important. By the time the Christian community at Corinth was founded, that issue had mushroomed to the point where some members believed that they were better than others, and should have greater status within the Church on that basis alone. And so they wrote to Paul to ask him to help resolve this dispute. Paul responds to them by developing one of the most famous metaphors in the New Testament. The Church works like a human body, he tells them, where no part can function without the others. Yes, there IS a defined order in how they work together. However, no part is less honorable or less valued than another. In the same way that eyes, hands, and feet work together, so it is with the Church. There are many different parts, and they are united by one Spirit on which all depend.
What we have come to know as the First Letter to the Corinthians is part of a lengthy series of correspondence between the Church in Corinth and one of its founders. There is some certainty among scholars that significant pieces are missing. Many also agree that what triggered the writing of this particular letter were many questions about proper
practices within the Corinthian church. These ranged from how the Eucharist was to be celebrated to details about who was to take on what roles. The common theme underlying all of them is how to be Church against the backdrop of an incredibly diverse society. The city of Corinth itself is at a geographic crossroads. Basically it’s a way station for those traveling from Athens to other locations within Greece, or beyond. It was a thriving Roman colony in the 40s/50s AD when Paul went there and was writing to them. It was home to all sorts of people, including former slaves, immigrants, and the very wealthy and well educated. Religious diversity was also the rule of the day. In addition to the nascent Christian community which Paul and his associates had founded, Corinth boasted an active synagogue, as well as Greek and Egyptian cults.1 All of these things combined to create a town not all that different from a modern day Providence or Boston – including the same kinds of questions about how everything fits together and what everyone’s rightful place in society really was.
It’s against this backdrop that Paul and those who came after him worked. As is still the case, the diversity present in the wider community presented some significant challenges. One of the largest ones was how to bridge both the divide between the privileged and the poor, and the divide created by people who insisted that the spiritual gifts they possessed should somehow place them in a position of greater honor and authority. Paul’s answer to this dilemma is that ALL gifts and their owners matter equally. It’s a theme you can find repeated throughout his correspondence, particularly his angry letter to the Galatians. Regardless of the rhetoric Paul uses to frame it, the point remains that ALL are baptized into ONE body in Christ. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Because we are one body, with Jesus Christ as a central rallying point and organizer, there is ideally no such thing as swimming alone. If the community really does function like a human body, its nature means that we can’t slice off a limb and expect it to thrive on its own. Yes, it does mean there will be some sort of structure put into place to help it work better and more efficiently. Within that system, however, everyone must be honored equally, most especially those who might be considered less honorable or labeled as “other.”
As much as we like to think we’re an inclusive Church, the debate over whose gifts should get what place continues to plague us. We’ve seen a really good example of that kind of questioning in the news which has been coming out of Canterbury over the past couple of weeks. The issues of structure and marriage theologies aside, the statements made by the Primates all boil down to one thing. We are still dealing with the same kind of challenge faced by the Corinthians. In some ways we are no closer to answering the question of how we can continue to walk together, when we are so different from one another and are so tied to our own, very strong convictions about what is right.
The way forward requires continuing to look at the center, and that is Christ. It also means making ourselves vulnerable, both to his leading and to one another. Vulnerability is a very scary thing for most of us. In the strictest sense of the word, it means opening
1 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 512 513.
ourselves up to being wounded. It requires admitting we can’t go it alone, as well as risking that we will be hurt in the process. Despite how it is radically counter cultural for us who live in a world which highly values self reliance, we cannot, as John Lennon famously sang, get by without a little help from our friends. And despite the messages we constantly receive to the contrary, this kind of vulnerability is not a weakness. In her recent book, Daring Greatly, social scientist Brene Brown reminds us that, “Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”2
Our own fear and disconnection are precisely what allow the eye to say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” They keep the eye from recognizing the hand as a fellow beloved child of God, and therefore worthy of the same love and respect as the eye itself has received. But, if the eye chooses instead to say to the hand, “I DO have need of you,” the possibilities for this new relationship are endless.
When we choose to be vulnerable, we make the decision to risk walking with those with whom we disagree. Taking that risk forms the very foundation of our community. It also helps us to dare to ask the questions of what God would have us be, both as individuals and members of this community. You’ll be hearing a lot more about that from Sunil next week in his report to the annual meeting. In the meantime, I invite you to consider this: how is God calling me to grow? How is God calling this community to grow? And, how are my gifts an essential piece of that effort? I look forward to discovering those things with you.
2 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery, 2012), 2.