Prepared for and preached at College Park Presbyterian Church. Primary Scripture 1 Cor. 12:12-31
The music this morning has been great, hasn’t it? It is all part of the way celebrate this holiday. My husband and I enjoyed having a midweek day to take our motorcycles out. We took the back roads up toward New Smyrna, and there was a lot to see…
There are still small towns that celebrate with parades and gatherings. I saw lots of flags and bunting, even tractors with red, white & blue streamers. All to celebrate Independence Day.
I tried to do the math while I was riding, because I remembered the bicentennial excitement back in 1976. Did you know that this week is the 237th time our nation has marked the signing of the Declaration of Independence?
All this had me thinking about the history we are celebrating this week. We remembered with pride the patriots who fought for independence from the tyranny of England. And we remembered with sadness the great loss of life 150 years ago at Gettysburg. In some ways, the Civil War was also about independence and freedom. But the battle was also about dependence- could all the states be counted upon to go forward together- as one Independent Nation?
Considering the news of the past weeks, it strikes me that we are still trying to answer that question. Policies around voting rights, immigration, health care, gun ownership, access to marriage and so many other issues are deeply divisive.And debates at the state, local, and federal level can make legislative chambers and courtrooms feel more like war zones. These battles are for independence too – as one group sees the other as trying to impose their beliefs, understandings or desires on another.
See, Independence at its most basic is this: freedom from the control, influence, support or aid of others.
An independent nation, then, can set its own laws, establish its own currency, determine alliances, and need not rely on- or answer to- other governments.
Likewise, an independent person
… is not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion or conduct
… is not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction
… is not influenced by the thought or action of others.
… is not dependent upon someone or something else for existence, and
… does not have to rely on others for aid or support.
That sounds a lot like the person I have aspired to be, the person I was always encouraged to be. It’s the American ideal: A strong-minded, strong-willed person who knows what she wants and goes after it. A person who is self-sufficient.
Now, you may be thinking – that is all quite lovely, but what does all that have to do with our scriptures for the day?
Let’s focus on that reading from 1 Corinthians…
A few verses before the start of the passage, Paul describes the gifts the Holy Spirit confers. And then he reminds the Corinthians WHY these gifts are given…
“To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.”
This verse speaks to part of what is causing problems in the church at Corinth. In this community, comparisons had become competitions, leading to jealousy and self-promotion. Rather than seeing the gifts of the Spirit as something for the community, they had become points of personal pride.
The Corinthian’s focus on self, their fascination with the success of the one rather than the good of the whole, is something we Americans can struggle with, as well. Partly because so much of our cultural mythos is built around rugged individualism.
In addition to the patriots and founding fathers, we celebrate pioneer families who created a life in the western prairies,days away from their nearest neighbor. We talk about the brilliant shy kid who goes from building computers in the garage to running a software company valued in the billions. And of course there’s the star athlete who comes to a losing franchise and propels them to the championship.
These stories are repeated to inspire others- if these plucky men and women can overcome obstacles to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so can you!
I’m not sure that’s not a bad thing. It is important to develop self-confidence along with the skills one needs to make it through a difficult day, or week, or longer.
But the narrative we hold up as the model doesn’t tell the whole story… We leave out the detail that our models for self-sufficiency are the rare exception, NOT the rule. That even these extraordinary people had mentors, guides and support at key points along the way. And that very few people thrive when they choose to face life alone.
This is particularly true in the Christian life – we are not designed to face the world on our own. We see this from the very beginning. God created Adam and considered him good. God also created Eve – not as an afterthought, but because it was not good for Adam to be alone. Both of them (and each of us) were made in God’s image. Made in the image of the triune God: We worship God the creator, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit. Three distinct persons in one unified whole.
We were made to be in families. We were made to be in neighborhoods and congregations. We were made to be in community – in communion- with one another and with God. This is how Paul views the church, both the ekklesia (the small church gatherings) and the universal Church: You and I and ALL who have been dunked or sprinkled or splashed were baptized into The Body of Christ. Paul said it this way to the Corinthians…
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.
And so, it makes sense that when Paul speaks of the gifts that are given through the Spirit, he reminds us that those gifts combine to meet the needs of the community… Every member brings his or her gifts to be joined to the others in order to build up the Body for the reconciling work that we are called to do together in this world.
The only person who was ever capable of bringing the entirety of the gospel into the world is the one person who IS the Good News – Jesus the Christ.
Luke’s gospel account tells us that when Jesus starts his public ministry, he chooses to read this passage from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When the people gathered in the synagogue looked to him to begin teaching, Jesus said,
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was essentially saying, “I am the one you’ve been waiting for. I am the one who will bring freedom, healing, comfort and favor to those who have been oppressed, held captive, left hungry and blind. I am the one who will meet those needs in this physical world and in the spiritual realm, as I bring the power of forgiveness to bear on the burden of your sins, all in the name of the Lord.”
And that is what his ministry was all about.
Jesus did all those things as he observed the heart of the law, if not the letter. He was obedient to God and God alone, even in his death on the cross. And once his resurrection revealed the power of God, Jesus commissioned his disciples – all of them together – to go and continue the work.
When we read Acts (the sequel to Luke’s gospel)- we see how the church grew from a handful of frightened believers into a movement of thousands of Christ-followers. And we can see how many different people God used to accomplish the work of birthing the church and being the church.
Some preached, some healed people. Some traveled to tell others about God’s mercy. Others stayed put to care for the widows and orphans. Some sold their material goods to assure that everyone had enough. They lived as Christ taught, and sometimes they suffered as a result.
But even as Peter and Paul became vital leaders of the early church, neither could lay claim to having all of the spiritual gifts. They could never had done it all on their own.
That is GOOD NEWS for us. Not one of us has to take responsibility for the work of a whole congregation. Nor is this congregation expected to tell the entire population of North America about Jesus’ great love for each of them. Not any more than you would expect your finger to stand you up and move you across the room. Or for your knees to type up an email. Or for your heels to untangle the ringlets in your granddaughter’s hair.
But as College Park Presbyterian Church moves from Independence Day beyond Labor Day, toward Advent and Christmas, the Spirit will be on the move, pouring out gifts, empowering the Body, and challenging you afresh to be about the work of loving God with all your heart, soul and mind. And the work of loving your neighbors…the ones you see at work and at play, as well as the ones God will place in your path.
And you will need to work together at loving your neighbors who are in this room today, Remember, this business of being the body, of being dependent on one another to move forward at God’s command, isn’t easy. The Corinthians provide a good case study.
In the midst of describing how each part of the body has its own work that it was made to do, Paul says this:
When one part suffers, the whole body suffers.
Yes- we rejoice when other rejoice, but when one part is hurting, we all hurt.
When one part is made to feel ashamed of the work it is doing…
Or when some parts are held up as most important, leaving others to doubt their contribution…
Or when one part is left to figure out everything on its own…
The whole body suffers.
Paul was painting a portrait of the Corinthians. And a painter has two choices- an airbrushed, flawless depiction or an accurate portrait – warts and all. Paul was never one to pull punches, and he wanted the Corinthians to see the truth about their body.
Rather than allowing the gifts from the Spirit to build up the body, they were tearing one another down. The wounds Paul showed them were self-inflicted. I have heard it said – and i have seen the truth of it- that church wounds are the worst wounds, because we expect better from the Body of Christ.
As a Body called to the ministry of reconciliation, we must work to remain in right relationships with one another. So when one part suffers, it is incumbent upon us to bring together the gifts we are given by the Spirit to build up the body, to end the suffering.
We do this by listening, apologizing, changing, growing, healing, and restoring.
By depending on one another
By nourishing the Body with Living Water and the Bread of Life and
By depending on God.
It is only in this dependent state, when we allow ourselves to be loved by the One whose faithfulness endures through all generations, influenced and led by the ministry of Christ, and subject to the transforming power of the Spirit… Only then can we go forward together as one Body. A healthy, strong body, that is ready to bear witness to the God on whom we depend.
We must depend on God, because God is depending on us. God has a plan, you know. It’s just hard to see it, even here in The City Beautiful.
The crime report that makes up the bulk of our local newscasts every night…
The thousands of men and women who sleep outside every night…
The children who are kicked out or run away from abusive homes…
Are those God’s plan? No
The elderly who choose between food, electricity and the prescriptions they need.
Is that God’s plan? No
The dogs left to starve in the streets or in apartments that have been abandoned…
The lakes and rivers drying up so that lawns can be green and lush…
Are those God’s plan? No
The laws and ordinances that make poverty shameful at best, criminal at worst…
Is that God’s plan? No
My friends, WE are God’s plan.
We are the ones who bear the light of Christ out into the darkness that obscures the Kingdom of God here on Earth. Because we are Christ’s embodiment in this age.
We have ears to hurtful slurs aimed at God’s children
We have eyes to see the people being pushed to the edges and out of mind.
We have the hands that can soothe, lift up, and share the burden.
We have feet that should march and minds that must dream.
We have mouths that must no longer be silent, but cry out against injustice.
And our hearts must beat as one with God’s love and compassion for the world.
Independence Day may linger as flags slowly come down and the last of the fireworks explode in our neighborhoods.
May we who live in this Independent State become ever more dependent on God and on one another, living as fervently as we pray that God’s Kingdom come and God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Now that would be worth some serious fireworks!