The Many Different Ways of Being One
Rev. Mike Woods
January 27, 2013
3rd Sunday of Epiphany
1 Corinthians 12: 12-31
One of the things a lot of preachers dread is when the lectionary readings for Sunday turn to the Book of Nehemiah. There is probably not a book in either the Old or New Testament with more difficult names for the English tongue to pronounce!
But the scene that this morning’s scripture sets for us is awesome and inspiring, to say the least. The people have returned from exile in Babylon after being granted their freedom by the Persians … Jerusalem has been rebuilt … a new temple has been built upon the ruins of the old one… and the priest, Ezra, has called all of the people together for a day of worship and rededication to the covenant that was established with Moses and the Israelites nine hundred years earlier. Much of the ceremony consists of Ezra reading from all five Books of the Law – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy … it probably took over six hours for him to get through the entire worship service.
Don’t worry, my sermon today be considerably shorter. I wouldn’t do that to you. Besides, I don’t think I have the energy for that, anyway. Now, most of us in the US would probably cringe at the idea of a worship service lasting more than an hour or for as long as two hours. But I understand that in other places in the Christian world, that wouldn’t be unusual, at all. In the Presbyterian churches in South Africa, for example, Sunday worship is an all day affair. There’s a lot of singing, a lot of praying, a lot of dancing and hand clapping … more than one minister may get up to preach. World Christianity is a diverse congregation that encompasses many different cultures, many different languages and traditions and styles. There is no one size fits all when it comes to the church of Jesus Christ.
But besides the probable length of the service, one of the things I notice about this passage is where the people gather for the ceremony: at the gate of the city of Jerusalem called the Water Gate. This was a special place because the square in front of the gate was a place that was not off limits to anyone: rich or poor, male or female, young or old, Jew or gentile – you could be there. Even lepers and other people considered ritually unclean were allowed to be present in the square in front of the Water Gate. And the scripture lets us know that, indeed, all kinds of different people were there. The previous chapter gives us a list of all of them … all 42,360 of them (7:66). Among them are some people of uncertain ancestry – people who claim to be Jewish but can’t produce the proper documentation to prove they are who they say they are – and they are allowed, at least, some limited participation (7:61-65). All who have gathered are united as one people and told they should act as one people … and this includes sharing the food and drink they had brought to feed themselves at the ceremony with those who brought nothing with them, because that is how a united people behave – they look after and take care of one another, they don’t leave one another to suffer.
The inclusivity we see in this passage is remarkable, I think. The Book of Nehemiah is not a book of the Bible known for its inclusivity. It’s a book that causes a lot of modern day readers to cringe whenever they come across it, and gives us pastors another reason to dread having to preach from it, in addition to it lists of difficult names. It’s a book that has been described as xenophobic and racist – it forbids interracial marriage, certain ethnic groups are prohibited from entering Jerusalem at certain hours, and laws requiring the segregation of all non-Jews are enacted. And all throughout, the governor Nehemiah claims to be doing God’s work.
So the little bit of inclusivity we see in this short passage where Ezra leads the people together in worship, as slight as it may be and as grudgingly as it may be given, stands out! Social outcasts are present … the undocumented are permitted a limited form of amnesty … men, women and children barely old enough to understand what is being said are allowed to take part.
It’s worth noting that most of the Old Testament, as a whole, gives a little different message about foreigners – in particular, the books of Jonah and Ruth depict Gentiles in a much more favorable light. Even the Torah, the five books that Ezra reads from at the Water Gate, contains the commandment: You shall also love the stranger who lives among you, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut. 10:10). This commandment is repeated several times throughout the Torah. What the Old Testament reveals to us is a community of faith struggling with the divine call to inclusivity. Who do we let in? Who do we fellowship with? Who is our neighbor, as Jesus will ask four hundred years later? The people of God don’t always get the answers to those questions correct, but, as Martin Luther King once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Paul is dealing with another community of faith also struggling with its own call to inclusiveness, but I think he’s facing a little different problem. The church at Corinth seems to already be a very diverse church. The city of Corinth in Paul’s time can be described as a major commercial metropolitan city. People from all over the Roman Empire came to do business there … people of all nationalities, cultures and languages. It was a very diverse city and the make up of the church that Paul helped to plant reflected this.
But it’s also a church that was so diverse it had lost any sense of unity. From reading his letters to the church we can get an idea of what some of these divisions were. There seems to be some division along class lines: the rich are bringing food for themselves and not sharing any with the poor workers who arrive late to the gatherings after work, and Paul has to remind them, like Ezra does in the Old Testament passage, that this is not how a people united are to behave or treat one another. And while the congregation seems to experience some tension over issues of race, culture, and nationality, which is what we might expect in so multicultural a society, the greatest division among the people seems to be something that most of us would not have expected – it has to do with Spiritual Gifts.
We talked about some of those last week, and you may recall Paul told them there were many different gifts – prophecy, healing, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, and out of these, three that will last forever: Faith, hope, and love – the greatest of which is love. But, although there are many different spiritual gifts, there is only one Spirit from which they all come.
Today, Paul wants to take this argument to its logical conclusion: just as there are many different gifts, but one Spirit that grants them, so there are many different members of a church – unique individuals, distinct personalities, separate perspectives on the world live in – but there is one church body, the body of Christ. For in the one Spirit, Paul says, we were all baptized into one body – Jews, Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. “One Bread, One Body, One Lord of All,” as a hymn frequently sung during communion in many churches says.
I mentioned the Presbyterian Church in South Africa, a little earlier. Its actual name is the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa. It has a very interesting history … it wasn’t always united or even tried to be united. When Presbyterian missionaries first arrived in South Africa in 1897, they – like Nehemiah and the church in Corinth – struggled with the divine call to inclusiveness. Separate denominations were founded: one for white settlers, another for Blacks. They worshipped separately, they took communion separately – they lived in a body of Christ that was divided against itself, where the hand and the foot said to one another, “I have no need of you.” This is how things were in the entire nation of South Africa under the system of government that came to be known as apartheid. But even after the fall of apartheid, it was not until 1999 (just a little over twelve years ago) that the two denominations, divided along racial lines, would begin the work of reconciliation and become as one, sisters and brothers in Christ. They decided to call themselves the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa because they recognize that the work of achieving unity in the midst of their diversity is always work in progress … it’s not something you can do overnight by voting on a resolution or issuing a proclamation. And although they may still have a long way to go – for the most part it’s still separate churches for whites and Blacks, much as it is in the US – whites and Blacks share leadership in the denomination, they share resources, they are in the process of becoming one.
One of the ways our own denomination has sought to give support to our brothers and sisters there is through sister-church fellowships which allow us to get to know our brothers and sisters there and to support them in their ministry. The church my wife and I were members of in Pensacola formed a sister church relationship with a small church in the township of Gugulethu. Another way we are seeking to enter into solidarity with their struggle to respond to the divine call is by considering adoption of the Belhar Confession into our Book of Confessions. Although this confession was written by another denomination, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa, it speaks directly to the issues of apartheid and inclusivity. In part it states:
that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ …
that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered…
that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God;
It’s a messy kind of Spirituality, Paul invites the church in Corinth (and us, too, for that matter) to take part in. He doesn’t want us to become so unified that we become uniform. We don’t have to give up the things that make us different from one another – culture, race, our own unique if somewhat eccentric perspective on the world. God gave us those things for a reason, they all have a place somewhere in the body of Christ. And if anyone is excluded, we are all the lesser for it.
I would go so far as to say the same is true for our nation, as well. We live in one of the most diverse countries of the entire world, and it grows more diverse everyday. I think more of us are starting to learn to appreciate that and welcome it as the gift from God it’s meant to be. In his inaugural day poem, One Today, the poet Richard Blanco offers us a vision of the future God is calling us to. I read his ending verse to you in closing: (The text of Blanco’s poem can be found at: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/today-richard-blanco-poem-read-barack-obama-inauguration/story?id=18274653)