Sunday, January 24, 2016

“As it is, there are many members,
yet one body.”
(1 Cor. 12:20)
Year C: Third Sunday after Epiphany                                                         Jan Robitscher
Nehemiah 8:1-6                                                                                  St. Mark’s Church
Psalm 19                                                                                                    Berkeley, CA
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a                                                                        January 24, 2016
Psalm 133, verse 1
Hineh mah tov, Umah nayim,
  Shevet achim Gam yachad.

Behold how good and pleasant it is
when brethren (kindred, all people)
dwell together in unity.

With these words from Psalm 131, Leonard Bernstein concludes his choral work, Chichester Psalms. The end of this movement is a quiet--almost inaudible--prayer for peace. Is it a wish or a pipedrean? On a global scale, maybe, but on Friday night, the choirs of St Mark’s and Temple Sinai came together at the Temple to sing this work for their Shabbat service, a work that is both startling and moving. Like Ezra reading the Law to the gathered people, we gathered, participated,  listened, sang, praised God and pondered the sense of what we were hearing and praying through music. This afternoon we will sing it again, this time here and in the context of a special Evensong. Again the choirs will come together to sing as one, ending with the quiet but urgent plea for peace. It is an expression of people “dwelling together in unity.”  I hope you will come.

All of today’s readings have to do with community. Fast forward from Ezra to St. Paul. Here is the most familiar analogy of community: The body of Christ. For Paul, the community gathered for worship is one of many members, but guided by the same Spirit. But what is most remarkable is that, for Paul,  its very unity is found in diversity: one body, many members.  No one has all the gifts. Each gift is necessrary to the others. One part cannot say to another, “I have no need of you”. Nor can one part say, 

“Because I am not like you, because I do not have your gifts, I do not belong to this body”.  Here Paul is speaking not of the church as institution (as it would become only a few centuries later) but as something quite literally organic, like a heart.1  The Christian community moves in procession to a heartbeat rhythm. 

Or does it? It is so easy for the Christian community, whether parish or province or denomination to become fractured and filled with what Paul calls in another place, “party spirit”, as opposed to unity in the Holy Spirit. Parts of the Anglican Communion have tried to say to the Episcopal Church, “I have no need of you and your liberal Church”. And we in the Episcopal Church might say to them, “I have no need of you and your conservative theology.” But such divisions do not only happen in the Church on a global level. At the risk of going “from preachin’ to medlin’”, in our own parish, the Altar Guild might be tempted to say to those serving at the Altar, ‘I have no need of you’ or the choir say to the congregation, ‘I have no need of you’, or anyone say, “Because I am not on this or that committee or in any other ministry, or I do not have all the gifts, I do not belong to this community”.  This is not Communion at all, but division.

But what does Paul mean by “unity”? In other letters, he describes it as being “of one mind” or “having the mind of Christ”. By this, he does not mean that everyone thinks alike, or agrees about everything, or that the community must be perfect. Of course not! Rather, all come together for the common good--a phrase and concept that is almost lost in our argumentative and self-centered society and, sadly,  even in the church. But in this passage we are encouraged to look beyond the norms of society (and even of the church) in encouraging membership and discerning ministry. We identify ourselves easily as the Body of Christ, yet it is often very difficult for us to discern the gifts of the Spirit.2  St. Paul turns this prayerful act of discerning gifts in the community on its head:

God has so arranged the body, giving the 
greater honor to the inferior member, that
there may be no dissension within the body,
but the members may have the same care for
one another.”  (1 Cor. 12:24)

Another place we can look to find guidance about living in community is from St. Benedict and his Rule. Here, the monastery becomes the “school for the Lord’s service3  where he admonishes juniors, seniors and children--all living in the community--to treat each other with respect,4 to honor the opinions of old and young members alike and, most famously, to welcome all guests as Christ, himself.5 

Perhaps today’s Gospel lesson is less obvious in what it speaks about community. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Once again the community is gathered to hear God’s Word, ponder its meaning and respond in worship. Jesus opens the scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah and then, to the utter astonishment of his hearers says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic words. He came, anointed by the Spirit, to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind.... all these and more he did during his earthly ministry. But all of these works didn’t end with his death and resurrection! In the farewell discourses of the Gospel of John, Jesus says:
“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes 
in me will also do the works that I do and,
in fact, will do greater works than these...”
(John 14:12)

So Jesus is telling us that it is not enough to only live as a community unto ourselves. We must look outside these walls. Jesus came to seek and serve the marginalized, the captive, the lost and we must do the same.  Perhaps this is what Paul meant by his list of gifts and ministries: Apostles, prophets, teachers--those who lead and teach both inside and outside the community-- and the gifts of deeds of power, healing, forms of assistance, tongues and their interpretation--ministries of inreach and outreach.  

St Teresa of Avila said it another way with her poem which begins:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours....

No one has all the gifts! All are necessary for the life of the community!  All rejoice and suffer together. St. Paul is right when he concludes:
Now you--[that is, we--] are the body of Christ
and individually members of it. 

We are the ones who must continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and in the prayers, as we promise in the baptismal vows.  But how do we do this?

The passage from the 1st letter to the Corinthians ends just before chapter 13 begins--the great chapter on love often read at weddings (the formation of yet another kind of community). St. Paul is clear that we are not alone ever as we strive to live in Community. We are the Body of CHRIST. Jesus is with us, now and always, and gives himself to us especially in the sacrament of Communion we are about to receive so that we become more and more His Body. Community and Communion. It is Love--not only as an emotion  but as  willed act--that will bind us together, especially in this time of transition. It is love--God’s love of us and our responding love of God-- that makes us the Body of Christ. 

The community of which St. Paul speaks may be a wish or a pipedream, but still we strive to live it out in St. Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ. But we remember that it’s roots are deep in the Psalmist’s poetic voice. Hear again the ancient words from Psalm 131 with which I began: 

Psalm 133, verse 1

Behold how good and pleasant it is
when brethren (kindred, all people)
dwell together in unity. Amen

Hineh mah tov, Umah nayim,
  Shevet achim Gam yachad.

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