Welcome back to church, Donald!
Apparently, Donald Trump ventured into a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for worship on Sunday and heard The Rev. Dr. Pam Saturnia preach on the lectionary passage for the day, 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a. He couldn’t have picked a better day to attend in times such as these.
The passage for this particular Sunday was all about difference and all about beloved community. It sounds like Pastor Saturnia used it as a chance to talk about welcoming immigrants—a providential choice no doubt given the unexpected visitor to her congregation.
Apparently Mr. Trump was especially taken with Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians about humility. “I heard that. I wonder if it was for me. They didn’t even know I was coming so I doubt it. But it was an appropriate phrase… Humility…I have more humility than people think,” Trump remarked to reporters after the service.
Note to Donald, we always talk about this stuff in church—humility, hospitality to the stranger, community. It wasn’t a special rollout for your visit. But the great thing about church is that God’s word often seems like it was meant just for us at just the right time.
I am little worried when people boast of how humble they are. I think that’s kinda like being a walking, talking oxymoron, but that’s beside the point. The important thing is Donald came to church. As long as he’s going to use his Presbyterian membership to prove his Christian chops to court the Evangelical vote, he may as well throw a few visits to an actual church in there.
If Donald had come to Bethany Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, IN on Sunday he would have heard the same scripture read. And he actually would have heard his name mentioned in the sermon I preached. I don’t type out my sermons word for word anymore, but the gist of it is below.
Welcome back to church, again, Donald. I hope you keep coming. Humility is just the beginning of what you will hear about….
SERMON “EVERY BODY”
SCRIPTURE: 1 CORINTHIANS 12: 12-31a; LUKE 4:14-21
BETHANY PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, LAFAYETTE, IN
January 24, 2016
The Rev. Dr. Marcia Mount Shoop
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, thou many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Cor. 12: 12)
Sounds like a pretty straightforward metaphor for the church—nothing difficult about this image, right? All the different parts working together to make the whole is easy to comprehend. What’s there to talk about?
We can sum it up some bullet point theology and get home early today!
- Unity in diversity
- Honor the weak, they are important
- Eyes don’t have it on their own
- God made it this way, live with it
- All hands on deck
- Don’t get too big for your britches!
I’ve never met a Bible passage that lets us off easy.
Sometimes the ones that seem the most obvious, challenge us to the most profoundly when we really pay attention.
So, let’s take a closer look.
First, let’s attend to the historical context a bit. The city of Corinth is a place that had a particular character. Paul spent 18 months preaching in Corinth. It was a harbor town—an important hub and crossroads of commerce in the ancient world. It thrived because it had a diverse economy: bronze, textiles, architecture, ceramics, ship building. It was a wealthy city. There is some evidence that Corinth came to symbolize things like excess and fornication—even though it probably wasn’t different than other cities of its time.
It’s important also to attend a bit to the historical Context for 1 Corinthians itself. In case there is any confusion, the proper way to reference this letter to the church in Corinth is “First” Corinthians, not “One” Corinthians. Just wanted to make sure we were all clear on that!
Paul wrote the letter from Ephesus. Paul wrote the letter during the springtime. And that’s about all we know about where and when. But we do know more about why. Paul had gotten word that since he left, the church had become divided over all sorts of things and they had splintered into groups. The issues that divided them ranged from sexual morality, marriage, proper behavior in worship, and the consumption of idol meat and hairstyles.
Aside from the idol meat and hairstyle thing, Paul could have been writing to the Presbyterian Church USA with that list of splinter groups. And the hairstyles controversy does actually apply to the denominational splintering that came about in the US in the 19th and 20th centuries when Pentecostalism came into its own. Some expressions of Pentecostalism actually use the book of 1 Corinthians to mandate that women do not cut their hair—so ironically, Paul’s condemnation of schism over things like hairstyles, actually spawned schism in the not so distant past in the U.S.
Another not so clearly described controversy for Corinth was about leadership—people had allegiance to certain leaders and those leaders had different interpretations of Jesus’ teaching. There were rivalries between house churches. And there were some people who had problems with Paul because of the claims he made about his authority.
The competition, the in-fighting, the pointing fingers, the taking your toys and starting a new church that have characterized Christianity in the American context, were there at our faith’s earliest beginnings—because diversity was there at Christianity’s earliest beginnings.
And that social historical context is what makes Paul’s passage not as much easy to follow as it is a BOLD call for Jesus followers to understand, not what they needed to become, but who they already were—the Body of Christ! And Paul wanted to them act accordingly.
And what’s so complicated and powerful about the metaphor Paul uses here is that he is making a fine distinction between two things that we can easily get confused:
- Difference and
Paul is making it clear that he does NOT have a problem with DIFFERENCE.
He DOES have a problem with DIVISION.
Now here’s where this passage gets really interesting. Here’s where we really need to be careful and play close attention:
- Paul’s goal in using this extended metaphor of the body to a splintered church was to implore them to put an end to DIVISION.
- He’s calling for unity. He’s calling for those who think they are superior to be humbled. He’s calling for those who think they are inferior to be lifted up, to be honored.
- For Paul, differences should not lead to division; they should not lead to a pecking order or to inferiority.
- Paul is talking about INTERDEPENDENCE.
Sounds like something with which we can all agree, right?
Just for a minute try putting yourself in the shoes of those receiving the message Paul sends in this letter—they’ve heard this body image used before. It was a common image in the Greco-Roman world. And it was most often used to justify something that may sound very different to our ears than what we hear Paul saying.
This metaphor was most often used by the powerful to keep subservient people in their place, to maintain the social order, the status quo.
The Corinthian church was flourishing by many measures, but it had some internal dissension—some people were more cutting edge, more innovative, and others were more conservative, more traditional. Sound familiar? Also, Corinth was a city that had lots of travelers coming in and out—and so there were diverse responses to Paul’s teaching. And Paul didn’t like some of those responses. So to the ears of some in Corinth, Paul’s directive to stop creating divisions, could have sounded like, “Don’t listen to other people, listen to me.”
There is something very different about division being squelched by the powerful and division being condemned by the oppressed.
Calls to unity, calls to come together, depending on who is talking, can also be about calls to conform. Those can be calls to silence the voices of those who are on the losing end of things.
Some of the most disheartening things I’ve seen in a long time are the reactions many people have had to the campus protests against racism and the #blacklivesmatter movement. This movement is about speaking out about what it’s like to be a person of color in this country. They want the majority in our society, the powerful, the people with privilege, the people who are unconscious about how race and disadvantage work to see the marks of systemic racism and white supremacy more clearly.
And the reaction they’ve gotten from too many people is to get called things like “whiners,” “entitled,” “fragile,” or even more the more distorted label of “reverse racists.”
Even the #alllivesmatter response is a dismissal of what people of color are trying to say to society—it’s not that all lives don’t matter to them, it’s that they want all of us to see how the lives of people of color have had less value in this society. All lives haven’t mattered the same, and so we need to honor (if we use some of Paul’s language) those lives even more right now. Those less honorable we clothe with more honor…those who have received less respect need to receive greater respect. (12:23)
Dissension in the case of the #blacklivesmatter movement is a necessary process for society to become more just. So, we must take care with this image of Paul’s, we must pay attention to it, we must live with the complexity and contextuality of beloved community. We must not fall into the trap of bumper sticker theology or one size fits all morality.
You see calls to unity carry different meaning when they come from the mouth of #blacklivesmatter activists than when they come from university presidents who just want things to stay the way they are.
Speaking hard truths is a categorically different thing with it comes Martin Luther King, Jr. calling America to its best ideals, than when it comes from Donald Trump or the White Supremists, who are making robo calls for him, to “make America great again.”
And the complicated thing, the chilling thing is that Paul’s words can be easily employed by both—for very different purposes. The prophetic voice is powerful. The prophetic voice is dangerous. How do we know who to listen to?
One is asking for a revolution, the other is asking for the status quo.
How do we at Bethany Presbyterian Church, hear and receive Paul’s words today, in our moment in time, in our context? In a world where protests call us to pay attention to things that we’d rather not: poison drinking water, environmental destruction, mass incarceration, hungry children, wealth concentration, systemic racism.
In a world where those who say they are speaking the truth couldn’t be on more opposite extremes, how do we hear and receive, how do we reject the voices that seek to create fear, the voices that deceive?
Are Paul’s words a call to silence dissent or to dismantle the powers that be?
We might want to think we could all answer that easily in this community—but my guess is it’s a little more complicated than we’d like to think it is.
Just look at all the different ways people interpret what it means to follow Jesus just in Lafayette, in Indiana, and in our country—not to mention all over the world.
What does Paul’s metaphor call us toward as the Body of Christ?
The way we answer this question together is, perhaps, the most important thing we can do as Christian community today.
And there is ONE person who can help us answer that question—one person who we can depend on to take our hand and show us the way through this morass, through this time of hard truths, this time of false prophets, this time of so much fear mongering and so many healing opportunities.
Just listen to the words again from the Gospel of Luke 4:
“Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written:
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.”
“And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.”
When the young Jesus sat down after reading this scripture, everyone was watching him. He said “Today, that scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And everyone was amazed.
That is exactly where our eyes should be fixed. All our eyes should be on Jesus.
Jesus the Christ is the one who give us the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the courage to cast off any willful blindness and moral lethargy that make us confused about what truths the Body of Christ needs to listen to in today’s broken and beautiful world.
Jesus was no holds barred, a man on a mission to embrace our God given differences, and to call us to see our God-given worth. Jesus was all about the interrogation of power, bringing down the mighty, and raising up those who needed a lift the most.
It’s his Body we are. We are the Body of Christ, we’re not aspiring to be that, we are the Body of Christ.
And his body was COMPASSIONATE, COURAGEOUS, HONEST, CONNECTING, REDEEMING, LOVING, SUFFERING, AND ALWAYS WILLING TO BE PRESENT IN THE MOST FRAUGHT SPACES WITH HEALING POWER.
Christianity loses its prophetic edge when it is used to protect the powerful.
Jesus followers lose our way, when we forget the kind of Body we ARE. We are a body with many different parts—and we need them every one. We are a body that honors the weak, raises up those who have been oppressed or shamed. We are a body that knows the necessity, the absolute necessity of our God-given differences.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (12:26)
Every Body is included in that promise—and some bodies have carried the weight of the world’s suffering more than others. Black and brown bodies, trans bodies, female bodies, LGBQ bodies, have carried the weight. And Every Body deserves to have the weight of life’s challenges distributed more evenly among the collective Body we share.
This is not an easy teaching, brothers and sisters in Christ, but it is who we are.
“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.”
Yes, so it is with Christ.
Thanks be to God.