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A Good Crisis

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

January 27, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:12-31

A Reading from Paul’s First Letter 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. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But 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. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

One of the dangers in preaching from Paul’s New Testament writings, including this letter to the Corinthian church, is that more often than not whatever snippet you’ve picked to read during Sunday worship can sound an awful lot like reading from a textbook, or from an encyclopedia entry. It can sound a little dry.
By contrast last week we heard John’s account of the Wedding at Cana, which basically overflows with characters and intrigue and comedy. There’s a whole plot arc. There’s legitimate suspense. And I feel like I need to acknowledge that we’ve gone from “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk,” to “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor…” and you may already be asleep before the thought is over. But before you drift off, let me try to convince you that the two are not quite as far removed as they sound. Because there’s a story here in this letter. We just have to find it.

Actually there’s a story in each of Paul’s letters. That’s part of the fun. Because the first thing we forget and so the first thing we have to remember about Paul’s letters to these early churches is that they are real letters. They’re written to real people for real reasons. It is probably not the case that Paul woke up in the middle of the night with this image of the body of Christ in his head and so decided he’d better write it down and maybe his friends in Corinth wanted to hear it. It is much more likely the case that his friends in Corinth — a church he had founded, a church for whom he was the original pastor and the original apostle, a church he has since left and from which he has gone on to other things — it is much more likely the case that his friends in Corinth have written to him in crisis. There’s some stuff going on in that Corinthian church. They’ve got some issues. A few gentle disagreements. A few real screamers. And so in all likelihood somewhere lost in the mist of history is the letter sent from Corinth to Paul that starts, “Dear Paul, we have a few follow-up questions.”

Which means that anything we could read from 1 Corinthians would have a story behind it. We just have to find it. This morning we read the famous section on the church as the body of Christ, each connected — and certainly by this point in the letter, Paul has mentioned enough about the various arguments happening in Corinth that it’s easy enough to see the relevance of a metaphor in which Paul tries to remind them of the bonds to one another. But more than that, the section this morning follows immediately from what we also read in church last week, the section which begins “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters.” It seems that one symptom of the crisis in Corinth is precisely around spiritual gifts. It seems like some folks in the church might be claiming to speak for the spirit, or claiming to speak in tongues, or performing some other feats of wonder during worship, which of course prompts a question because it prompts a crisis. “Why does Apollos get to speak in tongues when I don’t? Why does God think his ministry is more important than mine?” Pretty soon the worship committee is overcome by resentment and petty bickering. Dear Paul, we have a few follow-up questions. Talk to us about spiritual gifts.

And so he does. We heard that text already, he does, he says it pretty straight: there’s one spirit, and many gifts, and by consequence none of those gifts make those people any better than anybody else because it’s the one spirit who gives them. Don’t feel jealous. You don’t need to split off from one another, you don’t need to split into a 9:00 service and an 11:00 service, you’re fine, the spirit moves in all sorts of ways. But then a remarkable thing happens. It’s not a remarkable thing if we’re reading an encyclopedia entry, but it’s a remarkable thing for a letter. What happens is that Paul seizes the opportunity of this crisis to make a broader theological point. He doesn’t have to. Nobody’s asking him to do it. He could simply say: “Look, the spirit works the same through each of you, don’t sweat it,” and go on to the next thing. But Paul won’t settle for the practical answer. He wants to swing for the fences.

“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. …” and then we are off to the races. And you know how this metaphor goes. But what is most striking to me about this turn is not any specific wording of the text or any mysterious valence in the phrasing or any new excavation of the Greek. What is most mysterious to me about this text for this Sunday morning is that it exists at all, when it surely doesn’t really have to. Nobody in Corinth has asked for a long metaphor about the body of Christ. Nobody has asked for a theological essay. Nobody has asked for a work of systematics. In fact, I imagine the folks sitting there in Corinth listening to this letter at its first oral delivery and thinking, “Oh my gosh, is he still talking about the body of Christ? We have real problems here; can you please just answer the godforsaken questions we asked in the first place? We are in crisis!” But Paul is not about to let a good crisis go to waste. Not when it gives him the chance to proclaim the Gospel.

This impulse is what makes Paul a theologian, more than anything else. Of course, he’s a preacher and a pastor, a church-planter and an evangelist, a family systems therapist and public relations specialist and no slouch at fundraising either. But if Paul’s purpose had simply been to travel around and plant churches, he could probably have skated by with considerably thinner answers. And yet to do so would be to miss the opportunity to do beautiful theology in the service of the God who sent him there in the first place. It would be to miss the opportunity to see the whole field, to see the forest for the trees, to climb to the top of the flagpole and look out upon the totalizing claim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has over the human experience. This is what makes good theology so critical. Because good theology is an attempt to answer the questions we don’t know we’re supposed to be asking. Good theology is an attempt to answer the questions we don’t know enough to voice in the first place. The Corinthian church tries to ask about speaking in tongues, but what Paul knows is that underneath that question is the real one which is, “Who are we to one another and what do we owe one another and what do we owe one another by the grace of God?” and Paul knows the answer to that one straight off. “You are the body of Christ,” he says. Let’s start there.

Good theology is always relevant, because the questions never really change. By November of 1956, the Montgomery bus boycott had been underway for almost a year. It had been early December the year before when Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her spot at the front of a Montgomery bus had instigated the collective action that ultimately would declare the laws that underwrote such segregation unconstitutional. But on the first Sunday in November, 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in the pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, not knowing for anything the way that campaign would end. What he knew in that moment was just how many folks couldn’t get to work without the bus and just how many folks were scraping by month to month without the income from jobs they couldn’t do without the bus and just how insecure also was the bus line that could barely keep its own machinery together without the income that the movement had taken away, and at that moment it was all dollars and cents and heads and feet and mouths to feed and ears to hear, and it seems to me that the congregation in Montgomery that morning did not necessarily suppose themselves needing to hear a work of theology.

But they got one. “I would like to share with you an imaginary letter from the pen of the Apostle Paul,” King begins. “I, [Paul], an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to you who are in America, Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” And then, perfectly mimicking the way Paul’s letters tend to jump  around a bit, topic to topic, and then it comes to the meat. “Let me rush on to say something about the church. Americans, I must remind you, as I have said to so many others, that the church is the Body of Christ. So when the church is true to its nature, it knows neither division nor disunity. But I am disturbed about what you are doing to the Body of Christ. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ?” The crisis of the moment, King suggests, is not simply political. It is not simply a matter of transportation policy. Nor is it simply the acquired history of segregation passed down through the generations. The crisis, properly understood, is theological.

No wonder God called a theologian — one of America’s greatest theologians, in James Cone’s estimation of the great Dr. King, notwithstanding the fiery infamy of Jonathan Edwards or the long shadow cast by Reinhold Niebuhr. I think it is worth remembering, especially for those of us gathered this morning around the font and the table, that the person our country commemorates around this time every year was not simply an activist or a community organizer or a spokesperson or a martyr; King was, in every sense, a theologian, not content simply to say that segregation was wrong but rather to see that crisis for what it was, which was also an occasion to proclaim something more powerful about who God is here in this gathered-up body of Christ. I don’t say this to make him somehow more comfortable; if we’re not still pushed and challenged and called to account by King’s words, then I think we’re not paying attention. But I do want to remember the theologian that King was, because I think in this remembering we can begin to sense God calling us to the questions that matter, the ones we don’t always realize we need to ask like, “Who are we to one another and what do we owe to one another and what do we owe to one another, by the grace of God?”

Of course we are still very much in this crisis — not perhaps a crisis of transportation policy or legal segregation, but a crisis born of the legacy of racism that runs through our veins as surely as it ran through the veins of our ancestors. And so we are very much still at work. Next Sunday morning at UPC, the Social Witness committee invites you to the first of a month-long series of conversations about the black experience, especially here in Austin, here in a city that has been one of the most historically segregated cities in the country, and I know that your church leadership, myself included, are committed to this church participating in the long work of undoing that legacy. Likewise, because the shadow of racism falls so broadly, because as King famously said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, then it is in that same spirit that our Refugee Team has been so hard at work just to help one family overcome the barriers in their path, and then it is in that same spirit that our Parenting & Faith class is talking about the particular journeys of LGBTQ children and families, and it is in that same spirit that our Border Mission trip will head to Reynosa, and it is in that same spirit that UPLift and Micah 6 continue their ministry with the poor, because those who pay for the crisis always live on the margins, and because we s a church are committed to doing what we can — imperfectly, and slowly, and some days one step forward and two steps back, but we are committed to doing what we can to be who God needs us to be in this crisis in this present time.

Which means we will also do theology. When the crisis hits. As the storm blows. As America’s racist history continues to write new chapters, we will also do theology. As the newspapers read of tragedy, as the nightly news proclaims something about travesty, as the television talking heads scream about how we let any of this happen, we will also do theology. We will try watch the whole field. We will try to see the forest for the trees. We will try to summit the flagpole so that we can watch the whole story of creation. We will gather here and say something about God because in that something is the question we desperately need to ask, which of course is, “Who are we to one another and what do we owe to one another and what do we owe to one another by the grace of God?” And so, when the rhetoric of the day says that only the strong survive, we gather here and sing God of Great and God of Small. And when the rhetoric of the day says that we live in a time defined by borders and nations and tribes, we gather here and sing In Christ there is No East or West. And when the rhetoric of the day says that who we are, each and every one of us, that who we are is anything less than beloved children of God, then we will gather here and sing — We are the Body of Christ.

Thanks be to God.