The following is our theme verse for the year:
I Corinthians 12: 12: The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
With the city of Port au Prince, Haiti, reduced to rubble by last month’s earthquake, many experts in various aid and relief agencies feared that the city would descend into some sort of Mad Max, everyone-for-themselves chaos and competition. In some times and places that was indeed the case. It wasn’t long before TV news programs did indeed feature mobs of young men with machetes and guns running about the streets, extorting what little they could from survivors and relief agencies.
But dig a little deeper into the newspaper and the internet and you also find amazing and inspiring stories of cooperation, mutual aid, sharing and sacrifice among even the most desperate of Haitian earthquake survivors. One of which involves a pizza restaurant in Port-Au Prince, called (and I’m not making this up) Munchees. Before the earthquake, most residents of Port-au-Prince would never have eaten a Munchees pizza. Munchees was too expensive for most of them.
But after the earthquake, the management of Munchees realized that, without electricity and only so much fuel for their backup generators, all their pizza ingredients would only rot. So they used their remaining food and fuel to start feeding free pizzas to survivors on the streets until it was all gone. Realizing they had a good thing going, people organized themselves and cooperated to keep scrounging up whatever gasoline they could to keep the generators going, and whatever food they could find to keep the pizzas coming. Unless the electricity is back on, Munchees may still be giving out free food, even as I speak, as long as others keep coming up with fuel and odds and ends like canned food, still intact, from the rubble.
And that’s not the only amazing, surprising type of cooperation we see going on in Haiti. There have also been inspiring examples of cooperation among many of the relief and aid agencies coming into the country. Perhaps the most surprising is that which has developed between U.S. Army medics and Cuban doctors, sharing supplies, space and expertise.
There we see one of the active principles of the world, a force for drawing things and people together in cooperation, interdependence and union. We see it in the way we have gathered this morning; you see it when people greet each other with hugs or handshakes. Even when taking leave of each other, people will hug as if to say, “Even when we’re apart, we’re together.” The basic steps of a two-partner dance, or a two-line contra dance, are together—apart—together–apart. But even the apart steps are done together. We each come into the world through the forceful desire of union. And even though birthing is spoken of as a parting from the womb, as in “post-partum,” it is yet true that, as the Malian proverb says, “other people’s hands carry us into this world, and other people’s hands will carry us out.”
This unifying force at work in our world, like at our conception or birth, or lining up outside the ruins of Munchee’s pizza, is more than a force. It has walked our world as a person: Jesus of Nazareth. He is present with us still through His Holy Spirit. We experience this person as love, and He expresses himself through us as love.
But Oh, how often we miss the workings of love, because we are more adept at seeing the other force and reality of life, the force that separates, divides, distinguishes and differentiates. Analyze the Greek name for Satan, the Evil One, and it translates as “dia-Bolos,” “Dia” for “Through” as in “through the window,” and “Bolos” for “throw,” as in “throw it out the window.” The devil is the “through– thrower,” like someone with an irresistible compulsion to throw rocks through windows, to break and to separate what should stay whole and together.
But the act of distinction and separation is not all bad. Though tigers and donkeys both have four legs and two ears, smart farmers have long known better than to hook one of them to a plow or a cart. The art of dissecting and analyzing everything down to its littlest parts have given us great powers in science, engineering and medicine. For nearly anything that ails us, we can find a specialist who can help us fix our livers, our gall bladders or any one of our glands. But its also getting harder to find the generalists who can tell us how we are doing, in total, in our bodies, our relationships or our communities. Our skills of dissection and distinction are so advanced, we don’t value or reward generalists the way we do specialists. And that tendency to separate and isolate things can also make us very lonely and fearful.
By contrast, many people in many different cultures start their thinking in terms of We, Us, and everything all together, before they start looking at separate, single things. The Dakota Indian word for harmony translates as “All my relations.” The Jula word that Becky and I learned in West Africa for bees translates to “honey children” in English. The word, “children” tells us how bees relate to each other. The other word “honey,” tells us what it is they work together to make, and one thing they contribute to us. Its a way of defining things in relationship to the wider whole, rather than in distinction and isolation. The cooperation we see then in the rubble of Port-Au-Prince, outside the ruins of Munchee’s Pizza should not surprise us. It wasn’t all Mad Max, law of the jungle, and everyone for himself before the earthquake hit, so it should not surprise us that it wouldn’t be afterward.
That’s where Paul is trying to move his Corinthian disciples in today’s Bible passage: toward a vision for the whole, rather than just the parts in isolation. If Paul were a doctor, he would be a generalist making a diagnosis of the state of the whole local body of Christ, and giving a prescription for the health of the whole, not just its separate parts. Or if he were a scientist, he’d be an ecologist, one who studies the connections and harmonies between different living things, rather than a scientist who only specializes in, let’s say, the hairs on bees’ knees.
From the drama you heard, you hopefully get an idea of what was going on, and going wrong, in the Corinthian house churches, that caused someone there to write Paul—probably the house church leader Chloe—and which caused Paul to write back. In the months to come, in the proposed annual theme and Bible focus of I Corinthians 12: 13, “By One Spirit Into One Body,” we’ll learn about some of the people and the factions in the fractious church of ancient Corinth. Some church growth specialists might look at the situation there and ask, “What did you expect, besides conflict and competition?”
One strength of the Corinthian church was also its weakness. There was no one church of Corinth. There were house churches. Perhaps a dozen or more. That was good for intimate and interdependent connections among the members of each small and localized house church. But it could also lend to segregation, between rich and poor house churches, or Jewish or Gentile ones. They could be self-selecting for ethnicity, language or class. Then there was the issue of slavery. How can they live in union and harmony when society is always treating them as separate and unequal?
On top of that, Corinth was a wealthy, cosmopolitan, commercially prosperous and important port city in Greece, and yet also a roman colony. All the more likelihood of the kind of education and world view that looks for differences and distinctions among people, and which constantly analyzes and categorizes things by what they are not, down to the littlest detail. We who have analyzed and split everything down to the level of the atom are true sons and daughters of Greece and Rome in that respect.
By the time we get to the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians, Paul has built up his case for seeing the whole of the church, the underlying unity that holds everything together to its supreme expression when he says: “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” So, beneath all their differences and distinctions, at least three things hold these quibbling, quarrelsome churches and Christians together: The Holy Spirit, their baptism, and their identity as the Body of Christ. Take a time out, Paul says in effect, from obsessing over your differences and distinctions and look instead to the factors that unite you, that you share in common, again: your baptism, God’s Spirit within you and among you, and your common identity as the body of Christ. Now that you have specialized in splitting the fine hairs of distinctions and definitions among you, now become ecologists of the body of Christ, seeing how the component parts you have so carefully identified work together for the sake of the bigger whole, that you have missed.
Learning to see the whole, rather than just the parts, will involve something like getting used to a new pair of glasses. Before your eyes get used to the new lenses, you may have to go through a brief period of dizziness and disorientation, trusting that the eye doctor got the prescription right, before it becomes evident that she did. Once you get to that point, you can put on your old glasses, only to find out how much they missed. That new vision is even like an x-ray vision that looks at the separate peaks of a mountain range, and sees the connecting bedrock beneath them.
Underneath the differences of culture, outlook, opinion and spiritual gifts among the members of any church—and not just the corinthian house churches—are again the Holy Spirit, our baptism, and our common identity as the body of Christ. Let’s look first at how baptism united them, and us: For one thing, it started out as a Jewish ritual, the last rite of purification for converts, from one’s gentile past before being Jewish. By the time we get to First Century Corinth, its something common to both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians understood that being baptized in public was like burning one’s bridges to their past, to start a new life together. In the act of baptism, both Jewish and Gentile believers made the same profession of faith–”Jesus is Lord”– and the same baptismal vows. So, wherever they came from, they all made, by baptism, a vow to move in the same direction from then on, and together.
That was only possible because of the work of the Holy Spirit, by whom it was ever even possible to truly confess with saving faith, “Jesus is Lord.” And though the Corinthian Christians would display varying spiritual gifts, even those were given by one and the same Holy Spirit, to serve the common good and the unity of the church.
Now when we talk about unity among a group of people, don’t we usually think of unity as simply meaning that we’ll submerge our differences so that we can submit to a common purpose and achieve it together? And usually just for as long as it takes to achieve that common purpose? All those separate, specialized analysts from different fields of science coming together made it possible for humans to walk on the moon, for example. So when we speak of unity we’re often still starting from an assumption of difference, distance and separation, that must somehow come together.
But that’s not how bodies work. Fingers, toes, livers and brains don’t search each other out and say, “Hey, let’s make a body together.” Our bodies start as one zygote, a fertilized egg, and then begin presenting different parts, like fingers, toes and a brain. In that sense is the human body a unity, or even, a unit: one thing with multiple expressions. Paul says, “And so it is with Christ.” Christ is the starting point, and he finds multiple expressions through the members he adds to his body, the worldwide church. We, the many members with different cultures, outlooks, gifts and ministries, are different expressions of the One Christ, through His One Holy Spirit.
That’s the way in which Paul uses the word, “one.” As in “one body, one Spirit, one baptism.” Where the Corinthian Christians see mostly differences and distinctions, Paul also sees One and the same Spirit at work in different persons and different expressions, inasmuch as they belong, by baptism, to Christ’s body. Paul’s vision for one-ness sees not just how we are different, but for how we are similar, even, for how we are the same; for how we connect and overlap, not only for how individual persons relate to each other, but for what thing from one person is in another, and vice versa. Not only for where we touch, but for where we overlap. Such vision would see the sum of all those contributions, the one big total result of the one same Spirit working through different people with different gifts.
In our time and culture, we tend to be like the fractious Corinthian Christians, in that our strengths and talents for distinction and analysis are so strong that they may be a weakness. We run the risk of having 20-100 vision, having strength in the eye that sees separate parts, while being nearly blind in the eye that sees the whole. We need 20-20 vision for both eyes. Paul had a radical change of vision when he met Jesus, first being blinded, then by having scales fall from his eyes. In the Bible teaching focus that I propose for this year, from I Corinthians, we will follow the Apostle Paul as he peels away the scales from the Corinthians’ eyes so they can see the whole, the realities and possibilities of unity and connection. Down will come the scales of pride, prejudice and power which reinforce our illusions of being separate, isolated and all-sufficient selves. Because that alone is the way of loneliness, fear and bondage to sin. When both eyes are working well, we can follow God and be all that he made us to be, individually and together.