I Corinthians 12: 7Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. 12The 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.
There’s a message in this passage for anyone who has ever felt lonely and isolated. Today’s message is also for anyone who has ever felt like they could use a little bit more loneliness and isolation, a little breathing space from all the pressures of society, family, school or the workplace, to conform to something and someone other than our true selves. In fact, today’s message is for anyone who has ever felt both feelings. Because to be human is to need both space and closeness, to belong and to be oneself, to have to manage both kinds of needs, sometimes at the very same moment. Life is like a community solitaire team: being responsible for ourselves……together.
This delicate dance of belonging and being oneself starts out early, and unfolds as we age. Babies see themselves first in the eyes and faces of their parents. Their unique bodies, brains and souls develop as they mimic the movements, sounds and expressions of people interacting with them, and as people mimic them.
A wonderful book title captures the delicate dance of negotiating the shoals of dependence, independence and interdependence as we grow up. Its entitled: “Get Out of My Life, Mom and Dad!—But First Will You Take Me and Cheryl to the Mall?” Or as one person once put it, “I just need other people to appreciate me for the independent person I really am.”
Today, life in America probably errs on the side of isolation and individualism. The author Robert Putnam summed it up best in the title of his book, Bowling Alone. Yes, people can and really do bowl alone. It chronicles the near death of community forums and opportunities like Parent-Teacher Associations or community block watches. That may be hard to believe in civic-minded Minneapolis, but when Becky and I lived in the Detroit area, a couple living next door to us went to ridiculous lengths to avoid us, to never even acknowledge our existence, even though we had two drop-dead cute daughters whom no one else in their right mind could possibly not want to know and play with. In that relationship, or lack thereof, separation gave way to fear. Is this going to end up like some Alfred Hitchcock movie? Do we need an alarm system? Nothing happened, fortunately. But I hope they changed their ways before they discovered the bitter truth that Yogi Berra, the Baseball Hall of Fame catcher for the Yankees expressed so well, when he said, “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t come to yours.”
In keeping with this individualism and isolation, a quick glance through the movie ads of the newspaper, or at the latest new computer games advertised at the bus stops (“Red Dead Redemption?”) shows that the most compelling, best-selling heroic epic stories are those about courageous, principled, solitary, tragically misunderstood heroes at war with a corrupt and cowardly community. Anyone remember the Billy Jack movies? On the other extreme you get stories about villains so inhuman, so sociopathic, so antisocial, without any redeeming features, and so incurably at war with a virtuous, peaceful community, that blowing them away is the only possible relief and resolution. Neither of those extremes strike me as real to life. Lately, the plot lines are about the war between a crazy and corrupt community, and loners and oddballs who are equally as crazy and corrupt, on TV shows like Survivor or The Office.
All these story lines have in common the assumption that there can never be peace in this tragic but unavoidable war between the individual and his or her wider network of relationships. Almost totally lacking in either our language, or increasingly our experience, are relationships between the individual and the community that work to the benefit of both. Gone from many mental radars is even the possibility of a community that maximizes the health and growth of the individual members, and how individual members might grow and become their best by serving other people and relationships—a community. Is there any way to be ourselves and to be in relationship, to develop those talents, gifts and interests that just want to bust out of us, without having to burn our bridges, go it alone, and wind up lonely, isolated and bitter?
Yes. Paul draws our attention to an example of this kind of harmony between the parts and the whole that is literally right beneath our noses. It even includes our noses. Its the human body. In verse 12 of First Corinthians 12, he says: “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.” For example, the liver can best serve the brain, the heart and the lungs by acting like a liver, and not like a lung. Lungs put oxygen into the bloodstream, and that helps the liver. Oxygenated blood also goes through the liver, but to take out wastes and put in sugar. And that helps every other organ be and do what they’re supposed to do. In our own bodies, then, is God’s picture and promise of a world in which people can also be their true selves by being in harmony, connection and accountability to each other, and in which people can contribute most to a better world by becoming and being their own best selves. In fact, it can’t be any other way than both ways.
That’s is what true unity is: not when we act the same, think the same and are the same. What planet does that happen on? Rather, unity is when all our different gifts and perspectives and experience function together to bless each other and the world. Total agreement on everything is not necessary nor even helpful to that.
That’s how Paul wants his Corinthian disciples to relate to each other: they need each other in order to become all that God means each one of them to be. Paul mentions the different gifts they brought to the Corinthian church: speaking in tongues, interpreting them, prophecy, healing and other miraculous works. I won’t explain or define all of them now, partly because I’m still figuring out what they are. But the principle behind them is clear: We need each other’s gifts in order to best develop and use our own, just as we must best use our own, if they are to work well together with those of others.
If that sounds like an impossible balancing act to manage, well, it is a miracle: the miracle of Christ within us and among us. “So it is with Christ,” Paul says. In saying that, Paul compares the church, with all its different but necessary and interdependent parts to the human body. Then he takes us beneath the skin of the church, the body of Christ, to show us that it is Christ who is expressing himself in the world through a diverse unity, and a united diversity, of people who share one mission, but who bring different tools to it, people who share one vision, but who have different gifts; one Lord, one loyalty, one love, but different roles, perspectives and expressions: just like the human body.
This all began when, “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” (that’s our banner verse for the year, again). I take it Paul means our baptism as individual members into the Christian life and the church. So we must respect the unique capacities, backgrounds and identities that each person brings to the church, the body of Christ, in their case, Jewish or Gentile, slave or free. Which was daring to say, because nowhere else in that day and time did Jews and Gentiles, slaves or free people expect to interact and relate in such equal and interdependent ways, than in the churches that Paul was planting.
But why should we be surprised by such miracles? Right from the Creation account of Genesis 1, we meet a God who engages chaos not to create uniformity but harmony, a God who speaks forth a world that is diverse and yet interdependent. Ours is a God who is revealed and glorified by harmony, not conformity, by a cooperative diversity, rather than a monotonous uniformity. A God who works not just through persons, but through partnerships.
That’s why our church growth plan, developed a few years back, begins with spiritual growth—our own personal spiritual growth– but it also includes relational matters like partnership and hospitality. To have the most effect on the world, we must let God have his effect on our selves. To be the most magnetic, compelling and effectual church we can be together, we must surrender ourselves personally, intentionally, daily and constantly to the magnetic, compelling and effectual work of the Holy Spirit on our souls. And yet no one can sustain that stance of surrender and cooperation with God for very long on their own, not without other people to help us, and whom we can help. That means that the knowledge and love of God, the knowledge and love of self, and the knowledge and love of others, are the three parallel rails on which are lives are moving toward the New Jerusalem. If our wheels become disengaged from any one of those three rails, the wheels on the other two rails will grind to a halt, too.
So let’s lay hold of this delightful paradox: that we can only be our true, unique, God-intended selves in relationship and community, and that we can only be in true, God-intended relationship and community by learning to be and to value our true selves and each other. That’s how God made the human body, and the body of Christ—the church– with unique but interdependent parts. That’s also how God made the planet, and even the universe. In such unity and community there is even a picture of God himself, Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.