31 January 2010

Love Is All We Need

1 Corinthians 13

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 31st January 2010

At the risk of sounding like I’m channeling the Beatles or even contemporary artist Mary J. Blige in her recent hit single: All we need is love…for love is all we need. Burt Bacharach’s, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love,” is also running through my head. (1) In many ways, it’s really that simple and that complex. All we need is love, for love is all we need. We both desire love and fear it, sometimes at the same time.

Paul turned to love as the remedy for the many divisions facing First Church, Corinth. As we’ve seen over the last two week moving through this portion of Paul’s epistle, the congregation was plagued with all kind of divisions, disturbed by an assortment of moral and dogmatic sins. The place was a mess. There was a group in the church who believed they were specially gifted with particular gifts of the Spirit. And so there was this competition or struggle among them over gifts, who had them, which ones counted more than others, how to get them. It was really, looking back on it, very childish. But it almost tore the church apart.

In this larger discussion about spiritual gifts, Paul takes a breather, pauses, and then launches into one of the most beautiful and well-known poems in the Bible. He offers a hymn to love that continues to be sung across the ages, even by people who aren’t Christian. Paul says to the Christians in Corinth, all you need is love because love is all you need. Love is lifted up as the solution to the conflict. But if it were really that simple, then the church throughout its long history would be a far more accepting, understanding, and loving place. As with most things pertaining to the gospel, it’s complicated, complex.

Part of the problem is the way Christians have come to think of love. Perhaps the first thing we should do is retrieve this entire love chapter back from public domain. It’s our text and not the domain of the greeting card industry, for example. I wish there was a way to copyright the text, to make it the domain of the church, prohibit its use as tattoos, on posters, plaques, coffee mugs, or any other form of Christian kitsch, or on greeting cards particularly cards celebrating marriage or Valentine’s Day. That’s what we most often associate with this text, with romantic love. And of course it’s been read at countless weddings across the ages, maybe even at your wedding or someone you know. One of my good friends, Tom Sheffield, a Presbyterian minister who served in New Jersey with me said that after one wedding in which he read 1 Corinthians, a guest going out the door said, “That was really beautiful. Did you write it yourself?”

In some ways, it makes the perfect text for a wedding, the way it shapes what a marriage should and can be like. Yet, it’s overused. Plus, this isn’t a marriage text; Paul had no vision of it being used in a wedding ceremony, and he certainly did not understand all of his references to love as having anything to do with what we might call romantic love. Right after Paul finishes this poem he continues to talk about spiritual gifts. So, we have to be careful not to decontextualize the text and make it into something it’s not.

So what is Paul trying to say to his church? Of course, the answer is contained in the Greek, which has three words for the one English word for love. There was philos – love of friendship; there was eros – sexual love, or better desire; and there was agape – a rarely used word adopted by the early church to summarize Christian living because it means selfless or sacrificial kind of love. This is not to say that a Christian only loves agapeically (Yes, this is a word, a theological word. Theologians love to make up words.), with no place for desire, sexual love, or friendship. All three matter. Every time love is mentioned to this church in conflict, the Greek reads agape.

It’s the experience of agape that Paul turns to as the remedy for the problems facing Corinth. Because while eros and philos are important, it is agape that actually forms the church of Jesus Christ. It’s agape that forms the body of Christ. Because Jesus was the fullest embodiment of agape, agape emanates from the body of Christ the church. It’s the heart-beat of the congregation, it’s what sets the pulse and rhythm of this living, breathing body we call the church.

What is agape? First, it’s not all about feelings, the way romantic love is. In some ways, feelings have very little to do with it. This kind of love is a choice, not necessarily based on how one feels on a given day. But a choice to do what? Yes, it’s selfless love – choosing to putting others first over your own needs and wishes. Yes, it’s sacrificial love, making sacrifices for the sake of the other. There are plenty of people who are really good at putting the needs of others first, who make all kind of sacrifices for the other (sometimes for the wrong reasons). These people might be celebrated for the sacrifices and even selflessness they embody, but it’s not necessarily love. There is a dimension of love here. But is there anything distinctively Christian about it? There are plenty of Muslim mothers in the world who makes all kinds of sacrifices for their children, who put their family’s needs ahead of her own.

We have to go a little deeper and remember something one would think would be very obvious to us, but, I think, has been sadly neglected when we talk about Christian love. If Christian love is the kind of love Jesus embodied in his life and calls his followers to embody, then we must say at some level Christian love means choosing to suffer for the sake of the other. I’m not talking about some kind of masochistic obsession. It’s not intentional self-flagellation (which has a long history on the church). Jesus demonstrated with his life that: “there can be no love without suffering.” Contemporary Paul Fiddes offers this powerful summary of love and suffering. “[For] suffering in the widest sense means the capacity to be acted upon, to be changed, moved, transformed by the action of, or the reality of another.” (2)

To suffer means, literally, to undergo, to bear, to permit, to allow. It means, at some level, to be moved, to be acted upon by the experiences of the other. Love means a sharing of experience and when we risk the sharing of another’s experience we also risk being changed, moved, impacted in our own lives. It bears all things experienced by another, it believes all things believed by another, hopes all things hoped by another, endures all things endured by another. We suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice (1 Corinthian 12:26). And when we choose to put ourselves in the lives of others, when we risk empathically putting ourselves in the lives of those around us, when we wonder what it must feel like for them, when we risk that kind of imaginative wondering of what it’s like to be another, something happens – we are acted upon by their experience and in a moment or slowly over a lifetime, we are changed, we are moved, and maybe even transformed by what we share and experience together.

This is a different kind of love – when we choose, risk getting close to another, undergo another’s experience, to care for their needs, to share hopes and sorrows, we are acted upon and there’s always the possibility that we will be changed. And because we resist change, there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to be acted upon, which means we withhold love. We resist love because we don’t want to be change. And sometimes that fear is so great that we don’t get close to another human being, we build and maintain walls that keep us far apart.

But once you start wondering what it’s like for another human being to exist – particularly if that person scares you or what she represents, if that person raises all kinds of fears and anxieties in you, even if it’s someone you really despise, or if that person is homeless and really smells, makes you uncomfortable, whether it’s an orphaned child in Haiti, a couple going through a rough patch or on the verge of divorce, the lost, the confused, the sick, the dying – then there’s the possibility that such a consideration will change you. For once we allow ourselves to be acted upon, literally or imaginatively participating in the experience of another, then inevitably our actions change. If we stay with this posture long enough we just might find ourselves become more accepting or forgiving. We just might find ourselves suddenly becoming more patient (1 Cor. 13:4), maybe even kind (1 Cor. 13:4). We might suddenly find ourselves holding back our agenda or opinions and not insisting on our own way (1 Cor. 13:5). May we stop being irritable or irritating to others and give up being resentful and jealous and maybe even fearful (1 Cor. 13:5). We stop competing with each other – in Paul’s context, you stop worrying about gifts and focus on the other – we find in the other a fellow-member of the body of Christ.

Do you see how agape – unlike philos or eros – builds up the church? Because through it we build community, it draws people together. Through it we build one another up – and then the concrete actions a particular community makes are reflective of this deeper desire to really love one another, to get close enough to each other that we really know the suffering of another, be touched by it, and may be so moved to do something about it, if only to just dwell with the suffering of another so she, so he know they’re not alone. Or to get close enough to each other that we really know another’s joy, learn what makes us tick, what we’re passionate about, and share in making sure these joys and hopes and passions are honored and protected.

As you read over the reports to the Annual Meeting this morning, just revel in how much we have and are accomplishing together as a church. Christ’s love is in this place, our capacity to suffer with and for one another and for the world, are reflected in the concrete actions we have taken this past year. Love is a choice. These reports reflect our choices. Pay attention to all of the verbs in the report. All of the activity rotates around the desire to be a church that embodies Christ’s love.

It’s all there in our actions: in mission, in outreach, in worship, in our care and improvement of the facilities, in education for all ages, our counseling center, in acts of peace and justice, in tangible and intangible ways, a unique kind of love permeates all that we do. It’s there, especially in the deacons work: 221 visits; 215 phone calls; 684 cards/notes. And all of our financial resources and gifts, all of our various income streams allow us to do this amazing work, even in an enormously challenging economy. The work of the Vision Task Force will, no doubt, celebrate who are and help us deepen our ability to risk the kind of love that even more reflects Christ’s presence in us and among us – because this is what the world really needs from us.

This, Paul tells us, is what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. It’s this simple and this complex. It’s the vision and work entrusted to us. It’s what we’re called to. It’s about love in action.

1. Beatles, “All You Need is Love,” (1967), written by John Lennon & Paul McCartney; Mary J. Blige, “Love Is All We Need,” (2004). Burt Bacharach, “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love,” (1965).
2. Paul Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 171.

25 January 2010

Becoming the Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12: 13-31a

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 24th January 2010

There’s a theological error in the sermon title. Do you see it? It’s a theological error because it contradicts what we just heard from the apostle Paul. It’s right there in verse 27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of him.” Did you hear it? In reading scripture and in doing theology, tense means everything. Paul didn’t say you were the body of Christ or one day will be the body of Christ. Hence the problem with the title. “You are the body of Christ.” Now, not will be someday, one day. To First Church, Corinth, Paul says, you are today, the body of Christ.

The fact that Paul had to write this to them means that, at some level, they had forgotten this about themselves. Or perhaps they never really knew it to be true. Maybe they never knew what it means to be church. As we saw last week, the church in Corinth, organized by Paul, was a contentious place, full of quarrels and divisions. There was a lot of bad theology oozing all over the place and putting the life of the church at risk. There were some who thought they were more spiritual than others. There were some who believed they had special gifts that set them apart from others, a kind of spiritual elite. Paul said, basically, the Spirit is gifting everyone in the community with a variety of gifts, varieties of service, varieties of ministries.

Now he continues his argument by lifting up his well-known body metaphor to describe what a community of Jesus looks like. “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.” The body is one, with many members, many parts, many organs, with many functions that when harmonized yield a functioning, healthy, living body. From here we are reminded that Christ’s community is like an organism, a living, breathing body that requires care and sustenance, that is dependent upon the health of the parts for the health of the whole. All the parts are needed for the whole. Though many, we are one body. So it is with Christ.

When Christ’s Spirit moves within us and among us, the Spirit moves people into community, a fellowship, what Paul describes as a koinonia – a fellowship of people, a wide assortment of people with varieties of ministries, gifts, experience, personalities, individualities, a wildly divergent, different assortment of people, a disparate people who come together around a center who is Jesus Christ. The Spirit moves people into a koinonia, deep, intimate, honest fellowship of people who form a unity with diversity around their love for Jesus Christ. The Spirit forms a individuals into a koinonia, a unique community of people, a church, but less church as an institution, but a relationship of members who are formed into the body of Christ.

And when this occurs something different happens. As Paul said, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greek, slaves or free – all were made to drink of one Spirit.” The unity we find in Christ allows for diversity. And the diverse parts are equal, not one better than the other. In fact, all the divisions that are found out in the world, all the labels and opinions and parties that separate people, judge people, divide, and exclude people are not to exist in the church of Jesus Christ, because Christ is the great equalizer. In him is found equality. Therefore his people must be treat all people equally. And that’s how Paul treats them.

In fact, reflecting on this text, Calvin (1509-1564) makes this observation about what Paul is doing. “Among the Corinthians no slight number had gone astray; in fact, almost the whole body was infected. There was not one kind of sin only, but very many; and they were no light errors but frightful misdeed; there was corruption not only of morals but of doctrine. What does the holy apostle …do about this? Does he seek to separate himself from such? Does he cast them out of Christ’s kingdom? Does he fell them with ultimate thunderbolts of anathema? He not only does nothing of the sort; he even recognizes and proclaims them to be the church of Christ and the communion of saints.”(1) He treats them as if they are already the body of Christ. And he hopes they would view themselves the same way.

Paul develops his argument around this body metaphor in order to help the Corinthians discover or rediscover what it means to be in Christ. He wants them – and us, of course – to know we are the body of Christ already. And yet, we know, as Paul knew, there is something in all of us – call it sin – that causes us to forget who we are. Yes, we are the body of Christ. But there’s also the truth that we’re not there yet. In the Christian life there is always this paradox of the already and the not-yet. We are already children of God, but not-yet, because we spend our entire lives growing into realizing this, believing it, claiming it what this really means. If we really knew this, then we would be different people, the world would be different, the church would be a very different place. We are already saved, but in some sense, not-yet, because we spend our lives living as if this were not the case. We are already forgiven, but not yet because we act and live, at times, as if we’re not forgiven. If we believed we were already forgiven, then we might be freer with granting forgiveness. You are already the body of Christ, but not-yet, because if the church really believed this and lived from this, then the church today throughout the world would be a very different place, we wouldn’t be fearful or anxious, we wouldn’t be worried about membership decline, we wouldn’t be anxious about tomorrow, and we wouldn’t be treating fellow Christians (and non-Christians) the way we do, as if they too were not part of the body of Christ. So often Paul says, and it’s embedded in the Greek, “Become who you are.” Become who you already are. Become the people God already knows you to be. Live into this image. We are always living into who we are. We are becoming the body of Christ.

But what does this really mean? It means we’re called to see how we are organically related to one another. Each member is a part of the body. It means we have a responsibility for one another. There’s mutuality, equality, radical acceptance. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; equally, if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” Because of our interconnectivity, we are not alone, but part of the whole. I remember hearing as a boy that when my mother was pregnant with me, when she was in some pain and discomfort before going into labor, that my grandmother, sitting across the room had similar pain and discomfort in her body. She had sympathy pains. It seems to me that that’s a pretty good image of what it means to be the body of Christ, it’s the place where we suffer with and for, that we bear the pain and suffering of our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. Similarly, we’re called to sympathy joys, when we affirm the joy of the other, when we celebrate and honor the other. Rejoice with and for and over the joy of our sisters and brothers in Christ.

How do we do this? While every member of the body has a special part to play in making up the whole, Paul tells us that in God’s providence greater honor is given to the inferior part. In the body of Christ special attention is given to the poorer, lesser, lower part, to the weaker part of the body. This is one of the most marvelous aspects of the church – when the church is really being the body of Christ, the body of the crucified – the way we really care for those in greatest need, how we care for the weak, make space for the vulnerable among us, protect minorities, and even advocate for the rights of people who have none or little. Our capacity to care for the least of these gives some indication whether or not a church is actually being the body of Christ.

To know the needs of the weak, the inferior, the excluded, the rejected, and dejected means we have to risk getting close to those members of the body. For how can we share their suffering and their joys when we do not know them? How can we have sympathy, when keep people at arms’ length. Paul’s vision of the church involves authenticity, honesty, truth-telling which are all very risky and costly. It requires, the still more excellent way, which informs all that we do, which is love – the love that bears all things for the sake of the other, believes all things for the sake of the way, endures all things for the sake of the other.

That the church of Jesus Christ has yet to fully realize this vision of itself, has yet to fully live into who Christ claims we are, it’s clear we have plenty of work to do. The church is not completely without its moments when it’s really being the body of Christ and we need to celebrate them. The church as a whole doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to really being the kind of place Jesus had in mind. If that were the case, Christianity wouldn’t be in the trouble it is in the West. We need to be honest about this without giving into despair and giving up on the church. It’s a call to remember we are a community of sinners who are trying to be faithful. Lift up some images…

Consider this image. Think of a Gothic cathedral. It’s cruciform; it has the floor plan of a cross. “It is officially possible to enter a Gothic church only through one of the west doors under one of the two spires…. The choir has no doors, although the north and south transepts have doors. But none of these may be used for official entry into the church. Why? The cathedral represents the body of Christ. His head is the choir, his arms are the transepts, the crossing in his navel, and the west towers are his feet. It is only through the feet that the – what might call the inferior, lowly part of the body, often dirty in Jesus’ day, a part of the body that raises all kinds of anxieties in us, so very personal – it’s through the feet that we enter into the body of Christ..never through the choir, his head. For this reason the bottoms of the feet are called the soles, our souls of the feet - it’s through this part of the body, tradition has it, that our souls enter and leave. (2) That’s not biblical, of course, but the symbolism is quite poignant – that there’s something about the low, the inferior, the part of the body that takes quite a pounding every day, with more nerves than any other part of our bodies (which I discovered when I had foot surgery last summer), is precisely through what the foot represents that we are brought into the community.

I’m reminded of the ministry of Jean Vanier, founder of the l’Arche communities, communities around the world with and for people with severe disabilities. In his work he has come to know first-hand the greater honor given to the people with the greatest needs, and find in the risk to care for them, the very face of God. In one of his meditations growing from his experience, he wrote, “ Our body, our whole being, carries within it the marks of each act of gentleness and tenderness but also each wound, each sense of rejection, each word or gesture which gave us the impression that we were loved or not loved…” (3) How we reach out with compassion toward those wounded in the body and the way we reach out with compassion toward our own woundedness says something about what it means to be the body of Christ: Caring for our wounds within the body.

In Washington, DC, there’s a gathering of Christians called the Church of the Savior, founded more than fifty years ago, a church and larger organization that envisions a church made of small groups and home churches, small groups of people that seek to be authentic, real, honest, that search for reconciliation and justice in their groups and in the world. They are trying to really listen to Jesus and follow in unconventional ways, no matter the risk or cost. They have a bookstore and cafĂ© in DC on Columbia Road. Beside the front door there is a sign for their administrative offices, that summarizes what they’re about. It simply reads: Becoming Church. It says something about how they understand their ministry. We’re not there yet, we’re on the way – risk becoming the people Christ knows us to be.

1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), 4.1.14.
2. Robert A. Johnson, Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy (HarperSanFrancisco, 1987), 60.
3. Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 31.

17 January 2010

Claiming Our Gifts(2)

1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 17th January 2010

Paul wrote this letter to a church in conflict. The church in Corinth, which was founded by Paul himself, was burdened by many quarrels, disagreements, and strong differences of opinion. Paul’s challenge was this: how to gather a widely-divergent group of people around their love and commitment to Christ, to form them into what he called a fellowship, a koinonia,– a community that sought to embody the love of Christ in the world because Christ was at the center of their lives.

One of the many problems in First Church, Corinth – a busy, intellectual, cultural trade center at the heart of the Roman Empire, full of all kinds of temples and religious practices – was that there was a group of people who thought they were better than the others because they claimed to have special spiritual gifts. Paul refers to them as the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones. They seemed to be a class or sect within the church that sought special status and authority because they claimed to be better Christians, as it were, than everyone else. This infuriated Paul – he was a bit of a hot-head and had strong reactions against anything that contradicted his vision for the church. But, first and foremost, Paul was a pastor, who, as a pastor, helped the community to theologically reflect upon what it really means to say one is spiritually gifted.

You can hear the matter at hand in 12:1, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed,” because, obviously, they were grossly misinformed. They were misinformed about the work of the Spirit within the community. When the Spirit is present one never says, “Jesus is cursed,” either in words or in action. No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” because that confession of faith, too, requires the Spirit who gives the gift of faith.

The point here is that the church needs to pay attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of its people. And in the church – and one can even argue beyond the church – the Spirit of God is unleashed in the world endowing, giving, gifting God’s people. Whether the church likes it or not, the Spirit of God is unleashed in the church and beyond in the world bestowing gifts.

Chapter 12 is probably most familiar because we read it every time we ordain and install church officers. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” In these beautifully poetic verses we find Paul’s pastoral-theological response to the situation in Corinth.

Now, we could go through this text, verse by verse, and analyze the Greek meaning behind the gifts Paul describes: the gift of wisdom, the gift of the utterance of knowledge, the gift of faith, the gift of healing, the working of miracles, the gift of prophecy (or preaching), the gift of discernment, the gift of speaking in tongues (a kind of ecstatic, holy speech), the gift to interpret tongues. But we have to be very careful that we don’t see this as an exhaustive list – Paul wasn’t trying to say there are only nine spiritual gifts. That’s not the point. In Galatians, Paul comes up with another list, the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5: 22-23). Also nine.

Whether we call them gifts or fruits of the Spirit, the point is that the gifting agent in creation, in our individual lives, in the church is none other than the Spirit. (1) What needs to be lifted up here is that before and after each gift we have reference to the Spirit. Listen to Paul: “…of the Spirit…” “Though the Spirit…” “According to the Spirit…” “The same Spirit…” “The one Spirit…” Then we have, “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

The Holy Spirit is the giver of gifts. And not only is the Spirit the giver, Paul makes it clear that the Spirit also activates them within us. I love this. The Greek word here is energei – meaning to work in, to energize. “The word is often used of the working of the power of God in a miraculous way.” (2) It seems to suggest that yes, the Spirit gives gifts, but it’s as if there comes a time when the Spirit turns the gift on within us, activates it, energizes us, gives us power – God’s power – to do, to be, to say, to experience, to see, to bless, to give, to forgive, to love, to suffer in love, to sacrifice, to serve, to care in ways that leave us speechless, in ways we could never have realized on our own without God’s help. When the Spirit activates the gifts within us it’s as if we become the conduits for the power of God to pour through us to reach out and touch the world.

The Holy Spirit is the giver of gifts – many gifts – and activates them in us, in the community. And the stress here is on the many, the variety. That’s why we can’t see this as an exhaustive list. Remarkably, Paul is stressing that variety is the trademark of God’s Spirit and therefore a trademark of the church. Variety can also be translated difference, even diversity. Just as there’s difference and diversity within the Triune God (and there are early Trinitarian references in this text long before the doctrine of the Trinity was formalized), when our lives and the church reflect this Triune God, then expect to find variety, difference, and diversity – wild variety, difference and diversity. Because this is what the Spirit loves to do – to get things mixed up and stirred up, blessing God’s people with a variety of gifts.

In thinking about this text, I was reminded of an experience from my elementary school days. I can remember hearing about the Gifted and Talented Program in the school system, a special program that put special, gifted and talented students in a class, literally, above or apart from the rest. I had one or two friends in the program. I wasn’t part of it. From my perspective, as a child, I was led to believe that they were the only ones with gifts and talent. There are truly gifted and talented children who really warrant special attention and I’m not criticizing the program. But it left me with the impression that there students with special gifts, and the rest of us were out of luck. That gave me a horrible feeling.

It’s easy to see how destructive this idea can be, particularly from a faith perspective, to think there’s a kind of spiritual elite in the church – the truly divinely gifted and talented, as it were, and then everyone else. Scripture doesn’t say this. Paul doesn’t say this. In fact, Paul is saying the opposite – to be in Christ means that the Holy Spirit is active in one’s life and if the Holy Spirit is present then that means we’ve also been gifted. There are a variety of gifts given by the Spirit within each of us. Some were given when we were young and cultivated throughout our life. Others came later. Some might have arrived only yesterday. Others will come tomorrow. The point is – everyone has a gift or gifts. The Spirit is very generous. We are all gifted and talented in Christ – we are called to believe this and claim it and live courageously with this knowledge.

All of us, whatever our age, have been gifted by God and it is incumbent upon us, it is our task, our life purpose to discern our gifts, to claim them, to accept them, to not reject, or deny them, or withhold them, but to use them. In the letter of James we find these words, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17).” God’s generosity has given us a multitude of gifts that we might then give away, showered us with blessings that we then bless others. This is because all the gifts we receive from the Spirit are not ours – they do not belong to us, they are not given to puff us up or make us feel good or better or happy or anything else. “To each is given the manifestation for the Spirit…” Why? Why have you been gifted? Why have we been gifted? Why has God been so generous to us? “For the common good.”

And that is indeed the test whether something is really a gift from God – because the gifts of God can be used for the common good. When they are used and shared for the common good – for everyone – then they are of God. When the gifts we have can edify the members of the community, when the gifts and talents and assets we’ve been given build people up, support and strengthen people, give life and hope and meaning to the common good, then it can be said they are of God. That’s the test. When our gifts and talents and assets are withheld, when they are rejected, or denied, then it can be said they are not of God, that they wear down the common good and humanity suffers.

This week we have seen the horrific images coming from Haiti after the devastating earthquake on Tuesday. Believe me, I have wondered and cried, like you, and have asked how God can allow something like that to happen. Sometimes you have to wonder, Who’s really in control of this universe? We cannot even begin to imagine the depth of pain and suffering of the people, the fear and anxiety, particularly in the children, so many of whom are now orphaned. The country is on the verge of chaos and citizens are walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince with machetes to take matters into their own hands. The many “Why?” questions have no immediate answers and anyone who tries to answer them is probably a fool.

But coming up from under the rubble are stories of people who have witnessed something – dare I say – of the Spirit of God. Why in some places and not in others, I don’t know. Yet, to see the aid workers arriving from around the world,– search and rescue teams, medical personnel, mission workers, military personnel – using their skills, their talents being used for the common good, for the edification of the people, building people up, saving lives (or trying to), caring, holding, extending hope in the face of hopelessness – is this not God’s Spirit? Offering love and kindness – are these not of God? Are they not gifts of healing and the working of miracles, given for the common good? When we are generous in our giving, are we not using our gifts for the common good of the people of Haiti? On Wednesday evening, Session decided to send $1,000 Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, immediately, even though we don’t have our budget in place for 2010. To see priests praying over the dead, to hear the Haitians singing psalms to God in the darkness, having that kind of faith in God when the easy thing would be to give up on God altogether, are these not manifestations of the Spirit – allowing ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things? I think so.

What are your gifts? What skill, talent, asset, gift, passion, interest, what burden or concern has the Lord placed in your heart? In your gut, your body? In your soul? What is the the Spirit trying to activate and energize in you and through you? We’re all gifted – some of our gifts we know and claim. Some we’re using and sharing. This church is gifted. The evidence is all around us, just take a good, hard look around this church and see how we’re using our gifts and talents, assets and resources to do so much for our common good, but the good of others. There’s no doubt God’s Spirit is at work in us, in this place, in this community.

But the Holy Spirit never stops gifting us. One of the ways we grow as Christians – and as a church – is to ask periodically whether we’re really using all of our gifts. With our visioning process now underway led by the work of the vision task force, this is our season to ask – are we using all of our gifts or assets as a church? What are we being called to share, to use for the common good? What gifts need to activated, “flipped-on” in our life together? Are there areas of our life together that are not being realized? Are there gifts we are afraid to acknowledge and claim because if we accepted them, acknowledged them, they would change us or call us to go in directions we would rather not take? And in denying them, are we somehow hindering the common good that can be realized through us? It’s the gifts we’re afraid to admit to, to claim that just might be the ones God is calling us to receive and use and in so doing, grow in deeper faith and commitment. (3) I’m not sure what they are, but it’s a question we have to ask, to discern together.

So let us ask: What are your gifts? What are our gifts? Then let us be open to what we hear, to what we discover. Putting fear – for fear kills the soul – and putting anxiety aside, let us in this season of discernment open ourselves up to what the Spirit longs to give us, given for the sake of the common good, given through us for the world. May it be so. Amen.

1. Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin: “God has gifted creation with everything that is necessary.” Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), German Benedictine abbess & mystic.
2. Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. & Cleon L. Roberts III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 377.
3. Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin, “What gifts are you afraid of receiving?” David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (Riverhead Books, 2002).

11 January 2010

Remember Who You Are

Isaiah 43: 1-7 and Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
Baptism of the Lord/ 10th January 2010

What’s the appropriate place for the baptismal font in the church? Where should it be placed? In some of the oldest cathedrals of Europe, the font – often large, stone, eight-sided, supported by one pedestal or four – is found at the entrance of the sanctuary, what we might think of as the back of the church (if the front is where the pulpit and table or altar might be located). The location of the font says something about how we view baptism. Placing it at the entrance of the church suggests that it is through or because of one’s baptism that one enters the church community. Baptism is then primarily understood as a sacrament of initiation. It’s what is required in order to be a member of a church, to be a Christian. Placing it at the entrance of the church is a constant remember to everyone who enters a church how one “gets in,” as it were.

At some of the oldest churches in Italy, the font is in a baptistery, a massive, free-standing structure built in front of the duomo or cathedral, but not connected to the church. Baptism takes place outside the church and only then is one permitted to enter into the life of the church. Once again, baptism is viewed as an act of initiation and incorporation into the church. The location of the font says something about how a church views baptism.

It’s very rare to find a baptismal font at the entrance of a Presbyterian church (Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, MD, is one possible exception). There’s a part of me that would love to have the font at the entrance of our sanctuary, but we have two ways into the sanctuary and we can’t have two fonts (at least I don’t think we can).

Yes, Presbyterians believe that baptism is about incorporation into the church, becoming part of the body of Christ. There is even the suggestion that one must be baptized in order to be a member of a church. Many view baptism primarily as a kind of initiation into the community of Christians – and it is this, to be sure. But there are other views. Some hold the view that if you’re baptized, it means you’re “in” – you’re in the church, you’re “safe” in God, you’re a Christian, your eternal destiny secure in heaven. If not, well, you’re not marked by Christ.

One time I was asked to do a funeral service for someone I had never met. The funeral home in Mendham, NJ, was a few doors from the church I served there and we were often the place to go when a family was looking for a generic, Protestant service. The service was at the funeral home. Friends and then family said their last good-byes and left the room. The nephew of the deceased, one of a few surviving relatives, approached me in a panic just before the casket was closed. “My uncle had never been baptized,” he said, “Do you think we can baptize him now?” That was a startling moment! The Book of Order doesn’t allow for that, nor should it. Princeton Seminary didn’t prepare me for that question either. The question and the possible act were loaded with all kinds of theological and pastoral implications (in fact, this scenario was later used on a polity exam for Presbyterians at a local divinity school in NJ) – just the thought of it, I was sure, was bordering on all kinds of heresies (although at the moment I couldn’t say what they were)! I didn’t baptize his uncle. We talked about it. But it spoke volumes about how the nephew understood the meaning of baptism and Christianity for that matter.

What does the font mean? What does baptism mean? At the Mendham church, the wooden font was kept tucked away in the corner of the sanctuary, out of view. It only came out when we had a baptism. That always bothered me. So, when I became the interim/acting head of staff, I moved the font out and kept it front and center for every service and we talked about why this matters.

Does the font have only an occasional meaning for us? Is it secondary to the table? Do we pull it out only when we need it? Does it only matter when someone is being baptized? What purpose does it play on Sundays when we don’t have a baptism? Should it only have water it in on Sundays when we baptize? Why don’t we have water in it all the time? I would love to have water in it all the time. This could conceivably drive the worship committee mad. How do we keep the water clean? This font isn’t easy to empty once it’s filled with water. I knew of a minister in the Church of Scotland who kept the font at her church filled with water every week – and stocked it with gold fish! Something about the waters of creation connecting with the waters of new creation in baptism. The same water was then used for baptisms. Needless to say, she didn’t stay long in parish ministry.

What does the font mean for us? There are Christians who don’t understand why we have font instead of a pool. The earliest churches had deep baptismal pools, often in the shape of the cross. You stepped down into the pool on one said and, after being completely immersed, you stepped up out of the pool into the new life in Christ. Down, buried under the water in a kind of death, a watery grave; up, out of the water in a kind of resurrection. Down and up. Death and resurrection. Transformation. Change. That’s what baptism meant for the first Christians – and for many Christians today. Less about incorporation into the church, less about becoming a member of the church; more about identification into the life of Christ, more about becoming a child of God and stepping out into the new life given to us in Christ.

What I’m trying to do this morning is to get us to think of baptism as less an act of initiation into the church (which it is, of course), and more as an act of identification. In other words, I want us to keep the baptismal font front and center – both literally and metaphorically (at least for today) – and not brought out only when we’re baptizing an infant or adult. I want us to remember our baptism. I want us to remember who we are because we are baptized. I want us to claim for ourselves who we are because of our baptisms, to see baptism as something that doesn’t happen once and then we forget about it, but something we remember and claim and continually live from, discovering ever new dimensions to what it means to be a son or daughter of God. To see baptism less as a one-time event, but more of an event and a process that we continually live into and realize. To see the Christian life as ongoing, where we’re continually living into the full implications of what it actually means for us to say we’re baptize in Christ, of living into our baptism. To see the Christian life as an ongoing unfolding of what it means to be claimed by God’s grace and then living out that claim in our lives, in our relationships, in service to the world.

It is identification – identity – that stands at the center of Jesus’ baptism, not entrance into the church, and certainly Jesus didn’t become a Christian when he was baptized. Baptism for him meant identifying himself, his life, with God, with God’s life, with God’s vision and purpose for his life. Baptism, from baptizo, means “to immerse,” and in Jesus’ time referred to a bath or a kind of washing. It was used as an act of purification to prepare one for an encounter with God. It’s an act of cleansing to prepare one to receive a word from God, to experience God’s coming, God’s presence.

It’s interesting that Luke tells us that when all the people were baptized, and after Jesus had been baptized, Jesus was in a state of prayer. He was praying – he was waiting, listening, talking, relating, engaging God, opening himself up to God’s presence, God’s will, God’s direction, God’s direction. It was after he had been baptized and while he was praying that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice was heard, “This is my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Identity. This is who you are, Jesus, the voice says. This is who you are: Son of God. Beloved of God. The object of God’s pleasure and delight. And then in the next verse, we find Jesus beginning his ministry at about thirty years of age. In knowing who he is and whose he is, Jesus is then free to live the life he was born to experience.

If that’s what baptism meant for Jesus and if we are in Christ (and we are) and Christ is within us (and he is), then is this not also, to some degree, what baptism can mean for us? Christ is not some distant, historical figure about whom we have a certain set of beliefs that we are asked to confess. Christ is a present person, a present reality, alive here and how, who invites us into an experience of God through him. Jesus’ life reveals the mystery of God’s love and grace and included in this love and grace is the capacity for us claim the same truth in ourselves and all of creation. Jesus is the “microcosm of the macrocosm.” (1) What we see in him and discover through him, we need to see and discover within ourselves. This is, in part, what it means to follow him.

Contemporary writer, Richard Rohr, offers in a recent book, suggests this Christian axiom for us – I can really resonate with this. See how it sits with you. It goes like this; it has two parts: “1. All statements and beliefs about Jesus are also statements about the journey of the soul (birth, choseness, ordinary life, initiation, career, misunderstanding and opposition, failure, death in several forms, resurrection, return to God). 2. All statements about “the Christ” are statements about the “Body” of Christ, too.” We are not the historical Jesus, but we are the Body of Christ. “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name (of course), but the “field of communion,” and to be “in Christ” includes all of us with him. (2) We are not asked to simply “believe” a certain set of doctrines about Christ; but we know them to be true, because we know Christ. We know them through our own realizations and personal life experiences. You know them because you go on the journey Christ calls you to.

Now apply this to the way we view baptism. In knowing who he is and whose he is, Jesus was free to live the life he was born to experience. In knowing who we are and whose we are, we are then free to live the life we were born to experience. Jesus’ baptism, what he experienced tells us something about what it means to be human in relationship with God, what’s available to us in the relationship with God.

It’s about identity. Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? That’s the “great puzzle.” From the moment consciousness emerges as a child through adolescence into adulthood, these are questions that plague us, haunt us, and inspire us. The answers we provide shape and inform us, define us. In many ways, these are the questions that permeate every moment of our existence, from our first breath to our last. They don’t sound like religious questions, but oh they are. They’re human questions – everyone is asking them, wrestling with them, coming up with all of responses to them (some meaningful, others not). The Christian experience says these are not only human questions, they are divine questions, they are theological questions because God is committed to our humanity; they are theological questions that are answered within the context of one’s relationship with God, in prayer. Jesus, as the fully-human one, in prayer, discovers who he is. Just as Jesus came to know who he was and whose he was in that moment of grace, so too, in our baptism – and when we remember that we are baptized – we come to know who we are and whose we.

Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? The beloved of God. Whose am I? Whose are we? The sons and daughters of God – in whom God is well pleased. That’s what, I believe, Jesus wants us to know about ourselves – not in an ego-centric or narcissistic way – but in a way that affirms who we are. Why is this so important? Because so many suffer daily, suffer a lifetime because they don’t really know who they are. So many suffer daily, even a lifetime because they believe a false narrative about themselves, they tell a story about themselves that cannot affirm, only judge and condemn and condemn.

Baptism is given as a sign that Christ has changed the narrative of our lives, he has changed how we view ourselves. It might sound blasphemous but I think Jesus’ baptism, what was offered to him in the voice from heaven, was also meant for us to hear and know at some level about ourselves. To claim our baptism, to remember our baptism, to remember who we are, what we discover and know about ourselves is of utmost critical importance. Think of the people who live their lives without believing, without really knowing they are the beloved of God. Didn’t Jesus come to show us that? To tell us this? So that we know it deep within the depths of our souls? Think of the people who do not know where they belong or to whom, who wonder aimlessly, lost, confused, fascinated and seduced by every whim and fad, but never really seeing themselves as a son of God, a daughter of God, a child of God. Yet, this is the good news. We can see ourselves as one in whom God is well pleased – now, not in some future, not when we get our life together (whenever that is), not when we become more moral, more ethical, more “Christian,” but now, through grace, now – this the good news that is offered to us in Christ, in our baptism. Can you see why such an insight, such a truth, such a claim requires an entire life to fathom and fully live into?

Do you see yourself as God’s beloved? When you look at yourself in the mirror to do you see someone in whom God takes immense delight?

When I look in the mirror I need to be reminded, because it’s so easy to forget. It’s why we all need to be reminded, almost daily. It’s so easy to forget. We need to remind ourselves and our children growing up in the church, saying: This is who you are; this is whose you are. It’s probably the greatest gift we can give to a child, to a teenager, to an adult: You are the beloved of God and belong to God. That’s why we can’t push the font out of the way. It’s why I need to see it, with water in it. To feel the water. The font reminds me: Remember your baptism. Remember who you are.

Then we can leave here better equipped to live the lives we were created by God to live.

Image: Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy.

1.Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: Crossroad Book, 2009), 147.
2.Rohr, 147-148.
3.Cf. the quote for the day from the worship bulletin: “Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865).