Sermon for Sunday 24 January 2016
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
The day after Christmas – Armenian Christmas, that is, otherwise known as this past Tuesday – I was sitting at the Armenian Patriarchate with my Methodist colleague on one side and two Catholic priests on the other. We were waiting patiently for the little shots of brandy and trays of Christmas chocolates to be brought around to all the visiting clergy, but first the bishops and patriarchs had to give their speeches.
It was during one of these very serious, very earnest Christmas speeches that the priest next to me leaned in and said, “Hey, did you hear about the teacher who was explaining the resurrection to her students?”
No, I replied.
“Well,” he continued, “the teacher told the children the whole story of the cross and the tomb and the stone being rolled away, and when she was finished a boy raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, do YOU believe in the Good News of the resurrection?”
“Yes, of course I do”, the teacher said sternly.
“Well then” said the boy, “Would you kindly inform your face?”
This, the priest told me, is how he always feels when he comes to these Christmas “celebrations” at the various patriarchates. Someone needs to inform the priests' faces that Jesus is born!
|Some of the "men in black" at the Armenian Patriarchate|
It was a beautiful and holy moment, chuckling with priests from a tradition different from mine in some very critical ways (for example, not ordaining humans like me), but nevertheless finding ourselves united as Christians in the desire to have a little more merriment in our Merry Christmas.
The holy, mysterious, and sometimes precarious unity of the church of Jesus Christ is the focus of this morning’s reading from 1 Corinthians, chapter 12. It’s an especially appropriate reading as we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity here in Jerusalem. This week, Jerusalem’s Christians will gather in various churches across the city to pray. We will lift our voices and our hearts to God together as one body, although in the manner of many different traditions—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian, and Maronite, to name a few.
I love Christian Unity week. It’s the one week of the year when I feel the most pride in being a member of this awesome, global body we call the Church. I relish our diversity. I treasure this opportunity to experience how culture and history have shaped the way we pray, and yet to see how the Good News remains the same. Truly, during this one week we embody the Apostle Paul’s assertion that “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”
Of course, there are also 51 other weeks of the year, weeks in which we, the church, do not act as one body with one spirit. Most of the time, instead of uniting to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, or bring liberation to the oppressed, we are engaging in an epic battle over who has the best theology or the best music, whose tradition is older, whose liturgy is the most authentic, or whose social justice statements are the most progressive. Yes, we were all baptized into one body, but in this body, everyone seems to want to be the head. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, everyone acts like they are the mouth.
We only need to walk around the corner to see in living color how the body is divided today, even in the one place where you would think we could get it right. When I walk to work through the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I often hear tour guides telling visitors the story of the status quo and the infamous immovable ladder. I admit, it always makes me a little embarrassed. If the body of Christ can’t even get it together in the place where Jesus was raised, then the Apostle Paul’s lofty words about the church being one, united body seem somewhat irrelevant.
For this reason, it’s tempting when reading 1st Corinthians to consider it merely as an idea of the church as it should be. “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” says Paul. And again, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body.” This may be a description of the church as it was for about five minutes after the resurrection of Jesus, but it seems to have very little to do with the reality of the church today. At best, it sounds like an ideal, a goal, or a dream. The church of the future! The church as it will be in heaven!
But about this passage from 1 Corinthians, Latin-American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes: “Readers often regard this theology of the church as simply a beautiful metaphor. However, we must, shocking though this idea may be, see through to the realism that characterizes the Pauline approach. He is speaking of the real body of Christ, which he looks upon as an extension of the incarnation.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People) In other words, Gutierrez asserts that for Paul, the church is not LIKE a body, it is The Body. The church is not TRYING or HOPING to be the presence of Christ in the world someday, it IS the presence of Christ in the world today.
NOW you are the body of Christ, writes Paul. Not when you get it right, but now. Not when we sign enough ecumenical agreements. Not when we un-do the Reformation or re-unite the Eastern and Western traditions. Not when the church heals it wounds and patches its relationships, but now. NOW this messy, imperfect, divided, hypocritical, sometimes corrupt organism we call the church is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. NOW we are the body of the One who was broken, wounded, persecuted, put on trial, stripped naked, and crucified for the sake of the world.
Of course, it goes against our human instincts to view brokenness as anything but a mistake. For this reason, we view the divisions in the church as a liability, or an embarrassment, or even as a possible argument for its illegitimacy. However, our faith tells us that the broken body of our Lord Jesus was the world’s path to reconciliation with God our Creator. Through the eyes of faith, what the world saw as an instrument of humiliation and death we know to be a symbol of victory and life.
In the same way, the brokenness of this body we call the church is also a conduit of God’s grace. A divided church is a diverse church, and this diverse church is a powerful and sacramental presence in the world.
After all, where would the world be without the pacifism and radical peace-making of the Mennonites?
What would our spirituality be without the iconography of the Orthodox?
What would our witness be without the Coptics’ courage in the face of persecution?
Where would systematic theology be without the Catholic church fathers?
What would worship be without the Pentecostal spirit?
Where would biblical scholarship be without the Lutherans’ devotion to the Word?
Indeed, what would the world be today without the fullness of our various Christian traditions? Through the grace of God, the divisions in the church, which were born of human sin and pride, have become gifts to the world. Just as Christ was raised, so has a broken church been raised to new life. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Good News of Jesus Christ has been heard, and received, and shared across centuries, across boundaries, and across cultures through this imperfect body we call the church.
|Some of the clergywomen of Jerusalem, heading out to the |
Christmas greetings at the Armenian Patriarchate
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, we don’t have to be one and the same to be of one Spirit. We don’t have to be unified in practice to be united in purpose.
But what we must be, what we are, is interdependent. We need each other. As Paul put it, “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? If all were a single member, where would the body be?”
In this time when Christians in many places are suffering persecution, when many thousands have become refugees, when fear wants to rule us, and when the very existence of the Christian community here in the holy land is threatened by military occupation, we are reminded that we cannot do this alone. We need every member of the body of Christ to stand together against terror, injustice, and hatred, and to stand for justice, peace, and equality. Even the ones with whom we disagree. Even the ones whose theology or worship seem strange to us. Even the ones whose policies exclude us! Even – and I would say especially - the members of the body who are often ignored, silenced, or kept on the margins.
In these challenging times, we give thanks to God that our brokenness is not the sum total of our witness. We may be divided by church structure, theology, politics or history, but we are one in the measure of grace and new life we have received through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sisters and brothers, now you are the body of Christ, both crucified and risen.
Now you are the church, broken and divided, and at the same time holy and healed.
Go in the strength of this knowledge, and be bold witnesses to the one Gospel, the one faith, the one light, the one salvation, the one hope for this broken world, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!