We don’t like to admit it, and even if we did we don’t like to put it this way, but it is true… we are all needy. Some of us think we need chocolate, but truth be told we could get along just fine without it. Well, maybe.
Okay, let’s start with the things we do need. We need air to breathe, that’s for sure. We need water to drink (though some folk think Dr. Pepper or coffee qualify as water) and we need food to eat. We need a place to call our own, a way to get from here to there.
Maybe you hadn’t thought about it in just those kinds of terms, but when you do, you have to admit that we are all needy.
There’s another thing we need that I did not mention, but sometimes I think it’s as vital to us as breath and water and food. We need community. We need the fellowship that comes from being with someone besides ourselves.
You can get it in a number of places. I’m told you can find community at a bridge tournament. I am told. I’ve never played bridge, and when it comes to that game I don’t know east from west. But I have it on good authority that you can find community there.
Your neighborhood might be a real community, though I suspect that began to die out with the front porch. Today, people drive home, push a button and the garage door comes up. They pull their cars into the garage, push the button again, and the garage door goes down. Years ago I heard this referred to as the “cocoon society,” where we envelope ourselves in our homes and never venture out to meet our neighbors. And it’s true. My neighbor, Pat Lile, lives just behind me, across the alley. You know where I see her? At Rotary, downtown. Betty and Chuck Gardner are my neighbors, one block over. I see them at church far more than I do in the neighborhood… not that I’m complaining. I do like to see them at church.
The point is, we rarely run into one another in our back yards. That’s just one other reason why we could use a really good snow this winter. You often meet your neighbors when it snows, do you not?
Do you ever think of the church as community? We come together every week – well, most weeks anyway. We study the Bible together, we pray and sing together, we break bread together. ‘Round here, we do a lot of breaking of bread together. Sometimes we find ourselves in the sad place of having to say goodbye to one of our friends, but still, even when we are diminished by our losses, we remain a community.
Monday night, at our Church Council meeting, Linda Hogue, in reporting for our Hearts in Service Committee (our benevolence group), informed us they served 14 meals during 2006. Do you know what that means? It means we had at least 14 funerals; we said goodbye to 14 of our friends, members of our community. We are diminished by those losses, but we still remain a community. This community gives us something we could not find on our own. It provides us something we could not have all by ourselves. It is – or it should be – as vital to us as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
The Apostle Paul realized this, and did his best to hammer this idea into the stubborn minds and hearts of the people who made up the church in the pagan city of Corinth. Just goes to show that even if you’re community it doesn’t mean you don’t have problems. And they had problems. Boy, did they have problems.
Paul first got wind of it when he was visited by “Chloe’s people.” They appeared on his doorstep with a message. Things back in the church at Corinth had deteriorated since he last was there. Bottom line: that which was meant to be holy had become an unholy mess. In the process, that to which the church needed to give its attention was being unheeded.
The gospel wasn’t being shared, immorality had crept into the church and nothing was being done about it, some were talking in tongues while the others, who were obviously not as spiritually erudite, didn’t have a clue as to what was being said. When it came time to commemorate the Lord’s Supper, those who considered themselves spiritually superior made sure they were served first… On and on it went.
Frankly, Paul, Chloe’s people tell him, it doesn’t even begin to resemble the church you knew when you were there. Chloe wants you to know about all this. She thought you would want to know that in our beloved church in Corinth there is not much community.
And indeed, Paul does want to know. Though he is grieved by what he hears, he still wants to know. He has a personal stake in the church, to be sure. But more importantly, he has a stake in Jesus. When conflicts arise within the church, it is Jesus who is being harmed, not Paul. Jesus had done so much for him, the least he could do is try and see that Christ is glorified. There is no glory in dissension. There is no grace in conflict. Paul had to do something about this painful situation. The only thing he can do is write the Corinthian church and try to convince them to straighten up and fly right.
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Eventually, Paul gets to the part we read this morning, where he discusses spiritual gifts. “Now there are varieties of gifts,” he says to them, “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.”
And when he gets around to naming those gifts, guess what? There’s nothing extraordinary about them. Paul isn’t trying to build a super church with super gifts, or superbly gifted people. They’re really quite ordinary indeed. He talks about wisdom and knowledge. Okay, he does mention healing and miracles, but they are no more important to Paul than prophecy and discernment. He mentions those too. In fact, he doesn’t cite anything to the Corinthians that doesn’t exist around here… in spades. He’s writing to the first-century church in Corinth, but he is also saying this to every church that bears the name of Jesus, in every age, in all places and circumstances.
Okay, we understand that. What Paul says applies to us as well. So, what is he trying to tell us? He’s telling us that we who make up this church are not all exactly alike. And we didn’t know that already? He says that when we bring together our diverse and varied gifts, our unique and individual personalities, and pile them all up together in the same place, we make for community. And in that community we are united together for one common purpose.
So what is it that unites us as a people of God? Is it agreement? No, Paul doesn’t list agreement as one of the criteria for community. I know this is hard to believe, but did you know we have both Democrats and Republicans in this church? Might even have a few Ralph Nader/Green Party folk, though no one has admitted that to me. I know firsthand that there are very good friends — very good friends — in these very pews this morning who are on opposite sides politically. They cancel each other out every time they vote. That may even be true of married couples, but we won’t go there.
We have people here who are doggedly tied to the Southern Baptist Convention and others who have jumped on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship bandwagon. We even have some members who don’t give a hoot or a holler about either one, don’t have a denominational bone in their bodies, and don’t even care that much that this is a Baptist church. They just know it’s the church for them. I’m not saying that is good or bad. I’m just saying it is, so please don’t shoot the messenger.
There are some people here who would proudly wear the banner of being theologically conservative while others think the idea of being liberal is pretty cool. There are folks here who are Chevy people and others who swear by Ford. But there are a couple of Cadillacs and Hyundais in the parking lot too. It should be quite obvious that we are not united by agreement on all things.
We are not united by our common experiences. If we were, we would be a church only of old people. Or our membership would be composed solely of young, growing families. I’ve even known of a church or two that built its membership on teenagers. Go figure. But look around you. What do you see? I see people of all ages, whose experiences with life are varied according to age and circumstances and desires. We are not united by these things.
Years ago, Janet and I were at a Sunday School party held at the home of one of our deacons. As I recall, it was spring time and the weather was nice, so we were grilling burgers and eating outside. As dusk began settling over the beautiful middle Tennessee valley where they lived, Jerry, our host, went inside to turn on the floodlights, located under the eaves at the corners of his house. When the lights came on, we noticed for the first time a large, ornate spider web that had been woven just under one of the lights. The spider was still working on his beautiful creation (Come to think of it, do spiders ever finish their webs?). As we observed, the heat from the flood lamp began to penetrate the web, which obviously had taken a long time to construct, and we watched in quiet reflection as the spider web gradually, gradually dissolved.
That has always been something of a parable for me. In fact, I’ve taken several lessons from that experience. I’ll just mention one this morning, however. There are some things – usually unnecessary things – that dissolve under the hot lamp of intensity. When you peel away the unnecessary layers we tend to wrap around our life experiences, and we are left with our basic human needs, what do we find? We find what makes us a community.
After all, as Paul says, we have a variety of gifts. Some are good at some things while others are good at doing something else. There is one Spirit, Paul says, but when the Spirit dispenses gifts to us they come out varied and different. But when we put all these gifts together, we form community.
So what is it that binds us together, that makes us community? Let us understand, to the point that there is no doubt whatsoever… Christ is what holds us together. Certainly not our political persuasion or opinions. Not our style of worship or even where we worship, not our denominational allegiance or lack thereof. It is Christ, and Christ alone, who holds us together in a common purpose of worship and ministry.
Paul refers to it, in his letter to the Corinthians, as our common baptism. This is the time of the year, the season of Epiphany, when the church universal emphasizes baptism. We who are baptized in Christ have a bond that nothing can break. When disagreements come, and they always do, if we will keep our eyes on Christ and love one another in his name, our arguments will dissipate like that spider web, will literally fall apart, in the light of his presence.
Do you think Paul was naive to believe that such unity is really possible? Perhaps he was, but being naive has nothing to do with it. Having faith in the power that unites people in Christ, on the other hand, has everything to do with it. We are not programmed to have the same thoughts and ideas, to all be alike. Being community is to keep our eyes, our focus, on the only thing that truly and ultimately matters. Actually, I should say on the only One who ultimately matters.
So let us mark it and mark it well: we are bound together by our devotion to Christ. Nothing else – nothing else – matters. The light of Jesus’ presence illuminates our deeds and encourages us to unite in him, even when we disagree. It is the only way to be followers of the One who gave his life for us. It is the only way to live out the promise of our baptism, to be the community of Christ.
Lord, make us one with you because we have given ourselves unreservedly to the One who has given himself for us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.