Sunday, January 24, 2016

Being one

A Sermon preached on Sunday January 24th Epiphany III at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

50 years and one day ago, on Sunday 23rd January 1966 our church burned down. According to Hilary Norman’s book: “The fire completely gutted the interior of the church. The roof was destroyed and the tower had to be pulled down during the Sunday afternoon … as it was in danger of collapse. Both the harmonium and the new organ (two weeks away from completion) were destroyed. The font was destroyed by falling beams …. The carpets and pews were damaged beyond restoration.”[1] So almost everything you see inside the church is new. What was left was the charred corpus of the crucifix that now hangs at the back of the church and I think has become an even more potent symbol of Christ’s suffering on the cross, That burned wood beam of the rood screen under the railing of the choir loft and the picture of St. Augustine that unlike its companion picture of King Ethelbert was not in the building at the time.

But that’s not actually true – all of the church was left, because the church was and is not the building, but the people who make up the worshiping and serving community here. Amazingly Holy Communion – using the processional cross, candlestick and altar cross that were salvaged, was celebrated that Sunday morning at the nearby US military Community Center and within a year, on January 22nd 1967, the church building was re-consecrated thanks to the hard work, support and generosity both of the members of this church and of the many friends in Wiesbaden and beyond. I think it’s an amazing story and a wonderful illustration of Paul’s metaphor of the body of Christ that we heard read this morning. They understood and lived out what Paul tells the Corinthians: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26) Thinking about our current restoration and renewal program, which seems so trivial in comparison to what our forebears had to deal with, it renews my optimism and confidence that we will complete that program successfully. But that's also why I am so insistent that every single parishioner contributes to our Capital Campaign, not just the third who have done so far, just as it is our target every member is a regular pledger. Not just or even mainly because of the financial aspect, welcome as it will be, but because of the unity and the care for the whole that it symbolizes. Together we are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:27)

You see, fire or other disasters cannot destroy a church, only division and strife can do that. The Christians in Corinth were divided into factions and groups and their young church was wracked by conflict. And so St. Paul uses the metaphor of the body of Christ to teach them some important lessons. No one member can say to another “I have no need of you” he warns. No one person or function is more important than another, all are needed. If all were a single member, where would the body be? If the people of St. Augustine’s had been divided in 1966, or focused on issues of fault, we would not be here now. And of course we have an experience in our much more recent history to remind us of the dangers of division and dissension. This church very nearly destroyed itself three years ago when the differences and disagreement that are a very normal part of living together were not managed properly and the church started to split into rival factions. 

We are still together, and still one church and I believe stronger than before, because we accept one another, with all our differences, and because we worked together and focused on one goal: being a single, united, visible, credible witness to Jesus Christ here in the center of Wiesbaden. Even more recently, just last week in fact, we saw a similar situation play out at a global level at the Primate’s meeting. There was a clear desire on the part of some of the Anglican Church leaders to remove one or more members, TEC and the ACoC, from the body because of, and I quote, “differences among us in regard to our teaching on matters of human sexuality.” But the result was a “unanimous decision … to walk together … despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ.”[2] It would appear that one or more of the participants actually knows and reads Paul’s letters. 

But seriously, the reason we have these letters in our canon, in our scriptures is that although Paul wrote them to specific communities and was addressing specific local issues, both the issues and his teaching about them remain relevant today. I was less than happy with the statements made prior to the meeting by some Global South primates that if we were not thrown out, they would leave. But I’m also not happy with statements made by members of our own church after the event that we should leave and we can do without the Communion, and that we are better off alone and should focus on our local issues. That not only ignores the reality of the body of Christ and St. Paul’s teaching that we cannot say “I have no need of you.” But it also ignores the reality of our global, inter-dependent world. The right reaction is our Presiding Bishop Michael’s reaction:  to make it part of our “vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us today …. To be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed, and to love those with whom we disagree.”[3]
The body of Christ is not united because we all agree with one another about everything. It is united and one because we were all baptized into one body and because each Sunday we all drink of one Spirit. (12:12) Staying together, walking together is not about papering over cracks and keeping things as they are. Paul uses the image of the body also because a body is something dynamic, not static, and because a body grows and changes over time. At the end of today’s extract, after his little list of various possible functions he tells the Corinthians to “strive for greater gifts.” (12:31) Is he contradicting himself, and he wouldn’t be the first preacher to do so, and suddenly setting up a hierarchy of gifts and roles? Are those who go to Bible study more important than those who make coffee and cake, is a Vestry member more important than a Sunday school teacher, am I more important than an usher or member of the altar guild? 

No, certainly not. Remember this is a letter to a community, to a community that in Paul’s eyes needed to be more united and cohesive. When he tells the Corinthians – and us – to strive for the greater or higher gifts, he wants the whole community to strive together to make sure that as many gifts as possible – for example teaching, leading, healing, helping, and administering – are represented in the community, just as the body can only function properly if all the members - eyes, ears, hands, feet – are functioning and functioning well. It is a call for growth and development. This striving is not about personal ambition. Just two chapters later Paul makes clear what it is for when he comes back to the topic of spiritual gifts: “So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.” (14:12) That is why we are here. To build up the church and to better serve the world and one who is the head of the body, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

[1] The English Church in Wiesbaden: A History, Hilary Norman (2003), 141-2

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