1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-26
Before we jump into the text, I want to offer a little bit of background on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, since we haven’t spent much time outside of the Gospels lately. It is believed that Paul wrote this letter to the congregation in Corinth in 54 c.e., and though the title would lead one to believe it was his first letter, this is actually his second letter to the Corinthians – the first was never recovered and is lost to history. Corinth was a large and prospering urban center in what is now Greece. This congregation that Paul founded was predominantly Gentile and mirrored the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of the city’s population. Throughout other written works of Paul, we learn the names of many of the members of the congregation in Corinth, therefore we know that the congregation consisted of prominent individuals as well as persons with lower social standing. It is likely that the church in Corinth was somewhat of a ‘commuter’ church – small groups of believers situated in different areas of the city who would gather together as a church for a common meal and worship. (Furnish, Study Bible) Perhaps we might know something of this congregation here at Western…
Paul is writing this letter, most likely, in response to a letter he received from the Corinthians. He had received word of several disputes and disorders among the community that “seem to have been nurtured by particular religious views that…departed in significant ways from the gospel he had preached in Corinth. [As you can see in this letter, though pastoral in tone,] Paul is critical of those who boast that they possess special religious “wisdom” or “knowledge” and who regard certain spiritual gifts…as evidence of a higher spiritual status” (Furnish).
You see, what was happening was that a small faction in the church began to believe that one spiritual gift should be heralded as more important than the others. In this case, the spiritual gift being heralded was the gift of speech, and it became something of a benchmark for holiness. If one had the gift of ecstatic speech, they were considered holier, wiser, more righteous, and more qualified to make decisions for the body than those with other gifts. And thus, conformity slowly became model of unity for the community. Which brings us to our text for this morning. Eventually, Paul finds out about what’s been going on in the Corinthian church, and he responds by reminding them to reflect on what it means “to have been called by God from their pagan past into a new life in Christ Jesus” (Furnish).
So, let us listen for a Word from God through the first letter from Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verses 1, and then 4-26. Let us pray:
We are gifted with ears to hear, with eyes to see, with feet to walk, with arms to embrace – activate us with your Spirit, O God, and let us hear your Word anew. Amen.
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.
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. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
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. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
I don’t know how many of you here today went through the Confirmation process when you were younger, but I remember my experience – I was in the 10th grade when I went through Confirmation in a Presbyterian congregation in North Carolina. You see, I was all ready and excited to go through it in 9th grade but my family moved from Connecticut to North Carolina the summer before my 9th grade year, and when we arrived in North Carolina, the confirmation class at the church where we joined was for 7th graders. As the new-girl in school and the new-girl in church, I was not about to subject myself to going to a confirmation class with all the 7th graders when I was already in high school…it didn’t take me long to realize that I would just keep getting older and the class would always be 7th graders so I finally agreed to take the class when I was in 10th grade.
The class was fairly traditional – I imagine it didn’t look much different from many of your experiences. We memorized Bible passages and creeds. I’m sure we talked about a lot of different theological topics and sought to answer questions posed by our ministers. I remember going on a field trip once or twice, and we had to write a Statement of Faith to present to the Session at the end of the year. We each had a mentor in the congregation – an adult that wasn’t one of our family members – to get together with from time to time. My mentor was Sally Goettel – we still keep in touch…in fact, she came with me to my final assessment for ordination nearly 10 years later. Confirmation was a good experience for me – but, truth be told, after that class, I only saw about half of my classmates again. Out of the 14 of us who were confirmed on June 2, 1996, I would venture to say that only 2 or 3 of us are connected to a faith community today. Perhaps you might relate to that too – but, that’s a different sermon for another time.
Confirmation is a process that we, as a tradition and denomination, value. It is a time that we believe is important – it is important to invest in our youth and to follow through with our baptismal promises to teach our children about our faith. But, what is important to remember is that it is “confirmation” not “conformation” – “confirmation” spelled with an “i” not an “o.” Because, often, when we talk about teaching our faith to young people, what gets lost in that process is the focus of our Scripture lesson for today.
Historically, the intention of Confirmation was to teach the tradition – to teach younger generations about what the older generations have learned and have built. But, as movements in the culture of religious life in America have indicated, “Conformity to anachronistic forms of church will not advance God’s kingdom in this world [any longer]” (Vest). You see, Confirmation students today have had a completely different experience of the world and of God in the world than many of us – including myself. I was in college when 9/11 happened while these confirmands have never known a world before then, nor have they known a world without the internet or smart-phones or social media. Our ministry together cannot be about conformity nor about replicating the church from generation to generation for the sake of tradition. However, our ministry together can be about acknowledging the diverse parts of the body and working together to identify what God is doing in the world. Together, we can be attentive to following God into an unknown future, guided by the Spirit and Jesus’ commandment to love God and to love one another.
This past Tuesday evening, the Session held its monthly meeting and our Confirmation students were present for the first hour and half – and the conversation was lively and meaningful. Instead of presenting their statements of faith, like many of us may have done in the past, they came to the meeting equipped with their ideas and their questions, and for about an hour, the session broke up into small groups with the confirmands to engage in conversations about faith.
You see, throughout the year, the confirmation class spent a lot of time talking about various aspects of our faith life – worship, church, community, service, the Bible, our tradition, and so on – and through all of it, the other leaders and I kept asking them what they noticed about these things and what questions they provoked. At the Session meeting, the class wrestled with some of those wonderings of faith together with the elders – and here’s just a little taste of what was discussed – feel free to ponder the questions for yourself as well. We asked:
What do you notice about community?
“It takes time to build one,” One confirmand said. And, because she noticed this, she then wonders, “Why is it so hard to build community?”
What do you notice about Jesus?
One confirmand shared, “I think Jesus is supposed to be relatable which is why Jesus is portrayed as a human. But,” she asks, “is Jesus’ real body a human body?” Another confirmand noticed that Jesus “made sacrifices for the betterment of us” and she then asked “How did he come back to life and how did the people know he was going to be super special before he was born?” Another noticed that Jesus is “a leader who is supposed to be a perfect worshiper of God” but, he asks, “can there actually be a perfect worshipper of God?”
What do you notice about the presence of God?
One confirmand responded, “God’s presence is often a controversial topic and even though God is a driving force for religion,” she wonders, “why do so many people feel comforted by having faith in something so unknown?” Another noticed that, “God is everywhere and always forgives and is there when you need God most.” And yet, at the same she time wonders, “How do we know that God is everywhere?”
What do you notice about worship?
“There is quiet to think and reflect and people interpret the readings and the sermon in different ways,” one confirmand noticed. Which makes her wonder, “is everywhere an okay place to worship God?” And, that same reflection makes another wonder “should we spend more time thinking about our faith?”
And, finally, what do you notice about tradition?
One confirmand shares, “I notice that tradition is a necessary part of the church but not the most important part.” And because he notices this, he asks, “What will the new traditions be that we create?”
As you know, we are all susceptible to believing that the old adage ‘birds of a feather flock together’ is a better reflection of unity than the human body. But, Paul conjures a powerful image of the body of Christ – when it comes to the church. The body works best when it has a variety of body parts – not just mouths or not just feet. We need the wisdom and knowledge of our aged members and we need the curiosity and flexibility of the young working together to better discern God’s presence in the world. Privileging just the perspective of the aged, or just that of the young, hinders our ability to strive for the common good. It hinders our ability to discover what might happen when our collective wisdom, knowledge, curiosity and flexibility work together as one body. And, isn’t that amazing to consider ‘diversity’ as a gift from God to appreciate and practice in community?
Our task as a community of faith is not to perpetuate tradition for the sake of tradition, nor to perpetuate the church for the sake of our own comfort. Later in this service, when we confirm these young people and witness these seven individuals commit themselves to membership in this community, we are not to pat ourselves on the back for having brought in new members nor proudly check the box as “done” with another Confirmation Class under our belt. Rather, we are becoming a new community as these new voices add shape to our existence. We are adding new parts to our body today – hands, feet, eyes, legs – that make our body more diverse and more complete. Our responsibility as a new community of faith is to encourage and empower one another to bring our gifts and share with one another so that, together, we more deeply live into the fullness of God’s presence and love in the world.
Over the course of the last year, it has been my distinct pleasure and honor to spend time with these young people. We discussed questions from “is the virgin birth important?” to “what makes a Presbyterian a Presbyterian?” and exchanged ideas about how we might be in community with one another into the future. I can tell you now, they have important insights and meaningful questions – and by adding to the diversity of the body, they make our community stronger. They have ideas about activities and worship and tradition, just as we all do. And, as Paul suggests, all of us are called to discern how our multitude of gifts can work together to benefit the whole body. Each body part has a unique gift to offer the whole and each part, though different, is important and contributes to building up the body of Christ.
Conformity is not the expectation we have for anyone in this church – rather, we all have the opportunity to confirm our faith again in a loving and diverse God. Amazingly, each one of us is created in God’s image – and each one of us is absolutely unique, reflecting God’s diverse being and creation. Each one of us a full member of this community of faith, sharing our unique gifts for the betterment of all of us and to further God’s work in the world. As the body of Christ, what new traditions will we create together? What possibilities are ahead for us? What more will we learn about Christ in the world? How will we will usher in Christ’s justice and peace together?