a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21
preached on January 31, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Since we didn’t have worship together here, what did you do last Sunday? Did you sleep in and enjoy the beautiful snowscape from the warmth of your bed or couch? Did you get up and start clearing your sidewalk or digging out your car, trying to get at least a few of those 26 inches of snow cleared away before having to venture out on Monday morning? Did you find an online devotional or streaming service where you could set aside even a little of the day for worship?
I myself actually did all three of these things, but beforehand I took advantage of our snow Sunday by watching soccer. Watching soccer is something of a surprising hobby for me—I only played one season of it as a child, and I spent about half of that season sidelined at home with chicken pox!—and I only picked up interest in it as an adult three or four years ago. But now I am a season ticket holder for the New York Red Bulls and I spend far too many hours sitting on my couch watching soccer, mostly from the United States and England. Before these last few years, I’ve not been much of a sports fan in general, only watching the major championships here and there and not really taking up support of any particular team along the way. But now I watch three or four games a week on average, and I’ve started to learn more about the different strategies that get played out along the way.
I’m particularly interested in how teams get put together, especially in the American Major League Soccer. Some of these teams are built around highly-paid star players, with supporting casts made up of those who can fill in the gaps without breaking the salary cap. Other teams bring in stars who have made a name for themselves in other parts of the world but are now a little—or a lot—past their prime, hoping that the wise presence of these veterans will rub off on the young guys who fill in the other nine or ten positions on the field. And other teams put together a roster of young unknowns who may not play quite so wisely or quite so perfectly but who come together as a team to build on one another’s strengths and fill in one another’s weaknesses.
The body of Christ, the church, operates in similar ways. While we are not quite a team in the traditional competitive sense, we are certainly a group of people with different gifts who come together for a common purpose, and each little corner of the body approaches its form in a different way. The apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear in our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning. Paul insists that we are one body—one body with many members who come together to be something more than we would be on our own; one body that belongs together, even when we think that we could do things better on our own; one body that benefits from the gifts that each one of us offers; one body that treats one another with honor and respect; and one body that goes wherever we may go together.
Paul’s image of the body of Christ is incredibly helpful for most people to understand how different people come together to be the church, as it invites us all to think about how we fit into the body of Christ. We are part of something larger than ourselves, and we can see this so clearly when this approach is before us. And we all have a part to play in the life of the church, whether it be as an arm, a toe, an eye, a stomach, or even a hangnail! Today is a great day to remember these things, for as we gather after worship today to do the work of our congregation in our annual meeting, as we elect officers and hear reports looking back and looking forward, we are reminded very, very well of the ways in which we all contribute to the life and work of this part of the body of Christ.
But when we our focus is on how the body of Christ comes together, as it is here, it is easy to miss the deeper call of what we do together. When we spend most of our time wondering how we fit into the body of Christ, we are thinking about the parts, not the whole. When we are focused on the very helpful and generous gifts of the individual arms and legs and hands that make up the body, we can easily miss the need for all these parts to work together for a common purpose. And when we miss the ways in which the different parts of the body are united into one, we forget that the gifts of the Spirit come upon us all—the hands, the feet, the arms, the eyes, and even the hangnails—to guide us as we join in God’s work in the world.
The words of Jesus himself in our reading from Luke this morning point us toward our common purpose as the body of Christ. As his continuing body on earth, we the church are called to fulfill the scripture once again, just as he did:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon [us],
because [God] has anointed [us]
to bring good news to the poor.
[God] has sent [us] to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This week at our presbytery meeting, I think I got a better understanding of all these things than I have had in quite a while. On Tuesday, the presbytery approved the service of a ruling elder from the Church of Gethsemane in Brooklyn to broaden his ministry and perform the sacraments in this congregation and in their ministry in prison. This congregation does incredible ministry and mission among the incarcerated, and this elder who we commissioned on Tuesday began his connection with this church when he himself was in prison. Now there is a strong gospel command to share good news with those in prison, to visit those who are in jail, to care for those who are held captive in whatever way, but for a variety of reasons, this has not been a part of my own personal ministry. Yet on Tuesday, the body of Christ honored and supported one of its parts who is very much called to do this work. We laid hands on Chibueze and affirmed his call to be a part of our body, to witness to God’s presence in a place where it is all too often invisible. We recognized that not all of us have the gifts we need to do the kind of work that he does, and so we commissioned him to proclaim release to the captives, trusting that God would use our gifts in the body to support his gifts in the body, too. And we charged him to be the body of Christ in his work in ways that others of us are not gifted and called to do.
As we go into our annual meeting today, I invite you not just to think about the gifts that you bring to this little corner of the body of Christ on the corner of 149th Street and 15th Drive but also to wonder together about how the Spirit is upon us. How are we being anointed, together, to do the work that Jesus began and called us to continue? How is the Spirit leading us to proclaim release to the captives of our own time, to help people see in new ways where they have been blinded for so long and open the pathway of life to the oppressed? How is God working in our midst to help us to show that this is a season of the Lord’s favor, not of God’s condemnation? Thankfully we don’t have to do all these things ourselves—as the commissioning service at presbytery reminded me, not all of us are called to every important work of the church, and we as a congregation may not be called to do all of these things that are before us from Jesus’ proclamation—but we are most certainly called to use our individual gifts for the good of the whole body.
As we enter the second month of 2016, I feel that we are probably closer to this work than we have been in a long time, for in 2015 I saw a new sense of mission and outreach in our life together, with our focus on the Orange Campaign and Presbyterian mission in Madagascar taking center stage, and I am hopeful that this new year will see this work continue to grow. But as we do these things, how will each of us get involved? What will be your role in the body of Christ in this time? Will you be the legs that do the walking, the arms and hands that do the writing or typing, the eyes that keep looking for other ways to get involved, the ears that listen to the voices of those who need help, the hangnail that keeps on reminding us that there is more to be done, or some other part of the body? It is much like the decision we each faced last Sunday: how will we spend the time that is before us? How will we worship and praise and serve God, each in our own way, yet joining together as best we can to do God’s work in this time and place?
So may God give us wisdom for our worship and work, so that together we may truly be the body of Christ, individually members of it, proclaiming the good news of God in word and in deed until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.