A Homily for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who unites us into his Body. Amen.
The church in ancient Corinth, the recipient of today’s letter from Saint Paul, was situated in a context not so very different from the Church today in Macon. Corinth was a city divided. The population split along social and economic lines, along religious lines, along ethnic lines. These divisions seeped into the church, where those who had converted from the polytheistic religions of the day clashed with those who had been raised in the Jewish community. These early Christians argued about who was baptized by whom. They debated whether one could eat meat butchered in pagan temples. They even argued about proper hair length. The rich valued themselves above the poor, so much so that the wealthy, who didn’t have to labor long hours and who would pay for the food and wine used in the Eucharist, would gather before the working class could depart their places of employment, feasting on the bread of life getting drunk on the blood of Christ while leaving only scraps for their poorer siblings.
In last week’s epistle reading, we saw yet another division among the Corinthians, this one rooted in the gifts of Spirit: as if to say those given the gift of speaking in the multiple tongues of humans and angels were somehow better or worse than those with the gift of prophetic preaching, that those who had the gift of healing were superior to those who could work other miracles. At the end of the chapter, which we read today, Saint Paul encourages them instead of focusing on who has what gifts to “strive for the greater gifts.”
How similar the Church is today. That same impulse towards lofty ambition, towards human-made divisions still tempts the Church in the 21st century. In our present age, during this most segregated hour in America, we see these same divisions of black churches and white churches, of wealthy and middle class and poor churches, of fierce debates over theological minutiae and musical styles.
Even more insidious in this age is the impulse towards individualism, the idea that the Christian faith can somehow be boiled down to “me and my Jesus,” dividing us down even further to solitary, isolated Christians. Decades of that distinctly American sense of individualism have undermined the truth of the Gospel, spreading the misunderstanding that the Christian faith can be reduced to “my personal relationship with Jesus,” a singular knowledge of Christ as “my Savior.” This, in turn, leads to the notion that I alone can be my own little church, a congregation of one. And if I am my own church, what need have I to wake up on Sunday morning, sing a few old songs, sit through a lecture, and snack on a stale cracker? If Jesus saved me, why do I need other Christians, especially those who might annoy me? In approaching our faith this way, in lifting up the individualistic, we have unwittingly sewn the seeds of our own gradual death, nailing shut our own coffin.
Saint Paul’s good news to the church in ancient Corinth is the same as it is to us today: By God’s grace, we are united in the Body of Christ. Our faith may be personal – I pray that it is – as personal as becoming one flesh – but it is never private; it is never something that is done alone. A Christian cannot faithfully live in solitary confinement apart from their kindred.
No, the Church is catholic – universal, spanning outside our culturally-imposed isolation, outside these walls, crossing our own sectarian lines, across national borders, and across the ages. The Christian faith cannot exist outside of this catholic community.
We are are, Paul says, members of Christ, parts of his true Body. Sever a member from the body, and it will wither and die. How can a hand live and function, Paul asks, if removed from the body? What good is foot without a leg linking it back to the whole? Even our most vital organs are connected to intricate systems. The brain, that most essential part of our humanity, cannot function without the heart and lungs to nourish it. The heart cannot beat without the brain and serves no purpose without the lungs to supply oxygen to the blood it pumps.
Just so, through our unity in Christ, we depend on each other: others who have different gifts from the one Holy Spirit, who read Scripture through a different lens and ask questions that challenge us in new ways. We come together for Bible study not so that I can hand down the correct answers received from on high but so that we may open this book and explore the text together and hear the Holy Spirit moving in new ways through these ancient stories. We depend on other Christians who drive us absolutely nuts, who provoke us even to anger, and who provide us opportunities to forgive and to be forgiven. We come to worship on Sunday not because everyone here is perfect but because we are all imperfect, and here we encounter God’s grace and have the chance to extend that grace to each other. Here, we learn to love as God has first loved us. We, for all of our subtle and not-so-subtle differences, are united by one Lord and one faith through the Sacraments. Here, right here, we are united into the Body of Christ together by God’s grace.
In Baptism, we are joined to Christ’s body through these waters and the Holy Spirit. And in that one baptism, we are joined to each other as well. Emerging from these waters, we no longer belong to ourselves but to God and to one another. One Lutheran text states it clearly:
Individuals are baptized, yet this Baptism forms a community.
Joined together by God’s grace in this sacred mystery, we become one body, and now we cannot live without each other.
In the Eucharist, the Body of Christ is made present in our midst. We hear every week our Lord’s words: “This is my body,” promises Christ. And beloved, we are members of that Body. As one Methodist Eucharistic prayer implores the Holy Spirit:
Make [these gifts of bread and wine] be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
Here, at the table, is Christ’s body. For you. And here, in these pews, is Christ’s body. For you. And out there, in pews across town and across the world, be they Methodist or Catholic or Presbyterian or Baptist, be they black or white, be they Arab or German or Mexican or German, is the Body of Christ. For you. In this divine service, we come to make our Holy Communion with the Body of Christ. Through it, we are re-united not just with the Triune God but with each other as well.
In these blessed Sacraments, we are set free from sin, the devil, and death. In them we see, taste, and feel God’s forgiveness. And in these same Sacraments, we are set free for each other. We are no longer individuals going it alone but members of Christ. We are set free to be the body of Christ for the world. We are set free to forgive.
Here, in these waters, we are grafted into the Body of Christ.
Here, at this table, we are fed with Christ’s body.
And as we depart here in loving service to our Lord, we are Christ’s body.
We are Christ’s eyes, seeing those who have been so long overlooked. We are Christ’s ears, hearing the cries of those who mourn. We are Christ’s wounded hands and pierced feet, carrying this liberty to the ends of the earth and serving those in need. We are Christ’s mouth, proclaiming release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor.