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2-10-19 — Body Building — 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Anyone who has been married more than three weeks knows that you have to be selective about where you put your foot down. You don’t live with your spouse long before you start to discover that she or he does some weird things. You’d always heard that there were people who squeezed the toothpaste tube in the middle without rolling it up from the bottom, but you never dreamed you’d live with one. Who in the world folds towels like that? Your family does what for Christmas? If a marriage is going to last, you have to put the relationship first, above your individual preferences. You have to go beyond thinking about how I do things or how you do things to thinking about how we do things. And since my wife isn’t here this morning, I’m going to admit that I’m really glad that she’s changed me to do lots of things her way.

       Paul was writing to people who were in a marriage of sorts, although it was more like an arranged marriage. In Corinth people from every race and class and level of education had been brought together to worship and serve Jesus Christ. Not only were they from very different backgrounds, they had come to Jesus by different ways. Some had ecstatic out of body experiences where they spoke in tongues. Some had been miraculously healed. Some of them had dramatic encounters with Jesus who turned their lives around on the spot. They could tell you the exact date and time that he had changed them forever. Others had come to him gradually, through a slow and deliberate process of learning and nurture. Each one thought his or her experience  was the one and only way to come to Jesus. For many whose experience of the Holy Spirit was so powerful, they couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to Jesus any other way. Some insisted that speaking in tongues was how you knew if a person was really a follower of Jesus. Those who could pinpoint the moment they were saved were adamant that if you couldn’t name the moment, then you weren’t a believer. Those who had been miraculously healed were certain that unless you’d experienced a miracle you hadn’t met Jesus.

       About the only thing many of the Christians in Corinth had in common with each other was their faith in Christ, and many of them weren’t sure about that. The church there was like one of those families that you look at and wonder how the siblings who are so different from one another could have been reared under the same roof. In making sense out of that diverse family of faith, the church, Paul uses a different metaphor. He describes the church as a body. Each part of a body has a different function. The eye and the ear do different things. They are put together differently and they function differently. Different parts of the body have a different perspective on things. The way your hands interact with the world up here is different from the way your feet interact with the world down on the ground. But for all their differences, the parts of the body exist for the good of the whole. A hand that is cut off from the body is useless, and the body suffers for the loss. That’s how it is with Christ’s body, the church. There is lots of diversity, but it all works for the common good.

       Now, in many ways what Paul is describing goes against nature. If you ever took physics, you learned about Newton’s laws of thermodynamics that describe how the natural world works. If there were natural laws like that describing people, one of the laws of social dynamics would be that people tend to split apart to be with others like themselves. And the longer they are together, the more they realize how different they are from each other, so there is always a shifting among groups of people trying to find those with whom they’re most comfortable.

       It’s so much easier to break apart and form separate tribes than it is to work together for the common good. We build walls to define our kind and to keep out those who are different. But the book of Ephesians in the New Testament says that Christ came to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. That is what makes the church so different. It is the place where Christ brings together those who, if they followed their natural instincts, would be apart.

Now, that doesn’t mean that in Christ we are all the same. Paul writes, “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 of the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”

If Christ’s body consists of many different parts, we need to know what makes our part distinctive so we can do our best for the common good. For instance, one of the things that make Presbyterians distinct from other parts of the church are our conviction that God calls us to service as well as salvation. We’re not saved just to get our ticket to heaven, but so we can serve the world in the name of Christ. So we’re a church that is involved in the world. We don’t just sit in our sanctuaries and enjoy being saved. Another thing that makes us distinctive is that we have a disciplined concern for order. We resonate with Paul’s advice elsewhere in 1 Corinthians that all things should be done decently and in order. We shun ostentation and try to be good stewards of God’s creation. We recognize the power of human sin and our tendency to selfishness, so we have a healthy skepticism for all human endeavors. We don’t think that any human institution, whether government or corporations or churches is perfect and beyond need of repair.

Presbyterians aren’t the only ones who value those things. We just emphasize them more than some other branches of the church do. And we have more in common with other parts of the church than we have differences. With Baptists and Episcopalians and Roman Catholics and all Christians we affirm that we know God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We trust in the saving death of Christ on the cross and his promise of resurrection to eternal life. We affirm that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our rule for faith and for life.

Over the years, as we’ve split apart from each other, it usually seemed like the right thing to do at the time. If the church is a body, then bodies do get infections. Pathogens grow in the body that don’t belong there, and if the body is going to be healthy, it has to get rid of the germs. Elsewhere in the Bible, Paul warns against false teachings. There is such a thing as heresy and wrong doctrine. It’s important that we be vigilant and self-critical so that what we proclaim is the truth. But Paul is clear that what is most highly valued is the unity that shows the world that there is one Christ, not many versions of him. God, in God’s Providence, has made the most out of our differences. Over the years, even as we’ve divided into separate traditions and denominations and congregations, we’ve learned from one another in ways that have enriched our faith. We no longer burn heretics or drown Anabaptists like they did in centuries past. The Holy Spirit keeps showing us over and over that no one part of the church has it all, and we are strengthened by other parts of the body of Christ who do things differently.

One of the most powerful witnesses of a local congregation can be how it brings together diverse people to worship and serve the Lord. American Presbyterians don’t do too well reflecting the racial or ethnic diversity of our communities, but we often reflect a diversity of perspectives. Once I was preaching in a congregation that I admire very much. Standing in the pulpit I looked out over the congregation and sitting in one of the pews near the front was one of the presbytery’s strongest opponents of the ordination of homosexuals. Just down from him was the president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays who was leading the fight for their ordination. In one part of the sanctuary was one of the biggest contributors to the state Republican party, and nearby was a Democratic activist. Some people say that the church has to take a stand against the culture by coming down on one side or the other on the issues of the culture wars. But that church was being truly counter-cultural. They didn’t sweep those under the rug. They had some lively discussions in their Sunday school classes about hot-button issues. But the people respect each other and trust that the Holy Spirit, working among them when they’re together, will lead them to see things and do things that they would never do on their own, separated from those who disagree with them on certain things.

Paul told the Corinthians to strive for the greater gifts. Those are the things that draw us together in love, so the world will know that there is one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all in all. To him be the glory and the power now and forever. Amen.

2-3-19 — Into The Light — Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:19-36a — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Every Sunday people come into this sanctuary wishing to see Jesus, people who are responding to some deep longing to make sense out of life, looking to find meaning and purpose in what they do. 

       I remember at one church I served, a young man would slip in the back just as worship started and slip out during the closing hymn.  I noticed him doing that for months.  He never introduced himself or signed the fellowship pad that was passed down the pew during the service.  One day I got a call from someone wanting to come by the church and talk to me.  When he came into my study I recognized him as this mysterious man.  He explained to me that he was trying to put his life back on track after some fits and starts.  He had a rough hitch in the Army after high school.  He’d tried going to college but had a hard time of it.  He had some issues with substance abuse.  He was looking for something, he wasn’t quite sure what, and wondered if what he was looking for could be found at church.  To make a long story short, he found what he was looking for and was baptized.  Soon he moved away, but I heard from him occasionally.  He got a steady job, started going to graduate school at night and joined a congregation near his new home.  What he had been looking for was given to him by Jesus, whom he encountered on those Sundays he sat in the back row.

       There’s something that draws people to Jesus, something about him that resonates with the depths of the human soul.  Right after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, some people approached Philip, one of his disciples, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can imagine Philip responding to that request the way people respond to so much in the John’s gospel – by misunderstanding what is going on.  John’s gospel is almost comic in that way.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that the way to eternal life is to be born again and Nicodemus thinks he’s talking about obstetrics.  Jesus tells the crowd he is the bread of life and they think he’s talking about dinner.  Philip hears some people say they wish to see Jesus and he starts to arrange a cameo celebrity appearance. 

       But Jesus always knows what’s really going on.  He knows what we are really looking for.  Those Greeks weren’t celebrity spotting. They weren’t looking to see the latest personality in the news cycle.  They were looking for life’s meaning and purpose.  They were looking for the one who could call forth in them something that they felt was there but couldn’t bring forth. So, instead of giving them his autograph, Jesus gave them life. He spoke to their deepest need.

       Jesus began by being straight with them. Soon he would die and be buried. His body would be placed in a grave, the way a seed is planted in the chilly and barren soil of spring.  Whoever wants the new life he gives has to follow him. They have to allow the old self to die. Like a seed that germinates, he would be raised, and as that seed grows, straining toward the light of the sun, it produces fruit to feed the hungry and sustain life. So, you want to see Jesus? He is on the cross. He is lifted up to be buried. He dies to be raised. We give our old self to him to receive the new self we were made to become.

       It’s a challenge to talk about all this because human language is inadequate to describe what Jesus does. Jesus uses metaphors to describe who he is and what he does, images that we can understand which lead us to a deeper meaning. He says he is a good shepherd, although he doesn’t really tend sheep. He says he is living water, but we know he’s not liquid. There are so many metaphors describing Jesus in the Bible because none of them is adequate to describe him. Sometimes he mixes metaphors in a way that my high school English teacher would disapprove. In this one passage, he switches from describing himself as seed which has to die to the metaphor of light. He tells those who are looking for him to walk in the light.

When you turn on a light in a dark room, what you thought was one thing turns out to be something different.  When something is hidden in the shadows, it fools us.  In the dark what is bad can look good and what is good can look bad.  The shadow we thought was an intruder crouching in the dark turns out to be a quilt spread over the chair.  When we see something in the light, we know it for what it really is. 

       Jesus casts light on those deep longings that draw us to him.  He shows us that what we yearn for is our deepest and truest self.  In Jesus we find who we truly are.  You see, we were created in God’s own image.  To say that we are made in the image of God doesn’t mean that God physically looks like you or I. It means that God made us to reflect the essence of God.  And God is love, love that gives for others. We see what that love looks like in Jesus, who gave himself for us. 

       It’s hard to make sense of that kind of self-giving love apart from the cross. Without the light of the cross, the love that sacrifices itself for others looks like a recipe for failure and death. 

       The novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote in the mid 20th century, has been growing in popularity in recent years. Many political leaders who have come to power lately cite her as their inspiration for the vision they offer their countries. In her books like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Rand praises individualism, maximizing the self, and advocates a Darwinian belief that the way for society to thrive is to support those who are strong and leave the weak and helpless to fend for themselves. You hear many of those positions advocated in the current political debates. A magazine devoted to Rand’s philosophy, which is called Objectivism, proclaims that “Altruism [selfless concern for others] is not good for one’s life.  If accepted and practiced consistently, it leads to death.  This is what Jesus did….  An altruist might not die from his morality – so long as he cheats on it – but nor will he live fully….  Why not live a life of happiness?  Why sacrifice at all?  What reason is there to do so?  In the entire history of philosophy, the number of answers to this question is exactly zero.”[1]

       Jesus beams light on that argument that seems to make so much common sense, that philosophy that says we have to look out for ourselves first.  He exposes it by beaming the light of love, God’s love that gives itself for us. Now, this isn’t the kind of anxious self-sacrifice that tries to win approval.  It’s not the kind of compulsive giving that wears you down because you’re desperate to be loved.  The kind of giving to which Jesus calls us is the kind of giving that brings life because you’re confident you’re already loved and accepted completely by God through Jesus. You don’t give of yourself to win love. You give of yourself because you are loved.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, a group of people from the church where I was pastor in Louisville went to help with the rebuilding. They stayed in a temporary village of trailers set up by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program. The man in charge of the village was a man named Victor.  He was the one who told the other volunteers where to find the supplies they needed.  He worked alongside them all day mucking mud out of houses and tearing out wet drywall. When the others returned to the village to collapse from exhaustion, Victor pulled out the lawn mower and cut the grass. 

After the people from the church had been there a few days, someone told them Victor’s story. Victor was a homeless man from Indianapolis.  Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis had worked with him when he was out on the street, and when they put together a team to go help the hurricane victims, they invited Victor to join them.  After the team from Indianapolis had been working for a week, it was time to return home.  Victor informed the team he was going to stay for a few more weeks.  He asked the team members if they would keep an eye on his belongings that he had stashed under a bridge in Indianapolis.  This homeless man threw himself into the work of rebuilding homes for those whom the hurricanes had made like him – homeless. He saw Jesus there among those Christians who were pouring themselves out for others because Jesus poured himself out for them.

Those Greeks who wanted to see Jesus made their request to Philip because they knew he was a friend of Jesus. That young man who sat in the back of sanctuary in the church I served came to worship because he knew it was a place where he might see Jesus. Victor saw Jesus because that light shone through those whom the light of the cross led to New Orleans.

       Jesus showed the power of love when he died on the cross.  He showed how love overcomes everything that can hurt or destroy us, from the power of a category 5 hurricane to the power of addiction, to the power of human hatred.  He gave his life for us so we can give our lives for others.  It’s in that self-giving love that we discover who we are and why we are here.  It’s a light that shines on our souls and lets us see everything differently, starting with ourselves. The opening of John’s gospel says it best: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 


[1] “Rand Redux,” The New York Times, “The Week in Review,” March 26, 2006, p. 3.