Sermon by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
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.
So we return to Paul and his attempts to set right the errors of the church in Corinth. Last week he reminded them (and us) that spiritual gifts are for the community – given to each for the benefit of all. He was keen to draw them away from an understanding of spiritual gifts based on a kind of individual celebrity, spiritual one-upmanship. And now Paul continues his assault on individualised interpretations of the faith – and it is immediately obvious where the fault lines lie that are causing him concern. There are clearly divisions appearing, internal groups that are separating from each other – and the divisions are apparent between those who have come from a Greek background and those who have come from a Jewish background, and between those who are slaves and those who are free. And it may be that we can presume that these divisions were not unique to Corinth, not just from investigations into the early church, but also because this letter with its admonitions was deemed important enough to be included in the canon of scripture.
As we know, there was a strong early impulse to say that the followers of Jesus had to be Jewish, like Jesus had been, as his first disciples were. This ‘new way’ was a part of Judaism and if people wanted to follow it they had to become Jews. (It’s kind of the same argument that says that because Jesus was a man, and the twelve listed disciples were men, then those who would be ministers or priests also have to be men – and it makes as much sense.)
In fact, the separation of Christianity from Judaism took quite a long time to materialise in the minds of the followers of Jesus – though I suspect it was quicker to plant itself in the minds of those who remained within the traditional Jewish fold. And that is perhaps an indication of how quickly we are prone to dismiss those who offer or choose a new or alternative path.
Think of the history of the subsequent Christian church. Think of how those who think of themselves as the custodians of tradition have tended to treat those who challenge them. The Wesleys did not set out to set up a ‘Methodist Church’, just a new ‘method’; they didn’t jump from the Church of England, they were pushed. Martin Luther did not set out to create a ‘Lutheran Church’; he set out to reform the only church he knew. And today the issue of keeping to the understanding of previous generations is still enough to create tensions, arguments, suspicions, or even suspensions – just ask the US Episcopal Church.
The other division to which Paul draws our attention is that between slave and free. And that division, in one form or another, has followed the church everywhere it has gone ever since. It has been recreated in the Thomas Church in India, where different congregations were created for different castes; it was transported across the Atlantic Ocean to keep slaves and masters apart in the churches of the New World – a phenomenon which you could not really say has been completely set aside even yet.
But there have been other social divisions recreated in churches, many of them in Britain. Margaret Thatcher, who grew up as a Methodist, famously joined the Church of England because it was going to be better for her social station. In Scotland, the schisms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were in large part an attempt to create space for the rising, monied, middle-classes – and to prise away from the landed gentry their power and influence and dead hand. Other churches were created at different times and in different places because something was needed that would appeal to those who were left outside the concern of the wealthy or the parlours of influence of the well-connected.
A new denomination was once created in Wales in reaction to the exclusions of England by the influence of Scotland – when Welsh Methodists, who could not be theologically educated in England because they were not Anglican, came north, they were infected with Calvinism, and went back to create ‘Calvinistic Methodism’ (now known as Presbyterians); are you following this? And we haven’t really got into the reasons for being a ‘burgher’ or an ‘anti-burgher’, ‘new-licht’ or ‘auld-licht’, and all the various other schisms of Scottish Presbyterianism.
Paul, in the face of divisions over people’s origin, in the face of divisions over people’s social position, takes refuge in the image of the body. It offers, he thinks, a way to understand the way the church ought to live, ought to understand its various members, ought to understand its existence as a living, breathing organism. He offers a picture of a church in which not only is each understood by all, or each respected by all, but each is dependent on all – they cannot exist without one another.
And I sometimes wonder if Paul, whose annual day for being remembered is tomorrow, was led into this understanding by his own personal history, some of which we read our way through (and sang our way through) earlier. Paul’s journey from being Saul depends on at least three different people, two of whom we read about; but let me begin with the one we didn’t read about.
The first one in the story is Stephen. Stephen, as we know, is remembered as the first Christian martyr – the first of the martyrs on whose blood, it has been said, the church is built. Saul was witness to the killing of Stephen, witness to his speech, witness to the furious reaction – and Saul, it is recorded (probably from his own reporting), approved of that reaction – and approved of the killing. But Saul does not leave behind those scenes, those words, that killing; he carries them around with him – they sit in his mind, sometimes at the back and sometimes at the front; but they sit there, glimmering, glowering, grimacing – judging his approval, and summoning his repentance. And then, on a journey to Damascus, Stephen finally breaks through to bring Saul to his knees – and the voice for justice is the first voice of the church that Saul hears; it’s the voice of the victims of violence, the sound of the sighs of the silenced. And the voice is heard as the voice of Jesus, perplexed by the persecution by which his people are being plagued.
Saul is reduced to silence, the only reasonable reaction to the reality in which he now had to exist. And in that silence Saul sat – in a street called Straight. And he sat there, staring at the nothing which filled his sight – until another voice entered his world. This was the voice of mercy, of renewal, of hope – the voice of Ananias. The accumulated accusation of Saul’s remembrance of Stephen, and the dizzying, defiant death that judged his every breath, are stilled for Saul by the God-given gift that Ananias embodies, and carries, and delivers. But Ananias would not have made sense without Stephen; the mercy brought by Ananias would have spoken into a vacuum, void of understanding, if Stephen had not made clear to Saul exactly why in his life mercy was needed at all. The new hope of Ananias could only be seen once the old hope, cosseted in the folds of long-revered tradition and certainty, had been disrobed.
But there is another voice still to be heard, another member of Christ still to act. As the ministry of Ananias grows out of the witness of Stephen, so the beckoning of Barnabas is generated by the work of the previous two. To the judgement of Stephen and the mercy of Ananias is added the inclusion of Barnabas. Barnabas is the one who takes the one who is still outside, beyond, besmirched by a past that is not forgotten, not forgiven, not forever laid aside, and brings all that to the inside, to where he can attempt to forge the reality of the newness he had glimpsed in the laboratory of his own life.
Barnabas is the advocate of renewal, the one who takes the logic of the work of Stephen and Ananias and presents that logic to the church itself. He explains to those who see themselves as the holders of the keys to heaven how the witness and the words of the church are always and everywhere a call to change for the church itself. If the church in its members speaks outwards of judgement and mercy, the church must hear those words spoken inwards – spoken for and to itself.
Barnabas takes Saul – now Paul – and places him on the inside, where his life and work will become integral, integrated, and indeed essential to the being of the church of Christ. Paul is injected into the lifeblood of the way of Christ – the work of Barnabas, a new work that is only possible because of the work of those other voices that had spoken before him.
So Paul takes his experience of the members of the church of Christ, his experience of Stephen and Ananias and Barnabas – the eye and the heart and the hand of the body of Christ – the one who had looked into his soul and judged what he saw there, the one who had taken him to his breast and offered him hope in place of hopelessness, and the one who had guided him to the place where he could follow Christ and be his disciple.
He takes that experience of three and makes it into one in this vision of the body of Christ, a body that lives as one, acts as one, breathes as one. The history of the church of Christ since might bring Paul to despair at the sight of the body that has persisted in dividing itself where Paul called for unity. So, in the week of prayer for Christian unity, what are we to say? What are we to say to or of a body which has continually reckoned that it could, after all, do without various parts of itself?
Do we blame it on the words attributed to Jesus about plucking out eyes or cutting off hands if they offend us? That might be tempting but, before we give in to such a temptation, maybe we should allow the fourth voice of Paul’s story to speak to us of the single body of which we are a part: Paul himself. If Stephen is the eye, Ananias the heart, and Barnabas the hand, of Christ, to what role might we assign Paul?
Paul, I think, is not the mouth we might think he is (or he might think he is!); before that, I think he is the ear; he is the one who brings a message from the outside, the one who hears a message others have not heard, have not wanted to hear, have not felt the need to hear. He can only speak because he has heard – however unwillingly, however reluctantly, however painfully. But because of (not in spite of) all that, he brings a voice which has heard the other voices of the body – the voice that depends on those other voices, the voice that wouldn’t be being heard at all without them.
And it might just be that the church needs to hear the voice of those who look from the margins of persecution and violence before it can speak; that the church needs to hear the voice of mercy in the place of desolation before it can speak; that the church needs to hear the voice of the inclusion of the rejected before it can speak – every one of those voices a voice of newness, of renewal. And only when we have heard those voices, and recognised them as a part of us, can we or anyone else speak a word of unity, not only for the church but for the world that is called together: to be the body of Christ.