Open the Door (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Revelation 3:20)

One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus gives a message to a local church in what is now Turkey. The Book of Revelation was written many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is now speaking to the church through his prophet, John, the author of this book. Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. This has been illustrated by a famous painting called ‘The Light of the World’. In the painting Jesus stands beside a gate in a garden wall. He’s wearing a crown of thorns on his head, and in one of his hands he holds a lantern. The other hand is raised, knocking on the gate. The gate is overgrown and has obviously not been opened for a long time, and there is no handle on the outside; it can only be opened from the inside.

This verse has been used in evangelistic talks for centuries, to illustrate the way a person becomes a Christian. Preachers have talked about how Jesus is standing outside our lives, knocking on the door, waiting for us to open up and let him in. But he is a perfect gentleman and won’t force his way in; he waits for us to open the door to him. So to become a Christian is to open the door and let Jesus into our lives as Lord and Saviour.

I know there are hundreds of thousands of people over the years who have responded to this illustration and prayed a prayer opening the door of their hearts to Jesus and letting him in. But this verse has more to say to us than that; in fact, I believe that there are things the Lord wants to say to each one of us tonight through this verse, as we gather together for this Ash Wednesday Eucharist.

You see, in its original context this verse was addressed to a church, a group of Christians in a place called Laodicea. The members of that church had allowed their love for the Lord to grow lukewarm. So Jesus speaks to them, and this is part of what he has to say:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:15-17, 19-20).

So this passage makes clear to us is that it is possible to be a genuine Christian – a person who knows God personally through Christ, a person who has opened the door of their life to Christ and committed themselves to him their Lord and Saviour – it is possible to be a genuine Christian and then to somehow let our light burn dim, so that Jesus is no longer welcome in the centre of our lives. We get distracted by other stuff, like those Christians in Laodicea, who were rich and prosperous and thought they needed nothing. Maybe, like the seed that fell among the thorns in Jesus’ parable of the sower, we find that even though we have heard the word of God, still ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing’ (Mark 4:19).

This probably isn’t something that happens because of a major decision we make to disobey the commands of God and the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s far more likely to be a series of small things, so small that we barely notice them. C.S. Lewis talks about this in his superb little book The Screwtape Letters. Do you know that book? It’s a fictional series of letters from a senior devil to a junior devil on the art of temptation. In one of the letters Screwtape, the senior devil, cautions Wormwood, the junior devil, about his desire to persuade his ‘patient’ to commit some huge sin. The danger in that, Screwtape says, is that it can so easily backfire; the patient will wake up, see what he’s doing, and repent. It’s far, far safer to tempt him into a series of seemingly harmless and insignificant actions and attitudes that have the gradual effect of taking him out of his orbit around God. Screwtape says, ‘Adultery is unnecessary if cards will do the trick’.

We may not agree with Lewis’ assumption that playing cards could be a sin, but maybe we need to ask ourselves what other seemingly harmless habits have had that effect on us – gradually taking us out of our orbit around God, so that the Saviour who was once the joy of our lives slowly, imperceptibly, becomes ‘old news’ to us. Adultery is unnecessary if blogging will do the trick! All that matters to the enemy of our souls is that we slowly fall out of love with God. If he can persuade us to do that without noticing it, all the better for him.

So Lent is a time for us to wake up to our true spiritual condition and to do something about it. In our epistle for tonight Paul writes to a group of Christians in Corinth, all of whom had at one time or another heard the gospel message and responded to it by committing their lives to Christ in baptism; presumably, they were already reconciled to God. And yet he finds it necessary to say to them in 2 Corinthians 5:20: ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’. In other words, ‘Wake up! Realize that even though you thought you were still close to God, in fact you have moved away without even realizing that you were doing it. Turn around and come back to God, because he is ready and willing to receive you back’.

That, of course, is what Jesus said to those Christians in Laodicea as well. ‘Be earnest, therefore, and repent!’ (Revelation 3:19). In other words, ‘Be serious about this! Turn away from your lukewarmness and your little compromises, and come back to your first love for Jesus and his gospel’.

In our service tonight, in a few minutes I will read these words from the liturgy:

We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I want to suggest to you, in the light of these scripture readings that I’ve shared with you tonight, that this repentance isn’t primarily about individual sins that we commit, in and of themselves. It’s primarily about our attitude toward God, and toward our Lord Jesus Christ. Has our love for Jesus gone lukewarm, so that it makes him feel like spewing us out of his mouth? That’s the big issue for us, isn’t it?

We know how that works in marriage. We fall in love with someone, and they become the centre of our world. We spend every waking moment thinking about them, and we begrudge every hour we have to spend apart. We look forward to the day when we can commit our lives to each other and live together as husband and wife.

And at first, our expectations are fulfilled; we can’t believe the privilege we have of sharing our life with this wonderful person who we love so much. But then, as the years go by, our love starts to cool off. Life goes on; we get jobs and lose jobs, kids come and take up our time and attention, we have to pay a mortgage and do daily errands and so on and so on. And before we know it, we’ve lost sight of the love that gave us so much joy when we first discovered it. We start to take each other for granted, and to skip our times together and the long conversations we used to enjoy so much.

So let me ask you: have you done that with Jesus? Have you allowed your love for him to grow lukewarm? Have you allowed yourself to neglect your times together? Have you become complacent about doing things that you know are not pleasing to him? Have you become slow to do the things that bring him joy?

Yes, you have – and so have I. That’s why we’re here tonight, and that’s why we have this season of Lent. It’s not to kick off our annual time of giving up chocolate or coffee or sugar in our tea or whatever. Rather, it’s a time for us for us to wake up to our spiritual condition, to repent of our lukewarmness, and to consciously change course so that, once again, our life revolves around the one who loved us and gave himself for us, our Lord Jesus Christ.

We know – because we’ve experienced it before – that this road leads to joy. Repentance is hard, but the motivation is the best – the joy of knowing Christ and enjoying fellowship with him. When we try to get the best of both worlds – living as a Christian but keeping our foot in the old life as well – we end up getting the worst of both worlds instead. But when we learn to live the new life of Jesus, we’re learning to live in harmony with the way God created us in the first place. And when we live with Christ at the centre of our lives, we’re fulfilled God’s original intention for us. This is a hard road, yes, but it’s also a joyful road.

Jesus says, ‘There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’ (Luke 15:10). And so he says to you and me tonight, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. His greatest desire is for us to live in fellowship with him. He created us for the joy of knowing us, and he will not be satisfied until we also experience that joy.

So – shall we open the door?

Do I have to use ashes on Ash Wednesday?

No, of course you don’t. Ashes are just a symbol. Like birthday cakes, in fact. Or weddingash_wed rings. Or flags.

Wait a minute. Those symbols are pretty important. I like having a birthday cake at my birthday party (especially if it’s a carrot cake), I wear my wedding ring all the time, and I’m proud to wear my maple leaf pin on Canada Day.

This is what we human beings do. We have this tendency to take physical signs and give them non-physical meanings. A handshake means we’re friends, or maybe it seals the deal. A kiss means love (or should, anyway!). Shaking your fist means anger or hatred. We hold hands to say grace (or maybe bow our heads and close our eyes). Some of us make the sign of the cross, or kneel to pray.

Some of those signs are even more important, because Jesus has commanded us to do them. We baptize people in water to make them his disciples. We take bread and wine, give thanks to God, and share them together in memory of his death for us and as a way of entering into the power of his saving act. The Church has come to call those signs ‘sacraments’.

Ashes on Ash Wednesday aren’t a sacrament, but they are biblical. In the Old Testament people were a little more demonstrative than we tend to be. We read in several places of people tearing their clothes, putting on sackcloth instead, and putting ashes on their heads as a sign of their overwhelming sorrow. Sometimes it’s sorrow at some dreadful misfortune that has happened (David’s daughter Tamar did it when she was raped by her half-brother Amnon – see 2 Samuel 13:18-19). But at other times it’s sorrow at their own sinfulness and their need for repentance. So in Daniel 9:3 Daniel says,

‘So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes’.

And then there follows the prayer of penitence that Daniel prayed on behalf of all Israel.

So our ashes on Ash Wednesday are a symbol of our sorrow for our sins and our desire to repent. They have no power in themselves – they aren’t a sacrament – but they are meaningful if our desire to repent is meaningful.

Today is Ash Wednesday, when we begin our forty days of penitence (more about this tomorrow). There are all sorts of opportunities to come together with our fellow Christians today. Some churches have noon hour services, some met in the early morning today, and many will have services tonight. Make time. Don’t rush this (I’m not a fan of the ‘ashes to go’ movement, because I think genuine penitence needs more than a quick prayer at a bus stop); take time to pray, to think about your life, and to ask God to guide you about the changes that need to be made. This will be our agenda for the forty days of Lent. Use the sign of ashes as a concrete symbol of your desire for this Lent to make a difference in your life.

May the Lord help us all to observe a holy Lent, in which we follow Jesus ever more closely in the ways of the kingdom of God.

The Greatest is Love (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

I read a great quote about love a few months ago in a book written by a friend. The quote came from a sermon preached by Dr. Haddon Robinson at a pastors’ conference, and the text was our epistle for today, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13. Toward the end of his sermon, Dr. Robinson said this: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.

I think this is exactly what Paul is trying to get at in our epistle for today. Before we dive right into it, let’s remind ourselves of two things. First, the meaning of the word ‘love’. It has many different meanings in the English language, but nowadays we mostly use it to describe an emotion. Paul, however, was writing in Greek, not English, and Greek is richer when it comes to words for love. There’s ‘eros’, which refers to what today we would call romantic or sexual love – love that is a response to beauty or goodness in the beloved. There’s ‘phileo’, from which we get our word ‘philanthropy’; in Greek its meaning is close to what we would today call ‘friendship’. There’s ‘storge’, which carries the sense of ‘love of the familiar’ – the love we have for family members or people we’ve known all our lives.

But Paul doesn’t use any of those words, and neither do most of the writers of the New Testament. Instead they use a word that they may have invented themselves; it certainly doesn’t appear in any earlier Greek literature. The word is ‘agapé’, and it doesn’t describe an emotion at all. Agapé isn’t based on affection or approval; it’s totally unconditional, coming as a free gift, not because the beloved deserves it but because the lover chooses to give it. It’s a decision of the will to act in the other person’s best interests, whether we feel like it or not. It’s getting down at the supper table and washing your disciples’ feet. It’s being willing to lay down your life to save people who don’t even care about you. It’s the way God loves us, and the way God calls us to act toward others as well.

So let’s remember this: when Paul says that love is the more excellent way, he’s not talking about storge or eros or phileo ; he’s talking about agapé. Secondly, let’s remember who this letter was written to. Corinth was a city in ancient Greece, famous throughout the world for its sexual immorality. It was also a place where the Greek mystery religions were very popular. Those religions went in for spiritual experience in a big way; the people who participated in them were used to being moved by powerful supernatural forces. They might go into a trance, or experience a powerful emotion like ecstasy, or be transported out of the body, or carry out some other strange course of action. This sort of thing was regarded as normal in the mystery religions; not only that, it was the way you knew that you were encountering something real. If you didn’t experience any of this, there wasn’t much point in being involved in that particular cult or religion.

So the Corinthian Christians liked dramatic spiritual experiences. They loved supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues and miracles and healings. But they were rather self-indulgent about them, and Paul had a suspicion that sometimes there wasn’t a lot of love in the way they used those gifts. So in last week’s passage Paul reminded them that the church is like a body, the Body of Christ. Each organ and limb has an essential part to play in the life of the body. So it is with the church; each of us has been given spiritual gifts, but we’re to use them in love, to build up the whole Body of Christ, not to show off or chase after spiritual thrills.

And so we come to this great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s look at it in three parts. First, in verses 1-3, Paul teaches us that love is essential to the life of the church.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Knowing what we do about the Corinthian Christians, we can understand why Paul is using these examples. These are the things they valued the most in their spiritual lives – speaking in tongues, prophecy, understanding mysteries, having enough faith to do spectacular things. And they loved the ‘grand gesture’. There’s a story about young Francesco Bernadone, who later became St. Francis of Assisi. As a young man he had a powerful conversion experience, and in obedience to the gospel call he proceeded to start giving away his possessions. Except that they weren’t his possessions, they were his father’s! His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and when he saw what his son was doing, he dragged him before the Bishop of Assisi in the town square and demanded that the Bishop tell his son to stop giving away things that didn’t belong to him. In response, Francis stripped himself naked in front of everyone, handed his clothes to his father, and said, “There – now you have everything that belongs to you”. He then went off to live as a hermit in literal obedience to the gospel call of Jesus.

The Corinthians would have loved this story; they loved the grand gesture – ‘If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast’ (v.3). But Paul is reminding them that all of this – using miraculous gifts, performing dramatic acts of faith and so on – is worth absolutely zero if it’s not all about agapé love for others.

Well, it’s easy for us to sit in judgement on the Corinthians; after all, most Anglicans aren’t tempted by speaking in tongues or displays of religious emotion. But what would Paul say to us today? How about this:

‘If we have the most beautiful liturgy ever designed by human beings, performed by people in the most splendid robes, with music from the best possible choir, but do not have love, we are a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. And if we have the most beautiful church building, with a gorgeous sanctuary and lots of program space, and fancy offices and plush carpets, but don’t have love, we are nothing. If we produce excellent ministry plans and offer a multitude of different programs – if we have multiple services aimed at different kinds of people – if we have a high profile in the city and people are talking about our church – but don’t have love, we gain nothing’.

Yes, I think that is what Paul would say to us. Remember again the wise words of Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”. That’s exactly what Paul is trying to say in this passage. We aren’t going to be questioned about our splendid liturgy and impressive list of programs. We’re going to be questioned about love.

So Paul starts by telling us that love is essential to the life of the church. Secondly, in verses 4-6 he describes to us what love is and what it does.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As I was reading this passage over in preparation for this sermon, it became very clear to me that all the positive statements in this passage could be applied to God, and all the negative ones could be applied to me. God is patient, God is kind. God rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. But me? I’m envious, and boastful, and arrogant, and rude! I insist on my own way, I’m irritable and resentful, and far too often, I rejoice in wrongdoing! So I have a long way to go – as do we all.

Paul tells us that those who love are patient with one another. In modern English, ‘patient’ can mean we’re not in a hurry, but it can also mean we bear with one another’s weaknesses and make allowances for one another. It’s the second meaning that Paul is using here. Those who love, know themselves well; they know we all grow slowly, fail many times, and need healthy dollops of forgiveness. This is how God acts toward us – he is infinitely patient with us – and those who are growing in love are learning to treat others in the same way.

Those who love are kind to one another. They treat each other gently and considerately, do good things for one another, give freely to one another, and treat each other as valued human beings. They always remember Jesus’ golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), and they do their best to practice it.

Those who love are not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Envy, boasting, arrogance and rudeness are all about competition – I’m in competition with your wealth, your popularity, your success, your good looks, your spiritual gifts, your experience of God. Deep down inside, these folks are insecure; they believe there’s only so much love and success and good fortune to go around, and if I’m not careful, someone’s going to cheat me out of my fair share. But those who love are not in competition with each other; they rejoice in each other’s blessings without wishing to have them for themselves.

Those who love do not insist on their own way. They understand that, as someone one said, ‘Everyone is an “I”’ – in other words, everyone I meet has a life of their own. They don’t see themselves as supporting actors in my play; they’re the lead actors in their own play. And gradually, as we grow together, we all learn to see ourselves as supporting actors in God’s play. It’s not about me, so I don’t always have to get what I want.

Those who love are not irritable or resentful. They don’t get easily upset or offended by others; in fact, they choose not to take offence. They don’t hold grudges and hang on to past hurts. They’re learning that if you do that, you bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. They want to be free, so they’re learning to let go of pride and anger and embrace the way of forgiveness and grace.

Those who love don’t rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. In other words, their love isn’t an easygoing love. When they see people doing wrong and hurting others, they don’t just stand by and let it happen. When a word of truth needs to be spoken, they’re ready to speak it – but out of love, not out of a need to judge or control others.

Those who love bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. In other words, they don’t give up on people. Their love for one another is stubborn; it’s what the Old Testament calls in Hebrew ‘chesed’, which is translated in our NRSV as ‘steadfast love’. Eugene Peterson’s ‘Message’ translation of the Bible says, ‘Love…puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end’.

So this is what Paul means by love. Of course, it’s a tall order. I can see why some churches would rather work on splendid liturgies or efficient organization! It’s so much easier to have a brilliant website or a service for every taste than it is to put yourself out to truly love people as Paul describes it here, not holding anything back, never giving up hope, remaining faithful to the end. I have to confess, all I can think of is how far I fall short. But at the same time, the passage inspires me and challenges me: this truly ought to be our goal as a Christian community!

So Paul has told us that love is essential to the life of the church, and he’s described for us what love is and what is does. Finally, in verses 8-13 he tells us that love is the only thing that will last forever.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Many of us have probably heard this passage from 1 Corinthians read at weddings, but I have to tell you that in recent years I’ve also used it at funeral services, and people seem to appreciate it. Paul is asking his friends in Corinth is, “What’s going to last? On that day when we see God face to face, what will really be important?” Will it be our reputation for wisdom or knowledge or supernatural experiences? No – in fact, on that day, we’ll be brought face to face with the truth of how little we really knew! We might think we have a good understanding of God and the way God works in the world, but one day we’ll look back and think, “How could I have been so blind?” All our inspired speech and glorious miracles and splendid liturgies and sophisticated programming – on the day we see God face to face, it’ll all just be like child’s play to us then.

So many people, when they come to the end of their lives, regret all the time and energy they’ve spent on things that mean absolutely nothing to them on their deathbeds. Some people set great store by accumulating possessions and money; some people spend their lives trying to be a success in all they do. Some people live for the good opinion of others; their greatest desire is to impress others and to be popular and well-liked. But in the end, Paul would say to us, none of that’s going to last; it’s all going to pass away.

What will last? Only three things, says Paul – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in ‘The Message’:

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of these is love.

So, my brothers and sisters, let’s never let ourselves settle for less than this. Let’s never forget that this is the most important thing we can work on, because without it, everything else is just noise and busywork. So let’s end as we began, with these wise words of Dr. Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.

Amen.

Reading Dante

So I’m back with Dante, reading his famous ‘Divine Comedy’.Dante

About six years ago I started the work, reading through the Inferno (about hell), and getting about a quarter of the way into the Purgatorio (about purgatory). I have no memory of the reasons why I stopped reading. I don’t think I actually quit, I think I just fizzled out.

Well, I’m back, and yesterday I passed the point in the Purgatorio where I fizzled out. And I am really enjoying Dante.

The big picture of the work is of Dante the Pilgrim (an artistic creation of Dante the Poet) being taken on a guided tour of the afterlife – Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Such a tour can’t be taken without a guide, and for the Inferno and most of the Purgatorio Dante’s guide is Virgil, author of the Aeneid and Dante’s poetic hero, a ‘virtuous pagan’ who lives in Limbo, not Hell proper, because he did not have the chance to respond in life to the Christian revelation.

Apparently Dante himself pointed out that the ‘Comedy’ could be taken on both literal and allegorical levels. Taken literally, as I said, it is a journey through the afterlife. In Hell, Dante and Virgil explore the various ‘circles’ in which difficult classifications of sinners are punished, moving further and further down until they reach the centre of the earth where they find the figure of Lucifer himself, frozen in the ice (yes, to Dante the centre of the earth is cold, not hot). They then climb out to the other hemisphere of Earth and begin to climb the steep mountain of Purgatory, where, after a short time spent in ‘antepurgatory’, the place where sinners wait to begin their necessary cleansing, they ascend through seven ‘circles’ in which people are cleansed successively from each of the seven deadly sins before entering the earthly paradise, the garden of Eden, at the top of the mountain. (I say nothing about the Paradiso because I haven’t gotten that far yet.)

But at another level, the allegorical, the work describes the progress of the work of God in the lives of living human beings on earth. And at the moment (I’m at about Canto XIV of the Purgatorio) there are three things stand out for me about that . First (and I won’t go into specifics), in the Inferno the punishments sinners experience are related to their besetting sins and in fact tend to be not so much punishments as the natural negative consequences of the choices they have made. In other words, sin is itself its own punishment. That seems to me to be a remarkable insight (not unique to Dante, of course, but remarkable nonetheless).

Second, Dante assumes (along with many other medieval authors) that sins are basically disordered loves. Our fault is not that we don’t love, but that we love the wrong things, and in the wrong way. Dante would not have believed that ‘love is enough’; it needs to be the right kind of love, and directed toward the right object(s).

Third, the movement through Purgatory (which I assume to be about the beginning of the work of God’s grace in the life of a Christian) moves in an orderly fashion through the seven deadly sins, beginning with the deadliest (pride), and moving on through the other six. In other words, it isn’t a haphazard thing. Progress means learning to grow out of these deadly sins, and it can’t be short-circuited; if we don’t deal with them (or, if we don’t let God deal with them in us), we can’t move forward.

This is a progress report. I feel in my bones that I’m not going to fizzle out this time. Meanwhile, as Dante sometimes has pilgrims in Purgatory asking the folks on earth for their prayers, so I could use the prayers of my readers as I keep going!

Technical details: I’m using Mark Musa’s excellent blank verse translation; his introductions and detailed notes on each canto are very helpful. Here are the links on Amazon:

Inferno

Purgatorio

Paradiso

I was first attracted to Dante by reading the blog of my dear departed friend Joe Walker; his notes on Dante are excellent.

The Body of Christ (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a)

I wonder what first comes to mind when you hear the word, ‘church’?

For many people, it’s a building; when they say, ‘our church’, they’re referring to the building in which they meet for worship.

For other people, it’s an institution. There used to be a saying that when a young man – it was always a young man in those days – decided to become a priest he was ‘going into the Church’. And you thought it was faith and baptism that did the trick, didn’t you? Apparently in those days they’d forgotten about that!

A third common use of the term is the church as a community. This is usually a local thing; people talk about ‘my church’, meaning the particular congregation of which they’re a part. We want it to be a welcoming community, a friendly community, a community that has lots of activities and programs to support people through the stresses and strains of their lives.

There’s some truth in all three of these common ways of thinking of the church – the church as a building, as an institution, and as a community – but they all fall short of the image that Paul uses in our epistle for today when he talks about the church as a body. And not just as any body, either – as the body of Christ. In other words, the Church is not just here because of human initiatives: the Church is the primary way that Jesus Christ has chosen to be present and working in the world today.

Let’s remind ourselves first of the context. Paul is writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, a church that seems to have been full of the Holy Spirit, with many great strengths but also many problems and weaknesses. If you read through this first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, you find exciting things about supernatural gifts – speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles and so on. Corinth wasn’t the sort of church where people get bored and fall asleep half way through the service! People came together with a lively sense of expectation that they would meet God and see God do spectacular things.

But there were also weaknesses. In 1 Corinthians we read about sexual scandals, and about disagreements about whether you should eat meat offered to idols. We read about divisions in the church, with people splitting of into little cliques grouped around their favourite charismatic leader. We read about disruptions in the fellowship meals, with some people eating more than their fair share so that others had nothing. Paul is very concerned about these things. People seem to have lost their sense of purpose; they don’t know what church is about, and they’ve come to think that it’s all about me. I want to have an exciting time when I come to church; I want to have a thrill, and I want to be seen and noticed and have people admire me for being such a spiritual person. I doubt if anyone in Corinth would have expressed it as blatantly as all that, but when Paul scratched below the surface, that’s what he saw.

To address these issues, Paul comes up with this image of the church as the body of Christ. It’s as if he’s saying to the Corinthian Christians, ‘You folks have forgotten what the Church is for. You need to ask yourselves why God needs a Church in the first place. What was in the mind of God when he looked out over the earth one day and said, “I know what that place needs – it needs the Church of Jesus Christ?”’

The answer is that Jesus needs a body. When he walked the earth as one of us, he had a body, and he used it to do God’s will and to love God and other people wherever he went. He used his legs to walk around and go to new places to share the good news and heal the sick. He used his hands to heal people and to touch the untouchables. He used his ears to listen to what his Father was saying to him, and to listen to the needs of the people he met. He used his mind and voice to proclaim the gospel and teach people how to live into the Kingdom of God. And ultimately, he offered his body as a sacrifice, allowing nails to be pounded through his wrists and feet and a spear to be thrust into his side, showing everyone that there is a price to be paid for doing God’s will, but if you are faithful to God, in the long run God will be faithful to you as well.

So you see, Jesus’ mission during his three years on earth was very physical; without his body, he couldn’t have done it. But Jesus’ physical body is no longer on earth; he has ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father. So how is he going to heal the sick and touch the untouchable and hug the lonely and spread the good news and teach the ways of God to the people of the world?

The answer is that the Holy Spirit is gathering a new body for Jesus – a huge organism made up of millions of limbs and organs and members – each of them a living, breathing human being. It’s you – you are the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:27 Paul says, ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’. When he says, ‘members’, a better translation of the Greek might be ‘limbs’. We aren’t ‘members’ of the body of Christ in the same sense that we are members of the Elks or of a political party. There is an organic connection between us Christians that isn’t present in any other human society.

What is that connection? Look at verses 12-13:

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.

What is the connection? The connection is the Holy Spirit. By the work of the Holy Spirit we have all been baptized into one Body, and we have all been given the same Holy Spirit to drink.

This is important, because this Body of Christ is actually a very diverse group. Paul names here two of the strongest social divisions he can think of in the world of his day – the division between Jews and Greeks, and the division between slaves and free. In the Body of Christ Jews and Greeks, slaves and free met together as equals, all loved by God, all saved by Christ, all filled with the Holy Spirit. And the same is true today. In our church we see people of different ethnic backgrounds, different political opinions, different ages, different theological viewpoints. But we have all been brought into this Body by the Holy Spirit and we have all been given the same Spirit to drink.

In other words, what we have in common is that the Holy Spirit is quenching our spiritual thirst. In John 7 Jesus says,

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).

And John adds the comment,

‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (v.39).

It’s interesting that in that verse Jesus says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”. If Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit quenching our thirst, you’d have thought he would say “into the believer’s heart”. But no – it’s as the Spirit flows out of us that our thirst is quenched. In other words, true Christian spirituality isn’t about ‘me, me, me’ – it’s not about me getting my spiritual needs met. Rather, it’s about me taking my place in the Body of Christ and using the spiritual gifts that God has given me to help Jesus in his mission to the world.

In this mission everyone is important and everyone has a place. Paul goes on and on at great length to drive this point home to us, riding his illustration of the body for all it’s worth. He says that just because a foot isn’t a hand, that doesn’t mean it’s not a member of the body, and just because an ear isn’t an eye, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a member of the body.  If the whole body were an eye it would be in trouble when it comes time to listen to people! And if the whole body were an ear, it would be in trouble when it came time to smell your food! No – our bodies have many different types of limbs and organs – some are up front and some are hidden, some are beautiful and some look rather odd! But they all make up one body, and if one part suffers, the whole body suffers with it. It one part is honoured, they all rejoice together.

The church is like that. Look at Paul’s summary in verses 27-31:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Every member of the body of Christ is important; everyone has a role to play; everyone has been given a gift by God that they can use to help further the work of Christ. Some of those gifts are up front and obvious: preachers and teachers, musicians and worship leaders and so on. Others are less spectacular, but equally important: administrators, those with the gift of listening and caring for others, those who fix broken furnaces and serve in food banks and build houses with Habitat for Humanity and so on. But all work together for one end – to build up the strength of the Body and to serve the world in the name of Jesus.

So Paul doesn’t see the church as a school bus with a driver up front and a whole bunch of passengers. Rather, he sees it as a team, with a coach or coaches at work helping everyone to discover their gifts and use them to serve the church and the world in Jesus’ name.

So let me close with a few words of application for us today.

First, let’s remember what it is we have in common. Paul says that we have all been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was at work in our baptism, joining us to the Body of Christ and putting the life of Christ in us. But it doesn’t end there; Paul also says, ‘We’ve all been given the Holy Spirit to drink’. Baptism is once for all, but drinking is not – we need to drink again and again, or we’ll get thirsty again. And in the same way, none of this Body of Christ stuff will work unless each of us goes on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit. So pray every day, and keep on praying, that God will fill you with the Holy Spirit and quench your spiritual thirst. That’s the first thing.

Second, let’s discover our spiritual gifts. What’s your place in the Body? What is God challenging you to do in his work in the Church and in the world? Are you a talking person or a doing person? Are you a listener or a teacher? Do you have an artistic mind or an analytical mind? Are you a good musician or a good carpenter? Do you know how to be a friend to the friendless, or are you a thinker who loves to study the Bible and share what you’ve learned with others?

Every gift is vital. To have a healthy Church Jesus needs accountants and fix-it people; he needs Sunday School teachers and musicians; he needs people who can lead public prayer and preach and administer the sacraments; he needs visitors and counselors and people who just know how to be a shoulder to cry on. He needs people who can raise huge amounts of money to help the poor, and he needs people who can get involved in the political process and try to change unjust structures in society. He needs people who can share the gospel with others and help them become his followers. No one person has all these gifts. In the Bible, all Christians are ministers, all willingly sharing their gifts so that God’s work can go forward.

Third, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the gifts we use inside the church building are necessarily the most important gifts. They are certainly very visible, but they are no more important than the others. God needs Christians in working world who will be faithful in living as disciples of Jesus, going to work and running businesses in ways that honour God and promote God’s kingdom values. God needs people who will organize to help refugees and find ways of providing housing for the homeless. And God needs witnesses and evangelists who aren’t afraid to talk about their faith with others and invite them to become followers of Jesus. God is at work out in the world bringing blessing and transformation, and he wants to use you and me to help make that happen.

Fourth, let’s work hard to make our Sunday services reflect this ‘Body of Christ’ image. Years ago, church services were led by a paid minister and an organist; they did everything up front, and everyone else sat and listened. Our buildings are actually still structured that way; I’m standing on a raised platform in front of you right now, and you’re seated in rows facing me, as if I was an actor and you were the audience in the play. But how does that reflect the truth that the Church is a Body, with everyone participating in its work?

Fortunately, nowadays that sort of thing is less common. In most churches, members of the congregation are coming up to do scripture readings. Lay people are leading the prayers of the people and assisting with serving Holy Communion. We have greeters at the back making people feel welcome at the beginning of the service, and people offering special prayers for any who ask for them during communion. And we have lay readers who help lead worship and who preach regularly as well.

And this is as it should be. Of course, at our nine o’clock service we still have a long way to go in making that a reality, while at ten-thirty we’ve gone further down that road. But we need to go further yet. If you read the New Testament you will discover absolutely no reason why one person should stand at the front and do everything during a church service. As far as we can tell, worship was a group activity in the early church. And so it should be today.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus needs a Body. We, his Church, are that Body. There is no other plan. So let’s joyfully take up the challenge, pray for the Holy Spirit’s help, and then move out in faith, using the gifts God has given to us to make a difference for Christ in the world.