Monday, June 5, 2017

Putting It All Together

The scripture referred to is 1 Corinthians 12:3-13.

I don't think jigsaw puzzles will ever go away but a couple of decades ago they were really hot. I know this because one of the people I worked with at the radio station was really into them. She used to get catalogs of nothing but puzzles. There were 3-D puzzles where, when you were done, you would have a jigsaw model of the Eiffel tower or Buckingham palace. One puzzle they offered had a thousand pieces but no actual picture. Everything was a uniform red. It was the most difficult to put together...and the most pointless. Aside from the challenge, why would you spend hours and days putting together this puzzle only to be rewarded with a 2 foot by 18 inch red rectangle?

In games we like complexity and yet when it comes to reality, we like simplicity. We like it when some complex phenomenon can be reduced to one or two things. We like it when things are binary: black and while, pure good and absolute evil, the simple truth and completely false. Which is why we like stories like Star Wars. Blow up the Death Star, kill the emperor and the universe is saved. But life is more complicated than that.

More than any of us our Creator knows how intricate life is and so we shouldn't be surprised that diversity is part of his plan for redeeming his creation. On the surface it sounds simple. Jesus died for our sins. We just have to trust in him and we are saved. So why didn't Jesus just march from the tomb to Rome and start putting the world under his rule? As we've said before, it wasn't because he wasn't ready; it's because we weren't.

Usually a ruler doesn't need your love. He gets power and you have to obey or he will punish you. But the kingdom of God doesn't work that way. God is Love. We are created in God's image, which means we were created to love. But love requires free will. Without it we are preprogrammed robots. Real love requires making a decision to love. And if the choice is to be genuine, you also have to have the ability to decide not to love.

By eschewing coercion and use of force, Jesus chooses to give the people of the world plenty of time to consider his offer to join his kingdom. The evidence of his identity and mission are there for all who care to examine the record. If you don't find his spiritual insights to be true, his moral reasoning to be compelling and his way of love a better way to deal with life, so be it. You can try instead to make the world better through appeals to pure logic or the application of force. We do that already and this is the world that doing that gets you.

Jesus realized his words alone wouldn't convince some people, so he used demonstrations of love as well. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He defended the powerless and welcomed the outcast. He forgave sinners and restored children to their parents and a brother to his sisters. He took what was broken and made it whole.

And he knew we would need to do the same. So he sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to continue his mission, to deliver his words and continue his works. But it's not a simple task. It's complicated and so the Spirit gives us multiple gifts to do it effectively.

In today's passage from 1 Corinthians Paul tells us “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6) Paul talks of 3 categories of things the Spirit grants: gifts, services and activities. We tend to focus on gifts, the abilities that people have, but neglect the fact that the Spirit also gives us services, or ministries, and activities in which to use them. And Paul tells us that God activates them in everyone. We all have some of these gifts, ministries and activities.

Nobody however has all of them. Not the clergy, not the church secretary, not the Senior Warden or Congregational President. No one is Superman, with all the powers: super strength, super speed, heat vision and the ability to fly. Honestly I don't understand the reason he needs the rest of the Justice League. He can do everything that they can. (Except Batman. Batman's superpower is that he is 10 steps ahead of everyone. And scary, to boot)

Looking for a Superman, a person who can do it all, is not even biblical. In our alternate Old Testament lesson (Numbers 11:24-30) Moses, unable to do everything for the people of Israel, has been told to choose 70 elders to help with administration. God's Spirit is given to them, including two guys who aren't gathered with the rest but are still back in the camp. When Joshua tells Moses to stop them, he says, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” In our passage from Acts (2:1-21) God does exactly that. And in 1 Corinthians Paul tells us how this works out in a practical fashion—through the gifts, services and activities given by the Spirit. “All of these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (1 Cor. 12:11) And he enumerates a number of gifts. Later in the chapter but after our lectionary reading cuts off, Paul lists some of the ministries the Spirit gives: apostles, prophets, teachers, administrators and so on. (1 Cor. 12:28) And then he drives his point home: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all do miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:29) His rhetorical questions are obviously intended to elicit a series of “No”s. No one can do everything. No one is Superman or Supergirl. But we are all team members with specific skills and abilities.

And that's good. If we believed that one person could do it all, we'd let him. We would sit back and watch. We wouldn't do what we can and should do because that special person will take care of everything. And then when that person fails, we can blame him or her for not being omnicompetent.

But God made it so that we need each other. When a horse is born, it stands up within the first hour. Other species do that as well. Humans don't. For the better part of a year we remain helpless and for a lot longer than that, we are still unable to do many of the tasks we need to do in order to stay alive and safe. Nobody is born independent. And we never really are, at any stage in life. Even when we can feed ourselves, we need someone to provide food. We need people to teach us how to read and how to think correctly and how to act properly. We need help getting a job, help moving, help getting money in the form of loans for getting a car or a house. We rely on the protection of laws, police, firefighters and EMTs. When we are sick or injured we need doctors, nurses, CNAs and therapists. As we inevitably decline towards the end of life we need people to help and take care of us. We are all supported by a great web of other human beings.

In America, we have this myth of the rugged individualist, who doesn't need anyone. And we have a torrent of reality TV shows depicting people dropped off in the wild, surviving by their wits and skills. But if you think for a second, you realize they always have a crew behind the camera, including a medic. And several times the contestants have gotten injured or an infection or suffered heat stroke or gotten sick with malaria, spotted fever, or dengue fever. And had they actually been alone, they would have died. In fact, if you look closely at these shows, they just reinforce how vulnerable individual humans are and how we never would have survived as a species were it not for our communal way of life.

God is Love and he made us that way. We survive and thrive because of love. We survive and thrive as Christians because of the body of Christ, the diverse community of those called from every nation, race, class and walk of life to follow Jesus, united by his love. God doesn't want Lone Ranger Christians.

Another reason it is good that none of us has all the gifts is that we must therefore work together to show the world Jesus' love in action. We demonstrate how a bunch of ordinary people can do beautiful things for God through using our gifts in concert. But if we are going to have an impact in this world for him, we need to do beautiful and useful things for the larger community as well.

The gifts are for the support of the body of Christ but also for reaching out to the world. Paul puts apostles first. What are they except missionaries sent out by Jesus to share the gospel with all nations? Next come prophets, those who speak God's word, not only to those who believe but to those who don't. Then teachers, who communicate the faith to, among others, those who have just joined God's community and want to learn more. As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple pointed out, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

And you know what the world needs right now? Hope. I noticed when I first started working at the jail that I did not see so many crises of faith as crises of hope. People were teetering on the brink of despair. And I see the same thing in the world today. People are worried about the future. Things don't seem to be going in the right direction. Life is getting harder. Society is getting less kind and more unforgiving. 

Part of this has come from the world leaving behind the Christian bases for hope. If you abandon the idea of a loving God who is working to redeem and renew the world, you have a world with no meaning or direction. If you take away the idea that human beings were created in the image of God and therefore have inherent worth, you have no justification for treating people as equals. If you remove the idea that there is an afterlife where injustices are redressed, you end up with a world where there is no reason to delay gratification nor any reason to fear the consequences of what you do if you just manage to get away with things long enough. In such a world, becoming a Hitler makes sense if you can get away with it. He did want he wanted to and when it looked like the Allies might lay hands on him, he ate a bullet and that was that. If the 6 million Jews and 5 to 7 million others he killed no longer exist in any real sense, if death is final, justice is a joke.

And that is not an isolated instance in human history. Everyday bad things happen to good people. Sometimes the wrong people die young. Bad people achieve success, often at the expense of good people. The strong frequently bully the weak. If we have no hope in Christ we might as well eat, drink and be merry before death and nonexistence overtakes us. (1 Cor. 15:32; Isaiah 22:13)

The world has lost hope. We have hope because we have the Spirit of the God who is love. The Spirit is what enabled the disciples, who had been hiding in an upstairs room in fear, to step out into public and boldly proclaim the good news. The Spirit is what enabled them to leave home and country and go throughout the known world to tell more people about Jesus. The Spirit is what enabled them to face death unafraid. The Spirit is what enabled the church to survive the deaths of the original apostles as well as all the attempts to suppress and obliterate the faith. The Spirit is what has brought people back to the gospel and the teachings of Jesus over and over whenever the church strayed from them.

The Spirit gives us courage to face a world that on the surface seems meaningless. The Spirit compels us to rescue people from that perception of the world, to bring them out of what appears to be an indifferent universe into a realization that the universe was created out of love. The world is not essentially bad or uncaring; what we see is a good world gone bad, a world corrupted by misuse and abuse of God's gifts, a world that can be good again.

But because it is a whole world, filled with every kind of people, we need every person in the church to use their diverse skills to do the complex job of putting the pieces back together again. We need to listen to the Spirit and discover the gifts we each have been equipped with and the ministries and the activities we were each equipped for. We need to see what part or parts of the world interest us and then apply our gifts to putting things right in that area. We need Christian builders, cops, filmmakers, scientists, social workers, artists, teachers, engineers, dancers, doctors, civil servants, farmers, journalists, dieticians, firefighters, actors, nurses, athletes, writers, economists, musicians, inmates, former inmates and yes, even politicians, to ask the Spirit to guide them to use their gifts “for the common good,” as Paul puts it. (1 Cor. 12:7)

Because the true definition of goodness is that which is intended to benefit all. In fact evil can be defined as a narrow definition of good: what's good for me or mine and to hell with everybody else. That's a manageable philosophy. Nice and simple. But Jesus died for all. We who follow Jesus must act for the good of all. That's a tall order. “All” covers a lot of territory and involves a lot of complicated issues. If you try to calculate all that is required it can be overwhelming.

And that's why the Spirit gives the church the people we need with the gifts we need to do what Jesus told us. He knows that none of us is Superman. He doesn't expect us to do it all. We just need to pick what we are interested in and good at and work on that.

Remember the old riddle: you know how you eat an entire elephant? One bite at a time. You know how you put together a thousand piece puzzle? One piece at a time. You know how you fix a broken world? One problem at a time. But it helps if you have a whole lot of people working on these tasks from every angle, with every conceivable skill, united by one Spirit.

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