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Many Challenges, Many Gifts: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Sunday, January 20, 2019:
Isaiah 62:1-5
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Occasionally, you’ve probably noticed, I share a story from The Desert Fathers and Mothers, the first hermits and monks and nuns of the Church. These sort of ‘spiritual athletes’ who left the cities to live more disciplined lives in the wilderness, when they found that, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, as Christianity became more accepted in the wider culture, actual devotion started to slide. So here’s one of those stories:

There were two elders living together in a cell, and they had never had so much as one quarrel with one another. One therefore said to the other: “Come on, let us have at least one quarrel, like other people.”
The other said: “I don’t know how to start a quarrel.”
So the first says, “I will take this brick and place it here between us. Then I will say: ‘It is mine.’ After that you will say: ‘It is mine.’ This is what leads to a dispute and a fight.”
So they placed the brick between them. And one said: “It is mine.” And the other replied to the first, “I do believe that it is mine.”
The first one said again: “It’s not yours, it’s mine.”
To which the other answered, “Well then, if it’s yours, take it!”
Thus, they did not manage after all to get into a quarrel.

If only every disagreement were so artificial, and quick. But we can maybe reassure ourselves, before we get feeling too guilty about the reality of life, and church life, because I think that story from the Desert tradition is an exception to the norm. I think the norm is more closely represented in what we heard from Paul to the Corinthian church. Because, I don’t think Paul wrote about God and the Church just because he enjoyed it, for its own sake. I don’t think he sat down and said, ‘OK, time to write something about the Holy Spirit, so that in nineteen hundred and fifty years St. Andrew’s in Kitchener, and all the other churches across the world using the Revised Common Lectionary can learn some nugget of information.’

Instead, he was what we might today call a practical, or pastoral theologian. He was responding to actual issues that actual churches were dealing with. And it just works out that two thousand years later we can benefit from revisiting these controversies and how they worked through them.

So as we look back today, it would seem that the Corinthian church isn’t as calm and cool as those two elders that so nicely almost argued over the brick. If Paul’s a practical theologian, then when he writes ‘There are a variety of gifts… services… [and] activities but the same Spirit,’ it’s because people or groups in that church are having trouble with this. They’re arguing — there’s some sort of conflict — about what people are doing in the church community, and some sort of disagreement about the meaning and origin of these gifts. If we were to boil this all down, we could say that they’re having trouble dealing with diversity. And that’s not something that died out in the first century. As I think I’ve mentioned before, for three years I attended an Anglican theological college affiliated with U of T that was directly across the street from an Anglican theological college affiliated with U of T.

I recall something that Rowan Williams said once, that deep down, most of us (consciously or unconsciously) think ‘things in church would be so much easier if my neighbours in the pews were exactly like me.’ (I mean, you could close that rival Anglican college across the street.) It would be easier if we all liked the same music, and had the same interests, and same schedules, and same temperaments. Heck, it would be easier if we all had the shortcomings.

But that’s not the reality in the world, or in our lives, or in our scriptures. I mean, think about how even our scriptures were written over a bunch of centuries, from different perspectives and life situations, in different styles and genres, for different reasons. Paul writes to the Corinthians, and in a roundabout way, to 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.

And we need to accept and live with this unity in the midst of diversity because: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Those diverse spiritual gifts are actually for our good. And not necessarily for our individual good, but for the common good. For the building up of the Church. And certainly not for the smugness of the individual person displaying that gift. Yes, church life might be easier if we were all exactly the same… but that’s not what the Church is, or is called to be.

All of these diverse gifts are given for the building up of the Church. But that doesn’t mean that a gifted church is perfect. If you give a quick skim through First Corinthians, here are some of the issues that they’re dealing with: illicit marriages; what’s OK (or not) to eat, especially in their pluralist society; factions in the church (with different people claiming loyalty to figures like Paul, or Apollos, or whoever else); lawsuits between members; guidelines for worship services and questions about dress and gender roles; drunkenness and favouritism at the Eucharist; and how to deal with the different gifts in the community. They’re dealing with a lot of issues. Some of which in a broad sense, are similar to questions that the Church in our day is wrestling with.

But even though the Corinthians have, it seems, a whole bunch of issue, it doesn’t seem to rule out the possibility of an abundance of gifts. For them it’s wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. And these diverse gifts probably exacerbated the tensions in their church. But… they’re actually there to contribute to the common good. And part of the deal with contributing to the common good is remembering that we’re all different, and so we support things that might not benefit us directly, but maybe our neighbour. So we support the healthcare system, even when we’re not in hospital or having appointments. Or supporting education, even after your kids have graduated. And that ‘other’ Anglican theological college might not have been the right fit for me. But they have a role to play in the life of the Church. And these two colleges, because of their differences, actually help the Church to cast a wider net.

So as we’re reflecting on the many gifts that people bring to our life as Church, we might shift to the gospel story, and how the new wine isn’t for the benefit of Jesus, or his followers, or Jesus’s mom, or the bride and groom (or their parents), and not even to save the wine stewards, who could have been severely punished. No, the new wine was abundant, it was more than was needed, and everyone there was blessed. But more than that, in the Fourth Gospel the miracles are signs, signs of who Jesus is. And it appears as if this story is making a connection with the end of the gospel, the crucifixion, where again Jesus’s mother is present. And following his death, he is pierced with a spear, and blood and water flows out of his side. Where we can’t help but make associations with the wine and water of our communion meal: the blood for the forgiveness of sins, and the salvation of the world. It’s John’s Jesus who says: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” (All people, and not just the people exactly like us, or those we deem “good enough.”)

And these two readings play off each other in another helpful way. We began today with hymn 437: “Jesus come, for we invite you…” But when Jesus transforms the water into wine, I’d suggest that he moves from being guest, to host. And that first sign, we heard, brings his first followers to faith. And Jesus, our faith tradition tells us, is host even today, at this table. And as we participate in the meal of the Body and Blood of Christ, we’re confirmed, and conformed, and transformed, and moulded, maybe even slowly over a lifetime, into what we are and are called to be: the Body of Christ. And it’s the same Spirit who overshadows the gifts of bread and wine, who animates those spiritual gifts in all of us, for the common good. So there’s no “us” and “the Church” and hopefully not “us” versus “the Church.” There’s just “us, we are the Church, the Body of Christ.”

And hopefully, in communion with the Corinthian Christians from almost 2000 years ago, we can learn to live in unity, using our different-different giftedness for the common good. To the common good within the Church, where we are all take responsibility in one way or another. But also for the common good of the world, where increasingly, the Church is not host, but guest. There we might not exercise authority as the Church once did, but in a more humble, hidden way, we can put our gifts to work, mirroring the humility of Jesus, who opened wide his arms on the Cross, out of love for all. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter