The Art of Being Church

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

(The first sermon in the series, “CommUnIty”)
By: Michael Roberts

I’m going to divide the congregation today. I have that power, you know. Actually, I probably do and that’s a scary thought. I could stand here and say things that would make some of you walk out, and if not walk out, start an uprising. So, what I’m about to do is risky. As your pastor, I want all of you to choose a side and to publicly take a stand by raising your hand. Are you ready? Your choice is to be on the Orange Team or the Purple Team (the colors of the two major colleges in town). All those on the purple team, raise your hand. Now all those on the orange team, raise your hand. We are now a divided congregation.

Now, imagine if I had used red and blue, with all the politically charged implications of those colors. I’ve said it before, there are many congregations in Conway where most, if not all, the people would be in agreement on the social and political issues of the day. They would all be on the same side. As your pastor, I can guarantee you that’s not us. I say that is a great strength. It makes us biblical. We have an environment here where we can actually learn how to love one another, with honor, with respect, with openness that can expand our perspectives, where we can truly grow the virtues of the kingdom of God – named so often, humility, patience, kindness, bearing one another in love, maintaining peace (Ephesians 4:2-3).

So, back to orange and purple, for a moment. What if Pastor Lauren and I started saying that Orange is a new true liturgical color, the color of true faith? Or, we said that the highest heaven is reserved for those who are pure purple. What if we tried to cultivate an environment of suspicion and fear of all who do not wear our color? I hope that many of you would rise up at that point and call us back to faithfulness.

The Apostle Paul did not use colors to make his point. He could have. He could have talked about art, for example, and the inspiration that comes when diverse and chaotic colors are combined together to make something beautiful and meaningful. He could have talked about how boring life would be with only one color, but that was not his chosen metaphor. Paul, instead, used the human body as an illustration. We just heard his elaborate use of our bodies as a metaphor for the church. The body consists of many parts – hands, feet, eyes, ears. Those are the four parts of the body that Paul uses to make his point. All are needed. And the worst thing that can happen is for one part to turn on the others, or to claim some kind of superiority. To do that is to bring disease into the body.

So, what motivated this metaphor? What was behind it? Paul was concerned about dissension in the church, or to use the Greek word, “schism” found within the church (found in verse 25 of our lesson). There were those who wanted to divide the church according to the leadership and theology of Apollos or Peter, or Paul – as if we have to narrow our thinking in that way and put God in a box that conforms to our human understanding. These “dividers” were focused inward upon those on the inside and what was wrong with them, rather than focusing on how we might all learn how to love one another and to be a witness to the world together. That’s what motivated this metaphor.

In John Wesley’s sermon on this passage, he focuses on the word “schism.” Here’s his take. Wesley comes to the conclusion that it is OK for individuals to discern that they need to be in another faith community. There are times in our ever-changing lives in this world when we need to do that. We need to be challenged somewhere else. Quietly moving to a new faith community is not schism. Schism is different. Schism is the active and arrogant effort to divide the body of Christ over an issue or over an opinion about something that does not strike at the core of the faith. To actively and arrogantly cause division in this way is not of Christ.

Wesley even says that a little heresy within the church can be a good thing. Building upon Paul’s use of this term in I Corinthians 11, Wesley says that factions or heresies can serve a positive purpose. They provide an environment where we can learn how to love and how to break bread together. Love is too easy when the community is void of this energy. Our goal is not uniformity, where we are all the same. In the church, our goal is unity. This unity might be imaged as a beautiful piece of art with multiple colors coming together.

Recently, the pastors of the Conference gathered together for a retreat. As a way to explore how we might honor one another in our differences, we looked an old issue within the church, the issue of alcohol. At the beginning of the Methodist movement, this was a big issue that threatened to divide. On one side was the advice of Susanna Wesley to her children – John, Charles, and 13 others. Susanna Wesley wrote, (and I paraphrase) “Drunkenness is to consume such a quantity of liquor as to render yourself incapable of using your reason in the same way he would at other times.” This is an example of the sin of intemperance, she said. (So she gave this advice) “Two glasses will not hurt you. The divine Being will not be displeased with the innocent satisfaction of our regular appetites, even as we find ourselves warmed and a little more cheerful.” But take care (she says). “Stay at the third glass. In other words, do not exceed two.” Temperance or moderation was the value behind this advice.

Around this time, however, much stronger “distilled liquors” entered the culture and became easily accessible, and all of a sudden alcohol was causing great harm. Some people could not stop or be temperate in a healthy way. So, many Methodists began to move from temperance to abstinence and prohibition. And, all of a sudden, there were two camps, two strong opinions within the church. Both sides turned to scripture, as we see with similar issues today. We are not going to solve the issue today. Today, our question is, can we be the body of Christ with different perspectives on such things? Can we still come to this table and “break bread together?”

I believe the answer is yes, but let us never pretend that it is easy. We are called to stand for what we believe is right AND, at the same time, to “maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” That’s the challenge of the church. The only way for us to live into this challenge is to be firmly planted in God’s love. This love, as Paul says in the next chapter, requires humility and patience. This love is not envious or boastful. This love, Paul says, “never insists on its own way.” Think about that. This love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:1-8). This love is the key to truly finding a way forward and living in health and wholeness as the body of Christ.

So, we have Orange, Purple, Green, Red, Blue, Yellow, Black, White, and a multitude of combinations. Our calling is to combine our colors in a way that makes something beautiful, and meaningful, and indeed illuminates the God who is able to hold it all together. That’s the art of being the church. If we are going to do that well, it will continue to take a lot of practice. Amen.