An Extremist for Love: A Sermon for MLK, Jr. Day

[Editor's Note: This was the sermon preached at my UCC church yesterday, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. I found it remarkable on so many levels, that I asked the Rev. Eric Smith if I could share it here at Faith Forward on this important holiday. Enjoy!] 

A Sermon from January 20, 2013
First Plymouth Congregational Church, Denver, CO
By The Rev. Eric Smith

1 Corinthians 12-13

Paul, you have to remember, was writing letters. He didn’t sit down and say, “well, today I’m going to write a treatise on spiritual gifts.” He didn’t set out to be systematic or to say everything that needed to be said for all times and all places. I think Paul would be horrified that we would still read his letters, that we would still be reading his mail, two thousand years later, and that after reading them, we would then say, “the word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God.” That wasn’t his understanding of what he was doing; he wasn’t setting out to write the word of God. He was writing a letter to some people in Corinth who had some questions.

And what were their questions? It’s kind of fun, sometimes, to read Paul’s answers and try to figure out what the questions were. It reminds me of those political bumper stickers that I first saw during the Clinton administration: “If Clinton is the answer, it must have been a stupid question.” Or later on, in the Bush administration: “If Bush is the answer, it must have been a stupid question.” When we read Paul, we have a lot of answers, but the questions are not always so clear, we don’t always know what he’s responding to.

I had us hear the scripture for this morning, Paul’s words from 1st Corinthians, in alternating voices for two reasons. The first is that the text is a little long, and I wanted some way to break it up, so that we could hear the end as well as we could hear the beginning. But I also wanted to emphasize something else: that in these two chapters of 1st Corinthians, there are three different answers to the same set of questions. Paul often writes this way: he’s making it up as he goes along, he’s writing a letter, he doesn’t have an outline in front of him, and there is no such thing as a second draft. So a lot of the time Paul writes elliptically, or circularly: he starts with an idea, and then he abandons it, only to come back to it later, or else he says something, and then seems dissatisfied with his answer, and so he circles back around again to give it another go.

So here, in these two chapters, he gives three answers. The first answer has to do with the diversity of spiritual gifts that we can expect to find in the Christian community. The second answer is a metaphor about the way the church, and indeed the community of all believers, works like a body works. And the third answer is a hymn to love, a love song to love, an argument that love forgives and forebears many things, and that love binds people together, that love sustains us in community even when other things threaten to drive us apart.

Three answers. Each of them different from the others, but each also related to the others, each following on in the mind of Paul. And so we have to ask, given these three answers, what the question was. And I think there were actually a couple of questions here that Paul was trying to answer. The first was, “why are we so different from one another?” Why are people so unlike each other sometimes? And the second question was, “since we are so different from one another, what does that mean for our life together?”

Paul was writing to the church in Corinth. Corinth was a pretty big city, not far from Athens in the south of Greece. It had a reputation as kind of a wild place; it was a big port town, and so it was known for all the stuff that comes along with sailors who are out on shore leave, and it had the kind of melting-pot culture that comes from immigrants settling from all over the place. The church in Corinth, it seems, had to deal with the reverberations of this—earlier in the letter Paul had answered their questions about meal practices, and sexual practices, and legal disputes within the congregation; it seems that there was always something going on in the church in Corinth. But here near the end of the letter, Paul is speaking more generally: he wants to talk not about specific situations, but about how the church should live its life together. How, in the midst of so much diversity of experience and opinion and belief, in the midst of all that, how can the church be the church?

This is a question I actually get from time to time. I got it just last week; I was asked to contribute to a blog on the question of what it’s like to be a part of an open and affirming church. It felt a little bit like being asked to be a FBI informant or something, or an undercover reporter, as if there are all these people out there who are curious about the hidden underworld of churches who are friendly to everyone. But more often than you might think, when people hear that I serve a church like First Plymouth, they want to know, “how does that work? So, what do you guys do there, at that open and friendly church? What would that kind of church even look like?” It’s so foreign to the experience of a lot of people—that a church would welcome everybody, and that doing so would be uncontroversial—that people honestly cannot envision what it might look like. So I get that question a lot, but I’m always a bit at a loss to answer it. To me, well, it just looks like…church. We still have little old church ladies, I tell them, it’s just that some of them are little old lesbian church ladies. And we still have kids down in Sunday School, it’s just that some of them have two dads. And sometimes people want to know what happens if a person comes to church who doesn’t believe the way the rest of us do, and I always answer, “believe the way the rest of us do???” Point me to a document saying how the rest of us believe, and my job just got a lot easier. No, I say, unanimity of belief, or lack of it, really doesn’t matter, it doesn’t come up that much. Who ever came up with the idea that people in a church all had to believe the same thing, anyway? Going to a church where everyone believes the same way is like walking into one of those carnival funhouses with a thousand mirrors, and seeing a thousand reflections of yourself on the walls, and calling that a crowd. That’s not a crowd. That’s not a church. That’s theologized narcissism. Personally, I tell people, if I found that everybody at my church was agreeing with me on everything, I would conclude that I hadn’t been doing my job.

As I said, when he was asked this question, about how to handle lots of different kinds of people in one church, Paul took three runs at it, right in a row. He started by saying that everyone has different gifts. “There are varieties of gifts,” he writes, “varieties of services, varieties of activities. Everyone,” Paul says, “Everyone is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The more different kinds of people you have, in other words, the more different manifestations of the Spirit you have. And that can only be a good thing. Here is an argument for diversity.

But for whatever reason Paul was dissatisfied with that answer, or else he still had more to say, because he went on to a second example. Think of a body, he says. The body works together as one unit; the other parts of the body can’t just decide that the mouth or the pancreas or the brain is useless and needs to be cut off. To function well, the body must be in harmony with all its parts, each doing its job. “Now,” Paul writes, to drive home the point, “Now, you are the body of Christ, and members of it.” We need each other to function, even if we are different from each other, especially if we are different from each other. Only when all the parts are acknowledged and honored does the body function well. Here is an argument for inclusivity.

And Paul’s third attempt at answering the question is probably the most famous of all. You’ve heard it at probably half the weddings you’ve ever been to, although it has absolutely nothing to do with romantic love. It’s called “the love chapter,” because in it Paul points to love as the best pattern for community. He lists the other things people think should form the basis of community: dramatic spiritual gifts on the part of members, he says, are what some people think make a good community, but Paul says those are nothing. Some other people say that wise knowledge on the part of leaders is the key to a vibrant community, charismatic leadership, but again Paul says, that is nothing. Even deep faithfulness, intense faithfulness that so often today gets called “a personal relationship with God,” that too is nothing. What matters, Paul writes, what is something, what is critical to a good Christian community, is love. Here is an argument for love.

Why are we so different from one another, and what does that mean for our life together? Paul answers these questions three times, in three different ways: with an argument for diversity, with an argument for inclusivity, and with an argument for love. He does not make an argument for doctrine, or creeds, or codes of moral conduct. He does not make arguments for biblical inerrancy or exclusionary practices. He makes a special point of saying that it’s not that we can all claim to be extra-spiritual or extra-smart. No. When faced with the question of the diversity of human beings, he says, we should understand that that diversity is from God, and it is God’s gift to us, God’s way of giving us all the parts we need to form the body of Christ. And when faced with the question of how to live in community with each other, given all our diversity, his advice is not to stamp out the diversity, by no means, but to embrace it as the proper workings of the body of Christ. And finally, he arrives at his best answer: the most excellent way, the greatest of these, is love.

“Progressive” Christianity implies that we are interested in progress. It implies that we are about driving relentlessly into the future, that we are in the business of breaking new paths and leaving behind old orthodoxies. And that is true, to an extent, and that is all well and good. But we are also about something very old, as old as Christianity itself and older than that—the idea that when faced with the differences among us and the question of how then we can live lives of faith together—the same question that Paul was faced with, and Jesus before him, and others before him—that when faced with these questions of our differences and our lives together, we stand on the side of diversity, and inclusivity, and love. And this is the same question that animated the words of a Christian preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., who called a nation to repentance and change and called Christianity to a full and honest accounting of whether it was living out its mission of honoring diversity, inclusion, and love. And it is the question that should animate us—we who call ourselves progressive Christians. Here is the space for progress: how can we embody Paul’s words here in 1st Corinthians? How can we live out this most excellent way that he has shown us; how can we be the full and complete body of Christ? Everything old is new again, what was progressive in the first century is progressive still. Humans come in great variety, and that variety informs our lives together. In Paul’s day, some thought the answer was to be found in less variety, in exclusion, in isolation and the building of fences. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s day, many felt the same way, and built nations and churches by marking off who was not welcome. And so it is still in our own day. All gifts are not acknowledged, the body is not complete, and love does not always prevail. But in this twenty-first century after Christ, let us live the way suggested by Paul in the first: with diversity, with inclusivity, and with love. Amen.

The Rev. Eric Smith is Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Denver, CO. He has a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School and is currently a PhD candidate in Biblical Interpretation in the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007. 


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