Carry each other
Early in this year we had a reading from 1 Corinthians 12, and I mentioned that I wanted to revisit the ideas in that passage in a sermon. Today seems like a good day for that.
Here's the passage, read in the Message translation:
"God's various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful:
healing the sick
distinguishing between spirits
interpretation of tongues.
All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. God decides who gets what, and when.
You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts - limbs, organs, cells - but no matter how many parts you can name, you're still one body. It's exactly the same with Christ...
...The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don't, the parts we see and the parts we don't. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. You are Christ's body - that's who you are! You must never forget this."
Paul then goes on to list various roles in the church that were significant in the church of his time, such as apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, organisers and those who pray in tongues.
There's two things that I am not going to do with this passage.
1. I'm not going to get into discussion of whether some of these gifts, particularly the more miraculous or unusual ones, are still operational in today's church, and whether they're helpful or not.
2. I'm not going to make any kind of distinction between 'spiritual' gifts, and the things we find ourselves naturally to be good at and passionate about. I believe God works through all our talents and faculties, whether we perceive them as common or unusual.
What I do want to do with this passage is to emphasise Paul's reminder - that we are Christ's body, and that as a church we only function well when we all express our gifts and honour each others' contributions.
And I want to take some time for us to reflect on what gifts we each bring to this community of God's people, and to this world we live in.
So first, the reminder - what might it mean for us as a church community, if we truly embraced this metaphor of the body, as a way of understanding our life and our role?
One thing we might notice is that our health as a group has to do with acknowledging our interconnectedness. We are interconnected whether we notice it or not. Beyond the sharing of relationship networks, common interests and concerns, we also share our worship and trust in the same God, we eat and drink from the same loaf and the same cup. We share the same Spirit. We share an identity as Christians, and Christians who have committed to this particular group of others. That means we are connected even to those in the church we haven't met yet, or don't particularly like.
And, as the passage I read out affirms, our interconnectedness has consequences - when one suffers, we join in that suffering. When one rejoices, we are all participants of their joy. Sometimes we don't feel this strongly. Other times we do...we hear news of another's grief and for a time we carry it as our own. Someone else's success lifts our mood for a while. But even when we don't feel it particularly, I believe there's a real effect on us as a group, when we hear and share in one another's joys and sorrows. This is one reason why we share our community news and needs with each other each week...a practice of remembering that we carry each other.
I was reading in the book 'U2 by U2' the other day, both Bono and Edge reflecting on the lyric in their song 'One', where it says 'we get to carry each other.' They both stressed how important it is that the line does NOT say 'we've got to carry each other', which sets up a burden and a duty. But instead it says 'we get to carry each other' - an invitation, a promise. The idea of being able to carry each other is a gift, that might feel hard along the way, but that ultimately leads to human growth and hope and the deepening of love and community.
This is not an idea that finds huge popularity in our social context today. We are brought up to be individualists. When we hear 'we get to carry each other', we turn it in our minds into 'we've got to' and then rebel either outwardly or inwardly, turning from the commitment that implies and embracing instead our own sense of autonomy, and looking after number one. We deny the extent to which we are all joined, and live in the illusion of our separateness. I think in this passage, Paul is not saying 'come on, shoulder the burden, we've got to carry each other'. I think he's saying - forget your illusion of being a wholly separate individual, on your own against the world. Look at our shared reality - we are linked, we all share in the one Spirit, we are all part of the one body - Christ's body. Imagine that, we get to carry each other!' A message of invitation and hope, that rests on the way things actually are, rather than living out the lie of autonomy.
What this means for us in practice, is that every person we meet here is a person with something to contribute, with a story to share. They are someone we will get to carry, as they will carry us. They are someone with a gift to offer our community. Whether we can see it in them or not, whether we respond warmly to them or not on a friendship level, God has brought them here, and that is significant. At the end of each of our services, we say to one another - you are God's servants, gifted with dreams and visions. Upon you rests the grace of God like flames of fire. Do we believe it? Do we believe it of each and every one of us...or just the people we know and like?
When we say goodbye to people, our farewell liturgy affirms that God's Spirit will guide them into a new community, just as it was God's Spirit who brought them among us in the first place. Do we relate to one another as though that were true?
I am not saying that we will like and enjoy everyone we meet here at Cityside. I am not saying that we're not allowed to have particular friends, whose company we seek out and enjoy above the company of some others. Of course we are, we do, that's only natural, and realistic in a group of this size. What I am saying is that when we gather here in worship, or when we eat together or share some common task together, we can each recognise and affirm the unique, God-gifted contribution of each person, and welcome their presence as someone whose personal story is tied into the story of Christ, and therefore our story as a community - whether it fits with our taste or not.
This also includes people within the wider Body of Christ, in other churches, who say and do things that we find difficult, or even toxic. I think that we can and should speak up gently and honestly when we find the public practices or utterances of other Christians to be oppressive, unjust, or otherwise distorting of the message of Jesus. But they are still people who in their own way seek God through Christ, and in this we are linked to them, and should seek to build bridges, not to disown them lest we be tarred with the same brush.
Another way that we give expression to our giftedness and our connectedness is by welcoming the voices and participation of everyone, trusting that as each person leads us in worship, or shares their story, or prays for another, our picture of who God is and who we are is made richer and more beautifully complex. As we experience our various worship slots, or have our conversations over morning tea, I invite us to be noticing each other on an increasingly deep level. As we listen to each other, what would it be like to be asking: what have I seen and heard of this person, that shows me something of how God's Spirit has gifted them? What in their story is a signpost to the passions and talents that God is nurturing in them? How can I encourage that in them, or name that which I see in them, or call that gift out of them more strongly?
Have you ever received a note or a card from someone you don't know super-well, that affirms something they have seen in you? It's a profound encouragement to be more of the good that we are, and to nurture our own gifts. Of course, sometimes other people's observations say more about them than they do about us, or are skewed by the observer's preconceived grid, or some kind of reputation of ours that has preceded us, rather than anything true. It's always our responsibility to sift what we see and hear and offer and to give and receive only what is genuinely true and helpful. I think we're big enough to do that.
Lastly, if we reflect on ourselves as a body, as part of Christ's body, I think we need to ask how this body is acting in the world. When we see ourselves and each other primarily as individuals, church becomes a case of being refreshed and strengthened to go back out into the world, as individuals, to do our thing whatever that may be. We have been quite strong in that perspective here, and I continue to support that way of being church. However, I want to bring the other perspective too, which is that when we see ourselves as an interconnected body sharing Christ's Spirit, we may see for ourselves a role to play in our world through the combining of strengths and gifts.
Are there ways that we could be serving our world, our community, as clusters, as groups of people who share a complementary range of gifts, joined by a similar concern or interest? How do we support each other's callings in the world, by offering talents that we have that another person lacks? What can we do together, that we feel too small, too tired, or too unskilled to do on our own? None of us is meant to be all-singing, all-dancing, a super-combo of all the gifts required to serve God in this hurting world. As a community, though, we may be able to make some kind of difference. And it's only by hearing and sharing together what our hopes and concerns are for the world that we can offer our support and our gifts and help each other fulfil whatever vision God has given us. We get to carry each other...but it's hard to do that when we don't know what's making each of us tick.
A few weeks ago at Pentecost, we briefly touched on our sense of mission or ministry as individuals - the work in the world that we find ourselves called to. The notes from that slot are pinned up on the noticeboard, if you're interested in refreshing your memory or having a read.
This week's pondering is along similar but different lines. Rather than reflecting on our sense of call, I'd like us to take a brief moment to start with ourselves, looking at our strengths and our offerings...what we each have to bring in terms of concrete interests and talents.
I'm going to play a track, and as it plays, I invite you to reflect on the question - what gift or gifts, do I bring to this church community, and to this world? I invite you to write it on a slip of paper, and tape it to the board. Take some time to look at what others have written. I'll type them up and put them alongside the notes from Pentecost. But also, as well as naming these things, I invite you to consider - how do I currently express those gifts in this community, and in the world, and are there ways I could be more deliberate or active about that? What do I need to enable me to step out?