“In Christ Is Found Our Unity”: Sunday, January 27, 2013 (The Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Septuagesima Sunday)

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”—I Corinthians 12.27[1] 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen!

In the late 1930s, when swing music was becoming increasingly popular throughout the American musical stage, jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman was widely considered among his professional colleagues and jazz fans to be the “King of Swing,” the “Patriarch of the Clarinet,” and “Swing’s Senior Statesman.”  When he organized his first full-size band in 1933, it included no black musicians (being that America was still in the time of de facto and/or legal racial segregation).  However, jazz critic and producer John H. Hammond (who later became Goodman’s brother-in-law), an unapologetic racial liberal and civil rights activist, both encouraged and pushed Goodman to integrate his band, wanting to both highlight the musical talent of African-American musicians and help make jazz become a visible symbol of the unity that should exist between all of the human race.  In 1935, because of Hammond’s insistence, Goodman took a chance and integrated his band, hiring African-American musicians Teddy Wilson, a pianist, and Lionel Hampton, a drummer and vibraphone player.  Goodman’s hiring of Wilson and Hampton turned out to be one of the best decisions that he ever made and played a major role in bringing about the downfall of segregation that existed within jazz.  Years later, when he was asked to reflect on jazz’s role in integration, Goodman said, “It takes the black keys and the white keys, both, to make perfect harmony.”

In today’s epistle lesson from First Corinthians, Paul’s analogy of the human body with that of the Christian Church conveys the basis upon which those who call themselves “Christian” should stand and hold themselves in relationship.  The division that is being caused by many within the Corinthian Church is happening out of a sense of arrogance, brought on from a belief that certain gifts possessed by some are better and more highly valued than those possessed by others, leading to the implication that those not possessing gifts viewed as being adequate contributions to the Christian way are not really part of the body of Christ.  This infection of arrogance and division has hindered the Corinthian Church from fully being a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit and living faithfully into the Gospel mission.  Paul’s purpose in writing to the Corinthians is to set the record straight, that through Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit within us through baptism, all within the Christian community are equal to each other and the gifts that they possess, though different, are all valuable to God and equally contributive to the mission of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ on Earth.  From Paul, we learn that in order to live in and be the community of Christ, we must be in relationship with each other, building upon the foundations of unity, for anything different is the antithesis of the Gospel.

Through his eloquent rhetorical skills, Paul gets to the heart of the Christian concept of unity and relationship.  The Christian’s relationship with both God and others comes from our inherent gift of goodness from God and all of humanity’s common possession of that gift.  As told in the account of creation in Genesis, upon God’s creation of humanity in His image, He declares that “it was very good.”[2]  Despite our inherited sinful nature brought to us by the fault of Adam and Eve, our first parents, the goodness of God, which dwells within us through His creation of us, remains a part of our very being as humans.  By the coming of Jesus Christ on Earth and His achievement of our reconciliation to God on our behalf, our inherent goodness from God gives us the ability to be in relationship with Him and in equal relationship with our fellow humans.  This goodness that is inherent within us by virtue of God’s creation and humanity’s sharing of that goodness makes Christian unity a divine thing, being centered upon the divinity of Jesus, as well as being part of Jesus’ very divinity itself.  Jesus’ humanity and divinity form the very foundation for Christian unity and to allow arrogance and division within the fabric of our common life is to deny the indwelling of Christ that makes up part of one’s very humanity.  One of the fallbacks of being human is that our fallible nature makes us prone to falling victim to arrogance and division.  As Christians, being mindful of Jesus as the very definition of Christian unity helps us combat such negative forces and promote the common goodness that we all have through God and share with each other.

Beginning eight versus before the start of today’s epistle, Paul writes that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”[3]  Paul writes this to confront and put down the view that there are certain gifts that are more valuable in service to God and that those in the community not possessing such valuable gifts aren’t full and equal members of the Christian family.  Paul’s written tone conveys his view that this circulating thought is a lie and is completely and utterly wrong.  If God, by His creation of us, has declared us good, with that declaration having been confirmed by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, from which our humanity now dwells at the right hand of God through Jesus, then that must mean that the respective gifts we possess, which help define who we individually are, are all good in their own way.  God’s declaration of our goodness helps convey the notion of how our gifts, though widely different, have the ability to bring about unity amongst all within the larger community.  In Christian theology, the term “charism,” coming from the Greek word charismata, is meant to denote any good gift that flows from God’s love down to humanity.  With that, God equips us with a variety of gifts to help us promote His love to others and to promote the common good. 

Through his emphasis upon the “same Spirit,” “same Lord,” and the “same God,” Paul is telling the Corinthians that what makes all people’s gifts equally contributive to the community’s Christian growth and equally valuable in the eyes of God is that no matter what the gift may be, it is a gift given from God.  With our gifts given to us from God, they are deemed by Him to be suitable forms of service to His glory and toward the mutual benefit of all humanity.  By God blessing us with such a variety of gifts, we see and experience endless possibilities of God’s grace, love, and fellowship unfolding among us and being present in our relationship with others through the power of the Holy Spirit.  All gifts, no matter how different from each other they may be, are created and given by God to His people for the promotion of unity, both with Him and throughout the wider community.  From unity comes love, which brings out the best in us and others and embodies God’s greatest hopes and desires for all of us, His beloved children.  God’s gifts make all people full and equal members of His body.  God through Jesus has declared His people reconciled to Him and equal to one another and any declaration to the contrary will always be in strict contradiction to God’s promised and fulfilled Word.

In the end, here is where we stand: (1) having been created in God’s image, God has declared us to be “very good”; (2) by God coming to Earth in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and offering Himself to be the perfect sacrifice for humanity’s redemption, God’s declaration of our goodness is confirmed and still in full effect; and (3) God has bestowed within each of us a particular gift, which all, regardless of difference, make us see Him as the one true God and the foundation of our common life together.  These three key points form the total basis for Christian unity and mutual accountability and undergird Paul’s statement that we are uniquely created individuals united together through Christ as His body, the Church.  Jesus came to Earth to reestablish a relationship between God and humanity, making what was crooked straight and all the rough places plain.  Because of Jesus having reestablished our relationship with God in Heaven, we are charged with the duty of advancing the cause of unity amongst ourselves, recognizing, valuing, and cultivating each other’s gifts, which help us to see the love of God at work within us and throughout the world.  Arrogance and division are a dishonor to God, for when we deem anybody’s gifts to not be up-to-par and unsuitable for the advancement of God’s kingdom, it becomes us who hinder the advancement of God’s kingdom, for we convey a message that’s completely out of sync with God’s message and become liars and hypocrites of the redemptive word of God.  From all of this, we are reminded of the fact that God is love and that because God’s love is unconditional, all of us and all of our gifts are equally pleasing unto Him and help all of us catch a glimpse of the foretaste of the glory of God that is to come.   

Benny Goodman spoke truth when he said that “it takes the black keys and the white keys, both, to make perfect harmony.”  Although they both have their particular functions on a keyboard, with their notes producing different colors of musical tones, they all have the same goal—to make perfect harmony all together.  So it is with the gifts that God has given us—they’re all very different, but what makes them the same is their pointing to the same Spirit, same Lord, and the same God.  May we honor God and our neighbor by cultivating our own gifts and those of others, recognizing each other as God’s equal, ransomed, and restored community.  Amen!                   

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Genesis 1.31b

[3] I Corinthians 12.4-7

Published by Brandt Montgomery

I am a Priest and boarding school chaplain in the Episcopal Church (USA).

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