“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

Spring 2013 Preaching Schedule

Lately, many people have asked about when and where I will be preaching.  Below is my (current) guest preaching/celebration schedule for the Spring 2013 semester.  If any of you are around in these areas, you are more than welcome to attend.  Peace and love!

Spring 2013 Guest Preaching/Celebration Schedule

February 3–Guest Lecturer, “Singing a Faithful Song–A History of Black Leadership in the Episcopal Church,” Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Metuchen, New Jersey

February 13 (Ash Wednesday: 12:00pm & 6:30pm)–Guest Preacher and Celebrant, Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, Alabama

February 24–Guest Preacher, Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, Alabama

February 26–Guest Preacher, Lenten Series, Trinity Episcopal Church, Demopolis, Alabama

March 3–Guest Preacher and Celebrant, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, Alabama

March 8–Guest Preacher, Lenten Preaching Series, Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama

March 20–Guest Preacher, Wednesday Lenten Series, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Selma, Alabama

“There’ll Be Some Changes Made”: Sunday, January 13, 2013 (The First Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord)

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”—Isaiah 43.1b[i]

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

I am a huge lover of jazz—specifically of traditional standards and songs associated with the Great American Songbook.  One particular song that I enjoy was first written in 1921 and the lyrics are as follows:

For there’s a change in the weather, there’s a change in the sea

So from now on there’ll be a change in me.

My walk will be different, my talk and my name,

Nothing about me is going to be the same.

I’m going to change my way of living and if that ain’t enough

Then I’ll even change the way I strut my stuff.

Cause nobody wants you when you’re old and grey.

There’ll be some changes made today, there’ll be some changes made.[ii] 

On today, the First Sunday after the Epiphany and the commemoration of our Lord’s baptism, these lyrics help to convey a mostly synonymous image of the outward and inward effects of both an epiphany and of baptism.  The word “epiphany,” coming from the Greek word epiphaneia, can be interpreted to mean “manifestation” and a “sudden and striking realization.”  Baptism, being one of the two dominical[iii] sacraments of the Church, is an outward and visible sign through water of the inward and spiritual grace that Christ gives to us through His death and resurrection, His forgiveness of our sin, and our new life in the Holy Spirit, all of which incorporates us into His family, the Church.[iv]  All in all, the common characteristic of all these meanings is that of a change.  More specifically, the common characteristic is that of a positive change—something that points us in the right direction and helps us be better at being human.  The commemoration of our Lord’s baptism, as well as the entire Epiphany season, points us to the revelation of Jesus Christ as the divine agent of positive change, the manifestation of God in incarnate form.  For us, Christ’s baptism is the signal that the time of promise, the time of fulfillment, the time of Jesus has officially begun, never slated to come to an end.

There are three factors regarding our Lord’s baptism that warrant serious consideration—the first being the preparation for our Lord by John the BaptistJohn is the representation of the turn from that which is old and unsubstantial to that which is new and continually substantial.  His role as the forerunner of Christ was preordained, as it had been proclaimed by an angel of the Lord to Zechariah, John’s father: “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”[v]  Zechariah, himself, proclaimed that his son would “…be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins…”[vi] As the preordained forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist is the link of the cessation of the old covenant age to the beginning of the new kingdom age personified through Jesus.  He is the first person to proclaim to God’s people the Good News of Jesus Christ.  John’s wilderness cries were a turning point, a shift, a proclamation of a new, positive change and his baptizing was the symbolization of one’s inward spiritual change, of their acceptance of the coming new kingdom age, and their changing from the old way of thinking and living to the new, opening themselves up to the ways of the Coming One.  Because of John the Baptist’s preparation, the link between God’s Old Testament promise of salvation and His salvation of the people through the person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament became solid and built on firm ground.

The second factor is that of Jesus’ baptism itselfUnlike today’s Gospel account, as well as that found in Saint Mark’s Gospel, Saint Matthew’s Gospel highlights a short, yet highly significant exchange between John and our Lord before the latter’s baptism by the former.  Various biblical translations have interpreted Jesus’ response to John in either one of two ways, yet both of them clearly give the reason as to why He submits Himself to John’s baptism.  Across most of the major translations, John’s question and insistence to Jesus is pretty uniform: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  The Revised Standard, New Revised Standard, New International, and English Standard Versions and the Common English Bible similarly translate Jesus’ answer to John as this: “Let it be so now; for [thus] it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  But both the New English and Good News Bibles similarly translate Jesus’ answer differently: “Let it be so for now.  For in this way we shall do all that God requires.”[vii] 

Saint Matthew’s noted exchange between John and Jesus provides the crucial reasoning and context for the need for Jesus, who ranks above John, to submit Himself to John’s baptism.  The overall crux of the context is embedded within Jesus’ divine nature and humanity and of what His divine nature will accomplish by His taking upon Himself humanity’s form and substance.  In his first letter to Timothy, Paul states that “the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”[viii]  Saint John augments that by stating that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”[ix]  As God incarnate, Jesus Christ came to Earth, within the course of our own time, to be the agent of reconciliation between God the Father and the human race.  He came down to Earth to be the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the world’s sin, casting away wrath and condemnation and replacing it with God’s forgiveness and mercy.  In order for Jesus to have effectively carried out His mission of restoring all of humanity unto God and fully be the expiation of its sin, He had to submit Himself to John’s baptism.  By doing so, Jesus, through His human nature, though without sin, identified Himself with us and our sin, signifying the beginning of a new way and the shortening of the Law and the elongation of grace.  Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism and His identification with the human race by it is the beginning of that which will be achieved on the Cross—deliverance from the sting of death and beginning a new life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Lastly, the third factor is the nature of the sacrament of baptism upon all Christian believersPerhaps the best definition regarding baptism comes from The Book of Common Prayer: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.  The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”[x]  Today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah goes even further: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters I will be with you…For I am the LORD your God…your Savior.”[xi]  Through Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism, done in the form of our humanity, identifying Himself with our sin, and bringing about humanity’s restoration to God through His sacrifice on the Cross, once and for all, God’s assurance from Isaiah falls down to us by virtue of our own baptism.  God’s words from Isaiah are reconfirmed by the sound of His voice coming from Heaven after His Son’s baptism: “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”[xii]  Through Jesus, we, who have been ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven through Him and made new creations through the waters of baptism, are pleasing to God.  Heaven has been opened to us; it has not, nor will it ever be closed to us again.  Through our own baptism, we are all brought back home to God and are the living proof that God does save and still saves all who earnestly desire His love, mercy, and presence.  Because of Jesus, we can have the full faith and assurance to believe that the establishment of an indissoluble relationship with God through the sacrament of baptism is true and ever sure.

For there’s a change in the weather, there’s a change in the sea

So from now on there’ll be a change in me.

My walk will be different, my talk and my name,

Nothing about me is going to be the same.

I’m going to change my way of living and if that ain’t enough

Then I’ll even change the way I strut my stuff.

[Cause God always wants you, even if you’re old and grey.]

There’ll be some changes made today, there’ll be some changes made.  [Amen!]

[i] Unless otherwise stated, 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, Copyright 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[ii] “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” first published in 1921 with music composed by Benton Overstreet and lyrics written by Billy Higgins.  This song is a well-established jazz standard.

[iii] The New Oxford American Dictionary (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) defines “dominical” as being “of Jesus Christ as the [L]ord.”  Therefore, a simpler definition of a “dominical sacrament” is a sacrament that is directly “of the Lord.”

[iv] “Holy Baptism,” from “An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 858.

[v] Luke 1.17 (NRSV)

[vi] Luke 1.76-77

[vii] Matthew 3.13-15.  At 3.15, the Common English Bible specifically translates Jesus as having said: “Allow me to be baptized now.  This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus’ answer in comparison between the New English Bible and the Good News Bible comes specifically from the Good News Bible.  The New English Bible translates Jesus as having said: “Let it be so for the present; we do well to conform in this way with all that God requires.”

[viii] I Timothy 1.15

[ix] I John 2.1b-2

[x] From “Concerning the Service” regarding the liturgy for Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 298.

[xi] Isaiah 43.1-2a, 3.

[xii] Luke 3.22