people-holding-hands-around-worldBible verses for reflection: I Corinthians 12:12-31

Paul was addressing a particular problem in the church in Corinth. The problem their young church was facing was division based upon social status. We human beings tend to divide ourselves for all sorts of reasons, like social status or the color of our skin or the amount of education we may have or our rank in the organization we serve or how much money we make per year. Recently, I read that people in Atlanta are picking neighborhoods in which to live based on their politics! Paul’s letter, written some 2000 years ago to a congregation that included Jew and Gentile, slave and free, provides a healthy corrective to the human inclination, still present in the 21st century, of stratification and division.

It is so easy for someone to feel like they do not belong – whether at school or in their social group or at their place of work, and, yes, sometimes even at church. I have been surprised, in the various churches I have served, at how many people can feel like they don’t belong even at a church where they have attended for years, at the very place where we would hope that everyone would feel some sense of belonging. To help the Church remain united and strong, Paul offers a powerful metaphor of the Church being the body of Christ: Jesus Christ is the head of the body, and we are the various members of body, and all of the members belong, just as parts of the human body belong to one another.

But talking about belonging and actually experiencing belonging are two different things. We have found that one of the keys to experiencing belonging in a congregation is becoming engaged in some ministry where you are using your spiritual gifts for sake of the common good. Last week, I mentioned the online spiritual gifts inventory, which can help us determine our particular gifts that can be engaged to build up the body of Christ. Again, I encourage all of you to become aware of what particular gifts you can offer for the sake of this congregation’s mission, and, for any who may not be feeling a sense of belonging, I encourage you step forward, let us know, and we will seek together
to find a place for you to offer your gifts.

Of course, part of discerning our gifts is recognizing what our gifts are not. In my freshman or sophomore year of high school, my older sister, Sarah, and I sang a duet at the early service during Advent. I still remember the song – “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” We attempted to sing in harmony, and, in my recollection, the duet actually turned out “ok”. We didn’t embarrass ourselves too badly. People said nice things to us after the service. But I had grown up hearing strong and skilled vocalists in worship all my life. My primary “take away” from that event, what I discerned from that experience, was that I was not a strong and skilled vocalist, nor would that become my goal in life.

We cannot have all the gifts. God spreads them out among us. My sister went on to become an excellent and hard-working musician. She earned all-state honors for playing her clarinet. She became the drum major for the marching band. Though I played the trombone for a while and sang in the youth choir, I discerned that my contributions to the church and to the world for the long term would not be through music.

One of the best aspects of my ministry in this church is the privilege of working with an excellent musician. Anyone who has heard Matt McMahan play the organ realizes that he is a tremendous musician. His skills are extraordinary, not only in playing the organ so well, but also in directing the choir, in gleaning the best from each member so that they become a united and beautiful voice as they lead our worship. Like many a gifted musician, Matt could become prideful about his work. He could insist that his ministry is the most important part of the church. He could demand more recognition or look down upon other ministries in the church. But Matt McMahan is a humble servant of God.
While tremendously gifted, he also recognizes the value of each member of the church and of each person on staff, whether or not they are directly supportive of the music ministry.

In many a church, pride and jealousy among competent staff members have torn the body apart, but Matt’s humble and self-confident ministry has helped bind together this body of Christ for over 18 years. As we welcome two new staff members this month, this is a good time for me to say how thankful and grateful I am for Matt McMahan, and for Allysen Schaaf, and for all the rest of the staff of this congregation.

Over the coming weeks, Jamie Butcher and Alex Rodgers will receive much attention and adulation as they quickly become very important members of this body. And their ministries will become vital to the life of this church in the coming year. But remember that they will not be able to do ministry alone. Just as Matt needs a full complement of choir members to direct, just as Allysen needs a strong complement of youth advisors, Jamie and Alex will need you to work alongside of them, to encourage them, and to follow their lead. Their roles will be different from each other’s; their roles will be different in some ways from my role, and what they do will not be the same as your particular calling in the church, but each member will be important to the body. The body of Christ depends upon all members working well and working together in order for the church to accomplish its mission.

One of the best illustrations of I Corinthians 12 comes from the orchestra. Each member of the orchestra plays a different instrument with a different sound, and each is critical to the performance of the whole. If the orchestra is missing one person, it is incomplete and the composition will not be performed to its full potential. The lead violinist may receive the most recognition. He or she may shake the conductor’s hand at the end of the concert and receive a standing ovation , but the first chair violinist cannot say to the third chair bassist, “I have no need of you.” The bassist cannot say to the percussionist who strikes the bell, “I have no need of you.” The composer cannot say to the director, “I have no need of you.” Nor can any of the musicians say to the light technician or the custodian or the marketing person or the ticket seller, “I have no need of you.”

In my first church after seminary, I visited one of our shut in members not long after my arrival. Belle Mebane had been one of those wonderful women of the church, like an Anne McKinley, who had done whatever was needed over many years. Belle had led women’s circles, she had prepared receptions for funerals, she had served on a pastor search team, and taught Sunday School, but when I met Belle, she was no longer able to do those things. In fact, she was so limited physically that she could not leave her bedroom. But Belle was mentally and spiritually strong.
She had decided that since she could no longer be physically present at church, that she would develop her prayer life. Belle had always been a person of prayer, but in her long days sitting alone at home, she would pray for hours.
She would pray for her family. She would pray for people on the church prayer list. She would pray for her pastors. She would pray for members of the youth group. She would pray for new ministries we would start. She would pray for stewardship campaigns and capital campaigns. She would pray for decisions before the session or the presbytery.
As an Associate Pastor, I held an important role in my years serving Fourth Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. And so did Belle. Belle Mebane’s prayer ministry had a long and deep impact upon that congregation.

I hear that there are a couple of football games this afternoon. To be honest, once the Falcons are out, I don’t pay much attention to pro football. But the newspapers keep talking about these great quarterbacks that will be playing today. The quarterback position is certainly one of the keys to any offense, but those who know the game realize that without a strong left tackle, no quarterback will be able to compete. The left tackle protects the right-handed quarterback’s blind side when he drops back to pass. I would venture to guess that the teams who win today will have a strong showing from their quarterbacks, but the quarterbacks’ performance will only be made possible because of those strong left tackles, those lesser known players who receive little to no recognition, who won’t win the MVP award, but who work hard the whole game to protect their quarterback.

Instead of pride over gifts or position, Paul encourages humility. Instead of divisions created based upon stratification of gifts or roles, Paul encourages mutual respect, particularly for the weaker or more vulnerable or less presentable members of the body. Pride separates people from each other; humility and mutual concern binds the body together.

All members are needed for proper functioning of the body. You are needed for this church to fulfill its mission.
There is no such thing as an appendix in body of Christ! You are indispensable. You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. You belong; you have a role to fulfill. As the next chapter of I Corinthians outlines, chapter 13, the most important gift of all, the gift that any of us can offer and that all are called to share, is love. Just as using our gifts for the common good goes hand-in-hand with experiencing belonging, so loving other members of the body goes hand-in-hand with belonging to the body.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
January 24, 2016