Sermon, “Paul: Called to be the Body of Christ”
I don’t normally create a written text of sermons but by request I did so of the 8:00 am version of this morning’s sermon. For any others that would like it, here it is:
Paul: Called to be the Body of Christ
(fifth in a Lent series on Portraits of Faith)
By Andrew Kukla
So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?”
Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.
Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!
As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
2 Corinthians 5
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Okay so today for a change I am not going to start are saying that Paul is one of my favorite characters, because it wouldn’t be true. In fact Paul is rarely anyone’s favorite character in the Bible. Partly I think this is that he has an uncompromising vision, which puts him as a good partner to Jesus himself who also has a bit of uncompromising vision but isn’t that a little part of the problem… it can be hard to get humility from Paul. Let’s face it – Paul is good at everything he does and he likes to remind us of that from time to time. And we don’t really like people who are always reminding us how much better than us they are at everything they do.
There is another problem with Paul. He is a rhetorician. He love words… he loves LOTS of words. When Paul is trying to go from A to B he manages to take a stop at X, Y, and Z along the way. Most of us don’t want all those extra words and want to say, “Okay Paul I didn’t really hear all that, just tell me what I need to know.” Now I’m a philosophy major at heart – so there is a piece of me that loves that about Paul. In Paul’s time the equivalent of church education WAS education. In the emerging rabbinic tradition the rabbi was the expert of knowledge and learning. They were the seat of all intellect. The lawyer, priest, and scribe. I like this as a philosophy major because philosophy majors like to tell ourselves that all learning was originally philosophy and that all other disciplines and majors are simply the children of philosophy. Now we tell ourselves this today because there is nothing practical you can do with a degree in philosophy so we have to come up with some good reason for it! But, that was Paul. Paul was the educated person in a day when religious education was education. He was the intellectual elite as well as a spiritual leader. So as we think about who was Paul, he was that guy that knew everything. He was the guy who had all 600 some laws memorized, he was that teacher and expert in knowledge that you went to when you had questions. He could sit and listen to your dilemma and tell you what to do, and he would have been the keeper of faith and faithful ways to live in the world. He was lawyer, doctor, spiritual advisor, and teacher.
And Paul – we know because he tell us – was really good at it. Paul walked through life knowing that everyone wanted his opinion… and so he gave it to them before they even asked. So when we first encountered Paul in the biblical text he is a good and zealous Pharisee and when these Christians pop up… these people who followed Jesus, Paul heard of them. And they saw the world differently and Paul knew that his answers were right and theirs were wrong and he because a persecutor of the Christians. Those Christians, he says, add 1 and 1 and get 4 and we know that isn’t right. So he dedicated himself to stamping out their wrongness. We know he was there at the stoning death of Stephen and he approved of all that was done. Then one day Paul is walking on the road to Damascus and he has an encounter with the Risen Jesus as a blinding light that makes it so he cannot see anything. There is probably more than just a little bit of metaphor going on here as Paul who knows everything cannot see anything let alone the truth that is right before him.
As we picked up with this story early we saw Ananias, who is called up by God to heal Paul, continue God’s work in Paul and something like scales fall from Paul’s eyes and his sight of the world is totally different, his view, his perspectives are changed. His priorities in life have been turned upside down, and still a follower of the same God he lives that out in new ways in the light of Jesus Christ.
It is here, in this shift and change that we see in Paul that we might find some of the shifts and changes that should be at work in our lives. We have been talking about journey and a lot of people who have been changed in amazing and good ways by God at work in them. Before we move to these shifts in Paul it bears notice that some sin, some short-sightedness or challenges do dog us our whole lives. None of us becomes perfect in our journeying, and Paul – newly reborn in Christ – doesn’t suddenly become humble because of this shift. Paul will still tell us, “here is my trophy case of things I’m really great at – perfect at – and while none of that means anything in Christ, just to make sure the record is right… I’m really good at everything.” That doesn’t really change in Paul but there are other amazing shifts in Paul. One of these is that Paul, in his life as Pharisee, is wrapped up in his individual piety. How am I – emphasis on the I – righteous? This is Paul’s priority, his own righteousness. The keeping of the law is not about demonstrating God’s good news, but about how good I am. I did this, I did this, I did this, and this, and this…. And Paul was good at it, and this was his priority and all of the sudden Paul gets to place that this isn’t true anymore.
Circumcision becomes an example of this for Paul – individual piety. What have I done to show my identity that separates me out from the rest of the world and marks me as good and righteous. And now Paul says this doesn’t matter anymore, that missed the point. The point was that it’s about community. About being a community of reconciliation. We shift from, what do I need to do to be good, to what do we need to do to demonstrate God’s goodness in the world? Individual versus community, my righteousness versus God’s righteousness. And that is an important shift for us because a lot of time we want to think about my private faith, or my faith journey or my savior Jesus Christ or my personal relationship with God. And Paul says that isn’t the priority, or the emphasis of faith. That died, that was an old thing and it’s passed away in favor of new creation and in new creation the questions we ask are communal questions. How are we living God’s love in the world? How are we reconciling to one another and to God? How are we being the Body of Christ?
The Body of Christ is an important image for Paul. It is another priority shift for Paul. Before it was important to Paul that everyone looks like him. Paul says, “I have the right answers and the right way, and the right set of laws, and the right righteousness and you need to look exactly like me.” But as he shifts to communal identity what he doesn’t see is a community of uniformity. He sees a community of one-ness. Now what is the difference? What is the different between one-ness and uniformity… you may say it’s a philosophers nuance. But I’d argue it’s a very important distinction (being a philosopher and all). It is the difference between uniformity which says community is formed by all being the same and looking the same and thinking the same verses the understanding that community shares a mission but embodies it in different ways, we all have the same love – united in God’s as love – but we embrace that love in diverse ways. It from this that Paul can say to Peter you have a mission to the Jews and I to the Gentiles. Same love, different way of embracing it. Formerly that difference would have led him to persecute those who were practicing that love differently.
Again it is from this shifted understanding that Paul can say we are all parts of one body. An ear, and a nose, and hand and foot… and I’m sure Paul thinks he is a glorious part of the body but he gets that we are not all to be and act and speak the same. One body, one mission but not as a community based on uniformity. So that is what gives Paul this great language in Galatians, “we are no longer male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free…” Paul saw his old world as separating apart and building walls, his life was about separating himself and his piety from others and he formed his identity as distinct from the other in way that he was better than them. And aren’t we all good at parsing differences in our identities based on single traits and then persecuting those who don’t share that trait. And Paul has shifted from this to understand that traits no longer divide us. It isn’t that we no longer actually men and women – but that these difference do not separate us but provide the gift of diversity in our community… differences in our unity with each other. The body of Christ. Rather than stamping out these differences we embrace them because they make us a fuller demonstration of all of God’s creation reconciled to one another.
You could say in these shifts that there is also a shift not from hate but from adversity and antagonism to one of love. Isn’t it fascinating that it is a text from Paul that gets read in most weddings? Who would have thunk it! You know the text I mean… love is patient, love is kind… and the greatest of these is love. This becomes Paul’s worldview, not adversity to the world but love the world, not building walls but building bridges, not stamping out difference but embracing them for a larger demonstration of God’s community. Our calling for Paul is to embrace and live that love towards all people.
So noting these shifts in Paul he then gives us a challenge. As he notes this shift from individual to community, separation to reconciliation, adversity to love… then Paul says that as we do this we are to be God’s righteousness in the world, God’s ambassadors. The idea of being the Body of Christ is no simple metaphor. We are called to live as Christ in the world, people should gaze on us and have an experience of Christ; the work we are doing is be God’s work in the world. We are to be God’s hands and feet, not because of our goodness but God’s goodness working through us. This is baptismal theology for Paul. We died, just as Christ died, to what was – the expectation and worldviews we once had, in order that we might live again to Christ, with Christ living through us. And so it is that we are ambassadors for Christ, not only speaking of Christ – but speaking for Christ as Christ to Christ. Wow – that is a big challenge and a big responsibility. This is part of why I think that even when Paul is being humble he doesn’t sound humble because he understands that all that we say and do in the world represents God in the world.
As I think of these shifts, and I think about what it means for my journey (wait no, not my journey, that died and is gone), as I think about what that might mean for our journey, I realize that in the Church right now. Not just First Pres but the larger Church – the big C Church. The Church is one of the greatest impediments to God’s community. The Church is on the ropes (not dying but struggling and being examined for good reasons). When those outside the Church look at us what they see is fighting. People who, every time we don’t get our way, leave and form a new church. What was one Body of Christ is becoming, increasing plentiful and increasingly smaller bodies of Christ. The Body of Christ is getting further and further separated; we aren’t building bridges but walls around our individual piety. So the outside world sees us this and says, “I like Jesus but I’m not that fond of Christians.”
And I hear in Paul this call that we need to get over this personal piousness that builds up walls around our identity that focuses on me and my way in the world. We are building walls governed by lists of rules and laws and policies on how you can and cannot be a part of us. The church intriguing in the 20th and so far in 21st century has become the Pharisee – we are about rules and regulations about how to belong to us and I imagine that if Paul saw us today he’d have VERY colorful language for us about his sorrow in what we have become. We are a Body disconnected and not even reconciled to ourselves let alone all of creation.
If we are ambassadors in Christ, if we are the Body of Christ, if we are God’s mission of reconciliation to the world – God’s way of saying I do not count your sin against you but love you and want you to be one with me and mine, if we are all of that, what needs to die in us and pass away for us to be that again? This is our Lenten question as we look to Paul’s story, to God at work in Paul and in us. That we might die and rise in Christ that we might live not for ourselves but for the love of all people, a community that bridges in love and shares in grace. Thanks be to God, Amen.