I Corinthians 12.12-27
I started to notice the geese flying south for the winter last week. It’s always a sign of winter when you see that recognizable V pattern flying through the air and hear that honking as they communicate to one another.
Scientists have told us that there are a couple of reasons why they fly in a V formation. The first is that it builds trust in the flock. When the birds fly hundreds of miles together, the V gives them what scientists call visual assurance. Basically they can keep track of each other better. If they were flying together in a random mob, it would be harder to know if Kyle the goose is still with them or what happened to Mary goose. They build trust in the flock when they are assured that they can see each other, and keep track of each other.
Maybe we should learn from the geese!
For we live in a culture in which trust is increasingly eroding….
How would you answer this question:
“Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”
This is the question that researchers from the have asked of Americans since 1972. And they have recorded those answers for decades. What you see in front of you are the results of the General Social Survey and the way that this answer has changed over the years. In short, green means that people have answered that “most people can be trusted.” Red means they answered the opposite. You can see pretty starkly how this answer has changed over the years. Less and less green. More and more red.
Interestingly enough, researchers over that time have also studied how religion plays a part in this topic. Do Christians trust more than non-Christians? Like a lot of research, it depends on how you ask the question, but many studies have shown that Christian faith has absolutely no change to how much people trust each other!
And it shows. I think there is a significant mistrust in the way that we interact with each other. If someone looks different or has a different way of living than we do, then we aren’t sure we can trust them. We don’t begin with an assumption of curiosity, but one of suspicion. If someone is like me, then they can be trusted. If they are not, they cannot. We have seen a rise in hate crimes, in race-related violence, in brazen comments and verbal attacks of the person on the street. When we see someone we don’t know, we are more likely to mistrust them. On this anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a victim of a hate crime just because a group of teens couldn’t handle someone who was different than them, we have to ask if we are much different than we were 20 years ago.
Eroded trust means eroded relationships and eroded community, and the picture is clear.
The same scene plays itself out in the book of Corinthians. Corinth was located on an isthmus, so there were ports on both sides of the city. So, the community and the church were bombarded all the time with new cultures, new ideas, and new people. For a lot of the church, this was terrifying. There were so many “others,” people who were “different than me.” It was hard work to be in community, and the Corinthians didn’t do very well. The Jewish Christians tried to make sure that anyone who was not Jewish became Jewish first: “if you are going to belong, you have to be like me first.” Some Christians, those who tended to be richer and more powerful, reacted by staging their own “members only communion” in which they showed up early and were already drunk when the rest of the church showed up. They trusted “people like me” but not someone who was different. They distrusted the “other” in their midst and tried to hide in enclaves just like them. Even within the church, trust had eroded, relationship had eroded. And for Paul, it was clear that faith had eroded.
But Paul had a remedy: in the face of common distrust, Paul preached a radical trust!
Most of us have probably heard of the metaphor of the Body of Christ. It is one of Paul’s favorites. But he did not make it up. In fact, it was a common metaphor for his time. Philosophers and politicians used it as a metaphor for the polis, or the city-state. Everyone was a part of the body. Everyone had a part to play. But the common use of the metaphor was hierarchical. The governors were the head and the commoners were the feet or the legs. Everyone had a place, but some had a special place while others were mostly cogs in the wheel.
What Paul did that was radical was take that metaphor and apply it to the Church in revolutionary ways. He suggests in this passage that we are all in this together, and that EVERYONE has an equal part to play. He tosses out the idea of the hierarchy, and instead suggests that the parts that we call inferior or dishonorable are actually as important, if not indispensable! Every voice matters. Every person has a role in the body. We are all in this together, and no one is more important than anyone else!
Yung Suk Kim is a Pauline scholar who specializes in the study of Paul’s correspondence to Corinth. He suggests that what Paul does here is pretty radical. Many had used the metaphor to stress unity, but Kim actually suggests that unity is a double-edged sword. “Who gets to define unity? Who or what will we be unified around?” The goal of unity is often homogeneity. We need to be unified, so you need to line up behind me. This is basically what the Corinthians were saying to each other.
But Kim suggests that Paul didn’t stress unity as much as he does diversity. Unity is a top-down, hierarchical definition. The Nazi party was unified! Unity is not always a good thing! But, according to Kim, what Paul was actually up to was teaching diversity. Every voice matters as much as the next ones’ voice! He says it this way:
“Challenging the traditional vision of Christian life as a lonely journey on the part of one who leaves family and community for a heavenly city…an ethic of diversity aims at responsible living together in mutual care. Paul offers a vision of living in diversity, respecting differences, engaging the other with self-critical awareness, and caring for the other in solidarity and for creation in wonder.”
Instead of homogeneity, Paul stresses radical diversity. And of course, to get to that, it required radical trust. Paul finishes this chapter on body diversity by suggesting, “now I will show you a more excellent way…” Perhaps you have heard that more excellent way:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Radical body. Radical diversity. Radical trust.
And Paul’s remedy to the Corinthians is the same remedy for us. Radical trust yields radical diversity yields radical faith.
I used to think it was the other way around. In fact, I have been studying this concept of trust for the last few years as a part of my DMin work. When I began, I thought my job was simple. I was going to teach you all how to trust. I would read the Bible to you and you would trust God more, and then as a result you would trust each other more. I was going to lead trust. I was going to evoke trust. I was going to make you all trust each other!
In fact, I am still transforming on this. I read this passage this week, and thought the same thing again. See where it says “You are made to drink of the Spirit.” I was right there with Paul…I am going to make you all drink of the Spirit. I am going to make you all trust God. And then as a result, you will trust each other.
But, of course, Paul says it happens the other way around. We learn to trust each other, to learn from each other in community, to be the diverse body of Christ. It wasn’t until I was sitting down with a group of church members, reading this passage together, when I realized what it actually said. “You are made to drink of the Spirit” Not you are forced to drink of the Spirit, but you are created to drink of the Spirit. That’s who you are. The beauty of true Christian community is that we trust each other. Then God becomes real in our midst.
There is an old bluegrass song by Rhonda Vincent that teaches this:
Oh, you don’t love God, if you don’t love your neighbor.
If you gossip about him, if you never have mercy
If he gets into trouble, and you don’t try to help him
Then you don’t love your neighbor and you don’t love God.
Neighbor love….neighbor trust is not a top-down, hierarchical business. God will teach me and I will teach you. Instead, we learn it together. We learn it with each other.
I learn to trust you by serving beside you in Haiti. You learn to trust me by eating lunch together on Tuesdays. I learn to trust you by listening to your wisdom on Wednesday nights. You learn to trust me by listening to what I have to say on Sunday mornings. We trust each other by coming to Sunday school and graceful engagement and friendship square.
Your voice matters! But we don’t believe it. The group I met with this week admitted this is hard because we don’t believe that we are worthy of trust. We are broken people. Imperfect people. We live in a world of constant self-conscious, self-judging, mistrust of self. As one person said, “Most days I think that my part in the body of Christ is to be a hair on a mole.” Paul says, “yeah. We all are. We all feel that way.” That’s why we are so insistent that everyone be like us, so that it makes us feel less self-conscious of our brokenness. But again, Paul reminds us it is the love of Christ that makes us whole. Like someone else said this week, “I wish everyone could believe this.”
I told you earlier that there are two reasons that geese fly in formation. The first is trust. The second is efficiency. It helps save energy. Each goose gets a chance to lead for a while, taking the turn at the front. The formation helps them draft off the lead goose. One works hard for a while to make it easier for the rest. When they get tired, the next goose takes over and the lead goose drops back. If one gets sick or injured, another goose stays with them. Mutual trust. Shared community. Not because they did efficiency studies and crunched the numbers an this way worked the best! Because it’s the way they were made. Trust and community.
It’s the way we were made. Created to care for each other and trust each other.