Are We Not All Corinthians?

I want to talk about the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives. It’s complex and often bewilderingly difficult to understand. One of the things people say about coming into the Episcopal Church is that it is an experience of not having to leave your mind at the door. This assumes that understanding is one of the ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.

Yet, understanding, the application of our rational minds to the mystery that is God is like sailing in shoal, infested waters. It is easy to come to grief on the shoals of over-inflation and self-importance in our individual thinking. We can come to grief on the shoal of rational analysis itself, which runs the risk of reducing mystery to the point where there is no longer anything left to understand, let alone to trust.

The Limitations of our Mental Process

Our minds are pattern-mapping machines. New experience is pattern mapped onto earlier memories. Therefore, our minds usually only recognize what we already know. Our thinking often is simply a confirmation of the limitations of our own impoverished inability to glimpse beyond the boundaries of imaginations corralled within memory. I have commented before on a dominant theme of memory, which is the need to stay within the safety afforded by the familiar.

An Enigmatic Question

This last Thursday evening those of us who arrived for our weekly adult formation evening were sitting in the subdued lighting of the Auditorium. This is a space not normally available to us on a Thursday night and so we make do with Atwood Hall, which though suited to our eating together, is particularly inflexible and uncomfortable for the class that follows. For those who have ears to hear – yes I am complaining!

Invariably the conversations I instigate rarely follow the pattern I envision at the outset. Thursday evening was no exception. I set out to invite a conversation picking up on last Sunday’s sermon in which I used Brad Kallenberg’s exploration of precritical, analytical, and postcritical approaches to story. You can read more of that on last week’s sermon blog Inhabiting our Story either on the Trinity Facebook site or at relationalrealities.com or listen again to the podcast at azcathedral.org

On Thursday evening I posed the question:  what would inhabiting our story as the Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central, look like?

As we wrestled to find a response to this somewhat enigmatic question, we found ourselves sailing in those shoal, infested waters I referred to earlier. We kept coming to grief on the particular shoal represented by the tension between perceiving God’s Spirit through our own individual experience (God’s Spirit as a source for personal self-fulfillment) and a perception of God’s Spirit acting in us as the Body of Christ (God’s Spirit as a communal experience).

Everyday we wrestle with how to live our lives in a world that, forces upon us difficult and conflicting choices with regard to self-interest and reaching-out in relationship with others.

Understanding how God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives is fraught with tension. This tension goes to the heart of Paul’s letter to those notorious Christians at Corinth. 2000 years does not, it seem, appreciably alter some aspects of human experience. Like the Corinthians Paul is addressing the way we orchestrate our lives in the midst of often difficult and conflicting choices, choices that polarize between following self-interest and acting in ways that build up our shared lives of relationship.

Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth

Over the last two weeks the Lectionary Epistle has come from the 12th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The essence of Paul’s message here is that God’s various gifts can be seen everywhere and in everyone. Each person is given a gift capable of revealing God to others. All gifts originate in God’s intention that they be used for the building up of community life. The image he employs to communicate this is that of the human body.

In our human society we value different parts of the body with greater or lesser significance. There are parts we like to show in public and other parts we conceal with clothing. We tend to focus on the parts that are perceived as beautiful. We rank different body parts and functions in importance, with those most visible being given most value. Yet although we can live without an eye, or a full head of hair we can’t live without a bowel or without a heart.

Following this analogy, we value ourselves, and others by the degree of physical beauty or intelligence, or other attributes that ensure success. When we regard the personal attributes of our bodies, our intelligences or our personalities we are defining our significance. Yet, Paul reminds us that our significance, our success, our honor, is given to us only because of what we are part of, i.e. part of The Body of Christ.

Hyperbole, Soliloquy, Idealization and Reality

Inhabiting our story of being The Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central means two things. Firstly, that it is within community as a whole that each person receives the gift of a calling. Secondly, it is only through the lens of community viewed as a whole that our individual calling reveals who God is to one another and to the world.

At the very end of Chapter 12 with the words: but now I want to lay out for you a still more excellent way, Paul takes us from his analogy between the Body of Christ and our human bodies into the greatest soliloquy in all of human literature, his soliloquy on love in chapter 13.

The word Paul uses for excellent is huperbolen, which gives us our English word hyperbole. Chapter 13 is hyperbole – exaggerated statements or claims not intended to be taken literally. Perhaps this explains why I Corinthians 13 is the most powerful love soliloquy ever recorded. It also explains why this passage finds its way to the wedding section of the Hallmark gift card range. At countless weddings this passage is chosen and I often wonder why as two people embark on the most difficult and complex emotional negotiation of their lives, joining two lives together as one, they want to be burdened by such an impossible idealization of love, such as Paul offers here.

As poetry, which relies on hyperbole, Paul’s definition of the attributes of love in Chapter 13 moves me deeply. Yet, as a prescription for loving amidst the day to day choices and tensions that comprise my life, these words only convince me of impossibility of my ever successfully loving.

Psychologically, I am familiar with the way idealization inhibits living. When we idealize we measure ourselves against an unobtainable standard, and this leads to disillusionment as we continue to fail to obtain that for which we long.

So is Paul intending to set an impossible standard? The overall theme of Paul’s writing to the Corinthians is one of encouragement rather than criticism. To invite them to understand love by measuring themselves against an impossible ideal would not make much sense.

Paul’s intention in this section becomes clearer when he begins to describe the impermanence of all spiritual gifts. He eloquently articulates the task of moving from childish ways of thinking, feeling, and acting to embrace more mature ways of living.  In the process we become only more and more aware that our own perception of things is only ever partial and incomplete.

Paul is not telling the Corinthians that no matter how hard they try they will never succeed in becoming a community of love. His purpose is to point out to those who think they had already achieved perfection, how short of the mark they really are falling. Here, his point is not just to bring them down a peg or two, although he can’t resist doing this. He is saying that it is all right to be a human being and to acknowledge that we all have a long way to go.

For me, being human is an experience that despite my often, inflated sense of my own success, I always still have a long way to go. Yet, God manifests God’s Self through that very imperfect human vulnerability. Vulnerability is not weakness or inadequacy. Being vulnerable requires a capacity to put away childish ways, and for childish ways read omnipotence and self-importance.

Inhabiting our Story

My Thursday night question: what would inhabiting our story as the Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central, look like, now takes on a deeper relevance.  Firstly, what always remains incomplete and partial in each one of us is made more complete and more comprehensive through our participation together in a community we call The Body of Christ.

Secondly, the gifts that God gives to each of us only find their fuller expression within the experience of interdependency within the Body.

Thirdly, to inhabit our story as The Body of Christ is to be at ease with love as vulnerability, not successful achievement. Vulnerability opens us to receive a deeper power of love, originating in God’s Spirit, flowing into us from within the life of God. Flowing from the life of God through us into the life of the world.

Paul’s concluding words in chapter 13 invite us to trust steadily, to hope unswervingly, and love extravagantly. I rather hope that this is what it means for us to inhabit our story as Christ’s mystical Body at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central.


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