Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Stories We Live By

Sermon for the Induction of Revd Louise Polhill
The Grove Centre Church, Sydenham, 2pm 12th October 2013

1 Corinthians 12:12-31  For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  15 If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.  16 And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.  17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?  20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you."  22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,  23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;  24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,  25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.  29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?  31 ¶ But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away,
            it was a dark and stormy night, and the robbers sat round the camp fire,
                        so the old men say,
            and they all lived happily ever after.

We all love a good story, don’t we?

Whether it’s the child listening with mother,
            the adult reading the latest block-buster,
                        or the teenager engrossed in the latest TV series
                        or role playing computer game,
            a compelling story has the capacity to hook us and enthrall us.

Liz tells me that if I’m lost in a good book,
            she can talk to me and I won’t even notice,
and I think this must be true –
            when I read, I go the places that the story takes me,
                        often places I could never go in reality;
            and I meet the people who live there,
                        characters who become as real in my own imagination
                                    as many of the people I have met in real life.

Stories matter to us,
            not just for enjoyment,
            but because they spin the narratives of our lives.
We all live by stories,
            we all tell ourselves stories about who we are,
                        where we have come from,
                        where we’re going,
                                    how we are going to live.

At a fairly basic level, we have our own biographical stories –
            so, my name is Simon, and I was born in Sevenoaks.
My parents are Colin and Davida,
            in fact that’s my Mum sitting just over there.
I’ve lived in Sevenoaks and Sheffield and Bristol and London,
            and I’ve also worked in Cardiff.
And now you know something about my story, if you didn’t already.

And maybe if we get to know each other better,
            I’ll get to know something about yours too.
And whilst our biographical stories go some way towards defining us,
            there are other narratives we use to construct who we are,
                        how we think of ourselves,
                        and how we will choose to live.

Are we poor or rich? Socialist or capitalist?
            Married or single? Male or female?
                        White or Black? Christian or non-Christian?
                                    Ordained or lay? Church member or non-attender?
Each of these words conveys a narrative,
            they are short-hand for the stories we use to write our worlds.

Here today, as we gather to celebrate Louise’s induction
            to the ministry at The Grove Centre,
we are marking the coming together of two different stories;
            and part of our time this afternoon
                        is given to hearing both the stories of Louise,
                                    and of the church here at Sydenham,
            and of how these stories have now coalesced
                        around a call to Louise to minister in this place.

But of course it’s not just Louise’s story,
            or the story of The Grove Centre,
that are represented here today,
            there’s also my story, and your story, and your story,
                        and all the many, varied and complex narratives
                                    that we each of us brings with us.
The story of a church can never just be the story of a few key individuals.

I’m always a little wary of the kind of church history
            that just tells us the names and deeds
                        of the ministers who have gone before,
            because the story of the ministers isn’t the story of the church.

Rather, a true history of a church
            will recognize the contribution of all those
            who have played their part in that community down the years.
Some will have been there as ministers, or deacons,
            or in other positions of prominence or leadership,
but as anyone who has been a minister knows,
            they are only more visible because they are standing on the shoulders
            of the giants who are supporting them,
                        to paraphrase Bernard of Chartres
                        who said it five hundred years before Isaac Newton.

We cannot, and shouldn’t try,
            to reduce the story of the church to the favoured few.
There is a tendency to pin it all on the minister,
            but it is a tendency that we must resist.

This is what Paul is getting at in our Bible reading for this afternoon.
            The church is the body of Christ,
                        it is one body, but it has many members.

This idea of using the metaphor of a body
            to represent the diversity of a unified institution or community
                        wasn’t a new idea.
Aesop’s Fable ‘The Belly and the Members’
            drew the analogy between a body and the political state
                        hundreds of years before the time of Christ,
            and it’s likely that Paul would have known this fable
                        and may well have been referencing it
                        in his image of the church as a body in his letter to the Corinthians.

However, Paul takes the metaphor away from Aesop’s political meaning,
            and instead he personalizes it –
                        the body that he is talking about isn’t the state,
                        rather it is the body of a person –
                                    it is the body of Christ.

You see, for Paul, the church isn’t the same as the state,
            despite the best efforts of many down the years since to make it such.
Neither is the church the same as a club,
            or indeed any other voluntary or involuntary association of people.
It’s not a political party,
            it’s not a special-interest group,
                        it’s not a social club,
            it’s not defined on the grounds of ethnicity, gender,
                        social standing, or sexuality.

Rather, the church is a body, not in a metaphorical sense,
            but in a very tangible way.
The church is the body of Christ on earth,
            and its members are there because they have been called to be there.

Each individual member of the body of Christ
            has responded to the call of Christ to follow him.
We hear a lot about ‘calling’ at days like today,
            and I sometimes find myself wondering what it means
            to say that someone has received a ‘call to the ministry’.
The call of Christ on our lives is to follow,
            and everything else that we do,
                        everything else that we are,
            flows from our obedience to the call to follow.

Just as the fishermen beside the sea of Galilee
            heard in the call of Christ an invitation
                        to enter into a new way of being,
            so those of us who hear and answer that call
                        in our own time and in our own lives
                        find ourselves invited to enter into in a new kind of humanity.

If we are followers of Christ, our identity is in him, and nothing else.
            No longer are we defined by the stories of our gender,
                        our ethnicity, our sexuality,
                                    our social standing, our interests or our self-interests.
Rather, we enter into the story of the body of Christ,
            and our identity is now to be found
            in the one who invites us to follow him.

The alternative narratives
            of the alternative realities of being
                        available to humankind
            are no longer our narratives.
We are no longer defined by the narratives of money, sex, and power.
            Rather, we are part of a different story, a subversive story,
                        and it is the story of the gospel of Christ,
                        whose body is given for the salvation of the world.

And so it is within the body of Christ
            that we each find our new identity,
and it is to membership of the body of Christ
            that each of us has been called.
Each of us, mind, not just the minister,
            or the deacons, or the leaders,
            or the cooks, or the greeters, or the flower-arrangers,
                        but all of us,
                        whoever and whatever we may be.
We are each of us called to follow Christ,
            and to discover our new identity as members of his body.

There are a few places within Paul’s letters, including our passage for today,
            where he offers lists of what are often called
                        the gifts of the Spirit (cf. Rom 12.6-8 & Eph 4.11).
Some of these gifts we know well,
            and there are some churches and some Christians
                        that have made the possession of certain specific gifts
            a touchstone of whether someone
                        is genuinely a member of the body of Christ.

I tend to think it’s more complex than that,
            and indeed more gracious than that.

The gifts that Paul talks about aren’t given
            so that by exhibiting them we can tell who’s in and who’s out.
Not a bit of it.
            Rather, they are given for the building up of the body of Christ.

I put together a list of the various gifts that Paul says the Spirit brings,
            and there’s a representation of it on your order of service.
Just take a moment to hear these,
            and to rejoice at the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit:

wisdom, knowledge, faith,
            power, discernment, apostleship,
                        prophecy, teaching, miracles,
                                    healing, helping, organising,
            languages, interpreting, ministry,
                        exhortation, giving, presiding,
                                    mercy, evangelising, pastoring.

Paul clearly considers as ‘spiritual gifts’
            both those gifts that mainstream churches
                        have sometimes seen as central,
                        such as teaching or ministry,
            and also those which are sometimes regarded as ‘charismatic’,
                        or the gifts of the Spirit.
And the point he is making in our passage today from 1 Cornithians
            is that one should not look down on the other.
All gifts, including gifts like helping, and administration,
            are gifts given by the Spirit for the building up of the church.
They aren’t given for people to just enjoy the experience
            of receiving or exercising them,
                        however much joy might be found
                        in being fully who God has called us to be.
But the point is that the each gift God gives
            is given to the whole church,
            through the individual who has received it.

Paul also assumes that none of these gifts are given to everybody;
            it is only in church as a community of diverse individuals
                        who bring diverse gifts for the mutual building up of all
            that anyone can witness and experience
                        the full richness of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit.

And so Paul says, in verse 27,
            ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’[1]
Tom Wright suggests that these words
            should be engraved on the mind and heart of all church members,
but perhaps especially they need to be taken to heart
            by those called to more high profile office,
                        or those who have been given some special gift that,
                                    by thrusting them into the public eye,
                        brings on them the temptation to arrogance
                                    that was affecting some of those in Corinth.
The realisation that we are the body of Christ
            and individually members of it
is the basis of all true understandings of the church,
            and of all humble service within it.

This challenges any self-styled leader
            who may imagine that he or she is the church’s ‘answer’
                        without reference to the complementarity
                                    and needed gifts of others.
But it also challenges the members of our churches
            not to select or expect their leaders
            to embody the fullness of the gifts given to the whole body.
                        No-one can do it all, no-one has it all,
                        and thank God for that!
Those of us who have been called to the body of Christ
            need all the resources of God’s gifts
                        that are spread throughout the church,
            and are encountered through different individuals in different forms.

And so, here we are, to mark the induction of Louise
            to the office of minister at The Grove Centre, Sydenham.
Louise is a gifted woman,
            who has been called to follow Christ wherever that leads,
            and it seems that it has led us here, today.
This is the beginning of the next chapter in this particular story.

Louise has many gifts, but she doesn’t have all of them.
            She needs us, and we need her,
            just as we also need one another.
None of us gets off the hook here.
            Not all of us preach, or pastor,
                        or administer the sacraments,
            but each of us is called, and each of us is gifted,
                        and it is together that we are the body of Christ,
                        given for the salvation of the world.

And so the page turns, and the story continues.
            And when the Lamb’s book of life is eventually read out,
            each of us will be found to have played our part in the narrative.
Not for our own sakes, of course,
            or because of any goodness of our own.
But rather, because we have been called to the body of Christ,
            which is given for the salvation of the world.

The gospel of Christ cannot be reduced to four books in the Bible,
            written and completed two thousand years ago.
Rather, the gospel is the living story
            of Christ’s ongoing commitment to the world
            exercised through his body; that is through you, and me, together.

The gospel story is proclaimed
            as we bear witness in our lives
                        to the alternative way of being
                        that has come into the world in Christ.

The Liberal MP Sarah Tether came to speak
            at the 'Churches Refugee Conference' at Bloomsbury a few months ago.
She said that when faced with faceless systems,
            that dehumanise and disempower the poor and the vulnerable,
one of the most powerful things Christians can do
            is tell a different story of what it means to be human.

We who are in Christ are those who live by a different story,
            not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world.

We who are in Christ are no longer enslaved to those narratives of power
            which so often seem to dominate the world as we encounter it.

We who are in Christ believe that all are equal in the sight of God,
            that it is never right for systems, or people of power, to dehumanise another,
                        and so we cannot, and we must not,
                        accept the narratives so seductively spun
                        by society, the media, and vested-interest politicians.

We who are in Christ will find ourselves speaking up for the poor,
            advocating for the vulnerable,
                        holding the world to account for its actions,
            and bringing people back to a different way of understanding the world.

We who are in Christ tell a different story,
            and we are called to tell it and to faithfully live by it.

It won't change the world overnight, but it will change the world.

[1] The next two paragraphs make use of Tom Wright’s ‘Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians’

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