Thursday, February 25, 2010


Different Ships; the Same Boat

"We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way - to love the world as God did and does.…If we are able to love the world, that will be the best demonstration of the truth which the church has been given. Parker Palmer.

I know it sounds strange to say this – but the way we read the Bible is backwards.

The very first person ever to put pen to paper as a Christian was in fact Paul. Long before anyone wrote down what they remembered about the life of Jesus, Paul was writing letters to the various churches that he had founded around the Mediterranean talking about how to be a Christian.

In fact, Paul had a home base – a rather cosmopolitan sea port called Corinth. He wrote quite a few letters back to his main church while he was away; we have two in the Bible, but there are more in the museums.

Now here is the thing. It took days, just days, for everything to fall apart each time Paul left.

When Paul wrote the famous epistle on love to the Church in Corinth he was dealing with a very specific problem. The people there were fighting about whether or not you should speak in tongues… We could perhaps imagine it as if all of a sudden the people on the left side of the church said they were better than the people on the right side… and we are better because… well, there is always some reason isn’t there. Just look at them over there….

You have all heard this passage – it is read at every wedding, even at some funerals. It is the basis of a lot of pop psychology and even a few pop songs – including a Beatles tune “All you need is love…”

The thing is – this is not a passage about love in the way we usually think of it – it is a passage about community – and Paul’s point is that there are two sides to the coin; there is love, but there is also justice.

Listen again and try not to think about romance:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal; and if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing....If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Do you hear what he is saying? There is literally nothing that we could have do or possess which would gain us anything unless we balance it with love. That is Paul’s rule for the church – do everything; use every spiritual gift, from a place of love.

And what does that mean? Well, in case they did not know either, Paul writes a whole paragraph in which he describes love as: patient; kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

And after he finishes this whole chapter on love he goes on to start the next one with a very succinct summary: here is chapter 14 verse 1: Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts...

So Paul writes to them about how all spiritual gifts are equal, then he writes to tell them that each member of the body is equally important to the whole… and finally we read this segue – ‘But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.’

And that way is Love. From the very beginning – before God formed us in the womb – as we first leaned on God for comfort – God’s love surrounded us as a gift of grace. So the most excellent thing which we should do in return is love.

Which is not to say that it is easy; Paul suffered a lot for his liberal and egalitarian views in a society that valued Roman patronage and hierarchy… but you see, Paul belonged to the Way of Jesus Christ; a way of living that believed whole heartedly that the Kingdom of God was already here… that it was in our power to make this world heaven on earth.

Remember that the only prayer Jesus ever taught his followers said nothing about the future, nothing about life after death, it prayed that God would continue to offer comfort and hope in this world and that life would become “on earth, as it is in heaven…”

This is the same man who preached his first sermon on healing the blind, setting the captives free, forgiving debt and loving everyone – and then sat down in his pew and said, this is all coming true around you right now.

So there is your challenge this week. Are you a follower of the way of Jesus? Do you see how the kingdom is breaking through all around you? Do you have love in your heart when you use your gifts? Because that is all God wants of you; and all Jesus and Paul were trying to say… life has meaning, it has hope and it has sorrow and pain; but we are all in this together, and if we get it right, this world could be so much more…

Let me end with an ancient but powerful prayer written by St. Benedict:

O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
intelligence to understand you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to see you,
a heart to meditate on you,
and a life to proclaim you,
through the power of the spirit of Jesus Christ
our Lord.