[I Cor. 12:12-31a; Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6]
The community of faith in Corinth was vibrant and young, but the group needed help figuring out how to do life together. So Paul penned several long letters in which he addresses some specific challenges. He insists that because of Jesus things are different. Because of Jesus’ teaching, because of Jesus’ death, because of Jesus’ resurrection in the power of the Spirit—the community of faith should stand apart. It should be a people shaped by worship, overflowing in love and powered by the Spirit. And as we read in I Corinthians 12, it should be a community where everyone contributes.
Not too long ago a fellow named John Kaag discovered the abandoned library of an important American philosopher in the hills of New Hampshire. Kaag is a professor at a university in Massachusetts. He tells the story of his find alongside the history of American philosophy in an impressive little book that came out in 2016. Very few people can talk about philosophy in a way that’s interesting for general readers and isn’t just boiled-down nonsense. I know this is hard because I see some of you beginning to glaze over simply because I’ve used the word ‘philosophy’ four times in one paragraph.
All I want to do is share one of the little stories Kaag tells in his book. Midway through his exploration of this abandoned personal library Kaag hit a low point in his life. He was researching and itemizing the library’s contents, trucking the old books off to a more secure location. A couple of his personal relationships had went sideways. He wasn’t sure if being alive was even worth the trouble. Kaag was both lonely and, at the same time, deeply frustrated by being with people.
So he did something smart. He reached out to a friend that he respected. It was a woman, a philosopher who had helped him understand the intellectual history of this continent. So over a period of several days, maybe weeks, he whined, sniveled and bellyached to her (those are his words). She listened sympathetically. I imagine this was mostly over e-mail. Eventually she wrote two quick lines that changed things for Kaag. Here’s what she wrote:
“Not long after my first child was born I knew in my bones that I could not die, that my daughter’s life depended on my being responsible every single minute. Existential angst turned into a luxury item enjoyed by those who did not have ground-level responsibility for others’ lives.”
That was it. That was the wisdom Kaag needed to hear. He wasn’t sure that children, exactly, were in his future. But he knew that she was right about having responsibility. He knew she was right about the power of being committed to other people.
It’s not surprising that it’s hard to see the point of life when we flee deep relationships and avoid responsibility, when we slip and dodge, so that nobody ever depends on us, when we don’t engage in tasks bigger then ourselves. Emptiness is the flipside of having no loyalties. It is the flipside of having no commitments. An important part of life’s meaning comes, not from buying some new satisfying experience, but from being a person who is serious about loyalty and love. This is what John Kaag discovered.
It doesn’t actually take a philosopher to see that absolute freedom can make us automatons of our passions. I occasionally talk to folks who express regret for not following some youthful passion. They think their life (or at least their work) would have been much more fulfilling if they had.
They might be right. It’s impossible to know for sure. But I’m never entirely convinced. What we find satisfying at any particular moment or what we are passionate about—those are moving targets.
And here’s another thing: You probably know who Elon Musk is—the tech guru. What he and others have found is that employee’s passion for their work or their passion for a company’s made-up “mission statement” is a great opportunity for senior managers and owners to get more work for less money. It’s as though they say,
“Passionate associates wanted! We’re changing the world with cloud-based computing and some new internet widget—come work 80 hours a week, put your relationships at risk, sacrifice participation in your community of faith, become a one-dimensional person.”
They get you with your passion.
I know I’m stepping on toes. All that I’m trying to say is that the reminder Kaag needed about the value of responsibility, of having other people count on us outside of our employment, is an important encouragement. Maybe for you it’s not about anything new, but an encouragement in something you are already doing.
It certainly helps us see our New Testament reading with fresh eyes. In case you need a reminder, our reading from I Corinthians 12 includes an extended analogy where Paul likens the community of faith to the human body. Each person, he says, is a member of the body.
I use that term “each person” for a reason. In verse 11 and verse 27 Paul makes it clear that he is talking about individual people as members of the body. We often think of diversity as being about classes of people or demographic categories. There are times when that is appropriate. But notice that Paul isn’t saying that people of a certain age group do one specific thing or that people of a certain ethnic group or gender do some other specific thing. When we’re trying to do diversity but not really paying attention, we often only get as far as looking at people as groups. So we put the burden of new ideas on young people, we expect wisdom from old people, we expect 24-7 availability from single people, and so on and so on.
In a way, in this analogy at least, Paul is a radical individualist. You are each directly members of the body. Not members through your spouse or your friends or your parents or your children. You are each members of the body. This is Membership Instruction 101. Community is important, but it’s nothing without individual engagement. We need each other in our uniqueness and in our specificity.
Sometimes people ask me what they should look for in a church. I usually say, “You know all those people wearing headphones on the bus? They’re all listening to my sermons. Look no further!”
Actually, one of the things I suggest, is that they find a place where they can contribute. I have this passage from I Corinthians in mind.
How we contribute looks different for reach of us. It might not look formal or official. Let’s not forget that there are some mysterious parts of the human body. They don’t have an obvious official function. Who knows what the purpose of the tail bone is? Or what about wisdom teeth or most body hair or the appendix or the male nipple? Hey—the apostle Paul started the analogy.
What’s needed most in many communities is simply people willing to engage others, willing to care, willing to ask good questions, willing to take initiative, to reach out, to befriend. If a Christian community doesn’t have a place for you to contribute it either isn’t for you or it isn’t a Christian community. It’s some kind of a worship show or something.
The body needs all its members to accomplish the task that God has given it. It needs all its members, as we read in Ephesians 4, so that the body can grow to maturity. It needs all its members to extend Jesus’ “ministry of reconciliation.” We need everyone; we celebrate the variety of gifts because we have a job to do.
But here’s another reason this body stuff matters. It’s because instruction aren’t enough. Texts aren’t enough. Rules and laws aren’t enough. Think back to the story of Nehemiah (the OT reading). It’s a beautify story actually. Ezra stand before the people and reads the scriptures, which some of them seemed to be hearing for the first time. They have a remarkably holy experience. I imagine it was one of those coming home moments where they think, “Yes, this is who we are. This is the wisdom we’ve been waiting for.”
Scripture is deeply valuable. It has the power to both comfort us and disrupt us. Yet you probably know that the story after Ezra’s reading of the scriptures isn’t one of upward progress and perfection. Scripture is necessary for the community of faith but it isn’t sufficient.
In fact it’s the community—the body—that makes scripture what it is. What we need are faithful and committed people, people who aren’t content to be shoppers but want to be producers. People who want to hear and study and lend their wisdom to applying these scriptures.
Our community lost one of its members this past week. She lived a long life and she was well-loved, and we gratefully trust her into God’s care. But it is still sad. It is sad because the deterioration of her condition and now her passing has left an emptiness in some of your lives. It is also sad because we need each person just to be the body.
Each of your lives matters. The foot depends on the eye. The eye depends on the ear. The ear depends on the hand. Everyone is needed. We depend on you and we covet your loyalty and your love. You matter, in your uniqueness, in the specificity of your story and in the web of your relationships. There are things you can do that nobody else can.