Varieties of Gifts, Many members, Yet One Body

A Sermon on I Corinthians 12

Thirty years ago, I got addicted to the New York Times. This means I've been a slow convert to a local paper called the Washington Post. But the most intriguing story for me in the national news last week was in the Post. It was about women in the military. Did you see it? The Secretary of Defense, a man, lifted the ban on women serving in frontline combat. The Post described the respectful tension between two different points of view in a family – one, a grandfather's; the other, a granddaughter's (“In one Army family, women in combat evokes different perspectives,” January 25).

The grandfather is a retired four-star general who helped oversee the start of integrating women into the Army in the 1970s. His granddaughter is an Iraq combat veteran. She wrote to her grandfather with excitement about the full integration of women into infantry units. Her grandfather replied, “I remain convinced that women are better at giving life than taking it.” The reporter suggested that “no family better represents the flurry of debate triggered” – interesting choice of words – by this change in military practice. This story made me wonder if someone has been reading St. Paul, at least verse 22 from chapter 12 of his letter to the church in Corinth, a verse we just heard: “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

When it comes to Holy Scripture, it's easy to “prooftext.” Biblical prooftexting is taking text – words, phrases, verses or even stories from the Bible – out of context, to prove your point. The problem is, your point may be so far from the author's point that you miss that point entirely. Now, I may be missing the point Paul is trying to make throughout the 12th, 13th and 14th chapters of his first letter to the Corinthians. But I think Paul's point is about God's gifts. Paul is talking about the gifts that come from God's Spirit to church members. These chapters from 1st Corinthians – by the way, next Sunday we'll hear from I Corinthians 13 – are about followers of Jesus using their gifts, as members of the one body of Christ, “(so) that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (verse 25).

When it comes to spiritual gifts and members of the body of Christ, the church, there is no easier place to look for “varieties of gifts,” as Paul puts it earlier in chapter 12, than the varieties of spiritual and other gifts found in women and in men. Let me state the obvious: when it comes to human beings, the biggest, oldest Biblical or any other kind of difference is between men and women. Remember Adam and Eve? I don't think it's as simple a difference as the retired general and many of us would like to believe. Life and death are far more mysterious than we want them to be.

The big question this week, the question every week for me, as a man, a father, a husband, and a priest – the question for Episcopal Christians is this: How can I keep the promise I made in baptism to “respect the dignity of every human being?” And the questions that follow are: What would it be like if I truly cared for and honored every member of Christ's body, both women and men? What if the different varieties of gifts women bring to life and ministry were fully embraced in the church and allowed to flourish? Or in military parlance, what might “full gender integration” at All Saints' look like?

In the church, here and around the world, we still have a long, long way to go to accept, honor and care for people whose spiritual gifts differ greatly from ours. As a straight, white, married, ordained man, I've learned I will always need to learn from people who are not, and will never be, like me. And the kind of difference I've learned to look at, first, last and always, is gender. Maybe it's because of the gift of having so many gifted women in my life – my mother and daughter, my grandmothers and granddaughters, and so many sisters in Christ – not to mention my staff and my wife! Maybe it's because, over the years, I have seen the amazing things women do in the world and in the church, things men could not or would not be able to accomplish.

Our Prayer Book Catechism says the Holy Spirit is “God at work, in the world and in the Church, even now” (p. 852). There are some who say that the first two millennia of the church's life were, first, about God the Father; then, God the Son; and now, this third millennium is about God the Holy Spirit. God's Spirit, as we heard last week in the first half of the 12th chapter of Paul's letter, “activates all (spiritual gifts). . .in everyone” and “allots to each one (of us) individually, just as the Spirit chooses.” Not as you or I choose. God's Spirit decides who gets which spiritual gifts. And it starts with a basic, bodily, chromosomal difference: “It's a girl!” or “It's a boy!”

Here's another big point Paul makes indirectly, by using the image of “body,” or soma, for the church. In other ancient writings, soma, the body (as in the phrase “the body politic”), was a reminder to those of low social or political status – including and especially women – that their place in society was to be subservient to those of higher status. In Bible times, women, children, and slaves were property, owned by men. Paul, however, is using this body image “to emphasize the importance of the seemingly less important, less prominent, or less significant parts, lifting up the 'least' of the members (wouldn't that be women?) and calling the 'greater' parts (men?) to pay attention to and even honor the others” (Troy Miller, Feasting on the Word, p. 279).

Today, when we pay attention, we can see how spiritual movements around the world are raising consciousness about honoring girls and women. Third millennium movements, like Half the Sky (www.halftheskymovement.org), the Girl Scouts' “Year of the Girl” (www.girlscouts.org) and One Billion Rising (www.onebillionrising.org), are challenging the church today to apply in a new way what Paul taught the first millennium church. Today, women should never be property, objects or second-class. Women are full members of Christ's body, full citizens of our world. As one world leader said, “Women's rights are human rights” (Hilary Clinton, 1995, Beijing).

As things stand today, the last day for nominations before elections at our parish annual meeting in two weeks, the Vestry or church board will have only two women serving on it. Sisters and brothers, we need a few more good women to be members of this important part of the body of Christ here at All Saints'. No matter what you've heard, serving on the Vestry is NOT like serving in combat – at least, not anymore. Serving on the Vestry is a call to leadership from God's Spirit. But where is that Spirit? The Spirit is at work in the world, because sometimes the church is not ready to let the Spirit work there. Nonetheless, the Spirit IS, as with Jesus, resting upon us, at work in us. Even now. Today, this scripture, I Corinthians 12, is being fulfilled, in your hearing.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
January 27, 2013