My son, Rhys, was finally old enough to go off on his first ever youth ski trip one winter weekend. We were all a little nervous, mixed in with excitement for him. I couldn’t wait to hear how it all went. But we were a bit startled the first morning of the trip when the phone rang, and it turned out to be Rhys. How many frightening thoughts can you think in the space of a heartbeat? Lots and lots.
It turned out to be nothing. Well, not nothing. He needed some money. There was an opportunity for him to take a skiing lesson there on the slopes, and he wanted permission to spend the money to sign up. My wife calculated that the expense of the lesson was smaller than a trip to the emergency room, so we gave permission.
He wanted to learn how to do what he was doing. Kind of amazing when you think about it. We never even considered trying to find a place for some lessons before he went. That would make the most sense, don’t you think? We like to know what we are doing before we do it. We like to feel well-versed, comfortable in our doing.
If only I knew more, we might think, if only I had more. If I were more like my preacher, or my teacher, or my mentor or some other hero of the faith, then I could do great things for God. We look this weekend to the great orator and civil rights hero that was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What kind of nation would we be, what kind of church, if we learned from his example of faith and life?
As it is, I’m still learning. I’m still in process. Don’t expect much because I don’t have much. Or don’t expect much because I am not so much.
Does any of that sound like you? I have to confess that at times, I can sound like that. I can sound as though my lack of accomplishments is due to some external thing that I am missing. Some knowledge, some skill, some resource - if I just had that, then all sorts of wonderful things could happen. As it is, not much.
Oddly enough, the biblical passage for this week was not written to deal with this attitude. If anything, it was trying to deal with the opposite problem. Yes, in one of those mysterious, God kind of ways, it meets us where we are.
The problem in Corinth that brought about Paul’s letter was not a lack of confidence. If anything, it was the opposite. There was a group of Christians in the church at Corinth who considered themselves better than the average believer. They believed that their ability to speak in tongues was a signal that they were more equipped, more favored, more special than those whose gifts were more mundane.
They were even of the opinion that they really had to listen to no one but themselves. That is why Paul begins by stressing his credentials. Paul, “called to be an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” It’s hard to argue with a title like that. Hard to hold the opinion that this one has nothing to teach you. And then he also reminds them of their call, which is twofold. First, they were “called to be saints.” You would think that this is the kind of talk that would only add to their arrogance. How many of us look forward to having St. in front of our names someday? Not many, I would suspect.
Yet for Paul, the word Saint meant someone who recognizes the need for a savior. A saint is one who has said yes to Jesus Christ. It carried no honor except the honor of the one who called. It made no guarantee that the behavior of this person is exemplary. A saint was someone beholden to God through Jesus Christ.
Beholden is a wonderful word we don’t use any more. But it conveys images of being wrapped up as well as belonging. If we are beholden to God, then it is God who shows through more than us because we are wrapped up in that presence, that light. The good things that we do, the bright face that we show is the face of God shining through us, not our own visage, which might not be so holy.
Paul was reminding the Corinthians that they belonged to God and was asking them to examine their behavior to see if they still fit that description. When you become arrogant, you move the self to the center and anything else has to make way. But if God is supposed to be the center, then arrogance has no place in the community of faith.
The second thing that Paul wanted to remind the Corinthians is that they were a part of something larger than themselves. He called them saints “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Jesus isn’t the exclusive property of those who seek to define him in specific ways. The Corinthians had remade Christ in their image, and Paul was trying to help them take a larger view. You are a part of something bigger than your eyes and bigger than your imagination. All those who in every place - who can comprehend something on that scale? It was a way of putting things in perspective before he even got to the meat of the letter.
Both of these points are a part of King’s legacy to the church. A reminder, first of all that we are called to live not by our own wisdom, not by our own preferences and prejudices, but by the call of God, the vision of the kin-dom that defines our hopes and prayers and service. And that we are in this together. It is not just me or my church, my circle, the ones like me, the ones I get along with. No, our vision is always bigger, always for inclusion, always for beloved community. That is how we honor the memory of this servant of God who became the conscience of a nation for a brief time, and is needed again today.
But the problem of the Corinthians that brought forth this letter from Paul: their arrogance seems alien to our experience. We almost laugh at the idea. Who would ever proclaim themselves “super-Christian”? It seems to us that the very act of doing so would be evidence that there was still a lot to learn. No, our inclination is to want to step to the background or to sit on the sidelines. To us, Paul has another word. Well, he has the same word first. We too are saints; we too are part of something bigger than ourselves. But for us, it is a way to build us up and not to knock us down. It is a way to encourage us, I believe.
Paul tells us, particularly those of us who don’t think we measure up, that we have been enriched. Not that we will be or we could be or we might be, but that we have been. Not only that, he goes on to say that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift. We have everything we need to be the church that we are called to be. We don’t need to wait for anything to be complete.
Okay, so we may not feel like we always know what we are doing. But like Rhys on the slopes, we are learning on the job, learning to be the church, the saints we are called to be.