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Diversity within Christ's Body

Sermon #254 St. Martin’s #12 (Riverway #4) 1/23/22

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. 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. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. 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. 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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 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." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 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; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 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. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a

Wolves in Yellowstone

As we jump into our reading from 1 Corinthians 12 this morning, and consider the implications of Epiphany, maybe your mind wandered where mine did. Of course, while hearing Paul talk about the Body of Christ you likely couldn’t help thinking about wolves in Yellowstone, right?

Okay, well maybe a little context. I have a genuine love for the outdoors. I love hiking and spending time outside. I love the national parks so much that I ended up working in Yellowstone National Park for a summer in college.

Spending a summer there you begin to hear the different stories of the park, and Yellowstone has a colorful history. One of those tales you hear early on in your time there is the story of the wolves. So here’s the brief history:

As we all know from history class the 1800s were filled western expansion as the country was caught up in Manifest Destiny. Because of the move west, many pristine landscapes were slowly transformed into settlements, and the pioneers converted the land to fit their agricultural needs. And with them came their livestock that needed a vast amount of land.

As natural predators, whose landscape had been reshaped, the wolves had to adapt to the new environments. They were now competing with humans for the elk and deer around them, and many of the rhymes of the herds they fed on were disrupted because of the settlers.

You can then understand why the wolves began to shift their attention to the livestock found on the ranches. The whole system had been disrupted, and they had to adjust to survive.

Yellowstone Park then opened in 1872, and technically the wolves were protected by law, except for the fact that the parks department believed the wolves were menaces who were destroying the more “desirable animals” in the park.

And so it was decided by biologist’s and park officials to eliminate this predator to bring greater balance to the park’s ecosystem.

Between 1914 and 1926 at least 136 wolves were killed in the park, and by the 1940s almost no one spotted a wolf pack in Yellowstone.

It is no surprise to us what the effect was; elk and deer populations exploded with fewer predators in the park. Which then had an effect on grasslands, and the ripple effect continued throughout the fragile ecosystem.

Park employees ended up having to manage the elk and deer population themselves. By that point they realized they had come full circle: they needed to reintroduce more predators into the park.

But by the mid-20th century, wolves were an endangered species and were almost nonexistent in the lower 48 states. It wasn’t until 1994 that wolves were finally reintroduced into the park, and it was a resounding success. After a few short years the wolf population returned to a healthy level, and the effects could be seen throughout the park.

The lesson that was learned the hard way was that biodiversity within an ecosystem is essential for the flourishing of the entire environment, and that, in fact, a monolithic ecosystem will soon become a dysfunctional system all together.

It took us stubborn Americans a long time, but we finally realized that there is an interconnectedness of species, that everything has its place. Ironically, this is something Native Americans, and all those who have lived off of the land, have known for generations, but we didn’t listened.

1 Corinthians 12

So with that in mind, hear Paul’s words again, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body.” And then he specifies the difference found in the Corinthian church: Jews and Greeks, people who are slaves and those who are free, and he’ll add in Galatians men and women. And yet, he says that “we were all baptized by one Spirit,” and, “We were all given the one Spirit to drink.”

The rich diversity that is found in Yellowstone, or any ecosystem, is also like the church. In the same way that God ordered nature, Paul tells us there is an order and purpose to his body. It is not monolithic or uniform, but it is filled with rich diversity. That diversity is no accident but may be the key to understanding its unity, its very existence.

Paul reminds us that the Body of Christ wasn’t thrown together by happenstance, but that it was God himself who put the body together (v. 24).

This is God’s church we’re talking about, not ours! How many times in the church do we try to force God’s hand?

As a minister in his church, I will admit that it’s a lot. Too many times I use the church as a laboratory, adjusting a few things here or there to create the right conditions for growth, while all the while forgetting that it’s a living body that is animated by God’s Holy Spirit.

Churches can be seen as laboratories, but they can also be seen as warzones, a place where battles play out between different personalities or factions. So many folks who have either walked away from the church, or who have no interest in what the church has to offer has to do with the conflicts and scandals they’ve seen within the church.

“Isn’t this supposed to be a place of love and welcome?” they may ask. And yet too many times what they see are arguments about money, or the color of the carpet, or the style of music, or church people just being plain mean to one another.

I have a number of people in my life, including family members, who have either been disillusioned by the church, or just plain bored by our message and our community.

From their vantage point the body, the church, is dying and even smells like it is decaying. If the Spirit is supposed to animate the body, well, either the people have not allowed the Spirit to move in them in a really long time, or the Spirit is fed up and gone on vacation.

Division or Diversity

Paul is clear in our passage this morning: division is not welcomed in the Body of Christ. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be differences of opinion, or even passionate conversations about where a church is headed, but at the end of the day we are a part of a larger whole. And that in fact, coming to appreciate that diversity within the Body may be the key to understanding what God is up to in this world and in his church.

We can never forget that at the very heart of God is unified diversity. We are Trinitarian after all. We profess in our ancient Creeds that God is somehow three and yet one. You don’t have God unless you have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are distinct and yet united, sharing in one will and intention for themselves and the world they love.

It should be no surprise to us, the members of his mystical body, that diversity is not an issue or roadblock to be incorporated into the Body of Christ. The waters of baptism don’t wash away our individual cultures and identities, but instead, those aspects of us are welcomed into the church and named as a gift to be offered to the larger whole.

What if the church took Paul’s words here seriously? What if it took the radical claim of the Trinitarian God seriously? What would that mean for us? For our families, and for this church?

That has implications for us in this community, but also how we see ourselves as part of God’s one church that spans the globe. And here’s where the Epiphany theme comes in: at this moment Christians around the world are worshiping God. I have been blessed to have seen some different parts of the world and meet Christians from many different cultures. And it’s amazing the unity I feel with them though we might not share the same language or culture we are brothers and sisters through baptism.

And friends, what’s amazing is that we don’t have to travel to a foreign land to interact with the rich diversity of Christ’s Body. In Houston, the world has come to us. And because of the diversity of this place I wonder what God may be inviting us into?

How might God be calling us out of our comfort zone to engage with the diverse body of Christ that is in our backyard? The name of this service is the Riverway after all, a reminder that we are joined to Christ’s body in those glorious baptismal waters and unified with the global church.

And I also wonder how God might be inviting us to reach out to those who have walked away from the church because of the disunity and harsh division they have seen. How might God be using this service, and you, in particular to call them home, back to God’s one Body, one church?

Outside these walls is a diverse ecosystem filled with God’s glory just waiting to be explored.

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