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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/27/2019

We’re in the second week of six weeks in which the second reading comes from First Corinthians. I have to confess that for me, the second reading, the epistle lesson as it used to be known, usually winds up being the one I pay the least attention to. I can’t say that I’m proud of that but there’s a reason for it so let me give you a glimpse into the process a preacher, this preacher anyway, might follow in approaching the Sunday readings.

Every week there are four scripture readings, the First Reading, the Psalm, the Second Reading and the Gospel all of which are part of the three year cycle of readings assigned by the lectionary. The Gospel reading, being directly focused on Jesus, is central so most weeks that’s where I’m going to start, looking for themes and images that might preach. For most of the year though, there is a connection between the gospel and the First Reading which is usually from the Old Testament, so I start to look for that connection; today the gospel has Jesus reading and interpreting scripture at the synagogue in Nazareth, the first reading is about Ezra reading and interpreting scripture in Jerusalem.

The Psalm is intended as a reflection on the First Reading so I also might look for imagery in the Psalm that sheds light on the theme or themes of the day. The last part of today’s psalm is about the perfection of the Lord’s teaching, the same teaching Ezra proclaimed in the first reading. In any case, you can see that there are connections between the first reading, the psalm and the gospel.

The Second Reading then winds up as the lonely outsider, not intentionally connected to the others, usually part of a semi-continuous series of readings most often from one of Paul’s letters as it is today. There might be a connection, but if there is, it’s accidental. For me then, that’s why I don’t usually spend a whole lot of time on the second readings unless I’ve intentionally decided to make them a focus for awhile which I’ve done a couple of times. They are worthy of more attention than I give them though because portions of these letters were part of Christian worship before the gospels were part of worship because many of the letters, including all the letters of Paul, were written before the gospels and they do include important theological insights.

Speaking of early Christian worship, in today’s gospel there’s the story of Jesus preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth and with that we get a peak at Jewish worship of that time as Jesus took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, read a portion of it, then sat down and gave a short sermon. It’s not terribly unlike what we still do in our worship, except I don’t get to sit down.

Most likely though, what Luke describes in this account is what early Christian worship looked like too. There would be a reading from the Old Testament, the only scripture they had, and then someone would comment on and interpret the text. I should add that from the beginning, the celebration of communion would also have been part of what they did in worship so the basic structure revolved around Word and Sacrament which for us is still the case. Early on though, readings from Paul’s letters though became part of the Word portion of worship

You perhaps know though that what we get in Paul’s letters is one side of a correspondence. He traveled around the Mediterranean world preaching the gospel and forming churches and also risking life and limb. After a period of time he would move on and when he did, stuff happened. There were the inevitable power struggles along with disagreements about what Paul had said, sometimes other teachers had come along and challenged his teachings. Letters describing what was going on would then be written to Paul who would respond with letters of his own that would address the issues and those are the letters we have. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out what the issues are, sometimes it’s not so easy because all we have is Paul’s response.

In the case of First Corinthians, it’s pretty easy to figure out the issues at least in general terms. Last week our present sequence of readings started in chapter 12 and continues there today so we’re already well into the letter. If we went back to chapter 1 though, Paul writes, “Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” He continues with reminders that their faith shouldn’t be in him or anyone else who has come along after him. The same mind and same purpose he writes about has to do with their faith in Christ Jesus; their unity is in Christ Jesus. So the presenting issue of his letter has to do with divisions within the community but…we still have to try and figure out the nature of those divisions.

Chapter 12, from which today’s reading comes, provides some clues. The first part of the chapter, the part that was read last week, is a discussion of spiritual gifts, gifts like the utterance of wisdom and knowledge, faith, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy and speaking in tongues. Different gifts in other words, but according to Paul, all inspired by the same Spirit. Reading between the lines though, you get the idea that you had people comparing gifts and saying, “I’m more spiritual than you are,” and you had Paul saying, “Stop playing comparison games.” He then extends his response with the body imagery in today’s reading.

The use of such body imagery was not unique to Paul; it apparently shows up in many other places in classical literature. The usual way it was used though was to remind those of low social or political status of their place in society, in particular to remind them of their subservience to those of higher standing. In other words, those of low status should accept their position in society and be thankful for the guidance and protection of their superiors. Many would see this as the natural order of things. Even in the early years of this country while on paper it’s supposed to be about “all men are created equal,” most of the founding fathers assumed that despite being created equal some kind of natural aristocracy and hierarchy would emerge and be a part of things.

All of which highlights how radical Paul’s body imagery is, highlighting as it does the importance of all members of the body. I don’t think that he’s denying some kind of hierarchy with his mention of stronger and weaker members, those that are more honorable and less honorable as he puts it, but his emphasis is that all the members of the body are important, that all have a role to play and if they don’t play that role, the body doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. It’s effective imagery because we all can relate to it; we know how even a minor injury or illness can cramp our style and make life more difficult, never mind something of a more serious nature.

Implied in Paul’s imagery is that being part of the body, belonging to the body means participating in the life of the body; there is no belonging without participating. What that participation looks like varies greatly depending on gifts, but for the health of the body each part of it has to participate in its life.

For Paul, the life in which one participates is the life of Christ. In the way that Paul uses the body imagery, the church as the people of God becomes the body of Christ. That body gathers around and is nourished by Word and Sacrament and from there is sent into the world in the name of Jesus to proclaim the gospel and to serve others, using the gifts that have been given. What Paul emphasizes in this letter to the Corinthians is that all of those gifts are important for the healthy functioning of the body. When the members are centered in Christ, there is unity in the diversity of gifts.

Because Paul’s letters are occasional, not occasional in the sense of once in awhile, but occasional in the sense of responding to a specific event or occasion, one of the things you have to do is to sort out what in them was just Paul addressing a specific issue at a specific time, and what in them represents timeless truth relevant for all time. Paul’s reminder that unity in the church lies in faith in Jesus would fall into the latter category of timeless truth although it’s a truth that hasn’t been learned very well. Church history is littered with the inability to achieve that unity, the inability to live with differences, the inability to focus on what unites us rather than on what divides us.

We can’t undo the divisions of church history. What we can do though is to do the best we can here at Bethany, striving to be the body of Christ that Paul envisioned with each part of the body nourished and fed in Word and Sacrament, participating fully in our life in Christ, acknowledging our differences, but moving forward in unity.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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