Fourth in Easter: “‘For You Are Still of the Flesh'”

It’s interesting that this sermon received more compliments than any I’ve preached.  Certainly, it addresses people directly and specifically, rather than about an abstract subject.  But it also lays bare some difficult vulnerabilities.  Perhaps that should give us pause before assuming the best sermons always end in assurance. 

1 Cor 3:1-9; 16-23; John 6:53-65

I hope my title is more intriguing to you than off-putting. Let me explain it. It comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. As we saw last week, Paul starts every letter with Easter: God has started a new life in Christ and this life is alive among you. Thanks be to God! He never starts with cajoling or with threats. Never: “You better do thus and so or God is going to punish you!” He begins, as we said last week, graciously, literally with the word “Grace.” Christ is alive among you! God’s spirit is at work in you!

And then he takes a long, brutally honest look at their problems. One of my abiding beliefs is that grace and judgment—or if you don’t like the word “judgment,” then grace and critical self-discernment, are not opposites; they go together, they complement each other, surprisingly. The Corinthians had told Paul they were having problems with communion—something we’ll be talking about today after church!—but in the early days of the church, communion was still a full common meal. Well, some were bringing their own lavish food and drinking quite a lot, while others were going hungry. Not good. To top it off, some members were suing others in court—and that would be a pagan, Roman court—instead of seeking reconciliation within the church. And then they had ethical disagreements: some felt free as Christians to go to banquets at pagan temples and eat meat sacrificed to these gods. (Doing so would have been part of being an active citizen in that pagan city.) Others in the church shunned them for eating meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul will address their questions carefully, but before he does so, he digs down to the root of all their problems, the proverbial elephant in the room. In Chapter two, he notes that the spiritual persons “discern all things”—I think he means himself and maybe his colleagues. But the “unspiritual” (or “natural,” pschyikos, in Greek) do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit and cannot understand spiritual things.

Then he hits them, saying essentially, Your real problem is that “still indeed you are of the flesh,” [you are sarkikoi] meaning not really spiritual.   These terms are confusing to us. Paul works with a contrast of flesh [sarx—from which we get sarcophagus, a tomb, but also sarcasm—literally, when you “tear the flesh” or speak bitterly to someone]; so flesh (sarx) and spirit [pneuma, like a “pneumatic tire,” filled with breath]. But this distinction has nothing to do with whether you are fleshy or airy. By those of the flesh, Paul means those who are still all about what’s in it for me. And the spiritual are those who understand that it’s all about God’s grace and being for others as Jesus was for us. That’s clear from the context. You don’t know someone is “of the flesh” because he’s obese; Paul says, “As long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? [literally, “walking in a human way”]” Those who are jealous and like to pick fights, Paul is saying, are still thinking, what’s in it for me?

And moreover, for Paul, there are two kinds of wisdom, and they are opposed: that of the flesh or the world or the merely human, and that of the Spirit, of Christ, of God. The wisdom of the world is all about how to get what you want while you can; he doesn’t say that is evil, just that it isn’t of God as God is seen in Christ. The wisdom of the Spirit is about living out of gratitude to God and in loving generosity to others. And the problem with the Corinthians, underneath all the issues they are dealing with, is that their minds are trained according to the wisdom of the flesh, of the ego, not the wisdom of the self-giving God and the love of neighbor.   The wisdom of loving others for God’s sake can only look like foolishness to the wisdom of the flesh, the ego-centered wiseguys: “Love is for suckers!” they might say. (Incidentally, that’s the title of a Twisted Sister album.)

By casting things as spirit versus flesh, Paul confronts us with this distinctive way of Christ. To be honest, I think it’s too sharp a contrast, although I have spoken likewise. Didn’t I really let the world have it during Lent! But the world isn’t all egotism and me-first; as God’s creation, it still shows signs of generosity and mutual flourishing, even if obscured by corrupt forces. And who wants to say, “I am spiritual, I discern all things?” Not me. In other places, Paul admits that we are all, himself included, a mix of spirit and flesh, of love and selfishness. But for the Corinthians, who unlike us thought of themselves as spiritual virtuosi, Paul evidently thought that they needed a good kick in the pants.

So only with great care do I attempt to apply insights from Paul to us. We don’t have the same factions that Paul was facing. But let’s consider a problem that is particular to us. Most of what gets done in this church is the work of a small cadre of super-active members. They are the people you see announcing things every week; I see them during the week for monthly meetings, or dropping by to prepare things for this or that. They also attend church very regularly. (Now some of you have put in years of dogged service to the church, and now you are rightly content just to come on Sundays.) This group is amazingly dedicated and the church would fold without them. Now, they have their issues, too. We’ll get to that.

But we need more people in that leadership group. They are tired, although they rarely complain. But we also need new energy and ideas in our leadership circle; that’s just healthy for an organization. If we are to become the church God is calling us to be, we need more and new people to participate in leadership activities: joining the boards of Deacons, Trustees, Mission, Christian Education; helping the WOTC with the chicken pie supper and Jingle Bell Bazaar; helping to organize and run Dino Fest. Or conceiving and taking on new projects. That means we need either a greater commitment from those not currently involved, or we need to attract new members who will be involved.

Now, this is not the place in the sermon where I start to put pressure on those in that second group. I’ve said it before: I don’t do guilt trips. And please: when someone shows up on Sunday who hasn’t been here in awhile, do not say: “Great to see you. We need people for Boards!” We have driven away people this way, and they’ve told me so. No pressure, no guilt, and no forgetting that people are children of God, not slot-fillers. These tactics will not produce the fruit of the Spirit. We need people who are compelled by the right reasons for leadership and service. Everything holy starts from grace, remember? So all we can do is offer compelling worship and Christian friendship, and if you are not moved to want to do more, well, that’s just the way it is. (And I have far to go in offering compelling worship. Much of this is on me, because the most important thing is to create worship that is transparent to the incredible power of the Word of God in sermons, song, and sacrament.) The Spirit never descends on someone because of a guilt trip or arm-twisting. Why are some of us called to service and leadership? The Bible doesn’t say why. It leaves what it terms “our calling” to the mystery of God. If we get quite down to earth, it’s probably an indecipherable mix of your unique personality, your other commitments of time and energy, where you are in your spiritual journey, a number of cultural factors that influence our spiritual life, and what theologians have called the “sense of divinity” or the “taste for the infinite.” All that adds up to this: some are right now compelled by God’s call, others are not, at this time. And ultimately, we must trust ourselves and each other to this mystery.

But before we get to “ultimately,” we do need times when we can be called to discernment about whether now could be the time for a change. I made the case last week for why our world needs a community like this church, or a community like this church ought to be and can easily be. We here need community to be fully and joyfully human and divine, as is our Lord. As such, the church is a community like no other.

The responses you gave me last week showed that you want more from this church, not less. (For those interested, I analyzed the results on my blog and have some paper copies in the narthex.) If we want more from our church—and we should: it’s the only God-powered community we have!—then, we may have to increase our pledging. But I’m not going to talk about that for some time. Because what we really need, if you want more and not less from your church, is more participation, starting with an infusion of new life into our leadership group.

So take stock of your life right now. Are you satisfied with your connections to communities around you? That’s what the first part of the sermon response is on; and this sheet is only for you to take home, pray over, meditate on; but I still ask you to fill it out. Writing something down can keep you honest with yourself. The first question on the sermon response is, where do you take part in community? Work? School? Friends? Fandoms? Social organization? Charitable organizations? It’s good to have more than one community—for me, you all are pretty much it right now. Can you share your deepest fears and hopes in your communities? Do they form and shape you into being your best self? Do they teach you the meaning of love?

Especially in John’s gospel, Jesus makes rather outrageous claims for what it means to be in communion with him: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Like Paul, Jesus says “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” He’s not trying to attract everyone he can. Indeed, Jesus is acknowledging the mystery of election that we talked about before: “No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father,” by God working mysteriously.

Ironically, we here at the Church of Christ are actually more welcoming that Christ himself was. You don’t have to be a full-out Christian to be a cherished member here. You can still be “of the flesh.” Aren’t we all, at least somewhat? I am—this robe nicely fits my ego, and I welcome your fleshy company. But I maintain that you will find nothing quite like the church, whether this one or another good church, to offer you a community centered so profoundly on love and justice as our divine origin and destiny. But I’m not going to say that you can’t find a meaningful and good life outside the church. I just want to give you this chance to take stock: am I connected to a supportive and meaningful community? If you find you are not, then I invite you to consider whether it is time to become more involved here. If you don’t feel you have the time, then—I’m not Paul, but I do have a little nerve—then consider where you are spending your time, and whether those things are reaping what is really essential to your humanity.

Maybe you have intellectual difficulties with Christianity. Now I’m your man on that one. I have thought a lot about the intellectual challenges to Christianity and love to talk about it. You’ll find I take them quite seriously and think that sometimes we need to change our faith pretty radically—we worship God above, who dwells in light inaccessible, not “Christianity.” Come talk with me.

Maybe you just don’t like the format of church involvement. Some people can’t stand meetings! (I find ours meaningful and spiritually uplifting, usually.) I can plug you in to ways to be involved without meetings; I’ve already done this for some of you.

I want you to get involved for you, not for “the church.” If you want to deepen your life of faith, you need to do more than come to church. The more you are involved in fellowship and service—and we’ll talk next week about what kind of service might be most meaningful—the deeper your faith will take root. It’s no accident that the people here who are most active in the church are also the most regular attenders. Worship and involvement feed and deepen each other. I can tell you that being a pastor and serving you has deepened my faith.

Now the other option for expanding our leadership base is attracting new people to church. I’m working on that, but it also requires time and joint effort. We should be doing this, too. If you believe in what we are doing, then invite someone to come with you—especially if you think they need the kind of community that we’ve been talking about.

That’s my word to you in the first group: those who are not as involved in church. Fill out the sermon response. If something deep inside is telling you to be more involved, than come see me and I will help you discern that call.

And now, a word to the second group: those who are involved. You are inspiring to me and I depend so much on you for my hope in the future of this church. I am thankful to God for you, as Paul is to the Corinthians—who don’t seem to be lacking in participation. But consider whether you are serving the spirit, or whether you might still be of the flesh. For starters, we can do a better job informing people who aren’t as involved about the opportunities to serve and help. Trust me on this; we’ll talk about it in church council.

More seriously: I’ve talked with three people, I think, who have said: I went to a meeting of this or that group, I won’t say which ones, and was very excited about getting involved. Now I don’t know first hand what happened, and I’m sure no one is innocent; but they heard you say: That’s not the way we do things, or it’s not something we are interested in doing, or our policies don’t fit with that. Please—don’t quench the budding spirit! Find a way to nurture that desire to serve. And take a searching look at yourself: am I in leadership to empower others to serve God, or am I trying to get things my way. I gather that we have improved on this problem, but it is still with us./

There will be people you will conflict with. Even Jesus had his favorites. We are limited human creatures and we don’t all get along with equal ease. I’m not Mr. Congeniality. But search yourself: am I out to defeat someone in this church? Do I feel puffed up, exalted, when I am able to put my rival down? Do I have a nemesis in this church? Because that’s flesh. Even if we aren’t pure Spirit, we should seek and hope and pray for reconciliation with those we clash with, and for the flourishing of every member in unity. Dare we in leadership compare ourselves with Paul and Apollos? “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? …Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

This church has a long history with some of you and deep family roots for some of you, and that can breed a feeling of proprietorship, of this being “our church,” or this being my Board. It would likewise be easy for me to think of this as my church, I am the pastor—some of you tell me that, by way of encouragement. It’s a kind sentiment; but I don’t believe it. This is God’s church, Christ’s church—that’s our name, isn’t it? “You are God’s field, God’s building,” Paul says, using “you” in the plural. You all, together, “are God’s temple” and “God’s Spirit dwells in you.” And this temple, this Church of Christ is a lot bigger than Granby. It’s as big as heaven and earth. Whatever is of the flesh is small and perishes soon. What is of the Spirit is expansive, living, loving, growing, it has eternal life, it knows no death.  May it be so, Lord.


One thought on “Fourth in Easter: “‘For You Are Still of the Flesh'”

  1. Sandra Woodrow

    I was unable to attend on the 17th, and very happy to read your sermon here. This was one of your most meaningful sermons todate, giving us all much to consider. Sandra Woodrow


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