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1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

“Segregation is not natural.” The Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings said this to a predominantly white lecture hall at Calvin College on MLK day. He was speaking as a part of the Stob Lecture Series and his talk was titled “Dreaming the End of Racial America.” In this lecture he spoke about how race and place are intertwined. He notes that as soon as colonists came to America they came to ask “Who am I in this place,” – a good question for all people. The problem, he notes, is that they self-described. They then determined that the “New World” needed to be brought into maturity. Their task was the bring the world into maturity.[1] Jennings lecture continues but in one of the most poignant moments he says, “The master story of the US is land seizure and mass segregation [which has been enacted] through private property and spacial distribution of goods and services calibrated on racial lines.”[2]  He substantiates this claim with various data, but it is not hard for us to agree. Whether it was western expansion which necessarily meant Europeans taking land from Native Americans, or Europeans bringing Africans as slaves, still the land became private property split between different racial groups. Private property is assumed by western minds, but not necessarily by native peoples. The westerners, Jennings points out, were adept at taking pieces of land as if they were disconnected from one another. These parcels could be tamed and brought to maturity. This thinking persists today. In the midwest, farmers desire to create the largest harvest possible, so they over fertilize. This leads to run off which creates hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico.[3] In Western Michigan 3M and Wolverine World Wide used improper waste sites which have led to PFAs, known carcinogen’s to leak into waterways.[4] In North Carolina, Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds which contain arsenic and other heavy metals have been leaking into the rivers for years.[5] In each case people have believed that they are simply doing with their land what they will. It is, after all, theirs. This social imaginary of geography is clearly sinful, for the place which they claim to own is not theirs. The Psalmist says “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”[6] The earth is God’s. Those who live on it today are merely inhabiting it for their lifetime. We do not get to claim that our actions, which are usually short sighted for our own benefit, are good because of temporary gain. Furthermore, the fluid nature of creation makes is such that while on maps lands are pieced out, in reality, the land is always interconnected. Even if there is an expanse of ocean between two land masses, the waters flow between them connecting the land masses. What happens on one continent, through the gulf stream or global weather patterns, can effect another continent. Perhaps this western social imaginary which treats the land as pieces of private property is one of the causes for contemporary problems in ecclesiology. Americans are participating in the life of the church at significantly low numbers. “Regular attendance” is being defined as 2 Sundays a month. The “Nones” and the “Dones” are on the rise. Similarly, the number of people who claim to be “Spiritual, but not religious” also seem significant. While Pew reports that 56% of Americans believe in the God of the Bible, Church Leaders reports that less than 20% regularly attend church.[7] Many preachers can testify to the number of people who believe that people can be Christians without participating in the life of the church. They have had a “born again experience.” They can “read the Bible and pray on my own. Plus if I want preaching, I can just watch [celebrity preacher] online.” There are many explanations for this, an adoption of modern epistemology as James KA Smith has lectured on, revivalism or emphasis on “Getting saved,” etc. Jennings observations on North American perception of land and race, however, are probably more a cause than we recognize. Far too often people fail to see how they are inter connected to one another. Paul’s explanation of the church is not a giant theological treatise, and he certainly does not consider the church to be a voluntary association of private believers. For Paul the best articulation of the church was the organic image of a body. And just as the earth is connected, so too are our bodies. Richard Hays argues that the by explaining the church as the body, Paul is not merely using a metaphor. For Paul, “the church is not merely a human organization; rather, it is brought into being by the activity of the Holy Spirit, which binds believers into a living union with the crucified and risen Lord.”[8] Paul uses this explain the church as a true union of  different parts. In the latter section of this pericope Paul speaks of the higher and lesser parts of the body, which we may have differing ideas as to what those are. What Paul wants the Corinthian church to see, is that all members of the same body, and as such, they must be united. This image harkens back to where Paul began the letter in chapter 1 with a call for unity. By pointing to the different parts of the body, Paul is able to show the different functions, shapes, sizes, etc. Each person in the church has their own specificity, they are given their identity by God who makes us each uniquely in God’s image. Yet they still belong to each other. When one is happy, all are happy. When one is in pain, all are in pain. Those who have been hassled by a hangnail or a paper cut realize that we cannot separate our mind from our hands. If at least for a short time, a paper cut will distract the mind. The same should be true for the church. We should be so united. To be a Christian, then, is to participate in the life of the church, in the life of Christ’s body.[9] Notice I’m not saying “go to church,” but rather that being in the church is belonging to a new people. While Sunday morning worship is essential for creating holy habits and training our imaginations for eternity, after all, we become like that which we worship. Nonetheless, Sunday morning worship alone is not sufficient enough to remake a person’s identity. One must be involved in the life of the community, sharing in its work, celebrating the wins and lamenting the losses. Paul believes this message is essential for the Corinthians as they have become a stratified people where the rich eat and get drunk, where people think they have a better teacher than others, where class and ethnicity become markers which divide. Essentially, Corinth dealt with a lot of the problems that the modern church does. This passage should cause us to question why churches tend to be homogenous. If the church is to celebrate diversity, if we are like a body which has many parts with different functions, how come so many of our churches celebrate just a few of those gifts? Why is it that black churches are often in different parts of towns than white churches? How did so many black people end up living in that part of town?[10] Why haven’t white people taken up the task of welcoming their hispanic sisters and brothers by learning their language. Isn’t the Spirit made present in the gift of languages? Why do so many refugee churches want to be their own? Why have the public schools and work places assimilated different people groups better than the church? Richard Hays rightly says that “[Paul] envisions not just the tolerance of differences with the community but a gracious and compassionate synergy in which all the members share one another’s sorrows and joys.” Do our church communities exhibit a gracious and compassionate synergy of differences, or do we become uncomfortable with diversity? Do the “old” people merely tolerate the young, or are they passionately seeking out the gifts and talents that the young bring to the table? Do the “young” people disregard the wisdom of the old seeking to do everything new? Are children celebrated and included in worship as readers, ushers, communion servers, greeters, etc… or are children a group which is to be controlled, entertained, disciplined, or provided some other service? Do we create space for all people with all the gifts of the spirit, or are we blandly reflecting a culture which segregates based on income, age, race, and ability? If the world is going to believe any good news, the church would do well to embody the diversity of God’s peoples living in true kononia as we await the consummation of all things. [1] “Dreaming the End of Racial America” Stob Lecture Series, Calvin College, Jan. 21, 2019 https://livestream.com/calvin-college/tjsaudio/videos/186132672. [2] Ibid.  [3] https://serc.carleton.edu/microbelife/topics/deadzone/index [4] http://mlive.com/news/grandrapids/index.ssf/2018/01/58930-ppt_pfas_drinking_water.html [5] htp://foxbusiness.com/markets/duke-energy-agrees-to-pay-84k-penalty-for-coal-ash-leaks  [6] Psalm 24:1 [7] https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-statling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html [8] Richard Hays 1 Corinthians Interpretation Kindle edition  [9] Research Red-lining [10] Hays.