"Not One Member But Many" - 1st Corinthians 12:12-14, 27-31

A Sermon preached
at the Tuesday Eucharist
The Anglican Centre in Rome
September 15th, 2020

1st Corinthians 12:12-14, 27-31

My text this afternoon is from the Epistle and not the Gospel.  I wanted to start with the words of St Paul to his congregation at Corinth:

“For the body is not one member but many.”

Being sixty-two years old now I look back at what has occurred thus far and I have a few regrets with respect to my education.  I don’t regret not having studied more Hebrew or more Greek.  I regret having spent no time at all studying anything about Set Theory.  I was a complete washout when it came to maths and most of the people I knew who studied Set Theory were also able mathematicians or logicians.  I regret not having done any of that because I now believe that it is the way things go together which is more important, in many cases, than what the things are in themselves.  To repeat an illustration from an earlier sermon I remember a clergyman in our local parish in British Columbia getting in trouble telling his suburban congregation that “God is all about relationships”.  It was 1971 or thereabouts.  It was thought at the time that this reflection was a little too much in the genre of “I’m okay – you’re okay” that the reflection must perforce rely more on Pop Psychology than it did on a Christian tradition where God is God, where we are who we are and where the Bible is what it is.  Things, in other words, in isolation – Good, bad or otherwise.  Some of them figure in the Creed or the Articles of Religion as “things which are” and we affirm the existence of “things which are” in earth and heaven as a community each Sunday and then go home.

I know now, of course, as many of you do as well, that God is all about relationships – the invisible connections between things – the invisible glue which binds unlike items and unlike processes into something which escapes our ability to explain it in terms of the original constituents.  The whole is always more than the sum of its parts.

I have a couple of anecdotes to relate:

It is the summer of 1983 - I have somehow ended up a seminarian – a postulant for ministry in the Anglican Church of Canada. My bishop, Hywel Jones has been at a meeting of Bishops from the western end of North America and, sitting around with a glass of whiskey and one of his large trademark cigars, he has clearly been doing some horse trading.  He has written me at seminary to tell me he had a summer job for me in the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.  I was to be the summer manager of the Ketchikan Seaman’s Mission – an outreach of St John’s, Ketchikan, the local Episcopal parish - which catered, as a social centre and spiritual support, to the fishermen and the seasonal cannery workers who had travelled up from the Lower 48 to the northern bit of America to take advantage of the summer run of the west coast’s various species of Pacific Salmon and, hopefully, to make their fortune.  My working hours while I am there are concentrated in the afternoon and evening and so the mornings are mine to entertain what has always been a passion of mine which is fishing – especially casting off the rocks into the sea – my “happy place” which I have presented myself with various degrees of success since I was a boy. 

As luck would have it, it is the high year of the seven-year cycle of Humpback or Pink Salmon – the smallest of the five species of West Coast Salmon.  Every seven year there is a peak year in terms of Salmon returning towards their spawning streams.  Pinks are not quite as toothsome as Chinook, Coho or Sockeye –they lack the firmness of flesh which would lend itself to the barbecue or being baked in an oven, but “humpies” are suitable for canning and for smoking and, importantly, they are there in enormous numbers of concentrated schools.  My friend, a parishioner at St John’s has a smoker and is looking for humpies to smoke.  He can take whatever I catch.  There is a bluff of rock a ten minute drive down the Tongass highway from the centre of Ketchikan where, if you get there early, in the rosy hours of dawn, you can dominate your own little point of rock and your five foot ten will be standing there on a rocky point facing probably a million fish, tightly schooled and boiling around after the herring schools which fill the straits between the mainland and Annette Island.  If you look to the right – along the five miles of Tongass Narrows and to the left down past Annette Island to the inlet beyond you are probably looking at several million salmon – all of them between five and seven pounds and dynamite to catch on light gear.  The limit, at the time, was a generous sixteen fish per day for a sports fisherman and one could limit out in a couple of hours. The presence of such a great number of fish has not escaped the commercial fishermen either and the purse seine boats are out, negotiating the schools of fish and the other boats in a relatively narrow stretch of water.

Confined as they are, they are often quite close to shore sometimes – close enough that you could pick out the individual faces of the men and women on their decks.  A lad in a skiff would keep one end of a long seine net stationary while the seine boat paid out a wide arc of net many hundreds of feet long, encircling a likely patch of ocean dimpled on its surface by the feeding fish and the herring leaping from the water in alarm, and then bringing the leading edge of the seine net back  to the skiff and the two ends were then hauled up on to the stern of the bigger boat.  The seine net would be drawn closed at the bottom and the top and the catch winched in on mechanical winches.

An arc is drawn, and a patch of valuable space is marked out. 

It is the “set” of all fish caught within the net.  Its contents are drawn together and then hauled aboard.  The millions of fish are never caught but what has been encircled comprises the “catch” and a few excellent catches in a season will ensure a reasonable standard of living for the fishermen throughout the year. 

Flowing through the centre of Ketchikan is Ketchikan creek and you can walk a few miles up a trail along its banks to the series of lakes which feed it.  I remember one day:  I was walking up on one side.  The river was flowing down in the opposite direction.  In the river, and especially in the pools, you could see the large dark bodies of the Chinook salmon travelling ponderously upriver.  On the other side of the river a couple was wondering downriver at a somewhat slower pace than the water engaged in animated conversation.  The wind was up, and leaves and bits of detritus were being blown across the path at ninety degrees to my direction of travel.  Somewhere along the way there was a fox which crossed the trail ahead of me.  Somewhere overhead a large raven flew from one perch to another.  Each of these things belonged to its own world – independent of the other characters in the story - and you could probably measure these minutes - the “minutes in a life” of a stream, of a bird, of two strangers on the bank, of a seminarian heading up to the lakes, of a fox. 

There are students of turbulence who could explain the windblown tumbling detritus on the path ahead of me or the standing waves in the creek as the water flows over boulders.  Fluid dynamics would explain the seemingly effortless ability of the big Chinook salmon to hold their positions in the flowing waters of the Creek.  As the young couple proceeds down the path and I climb up the path, a line connecting the two of us would swing suddenly like a door but then the angle would steadily decrease as we carry on in our two directions.  The greater the distance the smaller the changes in the angle of this swinging turnstile.  This could be converted to a number.  In fact, the whole process could be expressed numerically if the components are reduced to numbers – burned down to what may be compared, the unlike becoming a like at the behest of the knife – abstracted.   But the experience itself is that of an amalgam of unconverted things – held together without being broken apart or reduced to common denominators.   Their combination in raw forms lends the moment its flavour.  And that’s the reason I can tell you this story with no little fondness forty years after the fact is that these unlike things belonged together in a “moment”.  They were all caught up in my arc of net and held together memorably as one thing – taken in as a single glimpse.

Closer to home.  An emperor in the city of Rome is pressuring the Senate to give its assent for a military campaign in the spring or a civic project of some sort or other.  On the day of the great debate the Augur is sent to the top of the Capitoline Hill – not far from where we are gathered this afternoon - to “take the auspices”.  One of the tools of the trade which the Roman Augur carries with him is a staff with a loop at the end – called a Lituus.  The stylized version frequently appears on the back of coins and shows a spiral arrangement – suspiciously like a bishop’s crozier. but a loop is sufficient or even a full hook.  The Augur “takes the auspices” before the opening of senate or at the outset of a martial campaign or the inauguration of a new program of public works to divine the fortunes of what will transpire.  He places the loop up against the sky and marks out the sacred space to be read – the templum, as it was called.  Across this delineated space clouds may pass, or a group of birds could fly – lightning might be seen.  These things crossing or appearing on the left side of the delineated space indicated “good auspices” or favourable fortunes – we should proceed with our enterprise post haste.   On the right side the auspices are bad.  Top and bottom add emphasis.  The top is good, and the bottom is bad.  Top left is therefore excellent and bottom right, correspondingly abysmal.  The opening of Senate should be delayed, or the military campaign postponed.  The auspices are bad.

Two points make a line.   Three points make a plane. 

A constellation can have any number of stars. 

We have collective nouns for gathered things of the same nature – a brace of pheasants, a murmuration of starlings, a school of fish, a murder of crows. 

How do the small bait-fish coordinate their movements as they defend themselves from the slashing tails of pacific salmon?  How does a murmuration of starlings manage as they all whip as a body to the right or to the left?  The fish have lateral lines – apparently - which allow them to coordinate with others.  I was recently told by a young parishioner in Scotland who knows her birds that if every starling coordinates its movements with its seven nearest neighbours then a murmuration – those wheeling flocks of starlings which adorn the evening sky - can perform exactly the sorts technical movements they do.  But the “other” must be next to me.  I cannot do these things on my own I must be somehow enmeshed with the life of another and not only my own.  I have the contents of other minds – the thoughts of other men and women – in my head.  We might regard the idea of common minds as something vaguely mystical and impossible to demonstrate but nothing seems more likely given the presence of libraries and of recorded music, of the caves of Lascaux or the Internet.  Much of what we are is, in fact, a shared resource.

What is the church if it is not a collection – a collection of folks with different trajectories – different origins – of differing status on the social and economic ladder of their societies?  Tall and short, young and old, healthy and unwell.  Some of them brainy, some of them practical.  But God has caused us to come into being.  He has forged one new body out of several. 

We must not underestimate the role of volition – of will in the establishment of the church as a flock, a school, a body.  In this there are two acts of will.  First, there is a will involved in glimpsing and conceiving.  God gathers all the bits of a new thing – bits which do not ordinarily belong in the same box but when they are pulled into the net, they are a unity.  That is God’s will – to gather us in.  Therein we become detached from what we are ordinarily.  That’s where the set theory comes in, in fact, in being what we are but becoming different when we are attached to dissimilar fellows.  We become members of a set.  We behave differently.  And so, there is no mystery that the ancient world was dismayed at the sight of slaves sitting side by each with their masters in the body of the church.  Where they were differentiated by status in the outside world, here they are here cheek to jowl.  So it is that Jew and Gentile related in one body.  Country people and city people.  One body, says Paul, one new man in place of the multiple.

The second act of will is that of the members – an act of acquiescence on their part to being built in to the church and of recognizing their debt to the other.  Paul is describing the church as a body.  It has a hand, and a foot and a head and all the other portions.  It has portions which are considered low – which we treat with shame or careful modesty - but which are absolutely essential for the smooth operation of the whole.  Every part must function in line with the set – with the whole body.  But he is not merely describing the body – these words appear in a letter.  It is a letter addressed to a community which has a recorded history of disfunction – as such this letter is at attempt at persuasion for a church which has risked fragmentation, where human emotions like jealousy and cynicism have made community life fraught and subverted and the public life of the church, at times, a scandal.  Paul appeals to the will of his people and, ultimately, to your will who hear this reading and this sermon on a Tuesday afternoon.  That you would allow yourself  to be placed, built in and to function within a set which has come to be because God has set out his net widely and wants you within. 

The basis of any relation, really, is your willingness to function within it – a marital relationship, a steady friendship, a group of pals who go fishing on a Saturday.  Will you subject your “one” to the “many” and discover therein not only something about others but something about yourself as well.  The working of the "whole" is always an invisible thing - the glue that holds the members of a set together could be relegated to the realm of a simple idea and yet these invisible things are everything.  Relationships are things which need to be described and yet they are everything. When you see a murmuration of starlings on that same Capitoline Hill on a fall evening here in Rome you will wonder:  How does this happen?  All these birds, each with its own will, each with its own brain, each with its own nervous system.  They move as a group with elegance and beauty.  The murmuration can do and be something which no individual element can do. Paul is appealing to our will - he is asking us to set aside our unique niche in society, our own self interest - so that we can be loaned, given and ultimately subjected to God who would build us in to something bigger and better.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit


Popular posts