“Blessed, Not Privileged!”
1Corinthians 1: 1-9
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
John 1: 28-42
John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
When the Apostle Paul founded a new church along his missionary journeys, he felt an almost parental sense of care and concern in shepherding it. He often wrote letters to be read among the members of the congregation, and he visited in person when he was able to do so. Because these churches were often new in their faith life and surrounded by a multitude of competing religions, Paul made every possible effort to present an accurate gospel message, and to exemplify Christ Jesus in his own attitudes and actions. This was particularly important when it came to the Corinthian Church. Corinth was a relatively wealthy port city, with a population comprised of people of many religions and gods, and who followed a variety of ritual practices. Believers in Paul’s gospel message were baptized in the name of the One True Triune God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as Jesus commanded. They received the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit upon their baptism. That, dear friends, is where their problems began. Some had been baptized by Paul, some Apollos, and some by Cephas and other laborers in the mission-field for Christ. Some had gifts of speaking in tongues, some in interpreting tongues, and others had gifts of prophecy, great faith, and healing. With these, the Corinthian Church was beginning to set up a hierarchy of status and power based upon their baptism and the gifts of the Spirit each had received. They were lording these over one another, weaponizing in an individual way the marvelous gifts of the Spirit that had been given for the benefit of the whole body of Christ. Soon after their confession of faith and baptism, the Corinthians had forgotten the gospel message of love, peace and equality they had received from Paul, and they had grown self-centered and arrogant. They also failed to remember that their Spiritual gifts were blessings from God and not the entitlements of privilege.
One thing we can be sure of is that Paul had no problem calling the Corinthians out on their selfish and separatist behaviors toward one another. The very next sentence in the text following our lesson for this morning is a small flavor of the content and purpose of Paul’s letter to this church. It states, “Now I plead with you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you.” Paul’s letter goes on to admonish the Corinthians that this situation regarding contentions among them should not be happening. The Corinthians had taken a big step out of the kingdom of God, and Paul was writing to them in an attempt to reel them back to the place where they, as members of the body of Christ, belong. In Chapter 3, Paul continued his admonitions to the Corinthian Church with these words, “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?…Therefore I urge you, imitate me.” What do you have that you did not receive, and why do you boast as if you had not received it—now that is the very heart of the matter. Every gift of God is a blessing to be received with joyful thanksgiving unto God for its use in building the body of the Christ’s Church. Our various gifts of the Spirit make us different but not better than any of our brothers and sisters, regardless of our wealth, race, ethnicity, physical ability, gender identity, religious beliefs, or any other personal attribute that may be different from those of our neighbors. As Paul reminded us today in his letter to the Corinthians, everything we will ever have or become is a blessing we receive from our generous God, not a personal privilege for our use as a matter for boasting or for feeling superior to others. That kind of behavior is the source of the very contentions that prompted Paul’s letter of admonition and advice to the Corinthians.
The Corinthian Church’s issue of using various markers of status to create barriers that separate us from one another has continued through the ages and into our modern-day society. Yet, I suspect that many of us sitting in this sanctuary today have not known the pain and injury this inequality of our nation’s socio-economic and political infrastructure has created. We live in a society whose culture of white privilege has been pervasive for so long that it often goes unrecognized among us. But, if you are on the receiving end of the cultural bias; well, that is an entirely different story. Let me take a moment to share with you a case in point. Many years ago I took my best friend, Debbie, out to a fancy dinner for her birthday. It was a favorite spot that my family liked to frequent for special occasions. Of the many meals we had shared there, we never received poor service, no matter how busy or crowded this restaurant was. On this occasion, however, we waited, and waited, and waited: for menus, water, our order to be taken, our meal to be served, plates removed, coffee and desert-every single aspect of the meal. As the honored birthday guest, Debbie sat politely at each point of waiting. Finally, embarrassed as I was over the poor service of this once favorite dining spot, I mentioned to Debbie that this behavior was unusual for this restaurant, whose service had never been so slow. Looking around again, as she had been doing off and on throughout our dinner, Debbie pointed out that we were the only multi-racial party dining there that day. What we were experiencing, something that Debbie knew all too well, was a subtle but very real act of racism. Perhaps we had to be served by the staff, but by golly, we did not have to be served well by them. I was shocked, and I looked around, now paying attention to the way the serving staff treated others compared to us. Debbie was right. I had unknowingly subjected her to another painful experience of the practice of white privilege and the subtle reality of racism in our American society.
This story of my experience with the white privilege of racism should not surprise us all that much. The sad truth is that I was relatively oblivious to it, and that this naiveté of mine was a part of the problem. What is needed in these situations is our vigilance in calling this kind of behavior out as unacceptable whenever and wherever we find it occurring in our lives. We cannot simply remain complacent to the injury that elitist behaviors like racism and white privilege cause others. As we observed in our gospel lesson today, Paul would not allow it to stand in the Corinthian Church two thousand years ago. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, whose life and work on behalf of racial equality in our country we celebrate this weekend, began a movement of peaceful resistance to the racist inequalities he experienced in our society nearly sixty years ago. Sadly, we are still having this conversation, still enlisting converts to the greater causes of justice and equality of opportunity with a mutuality of respect for all God’s people in our many and diverse self-expressions. There are a variety of gifts, as our Hymn today expressed, but One Giver, One Lord and One Spirit who activates them in us all. So, let us not boast to others of our giftedness. We have nothing we did not receive from our loving and grace-filled God. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we stand today as a people of God who are richly blessed, not as those who are privileged or entitled to a better quality of life than our neighbors, whomever they may be. Dr. King dreamed of the day when freedom for all would reign in this country. He shared these words about this day in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today… I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we join hands now and work together toward the day when Dr. King’s dream of equality for all people becomes a living reality. Amen—let it be so.