October 20, 2019

1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Psalm 133
John 17:20-23

“I Have Need of You”

Back in my seminary days at Knox College, I took a preaching class with Stephen Farris that was specifically focussed on preaching 1st Corinthians for congregations in conflict. You may remember that the Church at Corinth was the epitome of a congregation in conflict. In the first chapter we hear that some say they belong to Paul, others to Apollos, and others to Peter. They have divided themselves into different groups with different allegiances, and they aren’t being very kind to one another.

Some of them think that they are better than the others because they have special spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues. When they get together for the Lord’s supper, some are getting well fed while others go hungry. And when they share times of worship, there is chaos happening too – a kind of a power struggle over leadership and who gets to interpret God’s Word. They are even having arguments that lead to lawsuits. Things are not good.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians provides excellent material for challenging and encouraging congregations that are experiencing conflict today. In the class, we were given a particular situation of congregational conflict and instructed to preach a passage from 1 Corinthians that would speak to that situation. It wasn’t a difficult assignment, especially with imaginary circumstances.

I never could have imagined seventeen years ago that I’d one day be Moderator of the 2019 General Assembly and challenged to preach to a denomination in conflict over biblical interpretation, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of LGBTQ individuals who are married. And yet here I am, and going back to 1 Corinthians, which is still absolutely overflowing with useful and instructive passages for our situation as a church today.

For example, it has become quite normal for Canadian Presbyterians to identify ourselves and others as progressives or traditionalists; to get worked up over whether or not our voice or our perspective is being given enough air-time in meetings, decision-making bodies, and even worship; and to harshly criticize or even mock people and congregations that hold differing views.

The talk on both sides about potential departures, the desire to have our group “win,” and the determination to leave with all our resources in tow, are further evidence that we need Paul’s wise counsel and firm discipline. The unity of the church is not a quality to be dispensed with lightly just because we cannot easily find ways to live together in love with our differences.

We know the passage very well – Paul’s 12th chapter in which he compares the church (the Body of Christ) with many and diverse members to a human body with many and diverse body parts. There are hands and feet, arms and legs, eyes and ears and noses and mouths. And that diversity of parts is absolutely necessary in order to have a body that functions. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

Over the last several years, we’ve been discussing and debating questions of human sexuality again. And people who believe it is time for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church have been telling us that LGBTQ folks have been given the message for too long that we (the church) have no need of them.

We have not recognized their gifts. We have excluded them from certain ministries and roles. Or when they have been included, it has been along with a denial of their identity – a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation with regard to their sexual identity or relationship status.

But this year, in the context of discussions, debates, and votes on relevant recommendations, it became clear that the 2019 General Assembly (with a clear, but not overwhelming majority of commissioners) believed that God was calling the church to enact full inclusion of LGBTQ people, whether single or married, in all the ministries of the church.

But the Assembly (and the denomination as a whole) still included a significant minority whose interpretation of scripture and personal conscience would not allow them to approve or conduct a same-sex marriage. And the model of full inclusion being proposed seemed to offer little space or accommodation for those with a commitment to a traditional understanding of human sexuality.

Suddenly, the new minority group was experiencing (just a little of) what it felt like to be told “I have no need of you.” Your views are no longer relevant. Your interpretation has been voted down by the majority. There is no space for you in the Presbyterian Church of tomorrow.

So, we spent some time listening to one another. We invited a few (who had already left in disappointment) to return and keep on talking. And we prayed, and prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide us and help us to find a way forward together.

I don’t think it was just me. At the beginning of the Assembly I had named the fact that my hope and prayer was that we would find a way forward as a denomination that made space for all our diversities together in one church. I meant diversities of sexual orientation and gender identity, and I also meant diversities of theological perspective and biblical interpretation. I believed then, and I still believe now that it is possible for us to choose both unity and justice for all.

And that’s what I had been hearing from General Assembly commissioners over the last several years as well. Certainly, most Presbyterians have an opinion about LGBTQ full inclusion and same-sex marriage, and when we get into debating the Bible passages and the theology we can seem very polarized.

But every time we have gotten together in table groups and prayed and discussed our fears and our hopes for the church, I have heard loud and clear that most Presbyterians want to stay together. We have friends and fellow church members and even family who hold different perspectives, and we can live with that. We’ve been living with that for years, and we don’t want to break up now.

But things are shifting, and the 2019 General Assembly discerned that it is time (some would say it is well past time) that we formally allow for same-sex marriage in the church and the ordination of LGBTQ individuals whether single or married.

The recommendations were to approve two acceptable definitions of marriage (either between a man and a woman only, or between two persons) and to allow for ordination of LGBTQ persons, while allowing for liberty of conscience and action. And those recommendations, aimed at the fullest type of inclusion for our church, were passed by an overwhelming majority.

Many of those present did sense the Spirit at work in what was happening. Numerous commissioners had thoughtfully prepared amendments and new recommendations that were aimed at moving us in a similar direction. And some of the amendments that moved us along were proposed by a group of relatively young commissioners with diverse theological perspectives working together.

It was the kind of moment that I think the psalmist was celebrating when he wrote: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

While the church was saying to our LGBTQ siblings, “We have need of you” and we are sorry for the ways that we have excluded, hurt, and shamed you in the past. At the same time, the church was determined not to replace one exclusion with another. It was determined to make space for the diversity of theological perspective that is present in our church today.

Now the recommendations are being remitted to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act. If they are adopted by a majority of presbyteries and then by the 2020 General Assembly, they become the law of the church.

But more than that, they will need to be embraced by the church as a whole. As Presbyterians with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and theological perspectives, we will need to make space for diversity of belief and practice in one church. We’ll keep talking about it, I expect, but we’ll need to stop fighting and arguing, and jockeying for power.

We’ll need to respect differences, and honour each other as we are, trusting that each one has a gift to bring that contributes to the effective functioning of the Body of Christ.

Do you remember what Paul says next in his letter, after the part about the Body of Christ with many members? After challenging the Corinthians to recognize each other’s unique gifts, he tells them that he will show them a still more excellent way. After all, sometimes there are times when we encounter people in the church whose gifts we just can’t seem to recognize or respect. And it’s then that we are simply called to LOVE.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all thing. Love never ends.”

As the Assembly began its meeting in the first week of June, I acknowledged that there had been a lot of anticipation about what might be decided by it. Indeed, there was a lot of anxiety about it, in the hearts of commissioners and church members alike.

What I said was, “No matter what happens here, God’s Church will not collapse, God’s Spirit will not die, and God’s eternal purposes will not be thwarted. What we are doing here matters, but let’s keep in mind that it is one part of what God is doing in the whole church and in the whole world. Our job is to be good stewards of the gifts we have been given, to be faithful in our ministries, and to seek the Spirit’s guidance in what we do and decide together in this time and place.”

And that’s the thing about the LOVE that Paul talks about. It is a love that we are called to embody and enact for each other, but it’s not a love that we work up through our own ability and determination. The origin of that love is God’s love, which has been poured into our hearts by the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are going to be able to love one another despite our differences because the Spirit is going to show us how and empower us to do it.

That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. It’s going to take some generosity, and some humility, and some patience with each other when we don’t always get it right. But Jesus’ desire is for one church, united in mind, heart, and spirit. Jesus prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one.

Indeed, Jesus prayed that all those who believe would be one (not only Canadian Presbyterians, or Reformed Christians, but all those who believe in Jesus because of the word of the apostles). He prayed that we would be one so that the world will believe.

Our bickering, our exclusions, our wrangling, our disrespect for one another’s opinions and identities, and our threats of separation are a terrible witness to the world. How could anyone see or experience the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ through this fractured and writhing body?

So, it’s up to the church now. Will we choose to recognize the giftedness of the many diverse parts of the Body of Christ and embrace full inclusion? Will we choose to follow a still more excellent way and embrace love?

I am praying for the Holy Spirit to keep on nudging us and guiding us towards unity with justice and inclusion for all so that the Body of Christ will grow strong and agile, and so that the mission of Christ will be enacted in wonderful and creative ways through the continuing Presbyterian Church in Canada, and so that our ministries will bear fruit, and so that many people will know and experience God’s loving embrace, and so that the world will believe.

May we declare to one another, in our words and in our actions, “I have need of you.”