1 Corinthians 12:12-13:13
So… this week we are beginning a new series on our Congregational heritage called Pilgrim’s Progress. For the three weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we will be looking at our three core values: Faith, Freedom, and Fellowship. And since today we are celebrating a passing of the torch and new membership, with our recognition luncheon for Karl and a new member ceremony for me… I thought that we would start this series looking at fellowship. At the bond of the church.
So, with that introduction being said… we are going to be starting our series with a history lesson… If you are not a fan of dates, facts, and all that was in the past… feel free to tune me out for the next five minutes.
Many of us think that the Congregational Way was birthed out of the Mayflower and a band of faithful Pilgrims looking for a fresh start in the new world, it is a story that we have heard countless times as the story of the first thanksgiving… but what we may not realize is that this movement started long before that fateful voyage in 1620.
I’d like to turn our thoughts back to almost a hundred years before that voyage… to 1534 when King Henry VIII of England (who is known for his many wives…) declared himself the head of a new national church called the Church of England. King Henry did this for a couple of reasons… but the most important being that it allowed him to declare an annulment of his own marriage, which freed him to marry the charming Anne Boleyn… it was a pretty selfish and morally shaky move. But those that King Henry brought on board to help formulate this new national church did seize the opportunity to make some rather profound and important changes to the faith practices of the people. During this same time, there were rumblings from Germany, Switzerland and other places in Europe that a great reform was coming… One of the best things that came from this era of starting a new church and of reform, was that the Bible was placed into the hands of the people! Priests were no longer the only ones that had access to the bible and had the means to interpret Scripture… but the people finally had access to it! And a bible that was actually translated into English and other European languages were slowly becoming available! Which lead the way for huge changes to the church universal.
Anyway, while the Church of England became slightly different from the Roman Catholic Church that used to run the show… some people felt that it was still too similar; that it retained too many of the old practices and ways of the Catholic faith. These people called for a return to a simpler faith and less structured forms of worship… they wanted nothing more than to worship as the early Christians did in the days and years following Christ death and resurrection. (This is what happens when you put the Bible into the hands of the people… they start to see and understand Scripture and the movement of the Holy Spirit in whole new ways) This group of people wanted to “purify” the church… they became known as the “Puritans”. And within that group was a segment of people (considered very radical) that felt that the church was beyond all reform and that they needed to start again, start from a clean slate, and they were called “Separatists.”
From our current stand point as Modern Americans… this would not be an issue. They would just break off from the church and worship elsewhere as they fit… but the problem was… in England in the 1600s it was illegal to be part of any church other than the Church of England.
The members of the separatist movement were harassed, fined, and even sent to jail. So the separatist started to dream about building a town or community in which they could worship as the Spirit moved them. So they tried it. First in Scrooby, England… but there it was still illegal to worship on their terms… then they moved to Lieden, Holland. But life in Holland was extremely difficult. It was hard to be away from home… yet they were still close enough that the temptation to move back was powerful, so they lost some of their members. On top of that there was threat of a Spanish/Dutch war that had everyone really worried. So they decided to make the leap… to start over fresh in America. A truly clean slate. In the New world there was no doubt that they could finally have a place where they could worship… to truly worship… in a way that was simple and completely sincere. And for that dream and vision, they were willing to board a ship and travel thousands of miles to a place that was completely unknown. … Our Spiritual ancestors are radicals! They were brave, adventurous, devoted radicals. … The word Pilgrim refers to someone that is on a spiritual journey. So, these people… this brave band of separatist… embody what it is to be a pilgrim… To be on a spiritual journey that required huge amounts of faith and trust.
So on September 6, 1620 The Mayflower set off to New England loaded up with 102 faithful pilgrims. There was a second ship with them originally… named the Speedwell. But it was really leaky and unreliable and they kept having to turn back for it… so they eventually turned all the way back to the harbor, parked the Speedwell and loaded everyone onto the Mayflower. Now… here is something that frequently gets left out of the myths and lore that surround this tale… In order to pay for the trip: to hire a boat, pay for supplies, and all the materials that they would need to establish new homes… they needed investors. So they sort of hired themselves out as workers. The plan was to ride over on the ship and gather resources off of American soil (fish, timber, furs…), load it onto the boat, and have the boat return to England while they stayed, and in that way they could repay their investors… by return goods. The Mayflower, and the Speedwell were not passenger ships. They were cargo ships. 102 people lived in an empty cargo hull for 66 days. With a ceiling barely high enough for you to stand, only 100 feet long… unable to go above deck because of frequent storms… 66 days.
If you go to Plimoth Plantation now, you can board the Mayflower II which is a replica of the original ship. And to be honest it is not very big. I couldn’t imagine it myself.
But, for the faithful pilgrims… it was all worth it! On November 11, 1620 they arrived off of the shorts of cape cod. To start a new life. The Congregational Way of life. A way of life that celebrates three things: a faith in Christ as the head of the Church and the director of our lives, a gathered, called, fellowship of believers, and the freedom to let Christ lead.
So, for the next few weeks we are going to look into these three concepts or values that we celebrate as Congregationalists. And we are going to do so largely from the context of the Scripture passage that we are going to be studying today.
Now, 1 Corinthians is in a segment of the New Testament known as the Letters or Epistles of the apostle Paul. And the thing about reading the letters is that it is like reading someone else’s mail. You only get to read one-half of the correspondence. There is no doubt that when Paul wrote his letter that we now call 1 Corinthians he was responding to a letter he had already received from the church in Corinth. And we don’t know what that letter contained… so we have to make some assumptions about the concerns and wonderings of the church to fully understand what the apostle Paul’s words mean for us now.
And I think that we could make a couple of clear assumptions about what being addressed here. Such as, with Paul’s talk of unity… it is likely this group may have struggled with having a fractured church. And when Paul’s talk of honoring the “less than” parts of the church… it is likely that they are struggling with church members feeling that they are “more than.” And when Paul… in the strongest, most beautiful and elegant of all his writings… says that love is patient, and kind, that it is not envious or boastful… perhaps the church is plagued with the other things: rudeness, harshness and the like…
All in all, what we have here is a church that is finding it difficult to figure out how and why church works.
They are looking around their church family and thinking. You know, how is this going to work? We are full of people that are harsh and rough around the edges? We are full of people that are poor, ill, and weak? We are full of people that are just different and flawed? How is this going to work?
And Paul, in his brilliance, uses a very understandable metaphor for the church: the human body. He calls the church the Body of Christ. For all churches are made up of different, diverse parts and pieces, but those pieces come together for a common goal. Just like a body. Paul mentions that hands, feet, eyes, ears are all unique in purpose and in function. The eye is not a hand. The ear is not a foot. A stomach is not a heart. Yet each of these pieces are important and vital to the functioning of the body. If the body was just one giant eye, or one giant stomach… we wouldn’t get very far… And in like manner, we are all different and unique beings, which is vital for the health of the church.
For the church in Corinth, that meant that however rude, or pompous, however ill, or broken a part of piece of the body is… it is still vital to the whole! Because the glue that holds all of these pieces together is Christ’s love. Which can strengthen, renew, and fix anything.
Each and everyone of us have different interests, skills, abilities. Each of us are in different places in our walk of faith. We all have different stories and things in our life that have shaped us and given us an identity. And like the church in Corinth we all have different struggles… And What Paul is saying is “this is good! This is perfect! God put us together this way despite our difference!” If we are all Pastor Sarahs or all Judys or all Freds… that wouldn’t be a church… that would just be a very dull gathering… however peaceful and tidy. If we all have like minds, like histories, like interests… that would just be a blob of people without a purpose…
We need people with different gifting, and passions, and abilities to be all here as one gathering. We need someone who is gifted with prayer, someone that is a teacher, someone that is servant hearted, some one who loves to cook and show hospitality, someone who can dance and play music, someone that is an eager student or just someone that is faithful and serene. This diversity is what makes a church. In spite of our differences we are all connected, we are all pulled together to function as one unit! How great is that?
Now, what comes to mind when I say “covenant”?
An agreement, a contract maybe… some sort or arrangement, perhaps? The marriage covenant?
From the Biblical standpoint a covenant is a very serious thing.
Just a couple of months ago, I taught a bunch of college students about the nature of covenant… and they got really grossed out… so stay with me…
In the Old Testament there are countless examples of people forming covenants between each other, and of course God forming covenants with his people… but in the book of Jeremiah we see the ceremony of cutting a covenant. The Hebrew word for making a covenant is “Carot Barit”, literally “to cut a covenant.” And during the ceremony an animal would be sacrificed. The more important the covenant the bigger the animal… and they would cut it in two. Then they would separate the parts. And the two parties that were entering into this agreement would walk through the pieces together while reciting the terms of the covenant. “Carot Barit” “To cut a covenant.”
This whole ceremony was a grand way of saying that if I break this covenant… may what happened here… happen to me! … yikes.
When we talk about covenant these days, our conversation doesn’t carry with it such gory consequences, but nevertheless covenant is a very serious heavy thing.
It is an agreement made before God. In fact, it is an agreement that God is invited into!
And as a Congregational church we are known as a covenant community. Meaning that we see the act of being a part of a church… as answering an invitation to be a part of a called gathering of people.
And I’m sorry to throw language things at you… I’ve never found linguistics to be practically helpful during sermons… rather the opposite… but when talking about covenant, language is important…. Anyway, the Greek word for church is Ekklesia, which grew out of the word Kaleo, meaning “to call.” The church is a called gathering of people. Called out of the world… out of our ordinary lives, to live a new and extraordinary life as a part… as a vital piece… of Christ’s body. Both in this humble church… and in the whole of Christ’s body. However different, or storied… however humble or grand we may be. We are invited here, to this church, for a reason… Sometimes God’s reasoning is unclear… but we must know that God’s reasonings are good. Christ is the glue that holds all of us together.
Now history has sort of tainted the reputation of the Pilgrims. They are seen not as radical, faithful Christians… but they are seen as stuffy, moralistic, conservative, harsh people… they are Puritanical. There is even a word coined off of how they are perceived. But I think that they got one thing really right, especially at the start of their movement… And that was knowing that they are in it together. That they were a unit! Back in England… they felt the Holy Spirit guiding them towards a new way of life. A new way of living out their faith. So they pursued it! Together is fellowship. They knew that the fellowship of the Body of Christ (the church) is the context in which we learn, understand, and grow in our relationship with God… it is where we learn the language and essence of faith. And they went after it… willing a life in which they were free to learn and grow and understand.
1 John 1:6-7 states, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
We walk through this life together. In fellowship, in community. Our fellow parts and pieces walk with us. And if we trust in Christ, trust in the head of the body, the glue that hold us all together… God can use us to do great things. Godly things.
Our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers sought to build a church that worshiped with simplicity, sincerity, and service. To worship in a way that was free to move and grow and pursue a relationship with God in its own way. And I look forward to talking about this freedom more next week.