Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Beyond Tolerance

Aaron Willett
1 Corinthians 12:12-31


We’re going to play a little game here…

You are a member of a space crew originally scheduled to rendezvous with the mother ship on the light side of the moon. However, due to mechanical difficulties, your ship was forced to land at a spot some 200 miles from the rendezvous point. During reentry and landing, much of the equipment aboard was damaged and, since survival depends on reaching the mother ship, the most critical items available must be chosen for the 200-mile trip. You have before you a list of the nine items left intact and undamaged after landing. Your task is to rank order them in terms of their importance for your crew in allowing them to reach the rendezvous point. Place the number 1 by the most important item, the number 2 by the second most important, and so on through number 9 for the least important.

You have one minute. (PLAY "Rocket Man")

Now, instead of crashing alone, you’ve landed with four or five of the people near you. In small groups, develop your own team list.

You have two minutes.

Ok, now we’ll either illustrate my point or we won’t… but either way I hope you all had some fun. Here’s what engineers from NASA said. Write these down in the right-hand column:

  1. Oxygen Tanks

  2. Constellation Chart

  3. Water

  4. FM Radio

  5. Food

  6. Rope

  7. First-Aid Kit

  8. & 9 Last: Matches and Compass, neither of which would do any good on the moon’s surface!

Now, take a minute to total up the difference in numbers between your two lists and NASA’s. Negative numbers don’t matter, just the difference. For instance, if you had written 4 or 6 for food, that’s one away from NASA’s 5.

Arithmetic at church!

We’re you closer alone or as a team? – A show of hands

So back to our Scripture. The Corinthians were struggling with divisiveness--they were tolerating each other. In particular their economic diversity and differences in status had become problematic. They had even begun to understand the work and power of the Spirit in these divisive terms, as Ken discussed last week. Paul has his work cut out for him as he attempts to distinguish diversity from division.

Paul begins this by repeatedly cautioning against their overly high self-estimation. He reminds the Corinthians that they’re not as smart as they think, that they’re puffed-up, they’re babies, boasting in the wrong things, etc. But he doesn’t stop there. In verse 13, from today’s reading, he declares that we were “all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” He is declaring that in the Body of Christ divisions of race and status are moot.

I love the Body metaphor, but I wonder, if Paul were writing today, would he have written about the Biome of Christ instead of the Body? I find all this biome research fascinating. In addition to our own cells, our individual biomes are made of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and more. Estimates vary, but for each of our human cells there are one to ten of these other organisms. We fully depend on many of them for the normal functioning of our bodies. For instance, e. coli lives in our intestines and when kept in its proper place, it is essential to our digestion. My high school biology teacher, Mr. Ford, liked to remind us that when we passed gas--and kids you’ll want to remember this--we could always blame our e. coli.

Recent research into autoimmune disorders has led to what is called the hygiene hypothesis. This theory suggests that our overuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial cleaners have over-sanitized our personal environment. Our immune systems evolved with all these other critters around and when they’re absent our histamines go crazy and start attacking our own cells.

I think it’s not too far a reach to suggest that racial division within the church is not unlike an auto-immune disorder. We have taken a good and proper function—the fellowship among believers—and intensified it to the point that it turns in on itself. This process if fueled by our implicit biases. Vernae Meyers describes biases as “the stories we make up about people before we know who they are.” If we allow our biases to prevent us from building relationship with people who aren’t like us, we miss our calling. Just as we need a healthy biome in our body, so too do we require diversity to experience the full riches of the Body of Christ.

In the brilliant TED Radio Hour episode from which I cribbed my sermon title, Arthur Brooks of the conservative American Enterprise Institute makes a pitch for why Liberals and Conservatives need each other. I was struck by how much this made me reflect on how we function as the body of Christ. He believes that liberals have it right when they cry out for the needs of the poor and the marginalized, and he believes that conservatives have it right when they describe market forces as a fundamentally better solution than government. I think his perspective boils down to “we’re all in this together and we need each other to make it work.”

In the Body of Christ, tolerance is insufficient. We must draw near, we must become proximate to each other and our neighbors. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that we need all the answers before we get close, but the answers (and even the right questions!) will come when we step out in faith and into proximate relationships with the poor and with our neighbors of color.

In verses 21-23, Paul reminds us that we need our members that appear weakest. Do you feel like you’re an appendix or the tonsils in the body of Christ? Well, even though we’re still not sure what exactly those organs do, rest assured that God IS going to use you too—even if we don’t know how just yet!

Of course this is all far more serious than the fate of our collective tonsils and appendixes. This past week has been striking and upsetting for many of us because of last weekend’s flare of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and more recently the ISIS attack in Barcelona. I’ve been reflecting on this metaphor of the body as it relates to race, and I believe I stand firmly in our tradition when I declare that as followers of Jesus we offer no quarter to ideologies of hate, discrimination, or supremacy.

According to The Confession of 1967, found in our Book of Confessions:

“God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.”

White supremacists, and Nazis in particular, think the body ends with those who look and think just like they do. However, Christian unity is not derived from conformity. In our baptism we become the Body of Christ – all of us. This is not accomplished by our own will or power, not by our individual excellence or personal acceptability, nor is it by our conformity to each other. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit and our conformity to Christ. Christ lived and died for each of us; and in our baptism we share in his death and we each share in the new life of his resurrection.

Each time we shake hands or touch dirt, our personal biomes grow in diversity. There is more diversity in the Body of Christ here at SPC than we know. Every time a child or grandchild comes out as lesbian, gay, or transgender; each time one of us develops a debilitating disease, each time a child is born or a new member walks through the door, each time the shape of our body changes we discover that there is room in the Body of Christ for more diversity.

Paul is reminding the Corinthians that they need each other. In the same way, we need each other, we need our neighbors, we need our sisters and brothers at City of Glory. We must move beyond tolerance; tolerance is insufficient in the body (or biome!) of Christ. We need each other. Our interdependence is necessary for us to experience the fullness of our Christian faith.

Last week, Eliana Maxim, one of our Executive Presbyters, who also served here briefly as an interim pastor, shared this:

Our recently adopted Confession of Belhar writes, “We believe that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.”

[In their struggle against Apartheid,] The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, where this confession came from, learned that the work of facing and naming evil, speaking truth to power and beginning the work of undoing institutional racism begins with us, the church.  We need to examine how we have been complicit in maintaining structures that provide privilege for some but not all, how we have allowed the Gospel to be co-opted by those who espouse racist ideologies, how we have kept silent when our voices could be living water.

This is not about being political. This is about being faithful.

Well, on Saturday, September 23, The Presbytery of Seattle is sponsoring the Crossroads Anti-Racism Training. It runs from 9-4 and only costs $10 for lunch. I invite you to join me and others from around the presbytery in a day of learning and equipping for the hard work of racial reconciliation. Maybe this will be one more step in seeking Paul’s “more excellent way,” the way of love.

Friends, tolerance is easy, reconciliation is hard. We have to press into these relationships until they become a part of us. In our unity, as the Body of Christ, we experience the presence and power of the Spirit, and we witness to a love that is more than tolerant—we show the world the reconciling love of God by whose power we, the holy, common people of God, constitute the Body of Christ, incarnate in the world.


"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7