To the church that is in Cincinnati, 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 Master Jesus Christ.
Grace to you and peace from God our Mother and Father and Jesus the Christ.
I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace that has been given to you. Whether you are aware of it or not, you are a light of hope for many people. You give Christ a good name to those disillusioned with religion, not using your faith as a way of making yourself holy and others condemned, but welcoming new ideas, new people, new challenges into what it means to be a human being, a child of God. You serve meals to hungry people in your neighborhood and, just as important, give them a place to come and be themselves, fully welcomed and celebrated for who they are. You put your faith into action; you understand that faith is as faith does. People notice this and are hungry for it. You are known across the nation, at least in the Mennonite world, as lovers of the arts and supporters of artists. When people think of you, they are inspired to serve more whole-heartedly, to find their own creativity. For all this I thank God.
I do not write, actually, type, this letter to merely pat you on the back or inflate your ego. The Lord requires, you will remember, that you walk humbly with your God. But I write, type, this to encourage you, to be sure that you see things that are clear to those on the outside looking in.
And this is only one side of things. Being church in 21st century America is difficult, and you face many challenges and struggles. You live scattered throughout the metropolitan area, and at times this can make the bonds of community feel thin and fragile. You lead busy lives, full of many good things, and you are challenged to discern which good to pursue, and which good to let go of in order to live life most fully. You breathe in the same somewhat toxic political and cultural atmosphere as everyone else, and, depending on the day, no doubt find yourselves swinging between hope and cynicism. Many of you are transplants from other communities, and you miss mothers and fathers, nieces and nephews. There are some burdens and wounds that you carry that you have not yet found language to express.
And yet you are here, and God is here, and together you are the church.
I type to you now, having arrived at the end of your Twelve Scriptures Project. This summer you have traveled from the beginning of the cosmos of Genesis 1, through slavery, deliverance, and the giving of the law of Exodus, through the comfort of the Psalms, the challenges of the prophets, and the words of the Galilean teacher who so strangely and perfectly reflected the very life of God in human form.
How appropriate, now, to end this series of choice Scriptures with a letter to a church: the Apostle Paul, writing over 2000 years ago to a congregation in the commercial city of Corinth, a Roman colony. A setting no less cosmopolitan than your own. A congregation perhaps no larger than yourselves. A group of people no more gifted and no less flawed than you and any other congregation. Actually, when you read the letter, they did have some serious issues. But we can cut them some slack. They didn’t have a whole lot to go on. They were a prototype, part of those first generations making a trial run at what it meant to be church. Clearly, it’s always been difficult.
Those familiar with the Bible know that the New Testament begins with the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, because they tell the story of Jesus, and the New Testament is about Jesus. But what’s less obvious from reading the New Testament is that well over a decade before any of the Gospels were written, these letters to different churches were being written for their instruction. Ponder a church without the Gospels, and that’s what you’ve got in Corinth. These letters are addressed to a specific group of people in specific circumstances, with certain gifts and challenges. Just as specific as this letter is to you.
You decided not to choose as one of your Twelve Scriptures that part in this letter to the Corinthians where Paul chides them for constantly arguing among themselves about who their pastor should be – Paul, or Peter, or Apollos. I take that as a good sign. You did not select where Paul encourages them to stop suing each other in the courts, or when they are working through whether it was right or not eat meat that had been sacrificed at one of the many temples to the gods around the city and then sold in the marketplace for common consumption. To eat or not to eat? I’m pretty sure I know why you didn’t choose as one of your top Scriptures the part where Paul teaches that the women should wear head coverings during worship. And apparently you don’t find highly inspirational the part where Paul despairs over their bad Communion manners of snarfing down the common loaf before everyone had a chance to get a bite.
The part of this letter that you have elevated as being of central importance to your community is when the Corinthians are reminded, that, despite all these failings and shortcomings: “Now you are the body of Christ…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews and Greeks, slaves and free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
You are not Jews and Greeks and you are all free, but you are the wealthy and the not as wealthy, you are the young and the not as young, you are West side and East side, you are the skeptics and the mystics. You are a diverse people. And what’s important is that none of that is what’s most important. “For in one Spirit you were all baptized into one body.”
There’s another part of this passage that you’ve chosen that you no doubt find intriguing. This church body is made up of many members. And this is a body, where the parts have minds of their own, thinking out loud, and sometimes talking to each other. As Paul writes: “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” “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.’”
Who has not had a similar kind of conversation in their own head before? I don’t have the same kinds of gifts as that person. I’m not a speaker so my voice isn’t worthy of being heard. I don’t have much money to give, so my presence isn’t valuable. I’m not as _____ (blank) as ______ (blank). I really don’t know the Bible very well. I can’t sing four part harmony. I don’t live a simple enough lifestyle to be a real Mennonite. I don’t really belong.
To all this, beloved people of God, Paul tells those Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
It is a holy situation when the individual is continually invited to let go of their own sense of inferiority or superiority and simply be a member of a community. To look beyond one’s own life circumstances and to enter into those of others. I’ve seen you do it time and again. To listen to the suffering of another and to allow it to be your suffering. To celebrate the life of another – as small as a birthday, as significant as a retirement announcement, marriage, a birth, a coming of age, a baptism. Do this enough, and you start to get the hang of it. You are members of one another. You share the same body. This is who you are called to be.
You are very good at doing. At serving. This is reflected in the 12 Scriptures you’ve selected. Many of them are action oriented, ethical commands, faith as a way of life. This is a very good thing. It’s a gift. It’s in your DNA. But along with doing, it’s also OK to simply be. To be still and know that God is God. To be in fellowship, having no particular goal other than the enjoyment of one another’s company. To be the church.
Even just in your being, you are a congregation on the move. You have a vision. As a Mennonite community, seeking to follow Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, you will be embracing, engaging, growing. You’re embracing those who come through your doors and who you meet outside these doors. You’re engaging your wider community in so many important areas: business and education, your places of work and your neighborhoods where you live. You’re growing not only in number of people, but also in the size of your building. An exciting new front entrance to the church has been drawn up and is in the works of becoming a reality. This is significant. A front door can say a lot about a community, especially when careful attention has been paid to making it accessible to those in wheelchairs and the elderly – not that any of you are anywhere near being elderly. This is a tangible way of making your vision more of a reality.
People don’t write long letters anymore and I pondered simply making all of this very brief in the form of a Tweet with that maximum of 140 characters. It would have been something like this:
Hey Cincy Mennos Peace! 12 Scriptures finale. From creation to Christ. Now Corinthians. The point: UR body of Christ. Yes U.
How different our Bible would be if Paul had a Twitter account.
I end this letter to you with words that have been written to another congregation so many years ago, this time, Paul’s letter to the Romans: Now be strong, with the power of Holy Spirit. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18
And, I might add, just as, when you gather, you greet one another with the words of the risen Christ, “Peace be with you,” so make it your aim to extend peace to all you come into contact with throughout the day.
The grace of our Master Jesus Christ be with you always my sisters and brothers.