The Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12:1—13:13







There were times when the Corinthians drove St. Paul crazy – and the words we’ve heard this morning were written in one of those times.

The Corinthians were so proud of their spiritual gifts. Some could speak in tongues, and others could interpret those tongues; some even had the gift of prophesy. The people who could speak in tongues were very full of themselves, and those who couldn’t speak in tongues were envious. The people who could prophesy looked down on those who couldn’t prophesy. The people with gifts of healing wished they had the gift of tongues.

And don’t get me started on their pot-luck suppers! They gathered regularly for the Eucharist, followed by supper.  They all brought dishes to the table, but the rich brought a lot of food and ate most of it themselves – while the poor ate from their own meager rations and from the rich people’s leftovers.

They were all baptized in water, and all baptized in the Spirit, and they all wanted to follow Jesus – but they still had so much to learn!


When Rob and I were first married and starting graduate school, we found an Episcopal church that we liked for its music and its preaching. We didn’t know anyone in the congregation, but we decided to make it our church home anyway.

After about a year a new group of ‘young marrieds’ was formed by the junior priest – he was new, too. In our meetings and our own little pot-luck suppers, we talked about the importance of building community, and our priest encouraged us to reach out to other parishioners, starting with coffee hour on Sundays. I was very shy then and couldn’t bring myself to do this, , but Rob got the message about community life, and the very next Sunday he decided to introduce himself to someone new.

Now you have to picture Rob in those days – he was 22, but looked younger; even his Sunday clothes were the student variety; his shoes were run down at the heels; and he wore heavy, unfashionable glasses (to protect his eyes from chemicals in the laboratory, but he only had one pair of glasses). Now watch this young man walk up to an older man he sees standing alone at coffee hour; watch him extend his hand, and hear him saying brightly, “Hello! I’m Rob Ross!” And now watch the older man stare down his nose at Rob, not shaking his hand, but simply saying, “I’m your Vestryman.” (I don’t think that would happen here at St. Patrick’s!)

Four years later, at that same church, the same man approached Rob at another coffee hour and said to him, “How are your studies going?” And Rob replied, “Oh, I’m finished now, and I’m on the faculty.” (Rob was still wearing the same scientist glasses, but I think he was wearing better shoes.) And the man said to Rob, “Oh, well, in that case, how would you like to be on the Vestry?”

Someone really didn’t get Paul’s message.


In the reading we’ve heard this morning – from chapter 12 – St. Paul tells the Corinthians that every member of their church has spiritual gifts. He also tells them that their church is like a human body: they are all connected, and every one of them is necessary for the whole body to function.

In the chapter before this (chapter 11), Paul had reminded them that sharing and mutual caring are the very foundation of the Eucharist. And in the chapter after this (chapter 13), Paul returns to his theme of love and caring, because love is the life blood that holds a church together. But we usually hear chapter 13 – one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible – in the context of a wedding (or perhaps at a funeral where we honor someone who was especially loving and giving).

We rarely hear Paul’s teaching about the church from beginning to end. Today, I want you to hear the whole message. (I know St. Paul has a reputation for being convoluted and hard to understand, but I think if we hear his whole passage about the body, we’ll begin to “get” his message.)


Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in every person, are the work of the same God. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. One person, through the Spirit, has the gift of wise speech, while another, by the power of the same Spirit, can put the deepest knowledge into words. Another, by the same Spirit, is granted faith; another, by the one Spirit, gifts of healing, and another miraculous powers; another has the gift of prophecy, and another ability to distinguish true spirits from false; yet another has the gift of ecstatic utterance of different kinds, and another the ability to interpret them. But all these gifts are the work of one and the same Spirit, who distributes them separately to each individual at will.

For Christ is like a single body with its many limbs and organs, which, many as they are, together make up one body. For indeed we were all brought into one body by baptism, in the one Spirit, whether Jew or Greek, whether slave or free; and that one Holy Spirit was poured out for all of us to drink.

A body is not a single organ, but many. Suppose the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body” – it still belongs to the body. Suppose the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body” – it is still part of the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell? But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body, as God wanted.

The eye can never say to the hand, “I do not need you”; nor the head to the feet, “I do not need you”. Quite the contrary: those organs of the body which seem more frail than others are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, while our more respectable members do not need additional respect. God has combined the various parts of the body, giving special honor to the humbler parts, so that there might be no division in the body, but that every organ might feel the same concern for all the other organs. If one organ suffers, they all suffer together. If one flourishes, they all rejoice together.

Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you a limb or organ of it. Within our community God has appointed in the first place apostles, in the second place prophets, thirdly teachers; then miracle-workers, then those who have gifts of healing, or ability to help others or power to guide them, or the gift of ecstatic utterance of various kinds. Are all apostles? all prophets? all teachers? Do all work miracles? Have all gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues of ecstasy? Can all interpret them? The higher gifts are those you should aim at. And now I will show you the best way of all.

I may speak in tongues of mortals or of angels, but if I am without love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away all I possess, or even give my body to be burned, but if I have no love, I am none the better.

Love is patient; love is kind; love envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; love is never selfish, never quick to take offense. Love keeps no score of wrongs; love does not gloat over others’ sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance. Love will never come to an end.

Are there prophets? their work will be over. Are there tongues of ecstasy? They will cease. Is there knowledge? it will vanish away. For our knowledge and our prophecy alike are partial, and the partial vanishes when wholeness comes. (When I was a child, my speech, my outlook and my thoughts were all childish. When I grew up, I was finished with childish things.)  Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. Our knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of us.

There are only three things that last for ever: faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of them all is love.

This morning, on the day of our Annual Meeting, can we hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church?


Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood on January 20, 2019. 

Memories: Seeing with the eyes of the poor

Learning what it’s like to be poor Donna Ross

When we moved into our Beirut apartment in 1967, we had two babies and an awful lot of cloth diapers to wash. My parents sent us money to buy a washing machine, and we hung the diapers up to dry in our little breezeway. Soon, for very little money, we hired a Lebanese woman who came three mornings a week to clean our little apartment and wash our dusty tile floors. How little I knew about her home life, but what luxury it was to have help!

We didn’t have a car, but neighbors invited us to go on Saturday trips. So the nine of us – four adults, two little girls, and three baby boys – would rattle around the Lebanese coast and mountains in an old Volkswagen bus.

Whether our destination was to the north or the south, every trip out of Beirut led past Palestinian refugee camps. The refugees’ extreme poverty was very clear through the windows of our suddenly-palatial bus: Here were families living in hovels, under corrugated tin roofs if they were lucky; here were families without dry clothing in Lebanon’s heavy rains; here were families receiving their daily food and water from the U.N.; and here were young men growing up in a kind of prison – denied citizenship and therefore denied jobs, they were growing more angry every day.

Years later, when I was in seminary, I discovered that my New Testament professor had spent many years as the pastor of a church in Jerusalem. One night we invited him to our home for a Lebanese supper. We all shared memories of our years spent in the eastern Mediterranean. Watching him eat his meal with great enthusiasm, scraping his lahm mashwi off its skewer and dipping his pita bread into the hummus, we discovered that he spoke fluent Arabic. We asked him where he had learned the language.

“Oh,” he said, “I spent nine months living in a refugee camp on the edge of Beirut.”

Some of us glance out our windows at extreme poverty, then turn our heads away. Some of us see the struggles of the poor, and are moved to try to help. But very few of us are willing to live with the poor, even becoming poor so we can live the lives they live.

Two prophets in the Temple

The Presentation in the Temple
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1342

Luke 2:33-40

Jesus’ mother and father were full of wonder at what was being said about him.  Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This child is destined to be a sign which people reject; and you too shall be pierced to the heart.  Many in Israel will stand or fall because of him, and thus the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.”

There was a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was a very old woman, who had lived seven years with her husband after she was first married, and then alone as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the Temple, but worshiped day and night, fasting and praying.  Coming up at that very moment, she returned thanks to God; and she talked about the child to all who were looking for the liberation of Jerusalem.

Prophet:  Who could be a prophet? *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

Now Luke brings us another prophet, this time an old woman.

Eighty-four years is a long time to live, even today; in those days, to live so many years was almost a miracle. Yet there would be no birthday celebration for Anna, or for women like her — they were all alone. Without family — without sons — a widow had no income, nothing to live on.

There was no one in Israel less important than a childless widow, despite the constant teaching of the Law from Moses on down through the years. Yet Luke calls Anna a prophet, one who voices the Word of God.

If we pay very close attention to Luke, we will notice that his story includes many women; in fact, almost every story about a man is followed by a story about a woman. Is Luke saying that women have always been as important in Jesus’ story as men?

 * Prophets

In the previous reading, Luke doesn’t call Simeon a prophet, but describes him as “upright and devout… and the Holy Spirit was upon him…. It had been disclosed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit he came into the temple…”  In this reading, Luke uses the word prophet to describe Anna, who is equally upright and devout, who is equally guided by the Holy Spirit.  In this Gospel, the Holy Spirit falls upon men and women equally, and stories about men are balanced by stories about women.

The Song of Simeon

Simeon’s Song of Praise
Aert de Gelder, c. 1700

Luke 2: 25-35

There was at that time in Jerusalem a man called Simeon. This man was upright and devout, one who watched and waited for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been disclosed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary under the Law, Simeon took him in his arms, praised God, and said:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

Holy Spirit:  Isn’t this early for the Spirit’s arrival?  *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

As Luke’s story has progressed the good news has slowly been revealed: to a minor Temple priest, to a childless woman, to a peasant girl, even to scruffy shepherds out in the muddy fields. Now the good news comes to a very old man.

The Hebrew word anawim means “those who are bowed down”. The anawim were the poor of every sort: the vulnerable, the marginalized, those without any control over their own lives. But over the centuries the word anawim also came to characterize those who knew how to depend on God, who waited for God to fill their emptiness. Mary’s Song pointed to them: “the humble have been lifted high, the hungry have been satisfied with good things” (Luke 1:52), and Jesus’ first Beatitude would also lift them up: “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20).

So while Simeon is so old he seems to be waiting only for death, he has actually been patiently waiting for his own good news. Now, as he holds this baby and his old arms feel his warmth, his old eyes see the arrival of good news.

* The Spirit

For centuries, Christians have been taught that the Holy Spirit first arrived in tongues of fire on Pentecost, forgetting that the first verse of the first chapter of the first book of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 1:1-2) says that “the spirit of God hovered over the waters”.  In fact, Luke’s Gospel begins with the Spirit already at work:  Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth have all felt the Spirit’s power.  Now the Spirit guides Simeon into the Temple, and him who this baby will become.


The purification

Oriental turtle-dove

Luke 2:21-32

Eight days later, the time came to circumcise the baby, and he was given the name Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.

Then, after their purification had been completed in accordance with the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as prescribed in the law of the Lord, “Every first-born male shall be deemed to belong to the Lord”); and also to make the offering as stated in the law of the Lord: “A pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”

Turtle-dove:  What was the meaning of the turtle-doves? *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

In Jesus’ time the Law made provision for the poor, but they still felt the weight of their poverty. How Joseph and Mary must have wished they had enough money to purchase a lamb for their special baby!

Yet even if they had money to buy a lamb, that lamb might have been rejected; perfect lambs, more expensive lambs, had to be purchased at the sanctuary: that way God got a perfect sacrifice, and the Temple made a profit.

In our time the laws also make some provision for the poor, but the poor still are made to feel the weight of their poverty, labeled as lazy, and roundly criticized for their lack of planning for their own futures.

 * Turtle-doves

After childbirth, women were excluded from all religious ceremonies until their mandated time had passed (see Leviticus 12).  At the end of that time, the new mother was required to bring a lamb and a young turtle-dove (or pigeon) to the Temple for sacrifice. Since this offering was expensive, poor women could bring two turtle-doves if they could not afford a lamb.  

Good news comes to the shepherds

Adoration of the Shepherds
Albrecht Dürer, c. 1510

Luke 2:8-20

Now in this same district there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock, when suddenly there stood before them an angel of the Lord, and the splendor of the Lord shone round them.  They were terror-struck, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid; I have good news for you; there is great joy coming to the whole people.  Today in the city of David a deliverer has been born to you — the Lord’s Messiah. And this is your sign: you will find a baby lying all wrapped up, in a manger.”

All at once there was with the angel a great company of the heavenly host, singing the praises of God:

Glory to God in highest heaven,
And on earth peace for those on whom God’s favor rests.

After the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Come, we must go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  So they went with all speed and found their way to Mary and Joseph; and the baby was lying in the manger.  When they saw him, they recounted what they had been told about this child; and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said.  But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them.

Meanwhile the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen; it had all happened as they had been told.

Shepherds:  Who were these shepherds? *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

Once again, Luke tells us that angels appear to announce that God is at work in the world. But once again, the “Christmas story” has become so familiar that we may not have heard its full meaning. How does “news” — any kind of news — get to the poorest people in this world? And what is “good” news for people who are desperately poor?

* Shepherds

* Shepherds, while dear to us from Christmas stories and pageants, had no social standing in ancient Israel.  They were always very poor, and they were also considered “unclean” — not just dirty from caring for sheep, but “unclean” in the ritual sense; because they had neither the time nor the money to purify themselves properly, they were unable to participate in religious ceremonies.

The birth of Jesus

The birth of Jesus
Giotto, c. 1305

Luke 2:1-7

In those days a decree was issued by the Emperor Augustus for a general registration throughout the Roman world.  This was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  For this purpose everyone made his way to his own town; and so Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to be registered at the city of David, called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary who was betrothed to him.  She was pregnant, and while they were there the time came for her child to be born, and she gave birth to her son, her first-born.  She wrapped him round and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to stay in the inn.

Registration:  What was the general registration? *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

Sometimes a story has become so familiar that we don’t see all of its meaning. We may see Mary and Joseph making their long and exhausting journey, and we may see that Bethlehem’s inns were already completely filled with travelers. But we may not see Joseph and Mary’s extreme poverty, or recognize their powerlessness.

Yet we must learn to see what their poverty meant, because in Bethlehem of old – just as in our cities today – there was always room at the inn for those who have enough money and influence.

* Registration

Every 14 years, for taxation and military service, Rome conducted a census throughout the empire.  Copies of Roman census documents have been recovered from archeological sites in Egypt, covering the years from 20 to 270 CE. Following the 14-year pattern, the census Luke reports would have been taken in 8 BCE.

Memories: The star of Bethlehem

Through this silver star pilgrims can look down into the cave where,
ever since the first century, Christians have believed Jesus was born.

By the summer of 1970, our time in Beirut had come to an end, and Israel was our first stop on the way back to the United States.  (Because Arab countries would not accept passports stamped with the Israeli seal, if we had traveled to Israel while living in Lebanon we would not have been able to return to our home in Beirut.)

With our two little boys (no longer babies now, but 3 and 4 years old), we stayed for several nights in the hostel at St. George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem.  What the boys remembered of Jerusalem were the ducks on the grounds of St. George’s. (Each morning we were there, the Dean of the Cathedral would let the boys help him feed the ducks.)

St. Georges’ garden: Feeding the ducks

What we remembered were our day trips around the Holy Land, from Jerusalem to the Galilee to the Dead Sea, with a Palestinian Christian as our guide.

In old Jerusalem, we watched bulldozers knocking down Palestinian homes, to create easier access to the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”), the remnant of the great Temple of Jesus’ day.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem (which means “City of Peace” in Hebrew) has never really been at peace. Army after army has attacked its walls — and within those walls, thousands upon thousands of families have suffered and died.

Jerusalem: destruction of Palestinian homes

From Jerusalem our guide drove us the short distance to Bethlehem (which means “House of Bread” in Hebrew).  Today a great wall divides old (and Palestinian) Bethlehem from newer (and Jewish) settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River. But In 1970 the small town of Bethlehem was still completely open to the rocky hills surrounding it.

(Throughout the centuries, Bethlehem has always been a mostly Christian town. In 1967 — the year we went to Beirut — Bethlehem and the West Bank were still 86% Christian. But by 2017, the Christian population of the West Bank had dropped to 12% —and today’s Bethlehem has less than 11,000 Christians.)

In Bethlehem we entered the ancient church built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.  Feeling our way through the church’s shadows, we found a silver star on the marble floor — and looked through the star into the even greater darkness of the cave below.

Bethlehem: Basilica of the Nativity

The cave beneath the silver star is the oldest of all Christian holy sites.  In the early 4th century, a basilica was built over the cave; when that church was destroyed by war in the 7th century, another basilica was built upon the original foundation.

But the site of the silver star, while sanctified by the prayers of many pilgrims, left me cold.  How I wished that I could have stood in the simple cave beneath, without the silver and gold accretions of the centuries!

Bethlehem in the late 20th century


Zechariah’s Song

And you, my child, you shall be called the Prophet of the Highest.
for you will be the Lord’s forerunner, to prepare his way….

Zechariah, the baby’s father, was filled with the Holy Spirit and uttered this prophecy:

Blessed be the God of Israel!
For he has turned to his people, saved them, and set them free,
and has raised up a deliverer of victorious power
from the house of his servant David.

So he promised: age after age he proclaimed
by the lips of his holy prophets,
that he would deliver us from our enemies,
out of the hands of all who hate us;
that he would deal mercifully with our forebears,
calling to mind his solemn covenant.

Such was the oath he swore to our father Abraham,
to rescue us from enemy hands,
and grant us, free from fear, to worship him
with a holy worship, with uprightness of heart,
in his presence, our whole life long.

And you, my child, you shall be called Prophet of the Highest,
for you will be the Lord’s forerunner, to prepare his way
and lead his people to salvation through knowledge of him,
by the forgiveness of their sins.

For in the tender compassion of our God
the morning sun from heaven will rise upon us,
to shine on those who live in darkness, under the cloud of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Blessed: Why is Zechariah’s song called “the Benedictus”? *

Thoughts: on parenting — Donna Ross

As Zechariah begins his song of praise he speaks to God, thanking God for bringing deliverance to the people of Israel. Now Zechariah looks down at the baby in his arms, and speaks to the baby:

And you, my child,
you shall be called the Prophet of the Highest,
for you will be the Lord’s forerunner,
to prepare his way and lead his people to salvation….

All children have the God-given potential to change the lives of those around them. As we look into the faces of our new babies and give God thanks, can we — like Zechariah — also look into their hidden futures and see the gifts they will share with others? Do we dare to look into their future and see also their struggles, the dangers they will face, even their deaths?

What kind of love best prepares children for their future?

*  The Benedictus

Since the earliest days of the church, this song has been chanted by monastics as the primary song or “canticle” for morning worship.  In Latin, the song begins with the words,  Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel — “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”

John the Baptist is born

“His Name is John”
St. John the Baptist Church, Savage, Minnesota

Luke 1:57-66:

Now the time came for Elizabeth’s child to be born, and she gave birth to a son.  When her neighbors and relatives heard what great favor the Lord had shown her, they were as delighted as she was.  Then on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.  But his mother spoke up and said, “No!”  he is to be called John.”

“But,” they said, “there is nobody in your family who has that name.”  They inquired of his father by signs what he would like him to be called.  Zechariah asked for a writing-tablet and to the astonishment of all wrote down, “His name is John.”  Immediately his lips and tongue were freed and he began to speak, praising God.

All the neighbors were struck with awe, and everywhere in the uplands of Judaea the whole story became common talk.  All who heard it were deeply impressed and said, “What will this child become?”  For indeed the hand of the Lord was upon him.

Names:  Why did the relatives want to name John after his father? *

Thoughts: on parenting — Donna Ross

Luke’s first chapter has told us a story of a miraculous conception and a momentous birth.

This aging couple has never been able to have children. So when an angel tells Zechariah that his wife will conceive and bear a child, he is understandably skeptical. Yet to their great joy Elizabeth does conceive, and when the baby is born, they name him “John” — meaning “Yahweh’s gift.”

Every child, of course, is a special gift from God. But perhaps only those who spend years trying to conceive can appreciate the joy of parents like Elizabeth and Zechariah.

Rob and I spent some years trying to conceive before we gratefully turned to an adoption agency. As our babies were placed in our arms, we gave them names that connected them to a member of their new family — a father, an uncle, an adopted grandmother.

We didn’t know at the time that it was Biblical custom to name a child after a close relative; but it’s a wise custom to connect every child to the family that loves them and gives them a home.

Who gave you your name?  Who does your name connect you to?

* Names

It was Jewish custom to name a boy after his father, grandfather, or other close relative; the name was always given to the baby on the eighth day, the day of his circumcision. John is a shorter form of the name Jehohanan, which means Yahweh’s gift, or God is gracious.  John was the name the angel Gabriel had given to Zechariah, and John also described his parents’ gratitude for God’s gift.