Sunday, January 20, 2019

Second Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 12
Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a] and to still another the interpretation of tongues.[b] 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

There are moral superstars among you.

Now, I'm not suggesting that some of you are less moral, immoral, or given to all sorts of turpitude. I'm simply reflecting on the fact that some have advanced training in moral theology and others do not.

You see, the brave souls who dove into the murky waters of biomedical ethics last fall, they wish for a level playing field, an opportunity to spread the wealth of their knowledge and encourage others to practice whatever is the opposite of turpitude. Basically, I just like saying turpitude.

What I propose to do is give all of you the same introduction to Christian ethics, in a somewhat condensed form. And the setting for this instructive moral quagmire is a trip to the supermarket. So we begin.

You’re in a hurry as you approach the supermarket, you know exactly what you need, and you won’t be a minute. All the spots are taken, except that handicapped spot near the door, and in a flash of turpitude, you take it. “What’s the harm?” you say to yourself, “I’ll just be a minute.” Of course, immediate harm ensues, when the next person who enters to lot needs the space. So our first principle, rather aptly, is Do no harm. One down, three to go.

It turns out the first item on your list is chocolate covered almonds. Mmmm, you love them. And as you lean over the bin, scoop in hand, you realize you are alone in the aisle. Remember, you’re in some sort of moral holiday here, so you decide to sample. And as the taste explodes in your mouth, you remember this sermon, and with it the second principle: Pursue the common good. Laws against theft are in place to allow us to live together as a society—and provide a set of assumptions about how we will behave—as we pursue the common good.

Next, you’re at the cash, and the check-out person has give you too much change. It’s a simple enough mistake, “an error in your favour” like Monopoly, but this time you have a choice. The first thing to consider is ‘what would I do if the situation was reversed?’ If you were short-changed, would you say something? Of course you would! So the next principle is simple: Treat others as you wish to the be treated. We call it the “Golden Rule,” a principle that exists in some form in almost every religion and philosophy.

Being moral is hard work, so it’s time to head home. As you walk toward the door, you notice that the edge of the rubber mat is flipped over, creating a trip hazard. What do you do? In the strictest technical sense, it’s not your problem. Stores have liability insurance just for such situations. But what if your 90 year-old granny is two steps behind? You fix the mat. What if it’s your 90 year-old neighbour? You fix the mat. What if it’s someone you’ve never met?

This scenario includes elements of all the principles we have defined so far: pursue the common good (a society where people care for strangers); do no harm (a reasonable person will see that the mat is potentially harmful); and treat others as you wish to be treated (I wish the person before me fixed the mat before I nearly tripped). Using all of these principles together, we define our fourth principle as Develop a moral character.

Fun story: I led an ethics workshop many years ago for a not-for-profit in Scarborough and when we got this last principle, one of the participants sharply disagreed. And they just wouldn’t let it go. I tried more and more examples (what about your grandmother’s grandmother?) but the response was the same every time: ‘it’s not my responsibility.’ Meanwhile, at the edge of the room, this person’s supervisors were wide-eyed and staring at each other, taking mental note.

I share all this to save you from turpitude, and to lift up the seventh verse of the reading Judith shared this morning: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” The Greek for common good is συμφέρον (sympheron), which appears most often in verb form, and is translated as beneficial, as it ‘it would be beneficial to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin (Matthew 5.30). As a noun, it becomes ‘common good,’ meaning whatever is beneficial for everyone. Unfortunately, whenever I say ‘common good’ you now think chocolate covered almonds, but you’re just going to have to set that aside.

But just before I say more about St. Paul and the common good, I should set this verse in context, specifically, the church at Corinth. Our passage begins with a reference to backsliding, returning to paganism and the obvious turpitude that follows when you listen to mute idols. It’s one example of bad behavior within the congregation that Paul seeks to correct. But when he tries to get them to mend their ways, he tries to put it into a more positive framework than simply saying ‘smarten up.’ So he reminds them:

There are all sorts of gifts, but the Spirit gives them.
There are all sorts of service, but the same Lord to serve.
There are many examples of good works, and in each one, God is at work.

These gifts of the Spirit are meant to support the common good. If you are wise, or knowledgable, or particularly faithful, or you have some overt gift like healing, or prophecy, or speaking in tongues, or making sense of someone speaking in tongues—if you have any of these gifts—you do God’s work and embody God’s desire to distribute gifts.

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Read one way, this means that we have gifts that we should use to further the common good. It seems straightforward enough, until we keep reading, and see that Paul is suggesting we’re part of the Spirit-filled co-op, with gifts distributed for the sake of the whole. If you are wise, you don’t need to be knowledgeable, or vise versa. People who have a healing presence may make lousy prophets, and if you speak in tongues it doesn’t automatically follow that you understand what you’re saying. Maybe leave that to others. God works in us and others by the Spirit, but works in a unique way through each of us—to further the common good.

And obviously it doesn’t stop at the door of the church. We take these Spirit-filled and Spirit-given gifts out with us, to live moral lives, and to use our various gifts to further the common good of society. And there is even a word for that—the common good of society—most often called the commonwealth. Yes, it’s also the name of an organization headed by our glorious queen, but it’s primarily an idea, defined as “a nation, state, or other political unit...founded on law and united by...tacit agreement of the people for the common good.”* It’s also a state where “supreme authority is vested in the people” and while sounding a little like Monty Python, it simply means we have a vote that matters.

So this commonwealth, the common good of society, is an idea that should inform every aspect of our lives. Equal treatment under the law, equal access to the “goods” we share, like health care and education, government services and so on. Plus, there is an element of responsibility implied too, paying our fair share of taxes, serving on a jury, making sure that others receive equal treatment and an equal share. It’s not political in the sense that it belongs to the left or the right—it’s foundational, the commonwealth we enjoy together.

Until it’s not. When voices enter the conversation that reject the idea that we have a responsibility for the well-being of others, the commonwealth begins to fray. When some are “more equal” under the law, or even believe that the law doesn’t apply to them, the commonwealth begins to fray. When some suggest that the “goods” we enjoy cannot be shared equally—based on the state of the economy or the status of an individual, then the commonwealth begins to fray. The commonwealth, like democracy, is an idea, and always more fragile than we assume.

The good news is that moral theology doesn’t belong to the church alone. And while people beyond the church might simply call it “ethics” or “values” or even “civics,” it’s still moral theology, and it still comes with a few, simple principles—that followed correctly—can further the commonwealth of all peoples.

Do no harm
Pursue the common good
Treat others as you wish to be treated
Develop a moral character

Further, we believe that wherever people are applying these principles, God is there. Wherever people seek equity, fairness, compassion, God is there. And wherever the gifts of the Spirit appear, in whatever form, God is already there. We don’t need to reinvent the commonwealth, the common good of society, we need to look for it in the people we meet. Paul said it best: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Amen.



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