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One Spirit - One Body

A sermon preached by Prebendary John Slater

19 August 2001 11:00 | Fr John Slater

According to the Authorized Version of the Bible, published in 1611, there are 14 letters in the Bible attributed to St Paul. More recent scholarship, however, suggests that only four of these are actually by the same author - who describes himself as a converted persecutor of the Church. These are the Letter to the Romans, the two Letters to the Corinthians and the Letter to the Galatians.

Paul is often castigated as the one who made complicated theology out of the simple Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. But it is hard to imagine what Christianity might be like if we only had the Gospels and no letters. And it is too easy to assume that because the Gospels describe events before Paul's involvement, they must represent an earlier and perhaps simpler form of Christianity. But it is likely that Paul was writing as early as 50AD, while the earliest written Gospel which has come down to us dates from perhaps 68AD. The Gospels were written by Christians who already knew the theology of St Paul. He was the theologian from the Jewish tradition who showed the way to understand that the crucified Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews but also the exalted redeemer of all humanity.

Since I read theology in Cambridge in the late sixties, there have been many changes in the way scholars understand the process by which the documents of the New Testament were written, but from my reading it still seems right to trust the ancient tradition that Mark wrote the earliest of our four Gospels in about 68AD or shortly before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70AD. The tradition also suggests that Mark was the companion - perhaps the secretary - of Peter, and that the Gospel of St Mark represents the memoirs of St Peter who is thought to have been executed in the persecution of Nero in 64AD.

So in today's reading from the First letter of St Paul to the Corinthians we are likely to have some of the very earliest Christian writing and theology. Paul writes about the different gifts which the Holy Spirit gives to different members of the believing community. He mentions wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues.

It is a pity that our reading ended there at verse 11; verse 12 says: For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. And Paul reaches his conclusion in verse 27: Now you are the body of Christ. So the gifts of the Spirit are given to the Church which is the mystical body of Christ. And the gifts are shared out among all the members of the Body. This means that the Body cannot be healthy and fulfill its purpose unless every member of the Body contributes his or her gift to the common purpose.

Paul's great task, as one of the first to express Christian belief and experience in any sort of coherent theology, is not only to explain the significance and the achievement of Jesus Christ, but also to teach Christians about the place they themselves have in the economy of salvation. And here Paul lays the foundation of a dimension of Christian faith and life which has been of inestimable importance down to our own day.

While Christians look to the Lord Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God, by whose life and teaching, death and resurrection, the human race is reconciled to God our creator, this redemption is nor merely something done for us but also something done within us. We are not simply the passive recipients of this wonderful salvation for God has something even more wonderful in store for us. He invites us to share in the work of redemption.

As Paul says, We are the Body of Christ. His physical body, born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, crucified and risen, has been taken into the spiritual realm. His sacramental Body we receive here at the altar Sunday by Sunday and day by day. As we eat the sacramental Body of Christ, so we become members of his mystical Body which is the Church. I will make no apology for using in this my first month at St George's some words I am likely to quote to you again and again. They are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was shot in the last days of the Second World War: the Church is Christ, existing in the world today as community. Yes, we are the mode in which Christ is present in the world today. The Spirit, sharing among us all the gifts needful for building up the Body of Christ, makes Jesus Christ present in our hearts, among us in the community of faith, and through us to the world.
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