We continue our reading from the letter of Paul to the Corinthians. We started, a few weeks ago, with the reading of chapter 12 and Pauls concerns regarding the communion practices in Corinth. Which was then contrasted with the image of a Church where different people, like different members of a body, give shape to the gospel in their own, unique and particular way. Complementing each other and contributing each in their own special way to the whole of Gods love taking shape, through them, in the world. Followed in chapter 13, by an extraordinary, passionate and profound poem about love.
At its best Paul says, the community of Christ, is a living organism where all the different parts are well attuned to each other and breathing love into the world through its every move, thought and action.
After the passionate and ecstatic poetry of chapter 13, Paul returns, in chapter 14 once again to the challenges of day to day of community living. Although speaking in tongues and prophesy are of course activities in which the passionate and ecstatic Paul talked about in chapter 13 seeks a way to express it self and have everything to do with what Paul wrote about in chapter 13.
You may have wondered, when Anne read it this morning, what this part of Pauls letter could possibly have to do with us, here in Toorak. Speaking in tongues is not something many of us engage in on a regular basis and I expect that prophesying is not a means of communication we would consider ourselves to be too accustomed to either.
Speaking in tongues is something we associate with other groups in the larger Christian community, but not with us, level headed, sensible congregation we consider ourselves to be. And prophesy? Most of us will probably agree that we should, as a Church, be something of a prophetic presence in the world, but prefer this to be not too inconvenient or controversial and will probably consider ourselves to be too fluent in the art of prophesying.
This is quite in contrast with the Church Paul seems to be addressing in his letter. Tongues galore, with Paul telling the Corinthians in verse 17 that he thanks God for the fact he speaks in tongues more than all of them can together. While prophesy seems to be a self evident and natural part of congregational life, practiced by all and encouraged by Paul for them to get involved in even more.
Speaking in tongues and other expressions of religious ecstasy were widely accepted as an expression of a deep and passionate spirituality in the ancient world. It was considered a sign of someone being in direct communication with the gods, of a total surrender of self to the beyond words and was as such valued, respected and regarded with some awe.
We dont know if what happened in the Christian congregations then looked and sounded anywhere near the same as what happens in some churches today but it is sure to have involved religious ecstasy, and the uttering of incomprehensible sound. And Paul tells us he was a champion at it!
Do you ever feel you are so close to the divine that words become unstuck and normal communication becomes totally inadequate as a way of expressing what you experience? My guess is that most of us wont very often and may even be embarrassed to admit to it if we were.
Being incomprehensible because we speak in tongues is not a problem that is very big in this congregation.
However: what about us being incomprehensible in our faith utterances to outsiders? Reflecting on the text it suddenly struck me that we, as a Church, in trying to avoid what Paul warns against in chapter 14, may effectively have ended up in the very place we tried to stay away from, but in another way.
Havent we for many outside the Church become a community that is turned into itself, using a language which can and will only be understood by a few initiates and is utterly incomprehensible to others? Effectively losing the ability to proclaim Gods truth prophetically and engage with the world outside in the process?
Dont speak in a way that is incomprehensible to others says Paul, however pious it may seem to sound, if it only serves your own feel good factors it is of no use. Clear communication is needed, that will build community and fruitfully engages with people outside, proclaiming Gods love and Gods truth to the world.
Proclaiming Gods love and Gods truth to the world in essence what prophesy, for Paul would have meant. And not, what some of us might associate it with, have anything to do with the telling of future fortunes.
Not for your own benefit, but for the building up of the community, says Paul. Whatever you do. Not for your own satisfaction, your own piety, your own comfort, status or pride, but to confront Gods world with Gods love and Gods truth prophetically.
To be a community that in every word, deed and thought clearly and unequivocally communicates the truth and aim of Gods love in the world, living it out, spreading it round, making it grow, inside and out. That is what you are called to do, thats what God created the Church for.
On this "great Sunday of sharing" where the Uniting Church celebrates the multicultural, multi ethnic identity she has developed over the last 30 years, communication, the speaking in different tongues, not only in the sense of different languages, but also and even more importantly in the sense of finding ways of mutual understanding across boundaries of race and culture calls for our careful attention and consideration. There are deep divisions, differences in background and practice that need a lot of hard work and skilled and talented communication from all sides to be bridged for us to be able to function as one, well attuned body where our differences are seen to complement each other and where our diversity becomes in itself a gospel of Gods love for all people.
In a multi cultural Church and a multi faith society we will have to learn to speak other "languages" and become familiar with each others "tongues" to be able to prophesy and share the truth of Gods love with this world and to bring justice, peace, and love regardless of race, creed or gender. Uttering not what will sound to those outside our own little circle as incomprehensible and harmless Church babble, but proclaiming clearly the solid truth of Gods call for a different world and another order. Finding each other in that deepest and most basic of truths: That God loves the world and calls for us to become hands and feet through which that love will find its way into the world.
Communicating, through word and deed, in thought and action the practice of a world and an order informed and called forth from a table where the presence of God becomes incarnate in community and calls its participants to become his hands and feet, his heart and soul, his presence and power in this world, in love. Amen.