January 19, 2014 – Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Epiphany 2  1/19/14 (Isa 49:1-7, John 1:29-42)1 Corinthians 1:1-9  Don’t hang up

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The servant of God is called to be a light to the nations, Isaiah tells us. The first followers of Jesus are called to be apostles, St John tells us. The church in Corinth is called to be saints. Called into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, the apostle tells us. The action word in all our readings today is God calling. We can even summarize – God is calling. It’s for you. Don’t hang up.

Though I doubt any of you are old enough to remember – there was a song, back in antiquity, Don’t hang up – (The Orlons singing an up-tempo kinda-sorta-love-song in which someone’s been seen in a compromising situation – now she’s singing to her lover – Don’t hang up…  oh don’t you do it now… Don’t hang up…)

It’s a rough draft parable I know, but hey… God’s call to humans is a major theme all through scripture. And God knows we humans are often seen by God in spiritually-compromising situations, all the way from the gates of Eden to the present… Yet our gracious God is still always calling us, saying, Don’t hang up.

In our reading from Isaiah today, God calls his servant from the womb… In John’s gospel, Jesus calls a pair of seekers, come and see… (And, they come and see, and begin to recognize the Messiah, the Son of God, and go on to become apostles.)

But it’s only when we get to saint Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth that we hear – all of us believers are called to be saints – or depending on translation, called to be holy. Saint, sanctified, and holy all come from the same root word.) All who claim the name of Jesus are already sanctified (it’s a process, we Methodists believe) and called to be saints – called to be holy, called to have Jesus as the center of our lives.

Called by God, together to be in fellowship with Jesus and one another. Called to be the church, the temple of God, the body of Christ. New names for ourselves we’ll hear, as we read on in First Corinthians, where all manner of messy church stuff is flying in all directions… yet through it all God is always calling us into abundance of grace and peace and love… Don’t hang up.

Paul begins his letter, like all letters of that time, by naming himself as sender, naming the recipients (so they know it’s for them) then comes a greeting, a prayerful kind of blessing and, typical of Paul’s letters, also a hint about the subject of the letter. In this case we hear Paul naming his own calling first.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. Letting us know being an apostle wasn’t Paul’s idea, if we have an issue with it, blame God.

Paul then lets us know our brother Sosthenes is a supporting deputy-letter-writer. (Most of Paul’s letters have co-authors – he’s not a lone ranger.) And this letter is addressed: To the church of God that is in Corinth – to the whole church, not just a few members –

to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints – telling us our calling, like the apostle’s, is not our own idea, it’s from God – together with those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: letting us know this is not a one-way conversation. God calls us – and we call on God. (And–) both their Lord and ours reminds us God’s always God of all people everywhere. What’s written to one church somewhere will nearly always have application everywhere, at least in broad-brush-strokes, even if the specifics of application often differ (sometimes a lot).

Now we get to the blessing that Paul includes a version of in all his letters – Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

And by the time he’s finished saying hello, Paul’s given us the main theme of his letter…

Hello saints. We’ve got a new name. A new calling. A new identity. The word saints means holy, set-apart-from-the-world in new testament dialect. No capital S, no working-of-miracles required to be a saint – only the miracle of faith itself.

Of course, faith is no small miracle, and our calling to be small s saints is no small calling. And this miraculous identity as saints we’re given by Jesus brings us into fellowship with all believers, everywhere. Again no small miracle.

Not that our new identity always appears 100% miraculous all-the-time. Sometimes when we’re trying to listen to God or calling on Jesus, our connection is just not so good. Sometimes we hear other voices on the line who are not God.

A bit like being on an old-fashioned party-line. When I first moved to Vermont, that was the only phone service you could get if you were new in town. Even in the 1980’s there was a wait list for a private phone line.

On a party line sometimes you’d pick up the phone to make a call and find someone else talking… and have to wait till they were done to make your call. Sometimes you’d overhear conversations that were not exactly holy or divine… Other times you might hear stuff that was ok, but obviously wasn’t for you. Sometimes we will experience interference and odd noises on the line when we’re trying to be listening for God… Never mind… Just keep listening and praying. And be in fellowship with one another. Often the spiritual tech-support we need is just a quick phone call away.

And the apostle Paul continues, saying –

I give thanks to my God always for you – because of the grace of God that’s been given you in Christ Jesus – for in every way you have been enriched in him – in speech and knowledge of every kind

Later we’ll hear the Corinthians have some issues connected with speech and knowledge. For now though, we’re just giving thanks that we have those gifts  of speech and knowledge – (even when we don’t know how to use them yet, we still give thanks for God’s gifts) – and the apostle then goes on to say – you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…

God gives grace in abundance… and all the spiritual gifts are given by God to us, the church. Never all to any one person. But all the gifts are indeed given to the whole church. And there’s more to come.  Don’t hang up…

Our letter continues – God is faithful – by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  God will use us to reach many with the love of God… if we’re willing to go deeper, together, into the fellowship of Jesus Christ to which we’re called… And even if we’re not…Still God is always faithful… So our hope never runs dry…

From one simple strand of melody, St Paul builds his letter like a symphony. Repeating his theme, with variations, chorus after chorus. Teaching the basics of God’s call, and appropriate response. Calling us to stay on the line with Jesus and listen well. There’s more to come. Don’t hang up.

Most of the details of the rest of this letter will be instructions in proper use of all the spiritual gifts, all given for God’s glory and for our building-up as God’s people. But at the deepest and simplest levels, this letter’s theme is all about our calling.

We’re called by new names. We’re called into new identities in Christ. We’re first called God’s church – then, a little later, God’s temple. Later still, called the body of Christ. Callings higher even than those once reserved for a few elite prophets and leaders – now given in generous measure to all who believe.

All of us who try to follow Jesus are now called by his name, called into fellowship with him and with each other. Called to be holy, called to be saints. And Jesus will be with us, helping us all the way…           Don’t hang up.

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Martin Luther King Jr, whose birthday we celebrate this week, was a prophet with many spiritual gifts… Perhaps more than anyone in the past century, he called the church back to the inclusivity and gentle justice Jesus and Isaiah talk about… the diversity within unity and the new creation in Christ that Paul preaches and teaches… Martin Luther King Jr had strong gifts of speech and inspired  communication, as did saint Paul, and like the apostle, employed these gifts, often at considerable risk to himself, to reach people within the church, and also many others who never entered a church.

Yet to many Martin’s ministry, often seemed out-of-step and unconnected with the norms of church and culture.

Saint Martin, we now know from biographies, was not always a capital S saint. He had some of the same human frailties as saint King David. But at the same time he was nonetheless a prophet and martyr… And, like all of us, a small s saint.

And none of his ministry would ever have been possible without the church. Dr King was a pastor’s child and a gifted pastor himself. The best biographies record him as paying as much attention to elderly members of his churches as to the demands of his busy public schedule. The church nurtured and helped develop all that was good and holy in Dr King… As also with St Paul, whose letters from prison inspired Rev King’s famous letter from the Birmingham jail…

Some of us may have gifts that seem larger than life, like Martin Luther  King Jr, like St Paul… Most of us have gifts much more modest in scope and application… But nearly all the New Testament letters are addressed to whole churches, not individuals, and for good reason.

Even the most gifted believers don’t have all the gifts… Even the most gifted believers have the same mix of sins and problem behaviors as the rest of us… Even those with the greatest gifts need the church as much as the church needs them…

Only the whole church together has all the gifts… Only the church together has all the chemistry, all the wiring, all the skeletal-muscular structure needed to be spiritually whole. Its only in the environment of the whole church together, that true faith grows, flourishes, bears abundant good fruit and reaches full potential. (Individual faith is essential, yet never enough.) Only in the whole church together can we see what God’s work on earth is really all about.

So once again – dear saints, sisters and brothers in Christ –

God is calling… And yes, the call’s for us.

Don’t hang up.

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