"For the Common Good"

2 Epiphany.C.19
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

In the year 50 of the Common Era, St. Paul wrote a letter to the Church at Corinth. That particular letter is now lost to us; however, we know that it raised many questions, which is what the letter, known to us as First Corinthians, was written to address. What it comes down to is this: The Church at Corinth was a mess. The church was divided—economically and socially. Corinthians suffered from intellectual arrogance on the one hand, and immorality on the other. They fought, they argued, they took sides. Hmm. Considering what is happening in our country at the moment, it seems to be all too familiar story. So, to all those who say that the Bible is a book of antiquity bearing little resemblance to our modern sensibilities. I suggest they read it again.

In our lesson this morning Paul takes up the topic of spiritual gifts; and this is what he says: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

What, exactly, is “the common good”? The idea didn’t originate with Paul, but much earlier, in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. More recently, the ethicist John Rawls defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage.” In other words, the common good consists of having social systems, institutions (including churches) and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people—not just a few. So, libraries, public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, an unpolluted environment—these are things we most likely all agree are for the common good.

Here is what St. Paul would tell us. The common good does not just happen; it is the direct result of an intentional way of life, based upon a spirit of cooperation—cooperation with God, and with one another. Achieving the common good is dependent upon the People of God laying aside smaller differences for the good of the whole. Sacrifice is essential if we are to achieve anything resembling the common good. Think of it this way; the common good is antithetical to rampant individualism or partisanship, which demands that the majority of resources be kept for oneself. The common good helps us see that we are more the people God intends for us to be when we recognize that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

This weekend our country remembers the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I think Dr. King would agree that no great advancement of social justice has been achieved solely by one person. In truth, advances such as these are the result of many people, some, like Dr. King, have given their lives, others their time and still more their resources, to work for the common good.

In an age of parochialism, it’s worth considering the following response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. When the dust settled, four little girls who had come to Sunday school that morning had been killed. Many more were injured and much of the church was damaged. Word of the tragedy spread around the world, and in Cardiff, Wales, a continent away, the people responded. In fact, you can see their response for yourself on the front of your bulletin.

Here is what they did: A Welsh artist, John Petts, offered his services to create a window for the church and a local newspaper editor launched a campaign to raise money for the venture. The maximum donation was half a crown, so that the window would come from the people of Wales and not just a few well-heeled individuals.

The project took two years. At its conclusion Petts delivered his gift from the people of his country to the church. If you go to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church today and stand at the pulpit, and look at the back wall of the sanctuary, you will see this stained-glass window. It’s huge. It dominates the entire church. As the light filters through the colored glass it touches those who worship there. A rainbow surrounds a huge black Jesus with his arms outstretched. His right hand pushes away hatred and injustice, his left hand holds out forgiveness. This gift came from thousands of people in a country that many in the congregation in Birmingham had barely heard of. People who shared their pain, their sorrow, their hope for a better tomorrow, and were committed to assisting them in rebuilding their house of worship. The people of Wales, they understood that in some fashion, they were connected to others; to people of a different continent, in a separate country, who were suffering the ravages of prejudice and contempt. They did not wipe their hands clean. They did not reason that since there were those suffering in Wales, they had no responsibility to attend to the needs of others. They responded; and they did so with grace and compassion. They are builders of the common good.

This morning we have the joyous task of welcoming another Christian into the family of God: Oliver LaPointe. Now, Oliver is young—he has a lifetime to live into his calling as a follower of Christ. However, I hope his parents and Godparents continue to remind him in the coming years—that the date of his baptism was on a morning in which both our country and our church remembered the importance of working for social justice and the common good.

In fact, if you listen closely, you will discover that within the Baptismal Covenant, two of the vows we make to God are of central importance to this theme: The first question is: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And the second is: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every person? In other words, will you, Oliver (and the people of God), labor in your life to work for the common good of all people, the world over? Will you endeavor to look beyond yourself to the needs not only of your family, but also your country and your world? Will you give of your gifts—the talents God has lavished upon you, the resources with which you have been blessed and the time you have been given, to make the world a more joyous, prosperous and faithful place—not just for yourself, but for the common good? Perhaps we, like the people of Corinth, who preserved the words of St. Paul for successive generations will find it within ourselves to respond to the promises of our Baptism, not only in word, but with full heart and strength of deed: “We will, with God’s help.” In Jesus name. Amen.

“The Common Good” by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, SJ & Michael Meyer by Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University August 2, 2014