Of all the churches that St. Paul had to deal with, and there were a lot of them, apparently he had the most trouble with a little church that he had founded himself in the Greek port city of Corinth. Now Corinth was a pretty wild and woolly place in the first century. We all know about the reputations of cities that are seaports. Corinth had two ports in one city; there were always sailors on shore leave in Corinth. It had a reputation of being a wild city. Paul had founded a church there and he went on to establish other churches and he was constantly getting messages from the folks at Corinth about the troubles they were having internally in the church. They apparently had problems with internal jealousies, factionalism, choosing up sides and, we're for this and we're for that, and there were conflicts, rivalries, all kinds of things like that among them.
In the correspondence that we have come to call Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth (we don't really know if it was the first one, it's just the first one we have), he uses a famous and important metaphor for the church. As you heard and know, Paul said the church is "the body of Christ" and he compared the church with the human body that has hands and feet, eyes and nose and ears. He said each of the limbs and organs is unique, different and necessary. It would be insane for a hand to say to the foot: "I don't need you." Or for an eye to say to an ear: "I don't need you." It would be crazy. In the same fashion Paul suggested to these warring, fighting divided groups in the Corinthian church we need each other. We're part of one unified whole and the differences and the diversities are part of the strength that makes the body work.
Now that famous and important metaphor has been preached about endlessly. It's been very much a part of our understanding of the church for two thousand years now. Quite frankly I want to take that metaphor and change it, transform it, really to use a similar and parallel metaphor but a different one. If Paul could talk about the hands and feet and eyes and ears and the body of Christ, we might make the same basic point by talking about the church building. The church building needs a roof, floor, side walls, windows, equipment and furnishings. It would be a funny church if everything was just roof. It would be a strange church if everything was piano. We need the diversity in the building in the same way we talk about it in the physical body.
I had a professor that used to reflect on the building image. He was much interested particularly in nails. He was a collector of nails and he would remind classes that just as there had to be a roof, floor, walls and windows, a building requires a whole lot of different kinds of nails: big spikes down in the foundation, little finish nails, roofing nails, but mostly he would say, more than anything else, a building needs common nails. And then he would say our Lord was a carpenter and it is the job of the Christian to be a common nail used by the carpenter. I'll always remember how he said that and then he would go off on a kind of soliloquy about nails and how we should be like nails and I want to share some of that with you today.
One of the things he said about nails is that nails have to have a head. Evan a little finish nail, which has hardly a head at all, has a bit of a head on it. Nails wouldn't be much good without a head and my professor would say neither are Christians much good if they don't have a brain, if they don't have a head or if they don't use it. One of the great weaknesses, I think, in the church of Jesus Christ in North America at least (I don't know about the rest of the world) is that most congregations are made up of adults many of whom have an arrested education in the matters of the faith. Sunday School ended at second grade, fifth grade, eighth grade or twelfth grade. While in other areas of our life we are always learning, at work, in our recreational pursuits, in everything you can think of, we're always learning, but we have an arrested learning pattern when it comes to the things of the faith. I want to ask you: "How long has it been since you've been engaged in serious, disciplined study of the Bible, of the history of the church, of the doctrines of the church, of the sacraments like Baptism that we just participated in? How long has it been?
We have a kind of strange relativism about religion. Maybe it's based on something good but we tend in our culture to say: Well, I believe in God and I pray and what more can you ask? That may be based on a good and healthy respect for religious differences and I want to celebrate and affirm the respect of religious differences. I'm not knocking that; what I am saying is that sometimes we become so casual about matters of faith that we say, well, this immature faith is just as good as this mature faith and that's not so! That's not so. Nails need a head, they need a brain. Whether it's in Sunday morning Sunday School, whether it's a weekday Disciple Bible class or whether it's some other environment of disciplined learning, we are less useful to the carpenter if we're not learning; if we don't have a head.
Then my old professor would hold up a nail, he liked a big old spike when he was giving this program, he'd say not only does a nail have to have a head, it has to have a point. Then he'd point the big old spike at us and say: "What's the point of your life?" It's a good question. What is the point of your life? What is that sharpened piece of your existence that guides everything else as it goes in? What is that part of your life that is the center around which everything else is organized?
Jesus, according to St. Luke's Gospel, began his ministry by going to the synagogue in Nazareth where he had grown up and he was asked to read the lesson. He opened the scroll and he read from Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed." He rolled back up the scroll and set it down and said to the gathered congregation: "Today in your hearing this prophecy is fulfilled." His life had a point; it had a central, organizing faith and mission.
Our lives, individually and collectively, if they're going to be useful, have got to have a point. I hope for you and for me, if we are blessed with a long, long life span, if at some point near the end of our life span when we are sitting in our proverbial rocking chairs on our proverbial porches, that we can sit and rock and look back on the years and decades of our lives and say somehow it all held together. There was something about it that had cohesiveness and a purpose, and had a point to it. Because our Lord is a carpenter and he needs lots of nails.
My old professor would go on and he would say that nails are driven into place by a power greater than themselves. Anyone ever seen a nail drive itself? He said we are put into our places. Now, as a United Methodist pastor in itinerant ministry, I understand something about what that means. If you would have asked me a year ago where I would be preaching today, I wouldn't have said here; but we have bishops in this church and some of us are driven into place by a power greater than ourselves. But that ought not to be just the fun of preachers. Everyone of us, everyone of us, I would hope, would come to feel that our work, our civic activities, our neighborhood involvement and every place we find ourselves, somehow or other, God has placed us in that place for a purpose. We were driven into a place by a power much greater than ourselves; it wasn't just our selfinterest, it wasn't just our inclination, but God put us there, at that place of work, in that home, in that neighborhood, in that civic organization, for a reason. We belong there as I believe I belong here. We are put into place by a power greater than ourselves.
Finally, my old teacher would say that the purpose of a nail is to hold things together. Haven't there been times in your life when it's your faith and only your faith that holds you together? As nails in the hands of the carpenter, Christ, our task is to hold things together; families, communities and, my word, the world we live in divided along race, nation, economics, religion. Part of our task as Christians is to be a nail or to be glue to hold things together, to keep the world, to keep our neighborhoods from flying apart, to bring that sense of justice and fairness into life so that we don't disintegrate.
Our Lord is a carpenter and carpenters need a lot of nails. The nails have a head and they have a point and they are driven into place by a power greater than themselves and they hold things together. My old professor would say all that and we'd be a little overwhelmed with the dimensions of the task. We'd say we can't do all that. He'd smile and say we serve a God who was able to take a shepherd boy, named David, and make him a king; we serve a God who could take an obscure carpenter from Nazareth and make him the Messiah. Surely, such a God can make nails out of us. Our Lord is a carpenter, always building. Will we be the nails that he can use in his hands?
Dr. Carl L. Schenck
Manchester United Methodist Church
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