Ubuntu and the Body of Christ

       Lost amidst tornado relief and the Christmas holiday was the news that Anglicanism lost one of its brightest lights.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and architect of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission died after a lengthy illness on December 26.  I had the distinct pleasure to hear Archbishop Tutu speak twice back in the mid-two thousands; once at Virginia Seminary and later when he preached the ordination of Nathan Baxter as the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania.  Desmond Tutu was not a large man, but his presence was imposing.  His voice was small.  His laughter was infectious.  And he spoke with the gravity of the very word of God.  You could sense the depth of his relationship with Jesus.  You knew you were in the presence of holiness.  

       One of the many gifts Archbishop Tutu has left the world is the proliferation of the Bantu concept of Ubuntu.  Ubutnu is the ancient African spiritual understanding that humanity was created to be one with our Creator, one another, and all of creation.[1] Roughly translated from Zulu, Ubuntu means “I am because we are.”  Archbishop Tutu believed that Ubuntu is the essence of being human.  “I can’t be a human being on my lonesome,” he once said, “I wouldn’t know how to speak as a human being; I wouldn’t know how to think as a human being; I wouldn’t know how to walk as a human being.  I have to learn from other human beings how to be human.  And so, Ubuntu says, ‘my humanity is tied up in yours.  I am only because you are.’  A person is a person only through other persons.”[2]  For Archbishop Tutu, this understanding of our interconnectedness was also essential to the Christian faith.

       I’ve carried Ubuntu with me for nearly two decades now, and while I don’t always live up to its ideal, I’m grateful for the role it plays in my own walk as a disciple of Jesus.  Even our own Book of Common Prayer unwittingly draws on Ubuntu when it describes the mission of the Church as restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.[3]  We were created to be in relationship with God and with one another, and sin happens when any relationship is broken.  Salvation comes when we live most fully into the understanding that “I am because we are” and that I am only fully human when I acknowledge the full humanity of others.

Ubuntu might run up against our modern, western, self-reliance and rugged American individualism, but it is not without scriptural merit.  One could argue that the entire text of First Corinthians is Paul helping the Church in Corinth see that following Jesus means respecting the dignity of all your neighbors, whether they are rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, wise or foolish.  In the lesson we heard read this morning, we hear Paul addressing the issue of spiritual gifts.  Context tells us that some were puffing themselves up because of the gifts they had while treating others as less than because of their gifts.  Paul is quick to remind the Corinthians that the only gift that really matters is the ability to say, “Jesus is Lord,” and even that comes not from our own ability, but from the Holy Spirit.

Beyond that, Paul says, whatever other gifts one might receive weren’t given because of some sort of merit or special blessing, but rather they are given, in all their glorious diversity, for the “common good.”  That’s how most mid-twentieth century English Bibles translate sympheron here in verse seven, but elsewhere in Scripture it is translated as “bringing together” (Acts 19:19) or “beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  The “common good” isn’t just for one congregation, diocese, or denomination.  The “common good” that all our giftedness is meant to work toward is Ubuntu, the coming together of all of humanity with God, each other, and creation.

Take, for example, the experience of Bowling Green since December 11th.  In the immediate aftermath, the gifts of a large organization like Living Hope Baptist Church were needed to coordinate the very urgent need to remove trees, pile up debris, and distribute critical supplies.  In the days the followed, needs shifted, and the gift of nationwide connections in denominations like the Disciples of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA brought in volunteers to spell local folks who had their own grief to contend with.  Now, as FEMA trucks roll through the community from dawn ‘til dusk, our connections and the ability to raise funds from around the country are needed to help fill the gaps and lift up those who might fall through the cracks.  Each community of faith has individual members who are gifted.  Each community of faith also has its own level of giftedness.  Together, we have worked for the benefit of a community in pain and grief.

Even so, the “common good” isn’t only for one community dealing with two years of pandemic and four winter tornados in less than two weeks.  The common good to which God calls us all is for all of creation.  The common good toward which we are invited to work alongside God is ultimately the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  It is a place where relationships are no longer broken by selfish ambition.  It is a place where every human being is treated with the respect they deserve; rich and poor alike share in the abundance of God’s created order; and the earth itself is seen as a gift from God worthy of care.  The “common good” is the place where Jesus Christ is, as we prayed for in today’s Collect, “known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth,” not out of fear of some everlasting damnation, but because the radiance of Christ’s glory is seen in disciples of Jesus using their wildly diverse gifts for the building up of all of humanity.

In baptism, every Christian receives gifts from the Holy Spirit that are meant to be shared far and wide.  As Christian educator Debie Thomas wrote this week, “My ability to teach, preach, serve, love, pray, sing, hope, trust, write, nurture, or heal is not given to me for my personal [enjoyment.]  It is given solely for the common edification, growth, and blessing of the church.  To hoard a spiritual gift is to desecrate it.  To practice a Lone Ranger Christianity is to fundamentally misunderstand and distort the purpose of God’s generosity.  I receive for the sake of others.  Which is to say, God apportions spiritual gifts based on the needs of the community as a whole — not on my “personal” needs.  My gifts carry you, and your gifts carry me.  It is God’s intention that we rely on each other.  That we need each other.”[4]

Each of us is a human only because of other humans.  Each of us is a Christian only because of other Christians.  Each of us has gifts to help build up humanity and the Body of Christ only because of the richness of God’s grace and God’s deep desire to see all of creation reconciled to one another.  May God give us the ability to see in one another, the glorious diversity of our gifts.  May God give us the eyes to see in ourselves the gifts we have to share.  And may God bless us with a spirit of Ubuntu and bring us to the “common good” of all of creation through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] “Ubuntu: A Brief Description” The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg49mvZ2V5U

[2] “Ubuntu: The Essence of Being Human” The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44xbZ8MN1uk

[3] BCP, 854.

[4] “Many Gifts, One Spirit” by Debie Thomas (emphasis, original) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3292-many-gifts-one-spirit

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