It was New Year’s Day 1977 in Alexandria, Indiana — a small town about 45 miles northeast of Indianapolis. That day, Mike Carmichael took a baseball, handed it to his three-year-old son, and let him paint it. They had some blue house paint lying around, so that’s what they used.
And then they painted it again. And again. And again. They didn’t stick to just blue. They used a whole rainbow of different colors. And with each layer, the ball would get just slightly bigger. Carmichael and his son would paint the ball multiple times a day, dipping it into a can of paint, letting it dry, and then doing it all again.
In an interview, Carmichael said that his intention was to get maybe 1,000 coats on the ball, and then he had plans to cut it in half and see what it looked like. But his family encouraged him to just keep painting it instead, so he did. And he invited them — his family — to help paint it, too. Soon friends would show up to offer their own coats of paint. And then word got out, and strangers started stopping by to add their own colors. Coat after coat after coat.
It’s been 45 years now since that first coat of paint, and what once was just a baseball is now a roadside attraction in Alexandria. The ball has accumulated over 27,000 layers of paint and now weighs two-and-a-half tons. It’s gotten so big that Mike Carmichael had to build the ball its own little house on his property. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records has given it the distinction of “The World’s Largest Ball of Paint,” though it doesn’t much look like a ball anymore because of gravity. It’s more oblong than spherical.
Mike and his son are still adding their own layers of paint to the ball, but most of the painting is now done by the visitors who stop by to see this roadside attraction for themselves — each one adding their own color, their own coat, their own artistic flair.
Next time you’re in Indiana, you’re going to have to stop by.
But I love this. I love how something so simple — like dipping a baseball in a can of paint — can turn into a whole thing. I love the steadfast persistence of it. The enduring spirit of the thing. 45 years and coat by coat, this thing is still going strong. There’s nothing fancy about it. It’s a little weird. It’s a classic roadside attraction.
But I also love the way that the Carmichaels have been so chill about letting visitors add their own layers of paint. Instead of saying, “No, this is ours. We have an artistic vision, and it has to be this way,” the Carmichaels have embraced the visitors and encouraged them to add to it. You’re handed a roller when you walk in, given some paint to choose from, and then, when you leave, they’ll give you a certificate as if to say, “I left my mark on the World’s Largest Ball of Paint.”
And all of this brings us to the scripture passage that Sarah read for us today. It’s from the second-to-last chapter in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We’re continuing the journey today that we’ve been on with Paul for the last few weeks during this season of Epiphany. Paul, remember, is one of the earliest Christian missionaries and church planters. He’s one of our earliest theologians, too, and we get a good deal of that in this chapter. One thing that’s important about Paul’s story is that before his conversion to Christianity, Paul is a Jewish zealot. He was hellbent on keeping his Jewish faith pure and sought to kill Christians who, in his mind, were threatening to corrupt it. Stain it. Many people died at his hand, and people feared him. He was brutal.
But then he has this conversion experience in which Jesus appears to him, blinds him for three days, and then with the touch of a man named Ananias, Paul’s eyes are opened, and he basically does a 180, committing his life to Christ and to carrying the good news of the gospel wherever he found himself. It’s a pretty remarkable story, and you can imagine how skeptical some of the earliest followers of Jesus would have been in that aftermath, right?
One minute, Paul’s breathing threats against them, and the next, he’s like, “I’m one of you now!” But there’s this beautiful moment in which a guy named Barnabas vouches for Paul. Comes alongside Paul and advocates for him among the Christian community, and they come to accept him. Between his encounters with Ananias and Barnabas, there are beautiful messages here of who God can use and how we need one another and the importance of advocacy and coming alongside one another — and the power of relationship.
And this is the beginning of Paul basically going all in. He becomes one of the most prolific Christian writers and thinkers and church planters — including this community in Corinth.
Corinth, if you remember from the past few weeks, is a city in Greece. It was a major hub of trade and commerce due to its prime location near ports and central to trade routes. And it was also where there this new community was being formed, fashioned, pressed together — Jewish converts and Gentiles with different backgrounds and customs and beliefs — learning what it means to be in community together. And, just as now, whenever you bring different people together, there’s bound to be some tension, some dissension, and some conflict. And it’s in the midst of this conflict that Paul is writing.
The bottom line is that these fractures, these divisions, these conflicts left unchecked threatened the whole thing. This community nearly came undone. So Paul writes in an attempt to offer clarity, diffuse some tension, remind them where they came from, and help them chart a faithful way forward.
As a quick refresher, here’s where we’ve been the last few weeks. At its core, Paul’s writing about the ways God’s love is made manifest in beloved community. How God is revealed in and through this beautiful ragtag bunch of sinners and saints that the Spirit has brought together.
We began in the twelfth chapter with Paul talking about spiritual gifts — about how every gift comes from God, how the Holy Spirit activates these gifts in us, and for this reason, no gift is more valuable or better than another. It’s not a competition.
Then he wrote about what it means to be part of the body of Christ. He describes how they need one another and how we do, too — and none of us can be fully free and fully whole until we all are.
Last week, Rajeev preached on chapter 13 — Paul’s famous love chapter — and he described how it’s this love that Jesus embodies — a love that is messy and costly and sticky. And then he rickrolled us at the end which was just amazing.
And now the lectionary has brought us to the fifteenth and penultimate chapter, and we’ll hang out here for the next couple of weeks.
This is a theologically dense chapter, but we got this. I mentioned that the church in Corinth is struggling with all kinds of things, and one of them is a theological question about the resurrection — about Jesus being raised from the dead. The church in Corinth is wrestling with questions about whether it actually happened — whether Jesus was actually raised in body and spirit — or, as some argued, whether it was more of a metaphorical resurrection. In other words, it didn’t really happen, but it’s something that we can spiritualize and still learn from. We’ll spend some more time on this conversation and its implications over the next two weeks.
But for today, before we get into the weeds, I want to invite us to step back and take a look at the big picture. But first, though, can we just take a moment and appreciate that Paul is the originator of the humblebrag?
“But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
How ridiculous is this? I mean, you know this guy. You know Paul. Yours may have a different name. “I worked harder than any of them…”
Anyway, there are all these questions festering about the validity and legitimacy of the resurrection. Some argue that it happened, and others are calling it fake news. But Paul is trying to convince them that he’s not making this stuff up — that Jesus was really-for-real raised from the dead in a bodily resurrection. Trouble is, you can’t prove it. We’ve been in the same boat for generations. Paul can’t appeal to scientific evidence. There’s no proof. He can’t even point to reason. Because it’s difficult to make sense of. So what does he do? He leans instead on tradition and witness.
Paul says, essentially, this good news that I am proclaiming to you, well, it didn’t start with me. He writes, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.” And he begins to summarize this good news in an early Christian confession of faith — of Jesus dying for our sins and being raised on the third day. Again, more on this in next couple of weeks.
But then Paul describes how Jesus then appeared to the disciples and then to over 500 more. And then to James and then to all of the apostles. And then, Paul says, he appeared at last to me.
In other words, Paul is offering a lineage of eyewitness accounts. He’s tracing paths of the good news — this good news that Paul has received and now gets to pass on to them. His witness. His story. It’s the Gospel According to Paul.
Thinking back to Barnabas who comes alongside Paul after his conversion and vouches for him among the early Christian community, Paul knows the power of story. The power of testimony. The power of sharing in the context of relationship. You can argue all you want about facts and hypotheticals, but it’s really hard to deny someone’s story — especially if you’re in relationship with them. He knows the power of relationship and story to transform hearts and minds. That’s why Jesus comes to us. That’s what the incarnation is all about.
And so Paul is appealing to these testimonies — these stories — as a way of sharing this good news. He’s channeling his inner LeVar Burton and saying, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”
But what I also love about this is that Paul is basically describing how faith is passed down. How it’s come to you and to me. How it evolves. There’s a good chance you’re here this morning because of what someone handed down to you. You have your own faith lineage.
For me, I think of my priest growing up, another Paul, who was the first to encourage me to think about ministry. I think of Amanda who helped me ask better questions and who really introduced me to Jesus. I think of the writing of Desmond Tutu that opened my heart to equity, justice, grace, and belonging. I think of Jennifer who helped me develop a deep love of scripture.
Maybe for you, someone has offered a nugget, a piece of inspiration, a passage of scripture. Maybe someone embodied a faith you wanted to emulate. Maybe it’s a story that you can’t shake. Whatever it is, you take it, hold it, and run with it. It might change over time while the core remains constant, but it’s yours. You make it your own.
And what’s more, I think the gift in that is that it helps us realize that our faith is a journey. It’s a process. An evolution. You don’t have to have it all figured out. That’s what Paul’s getting at earlier in the passage when he tells the Corinthians that they are being saved. In other words, it’s not a one-and-done, boom-you’ve-punched-your-ticket sort of proposition. It’s a life-long endeavor in which we’re constantly figuring it out. As Paul wrote last week, “We see through a mirror dimly.”
And I think there’s good news here — especially in our performance-driven, achievement-motivated culture. Because it gives us permission to not have it all figured out. If we realize that this whole thing is a process — and we are simply here to receive, lean into, and pass on — then we don’t have to be Bible scholars before cracking the Bible open and sharing an insight. We don’t have to have taken a class on prayer before we pray. You don’t have to have your whole belief system claimed and codified before you show up to a small group or walk through these doors or play music with the team or open your home or serve in mission.
Because what Paul would say is that it’s not you anyway (even if you work harder than everyone else) — it’s not you, but the grace of God that is with you. You simply have to be open to receive.
And this all brings us back to The World’s Largest Ball of Paint.
I learned about the World’s Largest Ball of Paint from John Green’s incredible new book, The Anthropocene Reviewed. Green imagines life — and, I would argue, faith — to be like adding our own coat of paint to the ball.
He writes this:
“…that doesn’t mean that your layer of paint is irrelevant or a failure. You have permanently, if slightly, changed the larger sphere. You’ve made it more beautiful, and more interesting. The world’s largest ball of paint looks nothing like the baseball it used to be, and you’re part of the reason. In the end, that’s what art is for me. You paint the ball, which changes the way someone else thinks about painting the ball, and so on…”
Y’all, God has given you your own paintbrush to take and color this world. You get to build on what others have painted before you, but you, for a season, get to add your own coat. Your own questions. Your own flavor. Your own bits of inspiration. Your own righteous anger and dreams for a more just and more whole world. And as you paint, you’ll become part of someone else’s faith story by God’s grace.
So let’s get to painting.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.