NRSV 1 CORINTHIANS 12:12-31a
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?
30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts.
First, a word about our hosts for this morning’s sojourn into Scripture, the first Christian Church of Corinth:
There were probably a lot of other words to be used about this ancient body of Christ, but that’s the first one that comes to mind for whoever ventures into this long letter. Chaos – disorder – a mess of competing ideologies and ego-driven power games. It is a letter that is so much like the rest of the Bible – at one point stories about something that happened a long time ago that seems so disconnected with our world. But on the other hand it is as contemporary as this morning’s newspaper, or the latest newsflash about how things are going with our government these days.
In this letter Paul is addressing a myriad of concerns. He takes them on, addressing them as the rabbi he is, the teacher he is. You’re doing this, you need to stop it. You praise this person but it is God who gives the growth, so don’t idolize us normal human beings. You’re doing this weird sexual stuff, knock it off. We don’t know the whole story; we don’t have the Corinthians’ take on this, unfortunately, and you can tell only so much about a relationship when you have just one side of the conversation.
But from what we know through Paul, this was a church with a whole lot of things to work on. The main concern, at least considering that Paul wrote more about it than anything else, was the issue of church unity and how this church was all torn up over the use and abuse of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues during worship.
It may sound so ridiculous to us in these days. A bunch of people trashing each other because they go about worship differently. But it’s not so ridiculous, and it’s not so ancient. When I was a student pastor in Jamaica, the youth group of that church in a middle class suburb of Kingston, was all “on fire for the Lord,” as they put it. They had a core group of leaders who had been to a Christian crusade put on by a US American evangelist. That experience so excited them that they were determined to make their church a Spirit-filled congregation. Not a bad goal, it’s just that in their being on fire for the Lord they were more consuming than refining. They had a sit-down with the Session and wanted to know why the elders weren’t showing the gifts of the Spirit, including praying in tongues and everything else. They were still working through all of that when I left, but in the years since I found out that it wasn’t just a Jamaican issue. I have seen that in so many other churches including Presbyterian ones: People who are on fire for the Lord demanding that everyone worship like they do, showing off how they have the Spirit, how they are better than everyone else. They look on themselves as the head of the body, and everyone else as a lesser part.
It would be nice to say that church fights like that are a thing of the past. But you know that is not the case. When our denomination approved the ordination of gays and lesbians, and especially when it permitted the marriage of same-sex couples several years ago, there were those who felt this body of Christ was not for them. Many individuals and churches left, often with great acrimony. I remember one particular church which engaged in several procedural fights on the floor of several Presbytery meetings before exiting. Those fights left many scars.
Among the scars was a cavalier kind of “let the malcontents go” attitude I heard from many who, like me, stayed behind. I thought that was kind of heartless. We need the viewpoints of others, even when we disagree with them. Those who think differently than we do have something to offer us – a new way of looking at something, a different viewpoint, a challenge to our accepted way of thinking. That is every bit as important as finding someone who agrees with us. They help us to grow.
The last week of January used to be set aside as “The Week of Christian Unity.” There were all kinds of services and remembrances celebrating how the church comes together. The fact that we don’t have that week anymore says a lot about how our venture into Christian unity is going – or not going. These days it seems that we emphasize how we are so totally different from everyone else rather than looking at ways that we are alike. It’s a nasty culture: with people loving the President and those who don’t, with those who think a border wall is a dumb idea and those who think it is long overdue. I haven’t met too many people who think that a partial government shutdown is a good thing, but getting past that just sets up all kinds of arguments. Unity seems to be a long way off for us in the church, and equally if not more so for us as a people of this republic.
So what do we do about all of these fights in our religious and socio-political lives? Just say that’s the way it is with us humans, we are always struggling, striving to be on top, to be in control, to prove to the other person what a jerk they are because they can’t see things the way I do? That’s kind of depressing.
Neither is it particularly Biblical. Over and over again God calls on people to live differently than in the ways of ego-centered narcissism that only sees my way and my needs. Always God calls on people to turn around and to walk in God’s ways of love, acceptance and mercy.
Here Paul sets before us what God’s intention is, for the early church at Corinth and for Farmville Presbyterian Church. In the face of all of those fights about spiritual gifts and who has them and who doesn’t, Paul reminds them of some basic things that we all would do well to keep in mind.
First of all, the source of the spiritual gifts is God; not our egos, not our needs, not our smarts. The Creator of the heavens and the earth, the One who took on flesh in Jesus Christ, and the One whose Spirit moves around all of us is the One who gave us these gifts. They are diverse gifts; not everyone has the same talent, gift, blessing, whatever you want to call it. But God is the source. And because God is the source, our attempts to judge other people for whatever gift they have is out of line. We have diverse gifts, but that diversity is a blessing, meant to build up our unity. As we use our diverse gifts, the church is built up. And by extension, as the church is built up, the church can fulfill its calling to be a blessing to the world.
Secondly, the members of the body of Christ need each other. In that wonderful section that tells about the parts of the body Paul uses that image to talk about the body of Christ. This line of thinking was nothing new. Writers of Paul’s time used this image of the body to demonstrate how the Roman Empire was like a body, with the Emperor (Caesar) at the top and everyone underneath in lesser order. A nice, neat hierarchy, meant to control and keep everyone in their place. Paul takes that image and turns it around with one big difference: no one part is more important than another. Every part of the body is equally important, all are valued, all are critical for the good of the whole body.
You might think one part of the body is less important than another, but just remember the time you had a splitting headache in which your whole body hurt; or the time you had a hangnail, and that little thing was driving you nuts; or the time you had a nasty little splinter in your finger, and as much as you tried to ignore it it just wouldn’t let you. Everything works together, and every part supports the whole body, Paul says. Every part of the body is important and every part of the body needs the others.
Also – there is no hierarchy of importance among the gifts God gives. I can write a sermon, but don’t get me anywhere near the boiler. Someone will get hurt. I leave that up to our Property Committee and other folks who, unlike me, know what they are doing down there. Some people are great at organizing a lunch. Can you imagine what we would do without Barbara Smith telling us what to do? Some are great at teaching, some are great at singing, some are great at visiting, some are great at just doing various little things that we need to get done. No one job is more important than another. We are all called, we are all ministers in some way. We are all gifted to be blessing to this church and beyond.
Finally, there is within the fabric of a healthy body the realization that we suffer together and we rejoice together. When one part of the body is doing great, the whole thing is in sync. When one part is down, it seems like the whole thing is down.
Not just a human body. But the body of Christ as well.
But we know all of this, don’t we? We’ve heard it all before, we know how important it is in the church to love each other, take care of each other, stay in touch, listen even when we are ready to throttle someone for being so stupid, so innocent, so gruff. So what?
So what? Because we always need the reminder. It’s a commentary of our time that we do not live in a world where accepting each other’s gifts, lifting up each other as being equally important is the way most people do things. Better to stay competitive. Better to stay on top. Better to stay aloof in your intellectual certainty while others wallow in their morass of nuance.
And yet – the God who created us, the God who calls us is the God who gives these gifts to share, to listen, to grow and to accept each other as having an equally important part of the journey of life and faith. The God we serve is the God of vulnerability. The God who shows up in a normal human life who teaches, heals, suffers, dies. And who is raised again. That is not just the life of Jesus Christ; that’s our life. We are different parts of the body but we all experience life, death and resurrection as we relate to one another, make mistakes, talk too much and listen too little. But through it all God’s Spirit continues to work through us and among us, bringing forth a new creation, one in which the body suffers together and rejoices together.
When we have an ordination and installation of new officers there is a line that comes from this part of the letter to the Corinthians that sums up everything: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” We are all in this together. How we live our lives, how we share our love with each other, how we stay in touch, how we show to the world what the love of Jesus looks like, matters more than being right. How we take care of this special body of which we have been called to be a part matters because we have a message to give to the world – a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of love. Amen.