As we continue on through our exploration of our Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, we are still working through some of the practical applications of the things that he started off with. In the first part of the letter he laid the foundations of what he was writing to them. Everything he writes in this letter is about being in Christ, about being united, about living in the light of the cross, having been filled with the Holy Spirit.
Back in chapter 6 we saw how the fact that our physical bodies are in Christ, and the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our physical bodies, should affect what we do with our bodies, and how we live our lives. Paul used this teaching to counter one of the significant issues that the young Christians in Corinth were facing – how to live the holy lives that were consistent with the holiness that they had been given in Christ, and how to live well within the freedom that they had been given in Christ. This was especially challenge in the immoral and libertine culture of Corinth at the time.
Last week, as we looked at the first half of chapter 12, we started looking at Paul’s understanding of how the Holy Spirit works, and particularly with regard to the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the church. We’ve seen all the way through, from the very first chapter that another significant problem that the Corinthian church was struggling with was one of unity. There were divisions over all kinds of things – which apostle people followed, what nationality they were, what religion they had had previously. And, reading between the lines, one of the things that was dividing them was, ironically, one of the things that should have been uniting them – the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Last week Paul began to address this as he taught about the way in which the Holy Spirit is the one who enables people to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and as he insisted that the manifestation of the Spirit is for the common good, and that, despite the wide variety of gifts, each of which, as Martin said, could take up its own sermon, there is only one Spirit – who gives them all.
In the second half of chapter 12, Paul returns to his body metaphor to emphasise this teaching. Again his basic starting point is that we are all part of the body of Christ. We have been baptised in the one Spirit, into the one body. We are all part of the body of Christ. Now, however he is interested in the implications of that for our unity in diversity.
There are two sides to this. The first is seen in verses 15-20, and the second in verses 21-26. The first is to do with the temptation to count ourselves out, and the second is do with the temptation to count others out.
Imagine your foot for a moment. Imagine your foot looking at your hand and thinking, wow, I wish I had an opposable thumb. I’d be able to pick things up really easily. I wish I was nimble and flexible, I could twist and turn all over the place. I wish I had that sensitivity of touch, I could caress and hold somebody else’s hand. But I can’t do anything of those things, I’m stuck all day in socks and shoes. I’m not nearly good enough to be part of the body, I don’t really belong.
Now imagine your ear for a moment. Imagine your ear looking at your eye and thinking, wow, I wish I had those long, beautiful eye lashes, not these silly sticky our ear hairs. I wish I could well up with emotion, and transmit the joy of smiling eyes. I wish I could see and transmit the light and colours of the world to the rest of the body. But I can’t do any of those things, stuck here on the side of the head. I’m not nearly good enough to be part of the body, I don’t really belong.
Would any of those imaginings prevent the foot or the ear being a part of the body? No, says Paul, of course they wouldn’t. And even if they could leave the body, it would be a disaster, because then the body would be bereft of its ability to walk and to hear. It’s ridiculous when we think about it like this, but it seems to me that it is a trap that we still fall into in our church life.
We are who we are, with the natural gifts that God created in us and the supernatural gifts that the Holy Spirit gives us. If we’re an ear, we’re an ear. We’re not to be jealous of each other, or to play comparison games. There is a place for honing our gifts, for working out our faith, for growing deeper in our discipleship, but if we are in Christ then we are part of his body. We belong, whether or not we feel like it, and if we keep on behaving as if we don’t, and refusing to use our gifts, then we run the risk of robbing the church of faculties that it needs.
But, what about the person who does belong, Jesus says so, but is made to feel by other members of the body that they don’t belong.
In the next section Paul has some pointed words for those who have got too big for their boots, and are falling into spiritual pride.
Imagine for a moment your eye. It’s very pleased with itself. It brings all this information into the body about what’s around, it can distinguish colours and shades. It provides the key input for the guidance system for other parts of the body. It communicates so much. It keeps itself nice and clean with its inbuilt washing mechanism. Those hands though. They keep wanting to do things, get dirty, spread muck around. Sometimes even stick those mucky fingers in the eye, who knows where they’ve been? Your eye knows – it’s been watching. So your eye decides that it could do without these mucky, over active extremities – I don’t need you it says. Which is fine, until your contact lenses need changing, or you get an eyelash in your eye.
Again, it is ridiculous when we think of it like this. And actually, how much more ridiculous it is in the church, the body of Christ. For three reasons. Firstly the gifts that we have -both natural and supernatural are exactly that – gifts. We have not earned them or deserved them, we have been given them – not because of, or through, our own merit, but because of the outrageous and undeserved grace and generosity of God. Secondly because the gifts that other people have been given have been given them by God, for God’s sovereign purpose – who are we to look down on them, or make them feel like they don’t belong when God has equipped them for the work that God has prepared for them to do. Thirdly God has put us together in one body, in one Spirit, in Christ. Who are we to say that they don’t belong, or make them feel like they don’t belong when God clearly says that they do.
So, in summary. We are not to make other people like they don’t belong when God says that they do, and we are not to say that we don’t belong when God says that we do. We are one body, Christ’s body, inhabited and gifted by the Holy Spirit.
As Paul says, “you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it.”
All the way through this metaphor Paul has been balancing the ideas of unity and diversity. Our unity as one body is enriched by our diversity as different parts. Our diversity as different parts is strengthened by our unity as one body. Unity doesn’t mean we’re all the same, and diversity doesn’t mean that we can all go our separate ways. Unity and diversity.
In this last section of this evening’s passage, Paul returns to some examples of this diversity. He talks about apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of helping, healing guidance and tongues. But, there is something else here. There is no getting around the fact that Paul does appear to be ranking them. He talks about first, second, and third. At the end he tells his readers to eagerly desire the greater gifts, which implies to me that some gifts are, in some sense, greater than others. This has already been hinted at earlier on when Paul talks about weaker parts of the body being treated with special honour. So what’s going on here? How do we understand this with relation to the earlier stuff about one part of the body not being able to say that it doesn’t need any other part of the body?
Well, it seems to me that what Paul is teaching is that there is a difference in the gifts. Some are greater than others, and we are to ask God for the greater gifts. But, we have to get our motivation straight. If we want a greater gift because we think it will make us more important, or to bolster our self-image then we are asking from wrong motives. All Christians have already received the greatest gifts – forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and a place in the body of Christ, alive in him for ever. That is who we are – that is our identity and our assurance.
If you have the greater gifts then use them, hone them, put them at the disposal of the body, and don’t look down on others who don’t have the same gifts – they are not less than you, they are part of your body. If you have the lesser gifts, then be grateful for them, use them with grace and humility, you are no less a part of the body and, yes, eagerly desire the greater gifts so that you can serve and build up that body, because it is the body of Christ.