A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Epiphany 3 ~ 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
This scripture passage is famous for the extended metaphor Paul spins about the foot not being a hand, and the ear not being an eye. It’s really memorable, and it lays out a pretty solid point quite colourfully. A body has many parts, and it functions best when the variety and diversity of the parts are able to be themselves, and not try to be someone or something else. An obvious, and solid sermon. And then, like many, many well-meaning preachers who have followed him (present company definitely included), Paul pushes the metaphor a bit too far and in his enthusiasm he blows it, and seemingly undermines his entire message. Except he doesn’t, actually – it just appears that way because we’re only reading part of the story.
There are four sections to this reading. It begins with 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
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.
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and we were all (given) to drink of one Spirit.
Beautiful, right? Though many – one. One body, not despite our differences but one body including our differences – strengthened and blessed by our differences and variety.
‘Diversity in oneness’ seems like a paradox. And it is. Faith is built on beautiful paradoxes. I’ll use the word One with a series of nouns, and hopefully you’ll see that every one of them is paradoxical because the noun is never just one thing: One church. One faith. One hope. One body. They’re paradoxes.
There are over 25,000 Christian denominations in the world, but we profess one church. There are as many ideas about faith as there are people watching this livestream – times a kajillion – but we profess one faith. And despite there being such divisions within it, we strongly profess one body of Christ. And the thing that holds this giant pile of paradoxes together? One Spirit – dancing like tongues of fire – blowing through us and animating our lives.
On a very profound level we are one. And yet on an equally profound level we know that we are also different. Can we be one and different at the same time? Absolutely! Can we be united and at odds at the same time? Absolutely. Life doesn’t make sense any other way.
We are one – body, church, faith, denomination – and yet there are decidedly competing visions for how to move forward. Same thing happens in our governmental elections. I may agree with this or that party and profoundly disagree with a couple of the others, but I honestly have no doubt that every national party sees itself as Canadian – as one country – as one people. But from that oneness there springs profoundly different visions.
Political conflicts, church conflicts, family conflicts, they’re all aspects of these competing visions. And I think the reason we get into trouble is that we tend to focus on our differences instead of on our oneness. When someone gets angry about something in the church it’s usually because their sense of how it should be rubs against someone else’s. How different would church life be – not just here, everywhere – if we began our disagreements like this: “I realize you want the best for the church, and so do I, but it seems we see it in different ways. Can we put our heads together (not butting heads) and try to see it together?” Wouldn’t that be awesome?!
After that unity in diversity section Paul does the hand/foot, ear/eye thing and punctuates it with an admonition saying one part of the body can’t say to another part of the body “I have no need of you!” But think about that for a minute. Why did Paul need to say that? It’s because some parts of his church body in Corinth were doing exactly that – they weren’t celebrating the diversity among them – they were privileging some members and disparaging others. I’ll tell you the reason why in a minute. (Oh, the suspense! – All right, I’ll tell you a bit now.)
They were in the middle of a church fight because they were all feeling inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit was bringing forth spiritual gifts in the people, and they were competing over whose gift was more important and more holy. It seems so ridiculous to us to hear that – but it happens all the time – competing interests, competing passions, desperately needing the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s answer to the Corinthians was that there is only one body of Christ and they were all part of it. It makes no sense for a hand to go to war against a foot – the only thing the body does then is end up hurting itself. We are one. One body. One church. One in Christ. But like that great metaphor story about the elephant (you know, with the blindfolded people who only touch one part of the elephant and come away with completely different impressions about what the thing was), we might only see one part of the whole – we need each other to get a fuller picture.
In the third section Paul makes the case that those parts of the body (whether our human bodies or the body of Christ) that for whatever reason might be seen as ‘lesser’ or ‘not as valuable’ are actually in many ways more necessary than we perceive. And he reminds us – 1 Corinthians 12:26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Ok, still lovely, but nothing really ground-breaking yet. I mean, it’s essentially an “if everyone is sacred then you really must treat everyone as sacred” thing. Let’s see if section four brings an aha, an epiphany. It’s finally time for Paul to bring his metaphor in for a landing! For anyone who may have missed it he draws the straight line between his ‘body’ metaphor and the congregation.
1 Corinthians 12:27 Now YOU are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
And then it all seems to go off the rails. Paul suddenly starts to create a list of gifts – and he ranks them in a hierarchy!
What the what?
Verses 28-30 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.
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?
Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?
And then he drops the bomb: v.31 But strive for the greater gifts.
Just last week – which in this letter means just a few verses before this part – Paul went out of his way to say that spiritual giftedness is a blessing of love from God, and that we don’t get to choose. And here, a few verses later, he says we ought to “strive” for gifts (which sounds like choosing) and that apparently some gifts are better than others. Yikes! He’s not making my job easy here!
There’s actually a good explanation. The church fight that the Corinthians were having that I alluded to was about privileging those who speak in tongues. They were seeing it as a sign of advanced personal spirituality – because inspired prayerful utterances that express what regular language cannot express appears pretty impressive! Paul needed to nip this in the bud – so he did a classic Jesus-y thing – he subverted and upended their understanding to help them grasp the bigger idea. So Paul’s ranking of spiritual gifts here is undermining their sense of hierarchy, because he puts ‘tongues’ last. He’s trying to get the Corinthians to stop mucking about ‘lower’ things like who has the best ‘tongue’ and focus more on loving people!
He actually addresses this directly a couple of chapters later, in chapter 14 (which doesn’t help us much here in chapter 12).
Here’s 1 Corinthians 14:2-4
For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit.
On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.
It isn’t that one individual gift is better or worse than another. It’s that if you’re not using a gift for the purpose of strengthening the body, but are actually using it to weaken the body, then you’re not doing it right. So instead of being jealous of someone else’s supposed piety and giftedness, have passion for the greater gifts of building up the church, strengthening the body.
By the way, the word ‘strive’ as in ‘strive for the greater gifts’ means ‘to have passion for, to desire’ – literally to bubble over because you’re so hot (boiling), to be deeply committed to something, to be earnest, to set one’s heart on, to be completely intent upon. It doesn’t say to work hard to earn a certain gift – but it does say to set your heart on those gifts that build up our one body – our oneness.
This is something that Faith United folks embody intuitively. It’s in this church’s DNA. And I think it’s because we all chose to be here – it’s an amalgamation of previous churches and a place that people have found on their own. It’s not a place that generation after generation have just been born into (although, we’re about to turn 25 next month so maybe those days aren’t that far off).
We are one body that breathes one God, and we are also individuals with our own piece of the puzzle, our own story, our own history, our own gifts. Some of us came from St. Andrew’s United, some from Courtice United, some from Harmony United – and then there are people like me who grew up in Centennial United and others of you who came from all sorts of different Uniteds, or maybe from another denomination, or maybe from no organized expression of religion. And yet with all that diversity, we are one – we are one body – striving not to build up ourselves, but to build up the church, the body of Christ.
Nobody here grew up like me. None of you had my experiences. None of you know what it’s like for me – how I live, how I love, how I pray. Not even if we grew up in the same house, spent all our time together, and prayed together would you know what it’s like for me.
Nor I you.
We’re completely different – all of us. And yet we’re one – especially now that we’re here sharing membership in the body of Christ in this time and this place together.
That’s what Faith is all about – and that’s what faith is all about – letting go of what was and claiming the new thing – being not just the sum of our former parts and current gifts, but to be more than the sum of our parts, for the sake of our one body. That’s called synergy, and it’s very powerful stuff.
We share one Spirit – that same Spirit that moved the disciples in the upper room on the day of Pentecost 2000 years ago – but it doesn’t work the exact same in everyone because we’re all different people. Thank God! How boring would it be if we all had the same passions! If we didn’t have different gifts our body wouldn’t be nearly as effective. In The Message bible it adds,
But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster.
Now, we aren’t exactly the United Nations in terms of cultural or ethnic variety here, but we are very diverse in our spiritual gifts, and passions, and views. It’s one of the reasons this place is so great. Especially being a place of amalgamations, we really do ‘get’ what being united is all about, because we can’t rely on simply continuing 50 or 100 or however many years of history churches sometimes share. This one body is a patchwork quilt – and it’s held together by one powerful, unshakeable thread – the Holy Spirit.
One church. One faith. One hope. One body. One Spirit. One breath. One God. One Love. Though we are many, we are One.
Thanks be to God.