Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 24, 2016

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a Commentary

Today there is a great deal of concern about the weak state of the church in western civilization. Millions have left the church to join the ranks of the “nones.” That is a serious problem, but I want to suggest that an even greater problem is the one Paul addresses in our text on this third Sunday after Epiphany. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln, speaking about a nation divided over the issue of slavery. He was echoing Jesus, who uttered those words when his enemies accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan himself.

Paul doesn’t use those exact words in our text for this third Sunday after Epiphany, but he is addressing a divided church. How can the church attract the “nones” and the “formers” and the “nevers” to Jesus if the church is divided into warring parties? If the church is the one place on this earth where people can see the Body of Christ, if that Body is the clearest Epiphany of the glory of Christ at this moment in history, what happens to our witness if the Body is divided? “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” That reality gives this text a sense of urgency.

Today the church is divided by a host of major hot-button issues: politics (which vision of the body politic is more Christian and effective), sexual ethics (who can legally marry), social justice (how shall we deal with the immigration issue), theology (who will be saved and how), and worship (which style will help the church grow). In our text for today the cause of division in the church at Corinth may seem much less serious than the issues facing the church today, but the way Paul deals with the Corinthian division may show us a way to heal the fractures in the Body of Christ today.

The issue in I Corinthians 12 was the divisions caused by the diversity of spiritual gifts in that local church. In the first 11 verses of this chapter Paul has pointed out that this diversity comes from the Triune God, particularly the Holy Spirit. There is a diversity of gifts, but they all come from “the same Spirit.” Not only do they have a common source, but they are intended to accomplish “the common good.” So, don’t argue over which gifts are superior.

In our reading for today, Paul shifts his argument, focusing on a new image, the human body. Verse 12 is the theme of this whole section. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body….” This is so self-evident, so experientially obvious, that no one could argue with it. Then Paul drives his point home; “so it is with Christ.” Of course, Paul is not talking there about Christ himself; he is referring to the way Christ is made visible in this world. The only body Christ has in this world is the church. “Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is part of it.” (verse 27) Everything that follows flows from and is an elaboration of this fundamental, and incredible, theme.

I say “incredible,” because it is literally unbelievable that the Incarnate Son of God, the eternal Holy One, should entrust the work of making himself known to a motley crew of mere mortals, and sinful ones at that. What a terrible risk that was and is! How can it be that a squabbling pack of naughty children are the agents of his Epiphany? Well, says Paul over and over, it’s all because of grace.

Note how often Paul emphasizes that God’s grace is behind this incredible thing called the Body of Christ. He begins in verse 13 by reminding us how we got to be in the Body in the first place. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit…. And we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” Now, we could easily get lost in the theology of that sentence. Is Paul talking about water baptism or regeneration? Is there a difference between being baptized by and drinking one Spirit? Is the latter a reference to the Eucharist? But let’s focus on Paul’s main point. We are in the body because of God’s sovereign work by his Spirit. Christ died for sinners and the Spirit created the church out of that group of sinners for whom Christ died. We’re in the church, part of the Body of Christ, because of God’s grace.

Don’t let your church miss what that means. It means that the church is not a voluntary organization, a creation of human will and intellect, like a corporation or a country club. Yes, of course, there is a very human side to it all; we do choose to join this church or that one, or to leave entirely. But ultimately, the church exists and will continue to exist because of the gracious work of the Triune God. “On this rock, I will build my church.” When we do church in its many forms, we are not playing our own game. We are doing something very holy. “The holy catholic church” is God’s way of making the invisible Christ known.

Part of the way God reveals Christ is through the diversity of gifts in the Body. The Corinthians wanted to fight over how the gifts were distributed. “I’ve got a better one than you do.” “My gifts doesn’t really count for much.” To those with inferiority complexes and to those who were megalomaniacs, Paul says the same thing. It is God who gave you that gift. God “arranged the parts of the body…just as he wanted them to be.” (verse 18) God “has combined the members of the body and has given the greater honor….” (verse 24) God “has appointed….” (verse 28) When you fight over gifts, you are fighting over the sovereign grace of God. So stop it and use your gifts for the common good.

To show how foolish and counter-productive it is to battle over the distribution of God’s grace in the church, Paul addresses, in order, the ones that feel inferior (verses 14-20) and the ones who think they are superior (verses 21-26). Those who have what seem to be lesser gifts feel as though they don’t belong to the Body. Paul helps them by imaginative exaggeration, that is, by drawing a caricature. Imagine a body that was all eye or all ear. You wouldn’t have a body; you would have something ridiculous, something that couldn’t function in the real world. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?” “If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” So wipe that hang dog look off your face. Stop your whining about how unimportant you are. And use the gift you have.

As to those who think they are superior, who think they don’t need the presence and the gifts of other believers, Paul simply points to ordinary human experience. Isn’t it the case that the parts of the body that seem to be weaker (like, say, your internal organs) are in fact indispensable? And don’t we treat the less honorable members of our bodies, especially the unpresentable ones (like, say, our genitals) with special honor, covering them out of modesty. In reality, we always treat the lesser part of our bodies with special care because of how important they are to us. So bend your proud head. Stop singing your independence. And appreciate your “lesser” members.

God’s whole idea in creating the Body of Christ was to show the world what humanity could be and should be through Jesus Christ. He “combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no divisions in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Imagine a reunited human race, post-Cain and Able, post-Babel, post-sin, in which everyone cares deeply for each other. Imagine a world with no war, no competition, no loneliness, no sorrow. It is unimaginable, isn’t it? We can’t picture it in our mind’s eye. That is exactly why God has created a Body in the world, a group of sinners who are not divided, who care equally for each other, who suffer and rejoice with each other. God wanted the world to see what is possible by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

That is why divisions in the church are so counter-productive, so monstrously out of step with God’s plan. How will the “nones” and the “formers” and the “nevers” find their way to the invisible Christ if they don’t see his Body working the way it should? A sermon on this text should be a call to repent of our divisions, to trust God’s plan, and to use our gifts together for the glory of Christ. Those great divisive issues I mentioned at the beginning of this piece will still be difficult, but if we remember why God created the church in the first place, we will have greater motivation to unite around our mission of Epiphany.

Illustration Ideas

After the horrific ISIS-inspired massacres in Paris last November, a musician sat in the street and played John Lennon’s haunting hymn, “Imagine.” As you know, it’s all about a world without bloodshed and strife, a world full of peace and harmony. But do you recall that line about “no religion.” Lennon thought that peace was possible only if we got rid of all religion. I suspect he was right. Religion has been the cause of much bloodshed through the ages. More religion will not heal the world. Only Christ can do that. Imagine a world at peace!? Look at the Body of Christ where the grace of the Triune God is recreating Shalom.

At a church conference a while back I saw a T-shirt that captured the good news of our text. The front of the T-shirt, the side people read as they approach, said, “I don’t go to church.” On the back, the side you read when you turn around after passing that provocative message, it said, “I am the church.” Church is not a place to go. It is a people on the go. Church is what I am. I am part of the Body of Christ.

A bright yellow highway department truck crept along a city street. A worker slowly climbed out of the truck and laboriously dug a large hole between the sidewalk and the street. A few minutes later, a second worker got out, filled the hole and tamped down the dirt. A few yards down the street, they repeated the procedure, then again and again. An elderly lady was watching. Finally, she walked over to the workers and asked, “What in the world are you doing?” One of the workers said, “We’re on an urban beautification project.” “Beautification?” she asked in dismay. “What’s so beautiful about all those filled in holes?” “Well, you see,” said the worker, “the man who plants the trees is out sick today.” In a ridiculous way, that little story reminds us that when one person does not do his or her job, there is a hole.

Finally, a lovely quote from the inimitable Frederick Buechner. Defining our call to ministry, he said, “It is the point where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” In our text, Paul reminds us in forceful terms that God has equipped with gifts that will help us to meet that need.


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