Balkanization is a concept we generally link to the breakdown of countries, regions or even society into various, often competing factions. Careful observers of the 21st century Church, however, also sense balkanization within the Body of Christ.
North American Christians who label themselves “evangelical” or “progressive” often view each other with suspicion, if not outright contempt. Christians who are members of the United States’ Republican Party or Democratic Party often keep each other at at least arms’ length.
Christian balkanization is a symptom of what Paul seems to be trying to address in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In it he continues chapter 12’s toggling back and forth between unity and diversity. In verses 1-11, the apostle speaks about both in relationship to manifestations of the Spirit. In verses 12-31a he also addresses unity as well as diversity in relation to Christ’s “Body parts.”
Much of what the apostle employs in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is related to human anatomy. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts,” he insists in verse 12. “And though all its parts are many, they form one body.” Paul continues that theme in verses 14-27 and following where he speaks of human body parts that include feet, eyes, and ears.
However, he in some ways pauses his human anatomy lesson by giving in verse 13, as well as in verses 27-31a, a Body of Christ anatomy lesson. It’s that lesson on which this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might choose to focus.
In it, after all, Paul locates Christians’ identity where it properly belongs: our baptism. He insists the Spirit unites all who are baptized in Jesus Christ. Those who proclaim this stirring affirmation might point to verse 12’s multiple use of words like “all” and “one.” “We were all baptized,” the apostle says in verse 13, “by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all given one Spirit to drink.”
Of course, people’s race, gender, age, sexual and political orientation, as well as socio-economic status all help make up part of who we are. Paul’s reference to “Greek and Jew, slave and free” suggests that his Corinthian contemporaries were also aware of those differences.
Yet while perhaps especially 21st century North Americans, including its Christians, seem to increasingly link our identity to one or more of those characteristics, Paul centers our identity in our baptism. We are not, first of all, Canadian, American or any other nationality’s Christians. We are baptized Christians. The apostle insists that Jesus Christ’s friends are not, first of all, Reformed or Anglican, Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians. We are baptized Christians.
That unity sparkles in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. “All” (pantes), insists Paul, were baptized. Not just earthly saints and mature Christians, but all Christians were baptized into “one body.” Not just evangelical or mainline Christians, not just conversative or progressive Christians, but all Christians were baptized into one body.
Of course, it’s perhaps even sadder than ironic that this unifying force that is baptism is also among the greatest sources of division among Christians. We sometimes divide over whether the infant children of Christians should be baptized or should wait until they receive God’s grace with their faith. Jesus Christ’s friends sometimes argue over whether we can be baptized only once, or if a second baptism is not just possible, but also ideal in order to be a true follower of Jesus.
Such issues of interpretation, of course, point to a deeper issue: to what kind of baptism is Paul actually referring in verse 13? Is it water or Spirit baptism? Or is it the baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection to which Paul at least seems to suggest baptism points?
In Romans 6:3-4 Paul basically defines baptism. There he insists that all Christians “who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Baptism is, in other words, the outer sign of the work the Spirit does to kill Christians’ naturally sinful ways and raise to life Christ-like obedience.
Of course, our theology of baptism informs how we think of the Christian life. It may even speak to the age at which Christians assume people are accountable for receiving God’s grace with their faith and obedience. Yet I’d suggest that 1 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers don’t glorify God or bless our hearers by emphasizing Christians’ baptismal theology’s differences. That, after all, in some ways, only serves to erect another “silo” in which Christians sometimes prefer to live separate from each other.
Yet 1 Corinthians 12:13’s mysteries don’t end with the meaning of its reference to “baptism.” Nor does its potential for causing division end there. The New International Version of the Bible translates Paul as going on to say we were all baptized “by (en) one Spirit.” However, its textual notes suggest that en may also be translated as “with” or “in.” I’d suggest that unless this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers have the skill and proper setting to further explore the meaning of en, we focus on the “one” Spirit who plays the crucial role in baptism.
That emphasis on the work of the Spirit links this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclamation to verses 1-11’s repeated mention of the Spirit. There, after all, Paul uses some form of “the Spirit” (pneuma) no less than 10 times (and adds a masculine pronoun that refers to the Spirit in verse 11 to boot!).
That helps lead Stephen Farris to suggest that the “manifestations of the Spirit” (7) don’t just include things like the message of wisdom (8), faith (9) and miraculous powers (10). They also include what he calls “tender care for the unity of the church.” The Spirit doesn’t equip every Christian with the gift of “speaking in different tongues” (10). But the same Spirit does live in all those who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The apostle continues that emphasis on the unifying work of the Spirit by noting that “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (hen soma).” That one body is what the theologian James Boyce calls verse 13’s “innermost ring in a ring of concentric circles.” Its “outer ring” is its beginning and ending references to the Spirit. In the next ring are the apostle’s references to the sacraments of baptism and what at least Boyce calls “the drinking of the Eucharist.” “The innermost ring,” he continues, “is the ‘one body’ created and sustained by the Spirit and these sacraments of unity.”
All of this helps remind God’s adopted sons and daughters that the Spirit doesn’t baptize us first of all into Reformed, AME, Lutheran or Mennonite churches. We are baptized primarily into the “one body” that is the Body of Christ that the Apostles Creed refers to as “the holy catholic Church.”
My colleague Stan Mast notes that this is part of Paul emphasis on God’s work in creating, building up and adding to God’s Church. Christians choose with which local church they will affiliate to worship the Lord and use their gifts and talents. They also sometimes choose to leave one such church and join another.
Yet Paul reminds us that God’s dearly beloved people are part of the worldwide Body of Christ that is the Church because of God’s work. Christ graciously died for sinful people like us whom the Spirit then unites into the Church. “We’re in the church, part of the body of Christ,” writes Mast, “because of God’s grace.” There is no other Church to which Christians might transfer their membership. God has, after all, graciously put God’s adopted sons and daughters.
So the Church exists and will continue to exist only because of the Triune God’s work. “When we do church,” Mast continues, “we are not playing our own game. We are doing something very holy.”
While so many things divide Christians, this week’s Epistolary Lesson reminds us that our baptism unites us. While so many things separate God’s dearly beloved from each other, the Spirit works to unite us. While so many things sometimes hijack Jesus’ followers’ identity, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that our membership in Christ’s one Body gives us the one identity that really matters, both now and forevermore.
I have had the immense privilege of baptizing three of my grandchildren. The baptisms of Jacob and Joseph* were deeply moving but, to many, largely predictable and, thus, to most, forgettable. Because my grandsons’ cooperation was virtually complete, their baptisms went smoothly.
The baptism of our granddaughter Sarah*, however, was far less smooth and, partly as a result, far less forgettable. She basically screamed through the entire sacrament. Her mother later ruefully called its 5-7 minutes the “most stressful two hours of my life.”
Yet I’ve often wondered if Sarah’s anticipation of and reaction to her baptism weren’t a kind of parable for the baptismal life. We generally think of baptism as a part of a happy day filled with pretty dresses, handsome outfits, and grateful well-wishes. But what if Christians remembered that our baptism is into Christ’s death and resurrection? Might we, then, also kick and scream at least a bit the way Sarah did?
*not their real names
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 23, 2022
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a Commentary