Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31 The Body of Christ

Imagine you were going along to watch the Ulster Orchestra. You’d been looking forward to the concert for a long time, and eventually it had arrived. You go along to the Waterfront Hall, and take your seat. But then you notice that something is wrong. Normally, the orchestra has lots of different instruments, but as the orchestra comes out, they’re all pushing a kettle drum in front of them. The conductor explains that everyone wanted to play the big loud, drum part, and that everyone went out and bought their own kettle drum today. There are no kettle drums left in Belfast. Can you imagine how the concert would go?

The situation might seem ridiculous - and if you ever go to see the Ulster Orchestra, I hope that doesn’t happen. And yet, this was what was happening in Corinth. Not with musical instruments, but with God’s gifts. Everyone wanted to have the gift of tongues, because some were using it all the time, and worse, they were insisting that if you didn’t have the gift of speaking in unknown languages, then you weren’t really a proper Christian in the first place.

Paul is writing then, to correct the situation. Last week, we saw how spiritual gifts are given by God to each Christian, for the common good. As we look at the passage this morning, we’ll see that the Body of Christ (the church) is one, made up of many members, with a common entry, a common purpose, and a common care. Paul gives us a great illustration, using the parts of the body to understand the variety in the church. Just like our body parts, we’re all different, yet we together make up the body.

So let’s look firstly at the common entry to the body of Christ. Paul highlights the variety in the body of Christ, but shows that each one of the believers is truly a part of the body - through the Spirit in baptism. So in the church at Corinth there were Jews, and there were also Greeks (Gentiles, those who were foreigners and pagans), but it makes no difference, because they are part of the one body, through baptism in the Spirit.

Similarly, while some were slaves and some were freemen, that makes no difference because they are part of the body. Do you see what Paul is saying here? It doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from, we’re one in Christ, as we become part of his body through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.

It’s the opposite of the old song: ‘If you’re Irish, come into the parlour, there’s a welcome here for you’. The song says that only Irish people need apply. In the church, anyone from any background can apply - we are one in Christ as we come to faith and believe in the Lord Jesus and are baptised by His Spirit.

Paul takes this variety and shows how the different members of the body have a common purpose. What this means is that there is no place for someone to feel inferior, but also that there is no place for someone to feel superior.

‘If the foot should 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.’ (15) Some members of the church in Corinth were looking at others with their loud upfront gifts, and saying to themselves, well, I’m not like them, so I’m not really part of the church; maybe I’m not even a Christian. Maybe for us it could be someone who quietly counts the envelopes but feels less important than someone who sings, or welcomes visitors at the door. Paul shows that if everyone were to do one thing, then nothing else would get done!

He pictures the whole body as one giant eye - almost a horror science-fiction movie where something has gone wrong - but how would it hear, or move or speak? It’s like the left-back in a football team moaning because he isn’t the striker, playing up front and scoring lots of goals. If everyone was playing upfront, then there would be no defence, no goalkeeper! Each part is vital - our unity in grace is expressed through a diversity of gifts.

But if the supposedly weaker members aren’t to look down on themselves, then neither are the stronger members to look down on them either. It seems that some Christians with some gifts were looking at other Christians with different gifts and saying ‘I don’t need you.’ Look at verse 23 - Paul continues the illustration. ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”.

How do we view those around us? Maybe some are quieter, or have different gifts they can contribute. It’s not for us to say to someone else, you’re not needed! In actual fact, Paul goes on to say that what we might think are the weaker members are actually indispensable. For example, you might not think you need your liver, or kidneys. You never see them, and they’re just taking up space in the body. But they are actually important - the body doesn’t function properly without them. They have their own essential part to play. Similarly in the church - each one, no matter how young or old, has their part to play, contributing to the common purpose.

So far we’ve thought about the common entry, and the common purpose. This leads us on to think about the common care each part has for the other. Think about your body for a minute. If you’ve got a sore head, then nothing else seems right, you can’t do much. Or if your tummy is sore, then you’re feeling ill all over.

This is to be the way it is in the church too. ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’ (26) You might have heard me say this before - there is no such thing as the Lone Ranger in the Christian life. We’re called to community, to the common life together, both in the local congregation, and also across the worldwide church.

This wasn’t happening in Corinth, with people thinking themselves better than others and thinking others should leave. Church was merely another platform for some high-risers to assert their dominance and control. But that’s not what church is for. Having all entered the Body by the same way (through faith and baptism by the Holy Spirit), we are called to a common purpose, showing common care towards each other.

Within the congregation, this might be through spending time with those who need our company, an older member who can’t make it out as often who longs for human contact. Or it might be through working together in serving tea and coffee, or doing a Bible study together, or some street evangelism.

And within the wider church, the worldwide body of Christ, how can we demonstrate our common care? Be praying this month especially for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, as faithful men seek to stand for gospel truth and the authority of Christ over his church. And for the faithful confessing Anglicans in Canada who face possible eviction from their buildings because they stand for truth. (St John’s Shaughnessy, Vancouver).

In the last few verses, Paul applies the extended metaphor of the body to the church in Corinth. Here again, he lists some of the various gifts and functions in the church, putting tongues at the very bottom of the list. Do you see how word ministry is at the top of the list? These are the ‘higher gifts’ Paul speaks of at the end - apostles, prophets, and teachers. Apostles were the original word ministers, those twelve, plus Paul, who were authorised and commissioned by Christ to preach and teach the gospel. Next, prophets and teachers are those who also teach the word, declaring God’s word to the contemporary situation.

The point is that there is variety - not all are apostles, not all are prophets, not all are teachers... yet all are involved in building up the body, with a common purpose to show the common care.

Despite God being the giver of the gifts, it appears that we can aspire to particular ones. In verse 31, Paul says ‘But earnestly desire the higher gifts.’ All the gifts are equally important, but there are some higher gifts - as we’ll see in chapter 14, where Paul contrasts speaking in tongues (the Corinthians’ pet gift) with prophecy.

We are the body of Christ, all who believe and have been baptised in one Spirit into one body. The common entry leads to a common purpose, and a common care. How are our relationships today within the congregation? Do we care about those around us? Do we suffer together, and rejoice together? Let’s take a moment to consider this, especially as we prepare to share in bread and wine. Then we’ll pray.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Sunday 10th May 2009.

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