Churches can easily become competitive places. People jockeying to be noticed, treated by others as the significant ones.
Or you get a two-tier system. There are the keen members, the spiritual ones. And then there’s everybody else, who feel less part of things.
Competitive. Elitism. We get enough of those two attitudes in the wider world. We don’t need it here as well. And yet it so easily happens.
This morning, we continue our journey through 1 Corinthians. The second half of this letter tackles some issues in a letter they’d sent to the apostle Paul.
Chapter 12 starts with the little phrase “now about…”. He’s tackling the next issue in their letter. “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brother and sisters.”.
That may be the subject here. In fact, our English Bibles have added the word ‘gifts’. The Corinthians simply asked Paul about “spiritual things”, or “spiritual people”. And it seems it was both.
As we read chapters 12 to 14, we discover that the Corinthians were bickering about spiritual gifts. Which gifts / abilities / talents were the best ones to have? But they were also bickering about spiritual people. Which of the Christians in Corinth were the important ones? Who were the spiritual people?
It seems they thought that having certain spiritual gifts made you a more spiritual person. So they wrote to Paul, presumably to ask him to back them up.
There’s a lot in this chapter, but it’s easy to see the main point. I’m going to tell us the two main things Paul is saying in this chapter, and then draw out the two big responses for us to make.
We’re one body
Point number 1: We’re one body. We’re one body.
That’s to say, the Christians in Corinth, or Kemsing, are a single united body of people. The Bible never tells us to create unity. It tells us to live out the unity God has created for us.
Our unity is a fact. We are one body.
He starts by saying something surprising. Verses 2 and 3: “You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to dumb idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
People look for miracles. People look for signs that God’s Spirit is at work. Here’s the single biggest miracle. Here’s the most dramatic evidence of God’s evidence at work. What is? You are – if you’re a Christian.
The Corinthians in Corinth used to worship false gods that couldn’t even talk. They used to curse the name of Jesus – they hated him. Now they love him, and they call him their Lord.
To change what you hate and what you love does not come easily. You hate spam. You’ll never eat it. You hate marmite. You’ll never eat it. You hate cricket. You’ll never watch it. What could possibly turn you from someone who would never even try it, into somebody who genuinely loves it?
The Corinthians had changed from hating Jesus, never even trying him, into genuinely loving him. That is a miracle. It’s a work of God’s Spirit. And if you’ve been changed in the same way, it’s a miracle for you too.
Which means the key thing that the Spirit of God does is something we all have in common. Every Christian has experienced the Spirit’s life-changing power.
So Paul regularly underlines, throughout the chapter: We’re one body.
Verses 4 to 6: We may have different gifts, serve in different ways, work differently. But we all have the same God. We worship, and we serve, the same Trinity. The same Spirit, verse 4. The same Lord, the Lord Jesus, verse 5. The same God at work, God the Father, verse 6.
Which means, verse 7, that the same Spirit is seen in each of us. “… to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given.” Why? For the common good. There aren’t different teams. Different sides. One Spirit. At work in all of us – for the common good.
And then verse 13. How did we begin as Christians? All in exactly the same way. “For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free.”
We come in through the door divided. Different groups. Jew / Gentile. Slave / free. Man / woman. Black / white. Everton / Chelsea.
We turn to follow Christ. We are baptised. And we come out as one group. Christians.
There’s no such thing as a Jewish Christian, a Gentile Christian, an enslaved Christian, a free Christian, a male Christian or a female Christian. No adjectives. We’re just Christians.
We are united. We’re one body.
We’re many parts
That’s Paul’s first main point. His second walks off the page equally clearly: We’re many parts. We’re many parts.
So, we serve our one God in different ways. That’s the other half of verses 4 to 6. Different kinds of gifts. Different kinds of service. Different kinds of working.
Which means there are different gifts. God gives different people different abilities, things we can do. We’re not all the same. That’s in verses 8 to 11. “To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.”
Some of those gifts need explaining a little. Speaking in different kinds of tongues is the supernatural ability to pray in a language you’ve never learnt. It might be a language spoken elsewhere on earth; it might not be. It seems from chapter 14 that this is the gift that the Corinthians really wanted. This was the one above all others that made a person really spiritual.
Interpretation of tongues is the ability to translate. If someone else is speaking a foreign language, you’re given the supernatural ability to put it back into English.
Prophecy is the ability to say things that are insightful to encourage other Christians to keep going and to live out their faith. God sometimes gives some people insights into what faithfulness looks like.
Other gifts in this chapter are more well-known. Things like helping. Simply getting alongside someone and helping them out at a practical level. Or guidance – offering people wisdom and help as they navigate life’s decisions.
This isn’t the only chapter in the New Testament with lists like these. There are others, that mention other gifts. Like organising and administering things. Or the gift that nobody seems to ask God for: The gift of generous giving.
Paul’s point is that we’re all different. The Spirit has not given us the same gifts. We don’t serve the Lord in the same ways. We are at work for God in different roles. We’re many parts.
Indeed, Paul uses a bit of humour to make this point. He’s said that we’re one body. So it’s like some of us are ears, or eyes, or hands, or feet. Verse 17: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?”
Just imagine a body that was one big ear, and nothing else. It would be totally dysfunctional. As we serve our one God together, it’s actually vital that we’re not all the same. God has arranged things in just the way he wants them.
The world at large gets confused by thinking that equality requires us all to be the same. We thought about that in the first half of chapter 11.
When people make ice, we make ice cubes. Each one a perfect cube, exactly the same size and shape. When God makes ice, he makes snowflakes. Each one beautiful. Each one individual, and wonderfully different.
There are Paul’s two main points. We’re one body. We’re many parts.
Value each other
Now let’s look at the two responses we need to make. Again, they just walk off the page.
The first is that we must value each other. Value each other.
So verses 15 and 16 say that nobody should feel left out because they haven’t got the gifts that others have. “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.”
Then verse 21 says that nobody should be pushed out because we don’t need them. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”
No-one left out. No-one pushed out.
Instead, Paul paints a beautiful picture. To put it bluntly, the bits of the body that don’t go on show in public actually get special care, special treatment. Verses 22 to 24: “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it.”
The picture’s clear. And so is the point he’s making. Maybe there are some in the church who are less wealthy, less healthy, less able to do things that others will notice and value, less up-front. In the world at large, they’d be tucked away. But in God’s economy they’re the ones that we should prize and value especially.
How different this is from the world around us.
In an orchestra you have 1st and 2nd violins. And soloists. Some more significant than others.
A professional sports team has a huge support cast of medics, organisers and others. Then there are subs. But the players on the pitch are the ones with the big salaries and their photos in the paper. Who’s ever heard of a children’s sticker album to collect all the physiotherapists from the world cup?
Whereas Paul’s picture is that of a human body. If you’re to be fully healthy, you need every part of your body.
We’re all about the business of the same God, serving the same Lord. God’s Spirit has given each person exactly the gifts they need to contribute their part. And nobody is any more important than anybody else.
In all of this, God’s great goal is stated in verse 25. “… so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”
An unhealthy church will be marked by divisions. A healthy church will be marked by the members having a genuine care and concern for each other.
Value each other.
Serve each other
That’s the first response we need to make. Number 2: Serve each other. Serve each other.
That’s why God gives Christians gifts. So they can use them to serve.
The Corinthians were treating them like trophies, status symbols. But they’re actually given so they can serve.
Verse 4: The Spirit gives them.
Verse 5: These are different kinds of service.
Verse 6: These are about doing God’s work.
And then the key phrase comes in verse 7: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
The picture of the Christian church in this chapter is a vibrant one. It’s exciting. Every member is equipped with different gifts – skills that they can use to serve other Christians within the church, and use alongside other Christians to serve the community and world around them.
And because we’ve all been given different gifts, this is not a call to join in with tasks that others are doing, but that you could never see yourself doing. Some people are tremendously gifted flower arrangers. Thank God for them. But with the best will in the world, that’s never going to be me. If I thought I would have to do flower arranging, I’d never go near a church. Others are terrified at the prospect of operating the technology.
This is not a call to do what others do. It’s a call to be you, but to put the “you” that God has made to work.
It’s quite different from the experience in many churches. All too often, a small number of people are doing everything.
Many churches resemble a football match. 23 exhausted people in desperate need of a rest, being watched by 11,000 people in desperate need of some exercise. Except our numbers are smaller.
If the church were a ship, she would be a lifeboat, not a cruise liner. On a cruise liner, there are high quality paid staff who service the needs of the passengers. The majority of those on board are there for the ride, there to be entertained. Whereas a lifeboat is on a mission. It goes out on the seas to rescue people. And everyone on board has a job to do to make that happen.
Serve each other.
Which means we all need to ask: What gifts has God given me? They won’t be the same as the gifts he’s given other people. We all have different abilities, and different amounts of time and energy to use them. But what are my gifts? And what could I do to put those to use? Either plugging into activities that are already running. Or, if you’ve got a gift that has no outlet at present, come and talk to me – let’s start something up, and put that to use.
Often, when you meet someone who is of working age, you start the conversation with two questions: “What’s your name? And what do you do?” And by “do”, we mean their job. “What do you do for a living?”
Some people are unemployed or between jobs. That’s reality. But behind the question is the expectation that that’s not normal. It’s normal to be employed. To have something that you “do”.
It should be the same in church. If there’s someone here you don’t know, we should be able to ask them their name, and then what they do. It’s normal for Christians to be employed. That’s not talking about paid work. It’s talking about every Christian having avenues for service, outlets for gifts, in the life of their local church.
Value each other. Serve each other.
I started by saying that churches can be competitive places, and places with two tiers – a spiritual elite, and everybody else.
They can be, but they shouldn’t be.
Let’s all do our bit to help our church to be healthy. A place where we appreciate our differences, and never forget that we are one body. A place where we value each other, looking out for each other, taking care of each other, mindful that nobody be left out, or feel left out. A place where we put our gifts and talents to use, every one of us using our time and skills to serve God and other people.