The Spirit creates one body
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 17, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Some church members at Corinth were touting the ecstatic gifts, like speaking in tongues, as the best gifts. Such gifts were an unmistakable sign of closeness to God. Indeed, in those moments God seems to take over your inner self so that you are one with God. What clearer picture could there be of spirituality?
Paul, however, directs the Corinthians’ attention away from what gifts do for the individual and toward what they do for the church. As far as Paul is concerned, the primary purpose of all spiritual gifts is working for the common good of all the church. Therefore, the gifts that build up the church, he says, are really the ones that demonstrate spirituality and closeness to God.
To be sure the Corinthians understood, Paul introduces the metaphor of the body. He states clearly that the church is the body of Christ, and in 1 Corinthians, the metaphor applies primarily to the local congregation. Scholars inform us that the only exception where something larger than the local church may be in view is verse 13 where Paul says all have received the same Spirit, without regard for ethnicity or social status.
Since humankind has always had a fascination with how the different parts of the body cooperate, William Barclay makes reference to Plato (born around 428 B.C.). Barclay states that long ago Plato had drawn a famous picture in which he had said that the head was the citadel; the neck, the isthmus, between the head and the body; the heart, the fountain of the body; the pores, the lanes of the body; the veins, the canals of the body.
So Paul drew his picture of the church as a body. He reminds us that a body consists of many parts, but there is in it an essential unity, for the body to function properly, each part does its own work, and only then is it healthy.
Paul goes on to stress that by virtue of baptism all are members and all are needed members of the body. The diversity of gifts in the church is precisely what is needed, just as the body needs to be composed of many different kinds of parts (ears, eyes, hands, feet, other). Consequently, the functioning of the body depends on all these diverse parts working together in unity. Paul continues by saying that each part of the body depends on and needs the others and that this diversity and interdependence comes from God. And, according to Paul, each person has just the gift God wants him/her to have. Thus, this should rule out any dissatisfaction and unhappiness a person has with his/her own gift and perhaps any desire for the gift of another.
1 Corinthians 12:22-26
At this point, Paul becomes a bit more radical in his discussion. He says in verse 22: “The parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary.” Hitting at the false notion that the supreme parts need to be in charge and the inferior parts doing as they are told, Paul states that the parts we consider less valuable are really those that are most necessary. Developing this metaphor in such an unexpected direction, Paul now compares the church with the way or ways we clothe our bodies. By way of scholars, Paul says that those parts that we are embarrassed to show, we give honor to by covering them with clothing. But it is just those parts that are among the most necessary for a good life. Without those parts we cover there would be no continuation of the species and we would soon die if we could not, for example, eliminate waste from the body. So those parts make life possible.
Paul’s point here is that the same is true for the way the church works. There were people in the church who had little more than disdain for the “weak” and were guilty of offending “these little ones.” Of these, Paul reiterates that they are all vital to the health of the body. We cannot dishonor one member without violating the whole. So, Paul is encouraging the church members to see that every gift is valuable and to recognize that they have often exalted the wrong gifts.
In addition, the diversity of gifts in the church is not only valuable, it is God's intention. Even though at times, differences create difficulties, imagine how it would be if everybody in the church was just alike and had the same gift. For instance, if everybody had the gift of accounting skills and no one had the gift of music, it would be a problem. And if everybody could sing but nobody could lead a Bible study it would also be a problem. The truth is we need diversity and that is God’s intention. So, Paul declares that diversity is as necessary in the church as it is in the body. It takes all kinds of gifts for the church to function as it should.
1 Corinthians 12:27-31
Paul concludes this scripture lesson by reminding the Corinthians that the different gifts assign people specific places in the life of the church. As the different parts of the body have different functions, so it is with different gifts of the Spirit. None without value, every gift of the Spirit is necessary and is of God.
Paul goes on and lists various forms of service in the church: apostles (those who had been with Jesus in the days of his earthly life and had been witnesses of the Resurrection), prophets (later preachers who communicated the faith once for all believed), teachers (instructors of converts who knew literally nothing about Christianity), helpers and healers (those who ministered to the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger and the sick), leadership skills (administrators of the church – a vitally important work), different kinds of tongues (those who have experienced the presence of God in such a way that they were seized and caused to say things that they did not understand).
Now, Paul seems to make the sensational gifts the least important. From chapter 12, we see that they are lowest because they do the least to build up the whole church.
Diversity of Gifts in the Body of Christ is a Necessity
Paul argues that uniformity would be damaging to the church. The church needs diversity for its survival. Without these differences the church would not be able to function as it is intended, just as the body cannot function without the different parts.
I like Joni Eareckson Tada’s description of how the human body works. She says: “The human body is probably the most amazing example of teamwork anywhere. Every part needs the other. When the stomach is hungry, the eyes spot the hamburger. The nose smells the onions, the feet run to the snack stand, the hands douse the hunger with mustard and shove it back into the mouth, where it goes down to the stomach. Now that’s cooperation.”
Diversity of Gifts in the Body of Christ is a Blessing
Moving beyond saying that diversity of gifts is a necessity, Paul now says they are a blessing. This diversity of parts helps all parts function better. The same is true of the church – or it should be true of the church.
Seeing diversity as a blessing might mean that we have to expand our understanding of the gifts of the Spirit. We all recognize the gifts of those who lead worship, but what about the gifts of those who visit the sick and/or dying? Those who chair committees are sharing gifts. Then there are the gifts of those who greet visitors, who make the children feel welcome, who cook and serve the church night suppers, who pray for those in difficulty and who lock the doors of church buildings at night. All of these, plus numerous others, are sharing their gifts of the Spirit. And what a blessing these folks are to the building up of the church and God’s purposes in the world.
Cooperation and Interdependence as the Body of Christ
Without doubt, one of the main points Paul desires to make with his body metaphor is that every gift is needed in the church and should be used for the good of the whole. Consequently, the church should always seek to help those who have differences and different gifts to work together.
At the conclusion of our scripture lesson, Paul speaks of a greater gift than all the others. He says in verse 31: “And I show you a still more excellent way.” The great danger always facing the church is that those who have different gifts will differ with one another, resulting in an ineffective, functioning body of Christ. So, for Paul, there is only one thing that can bring about perfect unity in the midst of the church's diversity and that is love. Amen!
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.