Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
July 5, 2009
MEMBERSHIP IN THE BODY OF CHRIST,
MEMBERS OF ONE ANOTHER!
Texts: I Corinthians 12:1-13:1
Wendell Berry speaks of the kingdom of God as the Great Economy and proposes an “arts and sciences of membership,” that is, membership in the kingdom of God, where everything in the kingdom is joined “both to it and to everything else that is in it.”1
Today’s sermon is about the church as the body of Christ, and the arts and sciences of membership in that Body, where indeed everyone is joined both to it - - and therefore to Christ - - and also to everyone else in it. As Paul says, “We are members of one another.” (Romans 12:5).
New Testament scholar Paul Minear has identified ninety-six images of church in the New Testament: from ambassadors to Mt. Zion, boat to vineyard, salt of the earth to body of Christ, ten of the ninety-six pertain to the body of Christ image.2
As I speak of the body of Christ today I will concentrate on spiritual gifts in the Body, which is the focus of I Corinthians 12. It is especially pertinent for our Holy Conversations as we seek to release the gifts of the congregation for greater service and witness.
Paul begins with the words:
Now considering “spiritual persons”... I do not want you uninformed.
The Greek word I’ve translated as “spiritual persons” is pneumatikoi (pneuma, spirit). Who were these spirit-filled, spirit-gifted persons?
There seems some problem afoot. Were these pneumatikoi considered spiritually superior, more important than the rest? Did they consider themselves so?
Paul attacks the problem first by saying, If you’re a Christian you are a pneumatikoi. If you’ve been baptized and confessed “Jesus is Lord,” you’re a pneumatikoi, because you cannot make this confession without the Spirit in you. He levels the playing field - - and raises it up. All members of the body of Christ are pneumatikoi, spiritual persons with spiritual gifts.
In the next section he argues theologically that all the gifts of the Spirit (charismata) come from the one God, creator, Christ and Holy Spirit:
Now there are varieties of gifts,
(charismata) but the same Spirit,
and there are varieties of ministries,
( diakonon) but the same Lord (meaning Christ),
and there are varieties of workings
( energematon), but the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
All the gifts are from the one and same God, whether through God, Christ or Spirit, and all are given for the common good. No gift is given for the elevation of the self.
You get the sneaky idea that the great diversity of gifts in Corinth had threatened the unity of the church.
In the third part of the argument, Paul speaks about how every part of the Body is important and how every part needs every other part. He uses body parts in a comically instructive way. He begins by addressing those in the congregation who feel their gift is unimportant and that therefore they are unimportant to the Body.
If the foot says, “Because I’m not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it less a part of the body.
If the ear says, “Because I’m not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it less a part of the body.
“But you do belong to the Body,” Paul says, “everyone one of you. The Body needs every gift, every part.”
He goes on with his argument: If the whole body were but one huge eyeball, where would the hearing be? And if the body were a big ear, where would the smelling be?
We are more than one body part - - though we sometimes act like that. (I’ll not go into details.) And so is the body of Christ.
Then Paul tackled the opposite problem: not those who think too lowly of themselves because of the smallness of their gifts but those who think too highly of themselves: the spiritually arrogant who not only think their gift makes them superior but who also believe they have no need of anyone else. Paul writes,
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
In our culture needing someone is considered a weakness. In the body of Christ it is a requirement.
A congregation can have a spiritual arrogance. Proud of its singularity, it believes it does not need the larger church, has little to learn from other Christians, other congregations. Part of the true meaning of “ecumenical” is our connectedness to the larger body of Christians around the world, and our need of that connectedness.
Next Paul talks about how we unfortunately bring worldly rank into the church. In the body of Christ we are linked not ranked. The church struggles with this in every age. We are so easily conformed to our culture rather than to Christ.
There is the worldly rank of position and power, wealth, looks, education, I.Q., race, gender, nationality, age. And this ranking is passed from the culture into the church.
Take age, for example. It is easy for our older members to feel “lesser,” when they should be given a greater place of honor among us for their years, experience and wisdom, not to mention all they’ve given to us through the years. One retired member wrote me and said, “I hope the church is not going to put me out to pasture.”
What about those we might consider “non-typical” among us, children, youth, adults? They seem different. They may not fit the “normal range,” however we define normal, but they clearly fit the “blessed, beloved and gifted range” in the body of Christ. They have their own important gifts to offer. We all have our differentness and we all have our alikenesses. In the body of Christ we honor both.
Paul addresses rank head on, again using body parts:
The members of the body that seem weaker are indispensable!
I have told you Gordon Cosby’s question he says every pastor search committee should ask candidates: “Are you weak enough to be our minister?” Weak enough to have need of God, have need of the congregation? To let God’s spirit help? Are you weak enough to be a member of Christ’s body? It is your weakness that makes you indispensable. As Paul would say in II Corinthians, “God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.” It is the cracks in our earthen vessels which let God’s power in and God’s light out.
Paul goes on:
Every part of the body has its purpose. Big toes are as important as hands, else where would our balance be? Those our culture refuses to honor can be honored members of the body of Christ. In Paul’s day this applied to slaves. How long did it take for Christian churches in America to let freed slaves come down from the balconies and worship with everyone else? Too long.
God has arranged this new system of honor in the Body to keep division and dissension out. The Greek word is skisma, schism. And so that we might offer the same care to all the members. When I took my ordination vows as a minister I promised to minister to everyone impartially. It’s a vow we all should take in the body of Christ. Brian Wren, hymn-writer and theologian, says that there’s a big difference between a broken body and a divided body. In a broken body each part of the body still feels the pain of every part - - and the pleasure of every part. In a divided body we’ve lost our capacity to feel the pain, the pleasure of every other part. It is spiritual neuropathy.
The church is always a broken body, with a brokenness headed toward healing and wholeness, but it cannot be a divided body and still be the body of Christ. So, in the church, Paul says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
There is a terrible perversion of spirit which sometimes creeps in, the reverse of Paul’s words. We take joy in another’s misfortune, what Germans call schadenfreude, and we grow sad with another’s success, one of the uglier shades of envy.
I do not know whether there is a special exorcism rite for expelling such a spirit, but I wish I knew it for those times it creeps into me. Perhaps we could use the “Jesus Prayer” from Eastern Orthodox spirituality: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner.”
In the last section Paul discusses various spiritual gifts (charismata): apostles, prophets/preachers, teachers, healers, givers of compassionate help, leadership, speakers in ecstatic tongues.
Are all apostles, all preachers, all healers, mission-workers, leaders, speakers in ecstatic tongues?
Are all singer, musicians, talkers, thinkers, planners, bean-counters, youth workers, builders, dreamers, care-givers, technology-geeks, givers of hospitality?
No, but the Body needs all these gifts, and more! What can we do at Myers Park Baptist Church to help each other identify our gifts, develop them and use them? This is part of the arts and sciences of membership.
Finally, Paul bridges to the famous “love chapter,” I Corinthians 13. This passage is often used at weddings and funerals. But it first of all is a picture of how we live together in the body of Christ. It is about church-love!
I’ve been talking about the spiritual gifts, Paul says, but the greatest spiritual gift, the basis and indispensable measure of every other gift, is love. Love is like the pure white light from which breaks all the colors of the rainbow. It is the Gift in every one of the gifts.
So here come the famous refrains: If I speak in the eloquent tongues of human understanding or spiritual ecstasy but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all the resources of faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I give away all I have and even deliver my body to be burned as a Christian martyr, but have not love, I gain nothing!
Hear ye! All legs, arms, brains, backs, toes, elbows, and noses. All ye eyes and ears, hands and feet, you are part of the body of Christ, and love is what animates us and makes us one.
1 Wendell Berry, “Two Economies” in The Art of the Common Place (Washington, D.C., Counterpoint Press, 2002), see pp. 220 and 235.
2 Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church In the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).