TEXT: 1 Cor. 12:12-26; Esther 4:12-14
Last week I gave you a bit of an introduction to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. We learned that it was a large cosmopolitan city that took great pride in the artistic adornment of its many temples, as well as being a city where a variety of religions—pagan, Jewish, and Christian—all tried to co-exist.
The reason that Paul is focusing here on Christians all being part of one body, but having different functions and gifts within it is because of the strong pagan culture around it. In the Greek and Roman pagan traditions, every gift had its own god or goddess. If you needed wisdom, you went to the temple of Athena; if you needed love you went to Aphrodite; if you needed greater hunting skill you went to Artemis; if you needed to be better at music or poetry, off you went to Apollo. And so forth.
Paul is trying to show a pagan culture how Christian faith is different. In this faith, he is saying, there is just one God. But you haven’t lost out. That one God can do everything and can dispense all the gifts that there are to be given. And there’s a second point. In pagan culture, it was assumed that if you brought the right offering and pleased the god, you could have any gift there was. Paul is telling them that the God revealed in Jesus has a different agenda. Nobody gets all the gifts. We only have all the gifts when we are together as a group. None of us can go it alone.
In Christian faith we see ourselves as all being part of God’s body. Each part of that body has a different function and is gifted accordingly. It is fundamentally and literally a corporate effort. It is not “every believer for herself,” but “all of us together.” This is something that transcends class and race…Paul says in verse 13: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. In a sense, Paul is reversing the pagan system. It’s not one believer trying to please many gods in order to receive different gifts. It is one God at work through many believers who are given different gifts to do God’s work in the world.
That’s interesting information, you say, but we’re not pagans anymore. Well, actually, there is a resurgence of pagan religions in our day and age, but that’s not the primary reason we need to hear this passage. We need to hear this passage because we live in a fiercely competitive society. Whatever you think about capitalism and free trade, you can’t get away from the fact that they are founded on competition. The ones with the skills and the know-how (and the money to put those assets to work) get ahead, the slower ones fall behind…whether they be individuals or nations.
More than that, we see that the culture values some gifts more than others. I have a cousin who, when he was in his late twenties, invented one of the machines that helps clean the blood during open heart surgery. He only had an Associates degree, but that invention suddenly catapulted him into quite a large salary. Of course when that happened, our family was very pleased for him. We were struggling to make ends meet after my father’s death, and I will never forget my mother, who has a master’s degree and had been teaching our children…actually even teaching my cousin…for thirty years look at his salary and say, “Hmmm…I wonder where I went wrong!”
My cousin certainly earned his salary, and it was right to recognize his achievement. The point is that we value certain achievements more than others. And since some of the most difficult jobs…like raising a child or caring for an ageing parent…cost a fortune and earn no income at all, many people worry that they do not have the skills that they need. Worse, they believe they don’t have the intellect or ability to get the skills they need to become of value in our world.
The final months of my senior year in college were filled with anxiety for all of us. What would we do now? Do we go on to graduate school right away? Do we find work? Could we find a job to pay the bills? You needed experience to get a job, and you needed a job to get experience. We were nervous.
I had many friends in the math/science fields. I remember friends who were nervously pacing because the highest job offer they had received was for $15,000 per year, which seemed to be the going rate in 1980 for a Bachelor’s degree in math and science. Silly me. I thought from listening to them that I would be in a similar boat. Nobody prepared me for the fact that my first full time job with a Bachelor’s degree in German and English from that same university would earn me a whopping $6500 per year.
We value some skills more than others, and these days having certain types of skills and certain levels of intelligence can make the difference between living the American dream and the miseries of poverty.
And so, for us, Paul’s message comes as both a comfort and a challenge. The comfort is the message that I relayed to two different people for two different reasons this past week. “You are perfectly skilled and gifted for the work that God has called you to do.” It is God who gives all gifts, and God has gifted every person in this room according to the particular role in the Body of Christ that has been assigned to you. We need never, ever worry that we don’t have what it takes to do God’s work.
Whatever it is God has called us to do, God has given us the gifts, abilities, and opportunities to do it. As Mordecai says to Esther at the time of her opportunity, God has put her in the position as Queen, “for just such a time as this.” That’s not to say that some skills don’t need to be honed, or that we don’t need education and training. But it is honing and training in gifts we already possess. We might need to work on those skills, we might need to work on our self-discipline, or other things relating to the execution of those skills—but we’ve got what it takes and when we decide to get serious, God will make a way. That is a huge comfort in a culture that seems always to be insisting that we are not good enough the way we are.
But there is also a challenge, and a call to justice for the Church. We are the Body of Christ. As Paul says in verse 26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” While as a culture it seems to be every person for themselves, Paul reminds us that the church is not like the surrounding culture. Here we recognize that all have worth and that all skills and abilities are equally needed in the body of which we are all a part.
There are to be no distinctions between class or race. The eye has no business trying to kick the ear out of the Body. It’s not only rude, it’s dumb. It harms the Body. Most of the time we don’t think about our thyroid gland. But if it suddenly quits doing it’s job, we realize how much it has actually been doing. And if it has to be removed, the body has to take pills for the rest of its life to make up for it. But, as important as the thyroid gland is, it makes a pretty poor arm.
It is the job of the Church to be sure that everyone can find and recognize their own place in the Body of Christ. One of the ways we’re starting to recognize that here is by enrolling in a program called Stephen Ministry. Bev Welsh and Bonnie Oliphant have just returned from a week in Pittsburgh to learn how to train people in our congregation to be caring listeners who can provide specifically Christian care for people going through a rough time.
Sometimes churches think that only pastors have the skills to do that, but that’s not true. In fact, sometimes pastors are worse at that then many people in the congregation. The gift of caring, compassionate listening is a gift that comes from God, not from seminary, and God gives it out to people without regard for education, ordination, wealth, or status. If the pastor or a church leader tries to do it all, the rest of the Body can go limp with disuse.
We all need to find the particular gifts we have been given, and our own role in the Body. But then, we need to be sure that we don’t place a super value on some gifts and little value on others. And we need to have systems in place that assure that those with gifts in a particular area have the freedom to use them.
The fundamental principle in the Church is not competition, but cooperation. It’s not every person for themselves, it’s all of us together. There is no position in the church, including the pastor, that has a more important function than any other. If one part of the Body suffers, we all suffer. If so much as one of us refuses our calling, or tries to be more or less than we have been gifted to be, the Body is out of whack. If the lymph nodes are trying to be eyes and the arms keep slapping the legs because they don’t act more like arms, we’re going to have a rough time doing anything as a Body.
So, let the teachers teach. Let those with deep compassion visit the distressed. Let those filled with physical energy do the leg work, and let those with clear vision move us forward. Don’t make those who are gifted in support chair committees or put those who are good at counting and analyzing trees in charge of the vision for the forest. Let each of us find our role in the Body of Christ and fill it with joy so that God may be glorified, not only in our individual lives, but in our life together as a church. And let us recognize the value of every gift…even though some gifts may not be valued in our culture.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Find your role in the Body, and do it to the glory of God. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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