1 Corinthians 12:12–31 (NRSV)
One Body with Many Members
(Cp Eph 4:1–16)
12 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. 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.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would 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. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
There is an important question that we have contemplated as a church several times, “What’s our salvation for?” This is a very thought provoking question. How we answer it says quite a bit about our faith. As we have considered it mainly in our Wednesday evening meetings, we have come to realize that the point of faith from the most ancient of days in Israel to the present era the answer remains fairly consistent, our salvation is for the world. Jesus came to live, die and raise again so that the world could be redeemed or restored into a friendship with God. We as the church exist to participate in this redemptive work. The question that remains is when does this redemption begin and when is it complete?
Last week we began a discussion about the gifts or companions of the Spirit. Among the various factions of faith there are varying degrees and thoughts about these gifts. And often in the discussion we loss sight as to what the purpose or the point of the gifts. This is why I mentioned that the word we translate as gift could also be used as a companion. It is something that comes with another. There are relational aspects at play. The question what is salvation for and the question of what are the gifts for are very similar. Both deal with the redemption or the common good of world.
I want to focus a bit on the aspect of common good. I want to focus on it because in our contemporary culture this phrase has been politicized to the degree that we fail to hear what the writes mean. We read into the text a 21st century idea that may be different than that of the 1st. The phrase was used throughout the Greek speaking world and Paul uses it while writing to the people of Corinth to direct their attention to a reality that is around all people. It means to bear with, to accompany, to serve, or to bring together in unity for mutual benefit. The common good is an attitude that is not focused on individualism but the encouragement of the community as a whole.
The common good, it is interesting that Paul is concerned about this as he writes to these people of ancient times. It is interesting because somewhere along the line this ancient community of believers lost track of what their purpose was. They became distracted from the good news and were being drawn to a form of idolatry. They were jockeying for position within the community, using the gifts they experienced as evidence of greater spirituality and somewhere along the line they failed to bear and accompany the community for mutual benefit and became focused on themselves.
Paul then says too them that we are all one body, with many members. Each member has an importance and without it the entire body or community would suffer. Paul uses a common illustration from the ancient Greek world, the imagery of the human body. Every aspect of our bodies have a function and purpose. Among the ancient Greek philosophies they would use this illustration as a method demonstrate the importance of a hierarchical society. What areas were most important to the human body and they would then pass those images to segments of the population. The problem with this line of thinking is what is the most important part of the body?
We can debate this line of thinking for the rest of the day, dividing up into groups that would say the head is the most important because that is where the brain is and the brain gives the rest of the body the commands so it is clearly the most important. Then another group would chime in saying no it is the heart because the heart pumps blood throughout the body which carries life to the member. Yet another group would say the stomach because without that we would not have nourishment to sustain life. Then a subsection of the stomach group would say no it would have to be the mouth or the hands because without them food would not enter the body. The debate would circulate on and on. And that is why Paul uses this illustration, but not in defense of a hierarchical system but to counter the arguments. Every member is equally important, because without the interconnected members working together for the common good the body would suffer greatly.
The people of Corinth were looking around them and trying to justify which gifts were most important and where to place the people that exhibited those gifts into places of leadership. They then deemed certain gifts as having greater importance within the community. People sought power and influence and before long the common good was thrown out the window and the witness of the church diminished they no longer reflected the life of Christ but instead became a religious expression of the world around them.
What did they find as being the most important gift? It is not too difficult to figure it out because it is the most controversial gift debated even today, the gift of tongues. The people of Corinth saw this one gift as being the most important because without it they could not prove that you were with the Spirit. Those that did not exhibit this gift were not allowed into leadership roles because there was no evidence of their spirituality.
Now before I continue I want us all to know that Paul is a firm believer in the gift of tongues. There is ample evidence in scripture proving his belief. What Paul is saying is that we cannot determine someone’s spiritual value or authenticity by looking at a singular gift. I too am a firm believer in this gift, though I myself have not consciously exhibited it, nor do I even claim to understand how or why it is exhibited in the first place. But I have witnessed it in various forms. But that is not the point, the point is that we cannot and should not use this one expression of the Spirit as a determining factor for someone’s value within the community.
Paul goes as far as placing this one gift at the very bottom of the list, and even fails to mention it in others. Why would he do that? Why would he down play a gift that he himself exhibits? Because in the greater picture the tongue is just a member of the body. It is just a small part of the greater whole. The greater whole is more important, and is the focus of the Spirit. The common good is greater than the individual gift.
This chapter is warning us to not get held up on singular ideas and concepts. Warning us not to become too narrow minded as to miss what is in the peripheral. Too often we as humans begin to develop frameworks around ideas which become central to our belief to such a degree that anything that does not fall within our narrow view of reality cannot be right.
The Friends Church is not immune from this. We have frameworks that we deem as being important. For many years as an immature believer I thought I must quake before I could speak in the Meeting. That I was not a true believer if I did not experience this filling of the Spirit and I neglected membership because I did not even believe I was truly a Christian if I did not quake. Where did I come up with this idea? It was a perversion of interpretation. I heard stories from teacher of people that were so filled with the Spirit that they would quake and would not stop until they spoke the word that was given to them. Although none of my teachers directly said that I must quake I believed it to be true.
Little things, things that may not actually have any bearing on the expansion of the Kingdom of God can distract our focus from the truth. Some of these little things can be very good causes and can begin as a ministry for the common good. A great example of this would be the Women’s Temperance Union. To stand against the abuse of a substance that causes intoxication, addiction, and the degradation of society is a wonderful movement to get involved in, but can we in our quest to rid our communities of sinful activities detract from the gospel of Christ. Little things.
“But strive for the greater gift.” Paul says, “And I will show you a more excellent way.” Paul is telling us that we should not focus on the singular things, but focus on the common good. Seek the Spirit and let the Spirit guide our paths. So maybe you do not speak in tongues seek the Spirit and if the Spirit deems it necessary to allot that gift to you for the common good then bless you. So you do not have the gift of healing seek the Spirit and allow that relationship to guide your ways and as you walk with others the Spirit may grant you that gift because it is for the common good. Seek the Spirit. Seek that spirit not because you desire a particular gift but seek the Spirit because you desire to participate in the ongoing ministry and expansion of the Kingdom of God. Seek the Spirit and become a companion of it so that we might become the gift of grace to someone in need. Seek the Spirit because in the Spirit we each find our place within the body to minister to the common good. Strive and seek the giver of the gifts, pray for apostles to be sent, pray for prophets to speak the word of the Lord, pray for healing to occur, pray for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in heaven, but as we pray seek that more excellent way. The way of Christ, the rhythm and lifestyle that He demonstrated to us if we seek that fully in our lives every moment of every day we will witness those companions of the Spirit bearing us and those around us along the way.