The body - 1 Corinthians 12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Here is an article from the York Evening Press: ‘Derek Atkins, 48, from York, visits an Odeon cinema eight times a week and has done so since 1988. ‘I rarely watch the films’, he says. ‘I just like to scrutinise the interiors. I can tell instantly if there is a chip out of the paint.’ How sad is that? And yet, it has to be said that some professing Christians in effect do that with churches. Not in terms of turning up to look at the paintwork, but neglecting the whole point of being there- namely, getting stuck into the spiritual work. They may attend a church fellowship, scrutinise it, comment on it, but don’t do what they are meant to do, namely be part of it in worshipful service. Well, tonight we turn to a passage which puts paid to that comment you so often hear, namely, ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’, because being committed to Christ, as we have heard from our new friends tonight, means being committed to the church, because Christ is in his church. To know and serve the one means knowing and serving the other.
As we have been seeing over the last few weeks some previous correspondence had been going on between Paul and this church in the sea port of Corinth. And what is it that is the big issue that the believers have raised which we see in this passage? It is there in verse 1, ‘Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I don’t want you to be ignorant.’ Actually, word for gifts- charismata- is not used there in the original, although it appears in the rest of the chapter. A better translation would be, ‘Now about spirituals I don’t want you to be ignorant. (pneumatikon). What are these spiritual things? They include a number of things, but especially what is called speaking in tongues, which is the main concern of this whole section running from chapter 12- 14. It is quite clear that some Corinthian Christians who had this ability to speak in a foreign language which was not natural to them, as Paul puts it in 13:1 ‘languages of men or of angels’-were taking this as a mark of real spirituality, a superior gift. And while Paul does not deny that such a gift is from God, he is at pains to put this gift firmly in its place. For a start, he always places it at the bottom of the list of gifts, when some of the Corinthians would not doubt have it at the top for example v30. In chapter 14:18 he says that he speaks in more tongues than any one of them, but that he would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct people in the Gospel than 10,000 words in tongues. In other words it is not such a big a deal as the Corinthian’s were making out.
The point is, by some Corinthians taking tongue speaking as the Gift - the possession of which was taken as the mark of a spiritual person. The result-? Division- the creation of a spiritual premier division and a spiritual underclass, those who have the gift and are ‘in’ and those who do not have the gift and are ‘out’. And for the sake of the well being of the church Paul has to correct that. And that is what we see him doing here. So what kind of spiritual health check can we apply to ourselves as a church to see if we are functioning as God wants us to function? Paul highlights three things.
First, Jesus is always exalted-vv 1-3. ‘Now about spiritual things, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. 2You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3Therefore I tell you 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.’ Do you see what Paul is doing here? He is pointing to the real hallmark of the possession of God’s Spirit by drawing attention to what the Holy Spirit does. Do you want to know what a real miracle is? It is not being enabled to speak in some strange ecstatic language, but it is being able to speak nonetheless. And it is what is spoken that is the amazing thing- did you notice what that was? It is that Jesus is Lord. Now why is that so amazing? Well, to understand that Paul reminds these people what they were only a few years ago. They were heathen pagans, who for all their cleverness and sophistication were being led by the nose into the worship of idols that couldn’t speak, and you cannot get anything more ridiculous than that. And you can be quite sure that as with many pagan cults around at this time with their impressive priesthoods, priestesses, and rituals, many ecstatic utterances took place. And it is quite probable that tongue speaking was also part of such rituals as with the cults of Dionysius and Cybele- after all, there are some Muslims today who also speak in tongues, so tongue speaking is neither here no there as a mark of God at work. And what does Paul means when he says that no one is speaking by the Spirit if he says, ‘Jesus is cursed’? Well that is not a good translation. It could be ‘Jesus- curse’ that is, in the name of Jesus I pronounce a curse. You ask: would a Christian do such a thing? Yes, they would and, furthermore they did. It was accepted as common practice in the Roman world that you could use the name of your God to put a curse on those who were giving you a hard time. And there are actual records from the early church in Egypt of a Christian curse, that is, a Christian woman using the name of Jesus to put a hex on somebody. Now we may not exactly do that today, but we can think it can’t we? In our hearts we can hope that God will give that person what for because of the way they have treated us- even, sad to say, fellow Christians. And that, says Paul should not be going on, the Holy Spirit doesn’t do that sort of thing.
So you are here tonight and you are a Christian. What is it that is remarkable about you? What is it that is a sure sign that you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you? It is this: that from the heart you can say ‘Jesus is Lord’. And if you cannot say that, not just mouthing the words, a parrot can do that, not just going through the motions because your parents or your friends have taught you to do that, but if in your heart of hearts you do not believe and so practice that Jesus is Lord, then no matter what experiences you may have had, no matter even if you can perform the odd miracle or two- you do not have the Holy Spirit and you do not belong to Christ. And what you need to do is to pray for that miracle to happen to you, to ask God to open your eyes so that you can make the confession, ‘Jesus is my Lord.’ Those who have stood here tonight have in effect declared that above everything else they want to see Jesus exalted.
The second point Paul makes is this: The Trinity is always reflected vv 4- 6: ‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.’ I am sure that looking around you this evening it will not have escaped your notice that we are not all the same in church and nor do we all have the same gifts. And this diversity within the church has its roots in God himself. In terms of his purpose God loves variety. What does God do when he freezes water? He makes snow flakes, every single one of them unique and different. What do we do when we freeze water? We make ice cubes, everyone exactly the same as the other. God loves variety, but not a dispersed chaotic variety, but a unified, working –together- kind of variety being united in a common faith and a common purpose- knowing Jesus and making him known. And it is here that Paul draws on this wonderful picture of the church as a ‘body’, but not just any body, but the body of Christ, -v 12, ‘The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.’ Every Christian is spiritually, organically related to every other Christian as they are linked to Christ by His Spirit. You can’t be a ‘Lone Ranger Christian’ and even the Lone Ranger wasn’t really alone, even he had Tonto. Those here tonight that have reaffirmed their baptismal vows have in effect committed themselves to each of us. Just as in the wedding service the groom and the bride are no longer two but one, so the man can no longer go off and do his own thing, he has his wife to consider, to cherish and love, so it is with us who are, to use another picture of the Church - the bride of Christ. We now have an obligation to each other, which is why we have to meet together on a Sunday to be with each other so we can serve each other. This is an amazing picture Paul is using, to think that the God of the universe, who is so large that the universe is less than the size of a matchbox to him, should unite himself with us, and so unite us with each other! You cannot get a greater level of intimacy than that. That is what we are- his Body in this place.
And what the church is as a body in terms of its unity and diversity, God is within his own eternal being. There is one God but there are three persons within the Godhead, each person having a different function to perform within the overall economy of our salvation. The term ‘gifts’- charismata- tells us what God the Spirit gives- they are love gifts. The term service, diakonia, ministries- tells us what the Son gives them for- service for others. The term workings or energisings -energemata- tells us how God the Father brings them into operation in our lives-by his power. So these gifts which come from God the Holy Spirit, are meant to enable us to express the servanthood of the Son and we are enabled to do so solely by the power of the God the Father.
So if within the being of the Godhead the different persons have different roles to play and yet all are equally God and so one- then we should not be surprised to see this being reflected within the family of God -the church.
Now do you see what a terrible thing it is to look down on a fellow Christian who doesn’t have the gifts that you have but simply different ones? It means that we think God has got it wrong. That the Holy Spirit has given me the right gift, but somehow failed to give it to someone else. Christian pride is not only self-contradictory it is plain ugly. But when God is working properly through his people, as they freely offer themselves to him and each other in loving service, it is one of the most beautiful things in the whole wide world. Which brings us to Paul’s third point- Believers are always nurtured-vv 7-11.
Now note what Paul is saying here.
First, that all Christians have gifts, they are not the possession of a small elite- ‘to each one the manifestation of the Spirit has been given’- v7. Why is that? Well because all Christians have been baptised by the Spirit and so has the Holy Spirit working through them- look further down at v13- ‘For we were all baptised by One Spirit into one body.’ If you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit in his fullness without remainder living within you and working through you, gifting you.
Secondly, not all Christians have all the gifts. Having given a sample list of gifts, which is certainly not an exhaustive list, Paul says in v11 ‘All these are the work of the one Spirit, and he gives them to each one has he determines.’ The Sovereign Lord exercises his right of discretion. We may desire certain gifts but we cannot demand them. That is why it is wrong when some Christian groups say unless you have this gift of tongue speaking or whatever it may be, then you are not a full and complete Christian. The fact is you have the Holy Spirit because you trust in Jesus who is the giver of the Spirit.
Thirdly, gifts are to be used, v7, ‘for the common good’. Now let us be clear about what these gifts are that are to be used to help build up other Christians, the church. Sometimes Christians make the mistake of thinking that because they do not have more up front gifts like teaching, or more spectacular gifts, they don’t have any gifts. This is often because we make false division between ‘natural gifts’ and ‘spiritual gifts’- when in fact for a Christian natural gifts can become spiritual gifts. Natural gifts are given by our Creator God, but two things happen to some of these natural gifts when Jesus becomes your Redeemer God. First of all, the motivation and direction of the use of the gifts changes. As Paul spells out in chapter 13, Christian love shapes our motivation is in using our gifts, and serving other believers determines the direction in which we use those gifts, namely, outwards towards other people. Before I became a believer whatever gifts I had I simply used in the service of self. Sure, I might help others on and off, but often because there was something which was in it for me. That has to stop when you become a Christian. The use of gifts is meant to build up other fellow believers in love and not puff ourselves up in pride. But in the second place, the Holy Spirit heightens our gifts. When I was 14 years old I won a prize in a public speaking contest- that seemed to indicate I had some natural skills in oratory. Now God by his Spirit empowers that oratory to teach the Bible. You may have a gift in music, encouragement, administration, practical matters-called the gift of helps- I don’t know what gifts you have but you do have gifts. Now the question is what are you doing with them? God has not saved you just to be pew fodder- that would have been a terrible reason for the giving of God’s greatest gift- his Son to die on a cross wouldn’t it? Can you imagine that? The Son of God leaving the lofty heights of heaven and the worship of angels to take human form, to bleed on a cross so that we could sit on a wooden bench for an hour once a week? No, put simply, you are saved to serve, as Jesus came to serve so that we might be saved.
Think of it like this. Just supposing I have been given a gift of a power drill for my birthday? There it is nicely wrapped in its box. What do I do? Well, I decide to lock it away in a cupboard and there it stays. Then a shelf falls down. But instead of getting out the drill, I just let the shelf hang. If you think about it, I might as well not have been given the gift in the first place if I am not going to use it. Friends, this church needs your gifts-whatever they are. We need more people to help keep up the fabric of this place, we need singers, we need folk to welcome at the door, we need people to help us in our finances, we need people to teach our children and young people, to work amongst international people, show hospitality, do evangelism-the list is endless as is the work. And all it takes is for you to get up and say- here I am, test my gifts by all means- but what can I do?
A famous conductor once stopped a full symphony orchestra in full flight saying. ‘Stop, I can’t hear the piccolo.’ And you know, God is like that. He has called us into his divine orchestra and he wants to hear us. The question is: are we barely audible so we are hardly noticed at all? Or, on the other hand, are we so loud that we are drowning out others so they can’t get a look in? He wants to hear the piccolo- the smallest instrument- it still matters. Why are we here tonight- to worship God? Yes. But worship is bigger than praise, it includes that other element Paul is illustrating here with the picture of the Body-service or to use the more religious word, ‘minister’. The church tends to oscillate between idolising their clergy and despising them. A visitor from Britain in the United States saw three types of toilet in a building: ‘Men, women and clergy.’ Let me ask: Who are the ministers at St John’s? Is it myself, Lee and Scott- are we the ministers? Is it just us plus the members of the staff team? No. That is a woefully incomplete list. Everyone here tonight who is a follower of Jesus is a minister of Jesus. At this point could I gently ask: what attitude do you come with when you come through those doors? Is it- ‘What can I get out of it?’ or is it ‘What can I put into it?’ God is gifting you for our benefit and he means you to express that supremely when Christians gather together. And you know, just by being here, your presence is a ministry. To have a larger number of people singing has a different feel to it compared to just a few, so please don’t ever think. ‘Oh I will give it a miss tonight, no one will miss me’- yes we will, and especially if a dozen other people think the same thing! To have a big toe missing still means that the Body is incomplete even if the hand is still attached. So let’s not short change our brothers and sisters in Christ by being lax about church, which after all is the centre piece of history as far as God is concerned. Jesus died for you so that you could minister to the others he has died for. Please don’t let him down by being sporadic in attendance or isolationist when you do come, look out for people to talk to and show warmth to. You may not know some of the folk who have stood up here this evening, well, let me ask you to get to know them and for them to get to k now you. You do matter- honestly-we all matter to God and we should all matter to each other.
A friend of mine who is the senior minister at a church in Nottingham was telling me of a time when the church was going through a difficult time with the church members, to be frank being less than charitable with each other. And yet one day a non-Christian came into a service and afterwards commented, ‘It was like walking into a wall of love’. No church is perfect, the body is growing and is still in need of the occasional health check, but there is something special about being here with each other, because Christ is here, His Spirit is at work, he is in the business of building that ‘wall of love’. Let’s now ask God that he will use each one of us to do it.
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