YOU ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST
A sermon preached by Rev. Richard A. Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, Quebec. January 25, 2004. 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
For just as the human body is a unity and yet has many parts, and all the parts, though many, form a single body, so it is with the body of Christ. . . .Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
– 1 Corinthians 12:12; 27
“Now you are the body of Christ,” we read. This sounds like the language we use at communion, doesn’t it? Only there we say, “This is the body of Christ.” Yet the church has long taught that by consuming the body of Christ we become the body of Christ. That just as God became incarnate in Jesus, so does Christ become incarnate in us when we receive the bread and the cup. Now in our reading for today from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul is spelling out what this means.
In this reading he continues to write about spiritual gifts. This term "spiritual gifts" is one that we do not use very much in the United Church, although I am seeing and hearing it more than I used to, and in some other churches, it is used quite regularly. In this passage we see that when St. Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, he challenged them quite strongly about their notion of spiritual gifts. What had happened was that an elitism had developed there which was based on whether or not a person had the spiritual gift of ecstatic speech, or what was also called "speaking in tongues." In chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians, we find that Paul is challenging the superiority complex of the Corinthian Christians – and in particular those who had the gift of ecstatic speech. As we saw last week, he told them that there were many different kinds of gifts, that they were all given by God through the Spirit, and that all of them were given for the common good.
Now you and I may not have the ability to speak in tongues, but the temptation to elitism is just as real in the church today as it was then. For as Christians we can be tempted to think that we are better than other people for some reason or another. (I have very clear memories of that message when I was growing up.) And sometimes we may even think that we are better than our Christian sisters and brothers. But this assumption of superiority – this view that either we or our church are better than others – is contradicted by St. Paul, who said that our spiritual gifts are given for the common good; and not to bring about division in the church.
In today's reading Paul continues this line of thought, as he compares the church to a human body: it has different parts, but all are parts of the same body, and the body is able to function properly because they are different. None of them are superior to others.
What this all means is that as Christian people we cannot think of ourselves as better than others, nor for that matter can we think ourselves better than the whole body – the Church – and think that we have it right and everyone else has it wrong.
Then again, you may not think that you are better than other Christians. You may not think that you have some special spiritual gift, and that others are not truly Christians because they lack this gift. In fact, you may think just the opposite. You may think that instead of having some spectacular spiritual gift, you don't have any spiritual gifts at all, or that the ones you have don’t count for very much.
If you are a person who sees things that way, these words of St. Paul are for you too. In verse 13 he says that "in baptism, by the one Spirit we have all been made one body....We have all shared in one Spirit." So then, it is by virtue of our baptism that we possess spiritual gifts – and everyone has at least one. Sometimes we may not realize that we have it. Sometimes we may not have identified just what our spiritual gifts are. And sometimes we do not realize that the gifts that we have truly are spiritual gifts.
You see, for so long these very words "spiritual gifts" have been used to refer to such unusual things, that we may not believe that what we have are spiritual gifts at all. St. Paul goes on to speak about this when he says, “Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it.” And here we find another list of these gifts: apostles, preachers, teachers; miracle workers, healing, helpers, administrators, and those who have the gift of ecstatic speech. (12:27-28)
In our day this list may sound a bit extraordinary; but really the most striking thing about this list is how ordinary it was in Corinth in the first century. Only a few of these things were somewhat unusual, and even they were much more common at that time than they are today. All the rest of the list involves activities that you and I either do or encounter on a regular basis. This is especially true of things like helpers and administrators. These were not some spectacular demonstration of spiritual power. These are people who do windows and push paper!
And Paul includes these things among the gifts that God has given to his people for the benefit of the whole church – the body of Christ. He compares it to our human bodies: if they are to function effectively, every part of the body must do its part. And the same things applies to the spiritual body – to the Church of Jesus Christ. Since we are members of that body, each and every one of us has a function to perform as part of the whole body – and for the good of the whole body; and if we don’t do it, then as the church we are not as effective as God wants us to be.
I can remember times and places when I asked a church member to take on a particular responsibility, and their reply was, "I can't do that; I'm just a housewife." Or "I'm just a working man." And you know, it may be that our gifts are not suitable for some responsibilities, but let us not think that our spiritual gifts are so small and unimportant that they are not needed in the body of Christ. Each one of us receives gifts from God for the benefit of the whole body. In fact, there are churches thriving throughout the world because of the gifts that God has given to housewives and working people and retired folks and and youth. . . .and the list goes on. And how does this happen? Simply by our using the gifts that God has given us. So must we all.
In summary, let us first realize that our Christian life is not limited to our private inner experience, but it also includes what we do together as God’s people. True spirituality involves our togetherness; and we especially experience the power of Christ when as the church we are faithful in our discipleship – spending ourselves and being spent in the service of Jesus Christ.
Secondly, let us affirm the importance of all spiritual gifts, and not just the ones that are the most visible. Paul makes it quite clear that in the human body, it is the hidden parts which are given the most honour. It is often that way with the church too; and the things that are least considered may turn out to be the most significant ones for our common life.
And finally, it is by the work of the Holy Spirit that we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. Let us pray that we may discern the gifts that God has given us; then let us commit our selves and our gifts to the upbuilding of the church, and to its faithful service and discipleship in the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.