Follow Me – Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Baptism: “Honor the Body”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
I Corinthians 12:12-27
January 30, 2022
Our New Testament reading, which I will read in a few minutes, comes from the 12th chapter of I Corinthians. In the previous chapter, chapter 11, Paul offered an excursus regarding divisions within the church. It seems there were some problems about how they were sharing, or not sharing, the Lord’s supper.
As a background to the issue, the congregation in Corinth was diverse, not only in spiritual gifts, but also in ethnicity and religious background and social status. The Corinthian congregation, like many of the earliest churches, met in someone’s home, or likely in the courtyard area of a someone’s home, and the persons who made up the body of the church in Corinth, perhaps the only church in Corinth at the time, were both rich and poor persons, both Jewish persons and Greek persons, both slaves and free.
We should note that slavery in first century Corinth was quite different than pre-civil war slavery in the United States. Slaves in Corinth were often those who had become bound to another because of a financial obligation. Can you imagine how many “slaves” there would be today if credit card debt or failed business loans would bind a debtor to another person as a servant until the debt was paid?
Nevertheless, here is what was happening in the house church in Corinth… Some members of the church, likely those of higher social status, those who had flexibility in their schedules, would arrive early to the house church on a Sunday afternoon. They would indulge themselves on the bread and the wine made that had been made available. Some would over-eat and some would even become drunk on the wine. Later, other members of the congregation would arrive, likely those of a lower social status, like servants who were not able to come to worship until after they had finished their work, and there would be no bread left to share and no wine left to pour.
These poorer members of the body would then go away hungry, not only in body, but also in spirit. So Paul writes to the Corinthian Church:
“What?…What should I say to you?
Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!” (11:22) For the sake of the whole, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another”, wait to share in the sacrament of God’s love. (11:33)
Following this issue over the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11 comes chapter 12, which begins with a focus upon spiritual gifts. Paul begins the chapter with an appreciation of the diversity of spiritual gifts.
Paul claims that no one belongs more or less to the body depending on what gift they may have. It does not matter whether you have gifts of administration or the gift of speaking in tongues, or the gift of the utterance of wisdom or the gift of healing, all belong to the one body. Paul claims: “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
And he asserts that no one can claim superiority or greater belonging based upon their spiritual gifts. We honor the diversity of gifts within the body of Christ and, in the Presbyterian tradition, we have spoken often about the “priesthood of all believers”.
Spiritual gifts may be Paul’s primary emphasis in chapter 12, but it is certainly not Paul’s only emphasis. Hearkening back to chapter 11, it seems that some of the early Christians in Corinth were not only claiming superiority based on what they did in the life of the church, based on their spiritual gifts, but they were also claiming superiority based upon other characteristics, like their physical characteristics, or their religious background, or their ethnicity or station in life.
Paul’s response was that: “We were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free…”
Many of you are aware of the significant discussions that have arisen in the 21st century over the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. From the NFL to the Supreme Court to nearly every institution of higher learning to most corporations, issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion have come to the foreground. These same issues were at the heart of both practical considerations and deep theological discussion in the first century church in Corinth.
At heart, what we believe about such issues comes down to what we believe about God and about God’s good intentions for humankind.
Hear the Word of God: I Corinthians 12:12-27
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. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to 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. And if the ear were to 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. 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?
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 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.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 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; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
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.
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Who belongs? And who decides who belongs?
The feeling of belonging, I suppose, like many other feelings, begins within the nuclear family. We are taught at a young age who belongs and who does not belong. Sometimes we are taught with words, sometimes we are taught with actions. Sometimes we learn who belongs and who does not by lack of action or by silence.
Rooted deeply in the ministry of Jesus Christ and in the letters of Paul, rooted deeply in what I have learned in the church over my lifetime, is that you and I belong. We belong to God; we belong to Christ Jesus; we belong at Christ’s table.
And there is always room for one more at the table. Friend or foe, like-minded or not, same background or not, same race or not… there is always room at Christ’s table and there is always bread and wine to be shared at Christ’s table for the next person who shows up to be seated.
When I was preparing newsletters to mail to youth groups years ago, I would most always include this one silly clip art of a young, scruffy guy dragging a smiling friend across the floor by the collar. The caption for the clip art read:
“Bring a friend”, communicating regularly and consistently that friends would always be welcome. Over the last several years, I have communicated, probably not often enough, that the ideal for every small group or Bible study that gathers is that there would always be room for one more, that at least one person among the group would be someone who is not currently a member of this church.
In the Church of Jesus Christ, friends, and even foes, are welcome at God’s table. We are always anticipating the next person who might arrive to join in the feast. And we are not to limit our ideas of who might be seated at the table.
We do not yet know whom God might call to join our fellowship.
Now, this potential of belonging strikes both ways. Paul makes clear that the individual is not to presuppose whether they truly belong or not. And the body of members is not to presuppose whether the individual is to belong. One might look at a particular congregation and think, Oh, I am too old, or I am too young, or think, my skin is too dark, or my skin too light, or my background is too different.
Though one may think this, one cannot claim: “I do not belong,” because there is already a place set for them at God’s table, and that person just may become indispensable to that congregation.
Likewise, someone within a congregation may look at another and think, that that person is too old or too young, or that that person’s skin is too dark, or too light, or that person comes from too different a background, but they cannot claim: “you do not belong,” because a place has been set for that person at God’s table as well, and that person just may become indispensable to that congregation.
Instead of divisions based upon personal characteristics or religious background or social station or race, Paul encourages mutual respect and other-oriented love. Instead of pride over one’s particular place or position, Paul encourages humility and other-oriented concern.
Consider this – the body of Christ, the Church, does not have geo-political borders. All of this wrangling over the border of Russia and Ukraine, or the border of the United States and Mexico…the body of Christ does not have such borders. In the coming kin-dom of heaven we are one in Christ at God’s table.
Christian denominations have set up geographical or national boundaries for organizational purposes; but the large “C” Church has no borders, not when it comes to fellowship at the Table.
Consider this – the body of Jesus Christ does not have political parties. All of this wrangling between Republicans and Democrats, between the Right and the Left… In the coming kin-dom of heaven, there are no aisles that separate.
The Church will always include those who disagree on matters of great importance, but those who disagree will not sit on opposite sides and refuse to cooperate; they will sit as one at God’s table and regard one another with honor and mutual respect.
Paul writes “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Friends, you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
The members that seem to be weaker are indispensable.
The members we think less honorable are clothed with greater honor.
The members we think less respectable we treat with greater respect.
Is this counter cultural? No doubt.
Is this is difficult to accomplish in practice? Certainly.
And yet is this the way of Jesus Christ, the manner of Christ’s body, the Church? Yes.
You are the body of Christ, and individually each of us is important, each of us is an indispensable member.
Though each may have a different background, each of us belongs at the Table; each of us has a role to fulfill. Each of us has been given gifts to offer for the common good. And the most important gift any of us can give is love.
Paul ends chapter 12 with the comment: strive for the greater gifts, and I will show you a still more excellent way.
The still more excellent way is the way of love that Paul describes in chapter 13. Because without love, we are nothing. Without love, we gain nothing. Faith, hope and love will abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love. Love never ends, love shows us the way, God’s love teaches us who belongs.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 30, 2022