I Corinthians 12:1-31
For the next few Sundays we are going to take a little journey through 1Corinthians, Paul’s letter to the church located at Corinth, Greece. A little background will help us. The Apostle Paul was the church’s most successful missionary. He was responsible for the spread of Christianity to Asia Minor and Europe. Before Paul became an Apostle, there were only a few churches in and around Jerusalem. Paul got busy and by the time he died, he had started churches throughout the Mediterranean region evangelizing right up to his death. Sources outside the Bible tell us that Paul was executed in Rome, but while he was waiting for his trial, he was kept under house arrest where he continued to receive visitors and write to his churches about Christ.
Paul is not mentioned in the Gospels because he never knew Jesus. Once people began following Jesus, Paul became a persecutor of Christians. Acts 9, tells us that Saul, got a list of names of those who belonged to —“the way” so that he might bring them bound to Jerusalem for trial. Saul witnessed and approved of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was not simply someone who supplied the names; he actually participated in the persecuting.
Until he had a life-changing conversion experience in which he encountered the risen Christ. He was walking down the road to Damascus and Scripture says that there was a light from heaven and a voice that said, “Saul, Saul, why do your persecute me?” He was literally blinded by the experience for several days. After Saul recovered from the experience and was filled with the Holy Spirit, his name was changed from Saul to Paul and Paul became a follower of Christ with the same zeal that he once used in his persecution of Christians.
Paul traveled north from Jerusalem up the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and into what is now Turkey and Greece, starting Gentile churches in many of the places along the way. Although Paul was Jewish, he was called to minister and evangelize to Gentiles. One of the churches that he started was in Corinth, Greece near the Aegean Sea.
Scripture tells us that Paul visited Corinth on more than one occasion. He wrote several letters to the church in Corinth. In fact, 1st Corinthians was not his first letter to the church, as he makes reference to a previous letter, of which there are no copies.
Paul had a deep love for the church at Corinth. He praised them and supported them but he also let them know where they were going astray. He wanted to guide them in their new faith and they did not seem to be getting much right when it came to “how to properly follow Jesus.”
The Corinthians did not grow up in the faith. The majority of them were Gentile. They worshipped pagan deities, which would have included offering sacrifices and that sort of thing.
Pagan worship was the norm, and was the only form of worship the Gentiles would have known, but it did not require a different lifestyle. They had been part of the main stream. The lenses through which the Gentiles had always looked at the world was the lens of the dominant culture.
The Roman culture was very segregated. The Roman life we all know from school was actually the life of the wealthy, powerful Romans. A very small percentage of the population was educated and lived well, the overwhelming majority were second class citizens who were uneducated, had no power and lived in poverty. There were more slaves than free people. People lived the life into which they were born and they understood their roles. The poor knew how to speak and act and what to expect when around people of power. The people who had power, for the most part, expected to be treated with reverence and did not concern themselves with oppressed people – this was just how it was supposed to be.
So the people who joined the new Christian movement were told that society’s way of looking at the world was not right. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes, including slaves and their masters. This was a new concept and is partially why the early movement was so successful. Those who lived an oppressed life with no hope for any change, were drawn to the movement that said, “you are loved and cherished equally in God’s eyes.” And when you come to church, you should be treated the same as those who are your masters in the community.
This new understanding is also what got Christians in trouble. People with power and wealth were outnumbered 4 to 1 by slaves. They did not want the lower classes getting the idea that they were equal. The lifestyle of the wealthy would be in jeopardy by such a message. The Romans in power wanted to keep things just as they were and so the oppressed risked their very lives to become part of a movement that promised freedom and equality.
And this is the situation in which the Corinthian church found itself. So listen now as I read chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians.
Within the church, there were people who were claiming spiritual superiority because of the gifts that they had, most especially the ability to speak in tongues. It seems that the Corinthians saw speaking in tongues as a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit. If I speak in tongues, it is because I am consumed by the Holy Spirit and the fact that you don’t must mean that you are not filled with the Spirit. Since I have more Spirit, I should have more power and influence in the church. I am closer to God, after all.
But Paul wrote that is not how it works in the church. One talent or gift is no better or worse than another. We have different gifts and services with which we have been blessed. Every gift, service and activity comes from the Spirit. Everyone who claims that Jesus is Lord has an equal measure of the Spirit! The Holy Spirit gives these gifts not for the individual but for the benefit of the entire community. Unlike society which values some people more than others, God does not. God is concerned with the whole community, the entire church, so that any talent a person has is to be used for the betterment of the community.
John-Mark and I are blessed to have 3 healthy children who happen to be very bright. They have all always done well at school. And there were times when this was a problem for them. One day when Elijah was still in elementary school, I picked up the kids from school and on our ride home, I heard about the day. Elijah told me about a lesson that he understood immediately but some kids did not. He was frustrated that some of his classmates took forever to “get it.” This situation became a teachable moment for me. For the rest of the ride home, the kids got to hear me give them the same lesson Paul gave the church at Corinth.
“You guys have been blessed by God with intelligence. You have done nothing to be intelligent. You do not spend all your extra time studying. You have done nothing to earn this blessing, but God blessed you with the gift of intelligence for a reason but it was not for your own good. God blesses each of us with gifts and talents that are to be used for the good of God’s community. Our job is to figure out how we can best do that. It is never appropriate to feel or act superior if we catch on to a new concept at school or if we are good at sports or anything else. Your friends may not be as good at math, but they each have also been blessed by God with gifts, equal in God’s eyes, to be used for the betterment of God’s world.”
This is not an easy concept for a child to understand and to be honest, it is not a concept that our culture supports. In the United States, we value the rich and famous. When someone has a lot of money, they are respected, even if what they did to get that money in no way benefits the community. The executives and owners of Wal-Mart, for instance, are very, very wealthy – while nearly 80% of their employees use food stamps to feed their families and medical cards for their children. And Wal-Mart is just ONE example. In so many ways, our culture has not changed much from Roman times. We live as if we are not equal, we live as if people deserve to be poor.
Paul used the analogy of the human body to the church. He said we are the body of Christ. We are baptized into the body. And just as the foot cannot say, because I am not a hand, I don’t belong, neither can any one of us say, because I am not wealthy or a good speaker, I don’t belong. We all belong and we all have a part to play.
The body only functions well when all parts are healthy. Similarly, the body of Christ, the church, does not function well unless we all use our gifts and do our part. We are to use our gifts, talents, services and work for the betterment of God’s world. Each of you here along with those who are not present here with us today, are part of the body of Christ. The body of Christ is not Providence Christian Church, it is not even the Disciples of Christ, BUT it is the universal church. We are all baptized members of this one body and we all participate in its work.
Tomorrow, we remember and celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr’s life. We celebrate his ideas that all people are equal in God’s eyes and therefore should be to the nation. We remember his great speeches, like “I have a Dream.” We remember his courage in the face of dogs, water hydrants and police with batons. We remember his marches and his arrests and time in jail. But I hope that we especially remember his incredible faith and ministry. Martin Luther King did not want to be a civil rights leader. He wanted to be the pastor of a church like his father. He wanted to just be a husband and a father. He resisted the early efforts to get him to take a leadership role. And even after he became the face of the movement, he prayed to God to take the burden from him – to release him from this dangerous and very scary work. He knew his life and the lives of his family were in danger. But when he prayed, instead of releasing him, God gave him peace in his heart and perseverance in his spirit. Martin Luther King was part of the body of Christ, blessed with an important message and gifted in voice and speech and God called him to use these gifts not for Martin and not for his family, but for God’s oppressed children.
Some of us are teachers, some of us are speakers, some of us are good with figures, some with writing, some of us are good cooks, some are good at decorating, some of us are strong singers and some of us at playing the piano or organ, some of us are good at fixing things and some at problem solving, some of us are caregivers and some of us are thoughtful, some of us have just the right words to say and some of us are full of wisdom, —the list and the gifts are endless.
We are all equal in God’s eyes and we all have been blessed by the Spirit of God with gifts. We have not earned the gifts and we do not deserve them. They are gifts from God, given for the benefit of the whole community. Jesus said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The body of Christ is only as healthy as the individual members of which it is comprised. The body needs for every part to do his or her job. God needs for each of us to let our light shine.
When Martin Luther King, Jr first began to lead the civil rights movement, he said he knew that he would have the support of the churches and especially the pastors. Unfortunately, the white church, as a whole, turned its back on King and on Christ. I wonder what Paul would have written to the white churches in the south. I wonder what he would have said.