1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Once in a great while, I start to fantasize about how grand it might be to go back to the first century church. There are some really awesome things about the early church that would be wonderful to return to, but there are also some really terrible things about the early church that make me thankful that I’m not living in the first century, and that I’m not a part of that brand-new, just getting started Christian Church.
On the one hand, the enthusiasm and the dedication and the commitment of that first century church would be hard to beat. They were an excited and fired-up bunch. The church was growing very quickly, people from all over the place were responding to the message of the Gospel, they were confessing their sins, getting baptized, and lives were being transformed, some dramatically and others miraculously. That’s the really good side of being part of the very early Christian church.
The not so good side of being part of the early church is closely related, and it involves the kinds of people who responded to the Gospel message. First of all, there were the Jews. Jews were the first ones to respond to the teachings of the apostles. It was a huge leap for them, but as the Gospel message went out, many Jews began to understand that Jesus was indeed their long anticipated and long expected Messiah. Often-times though, when a Jew gave his or her life to Jesus Christ, they were shunned by their friends and loved ones, who continued to believe that Jesus was nothing more than a pretend messiah who had led many people astray by perverting the true essence of the Jewish faith. And so we’ve got people in the church who are grieving the loss of their friends and loved ones, but who are also fully convinced that they’ve done the right thing. That’s not an easy place to be. And, as time went on, it wasn’t just Jews who were responding to the Good News, some Gentiles also joined the church, and here’s where things get really messy. Gentiles have zero understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They have their own gods, and they’ve got lots of them. Their sense is that if one god is good, then lots of them is even better. Keeping track of all of those gods was a bit of a challenge, and keeping them all happy was an even greater challenge.
And lo and behold, when these two very disparate groups came together in the Christian church, there was tension. Actually let’s call it fighting. It turns out, that in spite of the fact that many new Christians had their lives transformed dramatically and miraculously, others were not quite that quick in coming. Old habits and old practices die hard sometimes, even when we’ve found salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. It was especially difficult, and often frightening for the Gentiles to toss all of their old gods out the window all at once. Believe it or not, those gods had been pretty helpful to them from time to time, and they were not that easy to give up. And lest we be too tempted to judge them harshly, keep in mind that most of us have a favorite sin that we have very little intention of giving up any time soon.
And then, horror of horrors, slaves were responding to the message of the Gospel, and while they were outwardly and openly welcomed into the church, lots of people, deep down and quietly, didn’t really want them there. They weren’t our type.
And that was essentially the whole problem. We’ve got lots of people, gathered together in one place who just aren’t each other’s type. And because not everyone is a perfect Christian, there was some oneupmanship going on. Lots of “I’m better than you because…” and “I’m better than you because…” kind of stuff. And that’s never helpful, of course, and we’d never admit it out loud that it happens in the modern church, too.
And so Paul opens our passage this morning by saying, we’ve got a situation here folks. You’re all from different backgrounds, different walks of life, and no one but God would have ever brought you together like this, so rather than despair over the situation, let’s create an opportunity out of it. Let’s turn a difficult thing into a good thing, because what’s happening now, is that you’re all behaving like human beings, and not so much like people who have had their lives transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of you are behaving like you’re absolutely indispensable to the church, and the rest of you are feeling like you’re of no use to the church whatsoever. So let’s set the ground rules here. Yes, you are all different. But you are also all alike. It doesn’t matter where you came from or who you are. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, it doesn’t even matter whether you are a slave or not. What matters now is that you are a Christian. You now have Jesus Christ in common, and that is what we will focus on.
But because you have been behaving like human beings, let’s take a look at the human body, and see if we can’t learn something about the church.
It turns out that the human body is a very apt metaphor for the Christian church, and the Apostle Paul pushes that metaphor to limits that we may or may not be comfortable with.
Each of us has only one body. That’s painfully obvious, but that’s where Paul begins. But each of our bodies has lots of different parts. And quite amazingly, because God has arranged it to be this way, these various parts get along extraordinarly well. And they couldn’t be more different from one another. The strong implication being that if God has arranged the human body to be this way, then God has also arranged the Christian Church to be this way. It is God’s intention that the Christian church be made up of various and very different components that function together to create a whole. And so in the human body, while eyes are very important, they wouldn’t be of very much value if there weren’t feet somewhere to help get them around. Eyes are sensitive sorts of things and it wouldn’t do them any good to go rolling around in the dirt looking for someplace to go, because before long, they’d be so full of little bits of grit that they couldn’t see anything anyway. Eyes need feet. And so Paul goes through this whole very humorous description of the human body, reminding everyone who will listen, that every body part needs every other body part to function properly. Eyes need feet, hands need noses, ears need fingers, and so on and so on. The bits and pieces of the human body only work when they cooperate together.
But beneath the humor, Paul addresses two very critical issues that were plaguing the church at Corinth. The first issue that he tackles is the attitude of the folks in the church who were feeling, that compared to others, they were just about useless to the church. Now Paul doesn’t identify these folks, because he knows better than to do something like that, but in every church, there are always going to be some folks who feel like they just don’t fit in. They look at some of the more prominent members of the church, and they think, “I could never be like that. I could never get up there and do that sort of thing.” Whatever that sort of thing might be. And so even though they don’t like it, they learn to get comfortable thinking about themselves as little old significant me. Not much to give, not much to contribute, certainly not like the others, anyway. Paul addresses this attitude with just two sentences. He says, “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. 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.” It turns out that there are no little old significant me’s in the Christian church. All are a part, all have something to do, all have something to contribute, and all have something to give.
And so setting that straight, Paul moves on to address the attitude of those who believe that they are absolutely essential to the church. In modern speak, this attitude expresses itself by saying, “I don’t know how this church would operate without me.” In Apostle Paul speak, it goes like this: “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.”‘ Again, Paul does not identify this group of Christians in the church, partly because he doesn’t need to, and partly because he shouldn’t, but if I were to guess, I’d venture that he was talking to the Jews. There’s something about being first in line, with a good long heritage that could have made some of the Jews in the church at Corinth develop this attitude.
And finally, Paul talks about the body parts that no one else will. These are the parts that should never be mentioned in polite company. And even Paul resorts to eupuemism here. Paul says, “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think are less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.”
I’m convinced that Paul is making reference to slaves here. In the first century, slaves were a totally seperate class. They had their place, and that place was definately beneath both Jew and Gentile. Slaves were property, and both Jew and Gentile owned them. And nobody, not even good Christians knew how to integrate them into the church. What in the world do we do with folks who neither belong nor fit anywhere? Paul’s answer? Clothe the dishonorable with honor and treat the less respectable with respect.
And this is where it all comes together. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we are, Christ died for all. And in the Christian church, all are equal, all are necessary, and all are loved. When all is said and done, there are no big kahunas in the Christian Church, there are no little old insignificant me’s, and there are no persons beneath any of us, for we are all merely, and wonderfully and amazingly brothers and sisters of one another, and the children of a loving God. And that’s because God has arranged things to be this way. It is God who has put all of the pieces together.