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Twentieth in a series
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
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. (1 Corinthians 12:12)
A parable is told about a group of animals deciding to improve their general welfare by starting a school. The curriculum included swimming, running, climbing and flying.
The duck, an excellent swimmer, was deficient in other areas. So he majored in climbing, running and flying, much to the detriment of his swimming. The rabbit, the superior runner, was forced to spend so much of his time in other classrooms that he soon lost much of his famed speed. The squirrel, who had been rated “A” as a climber, dropped to a “C,” because his instructor spent hours trying to teach him to swim and fly. And the eagle was disciplined for soaring to the treetops, when he had been told to learn how to climb, even though flying was most natural for him.
This parable circulated for years in educational circles as a reminder that people are different. Everyone is not the same. That’s the genius and glory as well as the frustration of being a human being. Some of us go through life banging our heads on the wall trying to break through into success in areas in which we simply are not gifted. Others of us exploit our gifts to the neglect of those who need us.
The apostle Paul, writing to the specific pathologies of the Corinthian church, shares insights just as relevant for us today.
His topic is that of spiritual gifts. He observes a community fragmented by those who had elevated their particular gift in a way that denigrated the importance of the gifts held by others. They viewed themselves as more important.
Paul was a master communicator. He had learned the basic pedagogical lesson so well. If you’re going to teach people, there needs to be both a teacher and a learner. The teacher must have a desire to teach and to have some knowledge that he or she desires to convey. The learner must have a passion to expand knowledge or expertise. The teacher who is a successful teacher is the one who conveys that knowledge in a language that is understandable to the learner.
I’ve sat in classes taught by professors who were overly impressed with their own brilliance. They used language that went above the heads of the students. I was intimidated by their intellectualism. It was only a couple of decades out of my formal academic training in my mid-40s that I was able to look back and realize that my best teachers were not the ones who used the most complex and erudite language. They were not the ones who were intent on impressing us students with their own brilliance. They were teachers who took their material and expressed it in a way that could be understood by the students.
There were some exceptions to this intellectual elitism. Back in 1990, Donn Moomaw, then the pastor of the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, and I spent a couple of weeks together in Scotland. One Sunday morning, we went to North Park Church in St. Andrews. We arrived early and were preparing ourselves for worship when we felt a tap on our shoulders. We turned around and were quite surprised to see that the person trying to get our attention was one of the greatest New Testament scholars in the world, Dr. Bruce Metzger, one of our professors of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He had just completed chairing the translation of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which we now use as our pew Bibles and for our teaching and preaching here at St. Andrew’s.
I was overwhelmed by the way in which Dr. Metzger introduced Donn and me to his companion of the morning, Principal Black of St. Mary’s College of the University of St. Andrews, also one of the foremost scholars in the world. He said, “Principal Black, I would like to introduce to you my two dear friends, Drs. Huffman and Moomaw. The three of us studied together at Princeton.” Donn and I were knocked off our feet with the humility of that introduction and have many times amused ourselves in recollection of that moment. Donn Moomaw has his unique gifts and, hopefully, so do I, but neither of us has been recognized to be two of the great research biblical scholars of our era. Persons endeavoring to be faithful exegetes of Scripture and teachers of the Word of God, yes. But Dr. Metzger’s comments expressed more about him than about us and the fact that he saw us a colleagues, equals, in a joint enterprise, not as lesser beings to be looked down upon.
Paul uses pictures of speech to put to rest once and for all that intellectual and theological elitism that elevates oneself and puts down others. One of his most effective illustrations of the church is his analogy taken from the human body. Instead of discussing the nature of Christian community in a highly sophisticated way, which would either confuse or bore the majority of us, he presents to us a homey picture. It is that of the human body. He likens the Christian church to the human physical body. He has already listed certain spiritual gifts that make up that body. Each of us is gifted in particular ways. We are to discover what our individual spiritual gifts are. Those gifts have been given us to cultivate and to use in the service of the rest of the body of Jesus Christ.
If I’m a duck for whom swimming comes naturally, although I may want to learn to climb, run and fly, I am a fool if I neglect swimming. That’s my area of giftedness. If I am a rabbit who comes by running naturally, I may take climbing, flying and swimming lessons, but I dare not do it to the neglect of running. As a squirrel who knows how to climb, swimming, flying and running are not areas of my primary expertise. I am not gifted in them. If I’m an eagle, how pathetic would it be to have my wings clipped by my desire to climb, run or swim, when I am able to soar high into the sky.
Even as the animal kingdom demonstrates the unique God-given giftedness to each of the animals, even so the church of Jesus Christ is made up of persons with unique gifts.
Today’s picture is that of the body. The church of Jesus Christ can be seen as the animal kingdom with many uniquely gifted living creatures, all of whom contribute to nature’s ecological balance. The church of Jesus Christ is like a physical body made up of individual parts, each of which has a function in ministering to the help of the entire organism.
Let’s look at four basic principles that emerge from Paul’s metaphor of the body.
Principle One: Diversity and unity function together in creative tension.
Another way of saying this is that, while we are not the same, each of us is important to the health of the whole.
Paul writes succinctly, “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 are all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).
This says that you and I who have received Jesus Christ as Savior have the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It makes no difference what our human backgrounds are – whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, male or female – when we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we are baptized into one body. Therein is the unity. This theme of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is confusing to some. They think that it is something you pray for later on in your Christian existence. Incorrect! We are baptized by the Holy Spirit when we, in authentic repentance, accept Jesus Christ as Savior. What we pray for as we move on in the process of sanctification is for the fullness of the Holy Spirit. This becomes a bit clearer to us when we understand the meaning of baptism. Baptism literally means “to change one’s identity.” When you come to faith in Jesus Christ, you have an identity change. You come with all the uniqueness that is yours in your human personality, and you become transplanted from that individualistic existence into the very body of Jesus Christ. You become one with Christ and with your brothers and sisters in Christ. This is unity. The body is one. That’s why wherever you travel in the world, you will meet brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ of different backgrounds, languages, political ideology. But when it comes to personal conversation and public worship, you have this sense of oneness, you’re in the same family, and you’re part of the same body.
At the same time, there is enormous diversity. You come into the body of Jesus Christ with that uniqueness, that giftedness which is yours, and you become an essential part of the body. The principle is diversity and unity functioning together in dynamic creative tension.
You take away some organ of the body and you end up with a body that is incomplete. You are crucial to the body of Jesus Christ. Its unity depends on you being who you were created to be, functioning in harmony within the body. Not only that, its health as a body depends on you functioning in that diversity which is yours, not trying to be what you are not. As in the metaphor of the animal kingdom, if you’re a duck, swim and quack. If you are a rabbit, run and nibble. If you are a squirrel, climb and jump. If you are an eagle, soar and perch. As to the body, if you are a hand, reach out and touch. If you are a heart, pump. If you are an eye, see. If you are a shoulder, carry. If you are a leg, stride. If you are a stomach, digest. If you are a brain, think. Maximize your diversity but do it with the sense of unity in which you function together with other parts of the body and that which ministers toward wholeness.
Principle Two: Competitive comparisons breed trouble.
Another way of saying this is that we desperately need each other. Face the fact that you are essential as you are, even as your brother and sister in Christ is as essential as he/she is. How sad when you want to be like that person and that person wants to be like you.
God makes no carbon copies. He specializes in originals. You are an original!
Paul had a fascinating sense of humor. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:15-19:
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. 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?
Let your imagination roam. Try to existentially identify with this metaphor. Have you ever coveted what someone else had only to feel that you would have a greater sense of belonging if you had what they had? You like the athletic ability of another person? Or you wish you had someone else’s beauty? Or you wish you had the intellectual brilliance of another? Or you covet the social skills of someone else?
Paul urges you to picture the feelings of each individual part of the body.
Imagine, for example, how a foot must feel. It’s not a particularly attractive appendage. For most of us, it looks better encased in a handsome shoe that covers corns and bunions. I can picture a foot wishing it were a hand. Think of all the things a hand can do. Wouldn’t it be better to be hand? Let me ask you which would be better balanced? A body with two feet and two hands? Or a body with four hands and no feet, a body that is cut off at the ankles?
What if an ear would say, “Because I’m not an eye, I do not belong to the body.” I have to admit I’ve seen some eyes that are much more beautiful than most ears at which I’ve looked. Picture those dark, piercing eyes that are so attractive. Look deep into those soft ethereal blue eyes of which the crooners sing. Compare them to an ear. If you are an ear evaluated through that grid, you’re going to get an inferiority complex. Take a good look right now at the ear of the person sitting in front of you. Strange looking, isn’t it? If the person has ears that are too large, they try to cover them a bit with a carefully arranged hairstyle. One of the sexes, in fact now both in some situations, hang items from those ears endeavoring to beautify the appearance. Can you imagine a body without ears? It would be pathetic, wouldn’t it, if a body could not hear but happened to have four eyes?
Now, as beautiful as is the eye, what would you think if the whole body were an eye, one huge big eye? There would be no hearing. Or if the whole body were an ear, a six-foot ear? There would be no sense of smell. Everybody needs a nose. Just imagine if this world was populated by single organs, each one walking around independent of the other, each one jealous of the other’s proclivities. This would be one mess of a world, wouldn’t it? To a greater extent, that is what has happened to the church of Jesus Christ. We are like individual organs of the body, either priding ourselves in our own individual expertise and giftedness, or wishing we weren’t what we are and instead wishing we were someone else with their individual gifts and abilities. We get stuck in that competitive comparison that breeds trouble.
Principle Three: Interdependence is the mode for ultimate health.
Another way of stating this is that what affects one member of the body of Christ is felt by all. We are not in this alone. We are in this together. We are not healthy if we function individualistically.
Let me underline again the word “interdependence.”
Paul continues writing in 1 Corinthians 12:20-26:
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.
In a way, we are repeating what we have already said. Repetition helps us integrate deep into our being those concepts that are important.
Two primary concepts are being stressed here.
First, there is nothing or no one who is too poor or insignificant to be an important part of the body of Jesus Christ. Remember that!
As I look around the sanctuary on a given Sunday morning, I see many eyes, ears, hands, arms, legs, feet, torsos, all appropriately clothed. What I have never seen on a Sunday morning is a heart. On those few occasions that I have seen hearts in pictures or in laboratory settings, I have been fascinated by the intricacy of its workings but not particularly impressed by its beauty. Remove the heart from each of us, and we would have hundreds of corpses needing to be removed from this sanctuary. The body needs a heart, as unsightly as that organ may be.
The big toe doesn’t seem to be that great of significance to a body, does it? A young man was destined to be one of the great fullbacks in college football. During his high school years, because of the combination of size, speed and agility, he had broken all sorts of records and was highly recruited by the major universities. Then on a summer job in a lumber camp, a job he had taken as much for the physical training aspects as for the income, he lost a part of his big toe in a freak accident. It ended his career as an athlete. What he discovered was that the loss of his big toe cost him his fast starts and his agility. The fact is that the church of Jesus Christ has a lot of “big toes” that are taken for granted. Nothing is too poor or insignificant to be important to the body of Jesus Christ.
Second, nothing is so big or so important that it is able to become independent.
A head cannot say to the feet, “I have no need of you.” The body is in trouble without a head. At the same time, a head independent of a body is grotesque, isn’t it?
The classic demonstration of this is what terrorists in the Middle East have classically done. The best way of making a point when a leader is captured is to behead that leader and impale that severed head in a public place as a clear demonstration that the leader is dead, severed of all power, and the proof is clear for all to see.
Some parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the most indispensable. Paul says that God has so composed the body that greater honor goes to the inferior parts in a kind of balancing arrangement so that there is no discord. All members of the body are to have the same care for each other.
This interdependence is driven home when we endeavor to total up the actual value of the ingredients of the human body. From one standpoint, the human body is worthless. Stop and think about it. A scientist lecturing at the Chicago Medical Association some time ago noted the chemical constituents of the average 150-pound body. It contains enough lime to whitewash a fair-sized chicken coop. It contains enough salt to fill a small shaker. It contains enough iron to make one tenpenny nail. He concluded that the actual total value of the ingredients of the human body at that time was about 98 cents. The average body is virtually worthless.
It’s when the interdependence of all of the constituent parts function in symmetry with the life-giving breath from the Father that we have a healthy body. Independence is a curse. There is no such thing as exclusivity when it comes to the health of the body. You know that. A toothache in one way represents an infection of a very small member of the body. But that pain throbs through the whole system. A simple little hangnail. What could be more insignificant? What can be more aggravating? You work away at it. You bite it. You try to fix it. It only becomes more of a nuisance.
If one member suffers, all suffer together. If one member is honored, all rejoice together. Health is holistic, both in the physical body and the body of Jesus Christ. Interdependence is the key!
Let me ask you some very frank questions about yourself.
Are you a follower of Jesus? Do you call yourself a Christian? If so, are you a person who is trying to live an independent existence?
Many people tell me they don’t really need to attend church. I would very much agree, if it was just a matter of attending church. It’s so much more than that. It’s a matter of being part of the total body of Jesus Christ. You can’t go it alone in the Christian life. That’s why we stress so emphatically that our Christian existence is one that is “fleshed out” seven days a week. It is not just an hour and fifteen minutes of worship on Sunday morning or Saturday evening. It is life lived together to the very fullest in relationship with other individual parts of the body of Christ, each functioning in interdependence.
That’s why we stress that you be involved in four areas of this church’s life.
One, we urge you to be active in worship. It is that sacred time of coming together with other believers to sing hymns of praise, to pray, to present your tithes and offerings to the Lord, to hear the announcements of what’s going on in the life of the body, to receive the teaching and exhortation from the Word of God as given in the message, to look around and see your brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ in their varied shapes and sizes, ages and backgrounds.
Two, we urge you to become involved in Christian education. You need to learn, growing intellectually, becoming increasingly aware of the things of God.
Three, we urge you to become involved in a covenant group, because you need fellowship. You need a safe place where you are known and you know. We try to have groups of ten to twelve persons. We have between a thousand and two thousand people here involved in these groups. There is no way we can produce great intimacy in this sanctuary on Sunday morning. There is that supernatural connect that comes through corporate worship. But there is more to the faith than that. Do you have several other fellow believers with whom you can share your deepest problems? Are they free to share theirs with you? Are you bearing the burdens of another in an interdependence, or are you charging off on your own, living a “Lone Ranger” existence?
Four, we urge you to live a life of service for others. Have you plugged your life into the lives of others, giving of yourself to those who would not fit naturally into your normal frame of reference? Do you live in daily awareness that there are people who are hungry, people who are homeless, people who are in prison, people who are without Christ? I know you can’t solve the problems of them all. I can’t either. But both you and I can have a ministry of service to someone in the name of Jesus Christ. Wherein we have done it to that someone, we become part of Christ’s solution to the human dilemma, instead of being just one more person adding to that dilemma.
Principle Four: There is no such thing as exclusivity in the body of Jesus Christ.
Another way of putting this is that there are many, many spiritual gifts. There are several lists in the New Testament. These lists are not exhaustive. We read two of them last week – Romans 12:4-8 and, from this same chapter, 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. Now Paul concludes this passage with an additional list. In 1 Corinthians 12:27-31, he writes:
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.
Paul is urging you and me to see our diversity blended together into unity. He is warning us against a competitive comparison that breeds trouble. He yearns for us to experience an interdependence that is the model for ultimate health. He wants us to discover the uniqueness of gifts that are ours, yearning for those that minister best to the health of the body, not those that simply show off how important we are. There is no room for an exclusivistic, narcissism. Instead, we are to put the priority on emphasizing healthy community.
God is the only one who knows fully the variety of gifts and the ultimate design He has in mind for St. Andrew’s. God is the only one who knows right now how some of these principles are being fleshed out in our local congregation. I remember a woman coming to see me and sharing with me that she had been attending St. Andrew’s for four years. Her husband, once fairly successful in his business career, had developed some physical and emotional problems that had caused him to shut himself off from both her and their grown children. For years, she lived in the house with this man endeavoring to meet his needs. However, he was unable to respond relationally, as he did earlier in their marriage. She worked hard at her job to hold the family together economically.
She told me the one point in her week when she felt most at home and found the inspiration and strength to carry on for another week was her time here at St. Andrew’s. What came as an attraction to our worship service, now increasingly expressed itself as a felt need for greater involvement. I mentioned to her the name of another who was facing a similar situation. I suggested that she become involved in the choir and in some adult education. She did sign up for a covenant group. In her pain, weakness and aloneness, she found a healthy place as part of the body of Christ here at St. Andrew’s.
And let me tell you something. Not only did she need us and me, I needed her. I needed her to tell me that all the hard work and administration, preparation, preaching, Sunday in and Sunday out, doesn’t produce just a yawn. It has accomplished something helpful for someone else.
You and I need each other. When you hurt, you need me in my health. When I hurt, I need you in your health. When she hurt, she needed both of us in our health and hurt to identify with her, even as she encouraged us.
We are one body, many parts. You think about that, won’t you?
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.