Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
I Corinthians 12:12-26
One Body, Many Parts
12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body, and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
The idea of diversity has become a secular virtue in western culture over the past 25 years or so, to the degree that many large organizations now have people with job titles like ‘Chief Diversity Officer.’ The point, of course, is to encourage opportunity for people of different races and ethnic backgrounds – and sometimes sexual orientations and gender identities – who might have been excluded or discriminated against in the past.
Of course, there are lots of people who take a dim view of this movement in pursuit of diversity. Not surprisingly, many of these people are straight, white Americans whose families have been here for a long time. They see economic and social advancement as a zero-sum game, and assume any advancements in diversity will come at the cost of jobs and opportunities for people like them. And, in the short run at least, they might be right.
But there’s a problem when people try to carry their suspicion of diversity into the church. Because the New Testament seems to express a vision on God’s part that the church is to be a wildly diverse movement. Jesus declared that a Roman had greater faith than anyone in Israel. God used a star to draw a bunch of Persians and Armenians to his Son’s birthplace. Philip was sent to minister to an Ethiopian eunuch. The first witness to the resurrection was a woman who seems to have been a former mental patient. And the person recruited to lead the mission was an expert in cross-cultural communication. That person, of course, was Paul.
And in this reading for today, Paul seems to be expressing the idea that diversity is a central principle of the church as God has envisioned it. And what’s more, that the Holy Spirit intentionally distributes gifts among its members in a way that requires them to embrace that diversity to serve God faithfully.
The church often identifies itself as “the body of Jesus at work in the world.” In this reading we’re thinking about today, Paul takes that metaphor of the church as a body, and uses it to illustrate the diversity of gifts that God intends for the church. Paul says that even though the parts of the body seem very diverse and serve different functions, all those parts are still part of one organism, and their various functions are necessary for the health of the body as a whole.
The church at Corinth was a diverse body in a number of different ways. It was made up of different people with different gifts. And Paul didn’t want people to just tolerate that diversity – he wanted them to embrace it. He was making the case that every member’s gifts are needed if the church is to be the healthy and vigorous body God intends it to be.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that preachers and musicians and other visible leaders are the “key people” in the church. And sometimes people who are gifted to do some very important things in the life of the church, things like comforting the sick or teaching and nurturing kids, don’t realize how vital their gifts really are.
Sometimes the modest followers of Jesus who serve quietly and think of themselves as ‘not gifted’ are much more important to the church than the people who stand up front and talk on Sunday mornings. Sometimes the gifts of those modest servants are the real glue that holds a congregation together. Probably the most important responsibility of the leadership of the church is to provide an environment where all other believers can discern and develop and exercise their gifts.
No one should ever make the mistake of thinking their spiritual gifts are less important than the more ‘public’ gifts of music and preaching and so on. Whatever gifts the Holy Spirit gave to a follower of Jesus, they were given because God’s kingdom needed them. It’s the responsibility of follower of Jesus to develop and use their gifts joyfully. But it’s also their privilege.
Lately this passage has made we wonder about something. When we read Paul’s words, we tend to think in terms of how all the gifts of the various members are put to work in a particular congregation. But now I’m wondering whether the Spirit might intend for us to think as well of the worldwide church as the ‘one body?’ What if we are meant to think of the various denominations and traditions within the worldwide church as ‘members’ with diverse ‘gifts?’
Maybe instead of thinking of other denominations as ‘doing things wrong,’ we should think of them having spiritual gifts that enrich the worldwide church. Maybe we should appreciate what they contribute to the strength and vitality of the body of Jesus in the world.
Spiritual gifts are meant to empower the church to feed the hungry, to visit the sick, to encourage the suffering, to help the poor, to help others grow in faith and knowledge, to share the good news of what God has done in Jesus, and all the other things that really build up the church as a group of believers. If our understanding is correct, and the purpose of the church is to glorify God by making disciples and meeting human need, then every spiritual gift should somehow contribute to fulfilling that purpose in the world.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the many gifts your Spirit gives us as followers of your Son. Help us to value and celebrate the gifts of others, as well as our own, and to be committed to helping the body of Jesus be the healthy and vital organism you intend it to be. Amen.
Have a fun and restful weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
(The other readings for today are Psalms 51 and 65; II Kings 23:36 – 24:17; and Matthew 9:27-34.)