Spiritual Gifts and the Body of Christ

Jeff Garrison

First Presbyterian Church 

January 17, 2016

1 Corinthians 12:4-19

 

Throughout Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he frequently uses the metaphor of the body.  He writes about our individual bodies as temples for the Holy Spirit, but quickly moves from that point to the church, the body of Christ in the world.  In the twelfth chapter, he brings his discussion of the body as a metaphor for the church to the forefront as he writes about Spiritual gifts.  It is Paul’s longest homily within the Epistle.  Today, as I preach before you with crutches and a leg that don’t work, I stand as a living example of what Paul says about the importance of all parts of the body.  Read 1 Corinthians 12:4-19.

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A couple of years ago, I visited Hartwick Pines State Park, which is just north of the Au Sable River in Michigan.  The place is unique in that it is, as far as I know, the last strand of virgin white pine in the lower peninsula of Michigan. At one time, these trees covered much of the state, but in the 19th Century they were mostly cut for timber.  A lot of the logs and lumber were hauled across Lake Michigan to help build and then, after the great fire supposedly started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, rebuild Chicago.  By the early 20th Century, most of the pines were gone (and the loggers then headed south and started sawing on our own longleaf pines).

I grew up in longleaf pine country, a tree that once boasted over 93 million acres of forest in the southeast, but today only a few millions acres remain.   A few years before visiting Hartwick Pines, I’d read a natural history of the longleaf and was surprised by how few acres remain since they were the tree  I grew up playing under in the backyards of my childhood.  While visiting Hartwick Pines, I struck up a conversation from the ranger and learned about the similarity of the white and longleaf pines.  Neither grow particularly well on their own or in mass plantings.  For this reason, as they’ve been harvested, they are often replaced with other types of pine, like red pine or slash pine in Michigan and loblolly pine down south.  Those pines grow better in plantations.

Under a canopy of trees, when an older tree dies, a younger white pine will shoot up toward the sky, dropping its limbs as it grows, until it is above the canopy where its branches will spread out and add to the canopy’s cover.  I love how these trees tower over the others, something that is easy to see from the water’s edge, where a white pine will stand ten or so feet taller than the surrounding trees.  These mature white pines are valuable timber because as they drop their branches, the wood becomes less knotty.  However, when the tree grows by itself, out from under the canopy, it spreads out wide with long branches that are susceptible to breaking off in ice storms and then to insect attacks.  Such trees are also less valuable as lumber.  But in a forest with multiple types of trees, they flourish while supporting other trees that grew under their canopy.

In listening to the ranger, I immediately began to think of ways these trees can serve as metaphors for our lives.  We are not, after all, lone rangers.  We benefit from the community of which we are a part, and we need one another.   Like the tree, by ourselves we are not as valuable and more prone to problems, such as the tree breaking up in an ice storm.  But within the community our potential is much greater and there is safety.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “A self-sufficient human being is subhuman…  God has made us so that we will need each other.”[1]  In that way, we’re a lot like trees.  As with everything else in God’s glorious creation, we’re interconnected.

Paul begins this section with a discussion of spiritual gifts.  These are not gifts for personal gain or even personal spiritual enrichment.  They are for the common good.  You may have remembered Paul saying: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.”[2]  Here, in reference to the Spiritual gifts, Paul uses the noun form of the same word he used back in the 6th chapter which could be translated not only as helpful but “contributing to the common good.”[3]

So these spiritual gifts—wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment and tongues—are not for the individual, but for the community.  The blessings we have in this life are not just for us, individually—that would be a selfish misunderstanding of the gospel.  We are blessed by God with gifts and talents but we must not hoard them, but use them for the benefit of all.

Now, this section of 1st Corinthians focuses on worship and the gifts Paul highlights here all have to do with strengthening the worship of the community.[4] But one gift is not better than another. Paul insists on their equality and on the fact that they all come from the same Spirit.  Whatever gift’s you’re given, use them for the glory of the God through building up the body of Christ.

To emphasize his point, the building up of the body of Christ, Paul follows the gifts of the Spirit with the analogy of the body: there are many members, but all are part of the same body.  Paul is trying to bring the Corinthian congregation—which consists of people from a variety of backgrounds—Jew and Gentile,, slave and free—together by reminding them of the common source of their unity, God’s Spirit.  Furthermore, Paul wants them to understand that their differences make them strong and whole.  Besides, if we were all the same, it would be a boring world.  Yet, there is this human tendency we have to keep people who are different from us at a distance.

The body represents a human community made up of all types of members.  Paul suggests that we all have different roles but we’re connected to one another and only when we are united and working together, will we fulfill God’s plan for us.  Kind of like me, if I want to walk normally, I need two legs that work together.  Otherwise, I limp along with a crutch.

Interestingly, Paul starts with the foot.  The foot in the Middle Eastern mind is dirty.  Even today, in Islamic countries, to point the soles of one’s feet toward someone is considered an offense and something to be avoided.  In 2011, when Egyptians rioted against Mubarak, President of Egypt at the time, one of the things the crowd did was to take off their shoes and shake the heels of their shoes toward him as a sign of contempt.  The words for foot and shoe are considered obscene in such a culture and must be used carefully to avoid offense.[5]

By starting with the foot, Paul begins with the “least-of-these” and lifts them up as worthy members of the community.  Those reading this letter in the ancient world would have quickly understood his point.  Slaves and women and others on the outside may have had little value in the larger society of the day, but according to Paul, they are an essential part of the Christian community.  The Spirit has given them essential gifts.  They have a role to play.  Within the church “everyone participates, each serves and all belong.”[6]  Furthermore, such acceptance into the community should make those within this group be grateful, just as everyone should feel gratitude for having been grafted into the body of Christ.

Paul shows the illogical view that many of us have of thinking higher of ourselves than others.  We need one another and everyone should be grateful for everyone else.  Because every one of us brings something unique to the community, when we look down on others, we risk diminishing ourselves and the community.  Everyone within God’s kingdom must be grateful of everyone else, partly because none of us can do everything by ourselves (as is being painfully brought to my attention in my current state).

A friend of mine wrote a book about his canoe journey down the Charles River in Eastern Massachusetts.  The river flows out through Boston harbor.  It’s not a long river and wouldn’t have been a very long book, except that he used his days on the water to ponder and share what was on his mind.  He had been bothered by the negativity within the environmental community and was wondering how we might develop a new environmental ethic.  To say that the world is being ruined and we must do something quickly can be overwhelming and leaves most of us paralyzed.  The solution the author proposed is that before people take on burdens of the environmental crisis, they experience the joy and the awe of nature.  His idea is only that which we love and that which has brought us joy can give us the strength to engage in the larger issues that are seemingly overwhelming.[7] Now, he wasn’t necessarily writing from a spiritual or a Christian perspective (although his sister is an ordained hospital chaplain), but I think he’s on to something.

When we feel the joy of having been endowed by God’s Spirit and grafted into the body of Christ, we should then want to respond in gratitude.  Gratitude, it’s the first principle of Christian stewardship.  It’s the first principle of a Christian life.  It helps us value all parts of the body that makes up the church.

Friends, if we are to be the body of Christ, we must embrace one another and realize that everyone here brings something unique to the table.  We need to value one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, and listen to one another.  If we do this, the body of Christ will be strengthened.  And if we embrace everyone, remembering that we are all sinners dependent on God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we will create a community so appealing others will want to join us as we strive together to bring God glory and, with the help of the Holy Spirit and those spiritual gifts endowed to us, further God’s kingdom.  Amen.

©2015

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP 2011), 344.

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:12.

[3] Bailey, 336.

[4] I’m using Kenneth Bailey’s outline of First Corinthians which divide the main body of the Epistle into five essays:  1. Unity and the Cross (1:10-4:19).  2. Sexuality: men and women and the human family (4:17-7:40).  3. Christian and Pagan: freedom and responsibility (8:11-11:1).  4. Worship: Men and women in the church (11:2-14:40.  5. Resurrection (15:1-58)

[5] Bailey, 341.

[6] Bailey, 342.

[7] Davud Gesser, My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism (Milkweed, 2011), especially see 132-133.


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