Scripture Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
People have heard the news. This preacher has become well-known around Galilee. Already they are talking about him, what he has to say, how well he says it. And now the local lad is returning to the synagogue in his home town. The son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter goes- ‘as usual’, says Luke- to the synagogue in the town he is visiting.
Those two words, ‘as usual’ tell us something important- that it was Jesus’ habit to attend synagogue each Sabbath. No doubt things went on in the synagogue, and things were said in the synagogue, with which Jesus radically disagreed. But he nevertheless, he went. Jesus never waited until he found a perfect place to worship. And he didn’t think you could be a believer on your own. He worshipped in the synagogue with everyone else. Just as you can’t seriously describe yourself as a Christian without going to church, Jesus thought that you couldn’t be a serious Jew without going to synagogue.
So he goes to synagogue, as was his habit, and he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read, and he reads words full of hope:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed
and announce that the time has come
when the Lord will save his people.
This is, of course, was what the Jewish people are waiting for: for someone to come and free them from the burden of Roman oppression. They are longing for God’s Messiah to come and save his people. Having read these words, Jesus rolls up the scroll and hands it back. Luke tells us that he then sat down: but not because he is finished. Jewish teachers sat down to teach. So when Jesus sits down, it is the beginning of the sermon, and every eye is upon him. And he begins with these momentous words:
This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.
And then we hear how, at first, people were impressed with his eloquence, but that the mood of that synagogue congregation gradually changes. He says things they do not want to hear, so that eventually, according to Luke, they rise up and drag Jesus out and nearly throw him over a cliff. It can be a dangerous profession, being a preacher!
Still, this story is an interesting insight into how Jesus interacted with the religion of his day. There is a sense in which Jesus never meant to start a new religion. He’s really very faithful to the old faith. He attends synagogue- in Jerusalem, he will go to the Temple. If he is a critic, he is a reluctant critic. For he has come to fulfil the grand promises of the old prophets. This scripture of Isaiah is fulfilled in their hearing, he tells the people- but they are unsure how to react.
Religious communities like synagogues or churches are a bit like political parties. They are really a coalition of different interests. In fact, don’t we sometimes use the phrase ‘a broad church’ to describe organisations and movements which encompass different kinds of people and with different ideas? Sometimes, of course, the differences get so great, it can lead to a split (as we’ve seen happen to political parties this week!).
Judaism in Jesus day was a broad Church. We hear, in the Gospels, of the different religious parties in the Jewish faith- Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. Each had their differing interpretations of the Jewish tradition. For example, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, which was a relatively recent idea. The Pharisees, on the other hand, had taken the Law of Moses and added all kinds of extra rules and traditions to it. For example, they did lots of fasting, something Jesus’ disciples don’t seem to have done at all. And so there was the potential for conflict among all these people who were supposedly at one in worshipping the one true God.
Of course, we can say all this about the Church today. The diversity of Christianity can sometimes make it seem as if it is not so much one religion, but rather a family of different faiths with very little in common. A Pentecostal service in shop front in Harlem is quite a different experience from a Russian Orthodox liturgy. So what would Jesus do on a Sunday? Would he necessarily go to a Presbyterian Church? Perhaps he would just go to the nearest Church, regardless of denomination! He certainly went along to his local synagogue- and when he arrived in Jerusalem, worshipped at the Temple.
Saint Paul tackles the question of diversity in the twelfth chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians. We sometimes like to think that the Church in the dim and distant past had none of the problems which today’s diversity brings. But the Corinthian letter were written because the Church at Corinth was already in crisis, when it was only a few years old. The Corinth Church was Paul’s difficult child: he had founded it just a few years before. When problems developed, they had obviously written to their founder looking for guidance. If you read between the lines, you can figure out what their questions were. So, for example, at the beginning of Chapter 12, Paul writes, ‘Now, concerning what you wrote about the gifts from the Holy Spirit’.
People understood that the Spirit of God had given gifts to members of the Church. There are various places in his letters where Paul lists some of these gifts. At the end of our passage for today Paul writes about some of the different ‘offices’ which had developed: there are apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, people who are gifted at leadership or helping those in need, as well as a mysterious group who apparently spoke ‘in strange tongues’ as part of the worship of the community.
The problem was that people were starting to say that some people in the Church were more important than others, because some gifts were more important than others. In particular, it sounds as though the people who could do the ‘strange tongues’ were threatening to overwhelm everyone else. This still happens in Church- we think some gifts or roles are more important than others. And so Paul ponders this diversity of gifts and personalities which was threatening to tear the Corinthians apart- a problem which besets the Church to this day.
Paul tells them that all these are all, indeed, different gifts from God: ‘There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit gives them’ he writes; and that ‘it is one and the same Spirit who does all this; as he wishes, he gives a different gift to each person’. So each of us who are Christians have our own gifts, given by God, in order to build up our common life within the Church. We all have a gift to bring.
And then, in a lovely flight of the imagination, Paul compares the Church to a human body. There are many parts to a human body, each with a different function. So the foot can’t say, ‘I don’t belong to the body, because I’m not a hand’; and the ear can’t say it’s not part of the body because it’s not part of the body because it’s not an eye. A body that was just an eye couldn’t hear, and if it were only an ear it couldn’t smell. Instead, says Paul, ‘there are many parts but one body’. And without one of these parts, even the parts that seem, in some ways, less important, the body is less than it could be: the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ and the head can’t do without the feet. In the same way, everybody belongs in the body of Christ, and all are needed.
Paul imagines a foot saying that because it’s not a hand, it’s not part of the body. I think he said this because he realised that in the Corinthian Church there were clearly people who felt left out. Perhaps they weren’t charismatic worship leaders, or were a bit tongue-tied to be teachers. ‘I can’t do the fancy stuff that everyone applauds, so I don’t belong here’, they thought. But to them, and to anyone who feels somehow left out in Church, Paul says: you also belong.
I think that Jesus often must have felt that he did not belong to the Jewish community. He had this radical message of hope and justice, but many people didn’t want to change. It was as if they were comfortable with being oppressed. I know there are people in the Church who could identify with that. They long to see the Church really take the Good News to the poor. But what they experience is a Church which would rather be comfortable, a Church which all too often sides with rich and powerful, with the oppressors. Paul’s message to them, I think, would be: ‘hang in there! We need you to be part of the Church. We are lessened without your voice reminding us about what the Gospel is really about’.
The Gospel is for young people, for older people, for those who are brave and those who are cautious, to the single and the married and the shy and the outgoing, for men and women and gay and straight and the able and the less able. All are welcome to take part in the life of the Church, and to share whatever special gift they have.
Later in the letter Paul tells the Corinthians that the spiritual gifts are meant to ‘build up the Church’. Our diversity of gifts are not meant to cause conflicts and problems; instead each person, like a part of the body, has their own role to play, their own unique contribution to make to the life of the Church as we try to bring the Good News of God’s liberation to the world. Jesus sometimes found going to the synagogue hard, but he stuck with it. And so each of us must make the most of whatever gifts we have, and value and encourage the gifts of others. There should be a place in the Church for everyone.
Today we gather, together, around the Table of the Lord. Each of us, accepted by God, offered God’s grace- but each of us different people with different gifts. We should celebrate our diversity, even as we celebrate our unity in Christ. And rather than treating our differences as a problem, St Paul helps us to see that we should rejoice in our diversity: many parts, but one body, many gifts, but one Spirit which gives the gifts.
And we need the Church. You can’t be a Christian on your own. Christianity isn’t an individualistic religion- it only makes sense in a community. We all need to work together, as the body of Christ, to proclaim the good news to the people around us. For who else is going to speak about the Good News of Jesus Christ: a message that is good news to the poor, light to the blind, liberty to the captives, freedom for the oppressed. Jesus went to synagogue, as was his habit, and proclaimed the good news. Likewise, the good news is not going to be proclaimed to our generation without the church. The Church should be where all kinds of people feel welcome, where all sorts of gifts are shared for the good of all. There is a place at the Table for everyone. Let us build a house where all are welcome, where all can share their special gifts. Let us together be a church in which we all play our part in giving the message of God’s love to the world.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Matthew 22.22
 Matthew 9.14
 1 Corinthians 12.8-10, 28; Romans 12.6-8; Ephesians 4.11
 see John Barclay in The Oxford Bible Commentary, p1129 on 14.1-40
 1 Corinthians 14.12