Scripture Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (NB not the Lectionary reading for this Sunday)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Sometimes you’ll hear the phrase ‘a broad church’ to describe a political party, or some other organisation or movement, which encompasses different kinds of people and with different ideas. The phrase originated in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Church of England had two very vocal wings, a High Church party and a Low Church party. Between them stood the Broad Churchmen, who wanted a middle way, inclusive way between the extremes. In fact, religious communities like are a bit like political parties in that respect. Churches are a coalition of interests, even in the same denomination, even in the same congregation. It was ever so.
This has always also been true of the church- and it is still the case 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.
We’ve been thinking recently about how the church which Saint Paul founded in Corinth was a very diverse church, a church in which diversity sometimes became division. Some people think that the church in the dim and distant past was completely united in all things. But the early church was diverse and divided. Different people emphasised different aspects of faith, and sometime they disagreed violently with one another.
But if there had not been all those controversies in the early church, much of our New Testament wouldn’t have been written. For much of the New Testament consists of letters, written by Paul and others, to address the arguments which divided the first Christians. Not only do they give us an insight into those early Christian arguments- they also give us wisdom we can still apply today.
The two letters to the Corinthians 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, when, for example, at the beginning of Chapter 12, Paul writes, ‘Now, concerning what you wrote about the gifts from the Holy Spirit’, we can guess that a debate had arisen about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The first Christians had realised that the Spirit of God had given different gifts to members of the church. There are various places in his letters where Paul lists some of these gifts. One of them is just before today’s reading from First Corinthians, where Paul writes:
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts… The Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all.
And he goes on to speak of how God’s Spirit gives different gifts to different people: gifts like a firm faith, or the ability to heal, to ‘speak God’s message’ and so on. He concludes:
But it is one and the same Spirit who does all this; as he wishes, he gives a different gift to each person.
At the end of our passage for today Paul writes about how the different gifts has therefore created different job title in the church: 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. We might think, for example, that the more obvious, public roles are more important than others: is the Session Clerk more important than the person who delivers the flowers?
And so Paul ponders this diversity of gifts and personalities within the Corinthians church. He tells the Corinthians that all their different gifts are from the same God:
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit gives them… it is one and the same Spirit who does all this; as he wishes, he gives a different gift to each person.
So each Christian has his or her our own gift, given by God, in order to build up our common life within the church. We all have a role to play, a gift to bring.
Paul develops this with his analogy of the body. 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 has belongs in the body of Christ.
I think he wrote like 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.
There are many people who long to see the church really take the Good News to the poor. But what they often 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’.
Or we have young people who feel that church is not a very lively place for them, where they are patronised or ignored. Paul imagines the eye saying to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’; and often our young people feel that people in the church are saying that to them, ‘We don’t need you!’ To such young people I think Paul would say, ‘You are also part of the body of Christ. We need your gifts of youthful energy, for without it the church is poorer’.
Or to older people, feeling a bit left out because they are unable to get to church much nowadays. We must find ways of making sure that they do not feel left out, for they are also part of the body of Christ. Without the people who listen to the services at home on CD, or who can only celebrate Communion when I go to visit them, the church is not quite complete. And to them, St Paul would say: ‘You gifts of wisdom and the gift of prayer, gifts that can be exercised even if you can’t physically come to church. You’re also part of the church.
Paul told the Corinthians that their 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. The different parts of the body of Christ have gifts to build up the church.
I had a friend at university who was did a lot of sport, and he used to keep strong and fit he used to work out at the gym. He was a proper bodybuilder- he seemed to have muscles which I didn’t know I had. He told me that the different machines and exercises were designed to build up different parts of the body- his arms, his legs, his chest and his six pack!
If you want to build up your muscles you have to exercise them. And perhaps that’s what St Paul was getting at. Each of us is part of the Body of Christ. And each of us has been given special gifts by God to help build up the Body. So we should all be bodybuilders for Jesus, giving out God-given gifts a workout so as to build up the Body of Christ. For 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 all have something to give to build up the life of the church.
Jesus says we are to be a city set on a hill, giving light to the world. And he talks about the danger of hiding our light away, or letting it grow dim or be uncertain. If, as the Corinthians were in danger of doing, we allow our difference to distract from our unity, our light will be much dimmer. It’s really obvious to outsiders if a congregation is divided. The light of Christ grows dim in a divided church, and nobody wants to be part of such a congregation. But a diverse congregation, where the gifts of everyone are exercised and encouraged, is a good congregation to belong to!
Jesus also says his followers should be salt for the world. Salt makes things taste better. The church is a better place for a bit of seasoning in our discussions, debates, and conversations with one another. So, in our church meetings, we should put as much effort into listening as we do into our talking. We should have respect for other people’s points of view, for we are all part of the diverse Body of Christ. In the next chapter of First Corinthians, Paul speaks about love, and says that ‘love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable’. If our discussions about faith, and the life of the church, are salted with the seasoning of love, our light will shine brighter for Jesus.
So let this be a congregation in which the light of Christ is seen. May this be a congregation where there is a place for different kinds of people, and all can bring their special gifts to help build up the life of the church. Let us all be body builders- using our gifts to build the church, and to encourage other members of the body of Christ. For a church which was really like that would indeed be good news for Inverness- a shining city on the hill!
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
© 2020 Peter W Nimmo
Hymn 634 Word of the Father, the life of creation
 see ‘Broad Church’ in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; and Chambers Dictionary
 see John Barclay in The Oxford Bible Commentary, p1129 on 14.1-40
 1 Corinthians 13.5