January 23, 2022
1 Corinthians 12
Because the winter weather closed us down last Sunday when we would have heard the first half of chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, this Sunday I’m going to read the whole chapter. Truthfully, I have to… because over the years I’ve learned that, for me personally, this chapter is a crucial building block to my own theology. For me as a minister, this chapter reminds me that everyone… everyone in this fellowship… every one of you have been gifted in some way by the Holy Spirit. That’s good congregational theology. Every one of you has spiritual value to the whole of our community… and we are to use our collective gifts for the upbuilding of the common good. And… that’s what Paul was saying in this context. The Spirit gifts us all for the work of ministry… for the benefit of the community… for our being able to grow in discipleship together and as individuals.
But… at the same time… and this is where this chapter gets challenging… Paul was fighting bad Christian theology that was creating conflict and division from both within and from outside this fellowship in Corinth. So, we’re going to wrestle with this this morning because the simple truth is that our highest Christian principles can be undermined by bad theology and by the bad actions that follow that theology. Listen carefully for God’s voice speaking to you as we read 1 Corinthians… chapter 12.
I want to start with a story from very early on in my ministry experience. I always think about this story whenever this passage comes up… so I may have already shared this with you… but here goes anyway. Once upon a time… back when I still had hair on the top of my head… when I was a young educator at First Presbyterian in Franklin, NC… younger than Meg… there were two men who were members of that congregation. For lack of better terms, one man was very conservative leaning in his theology. The other man leaned strongly to the liberal side in how he approached his faith. One day, one of the men came to me complaining about the other man. He didn’t agree with his views. He didn’t understand what that other man was doing as a part of this congregation. That other man was clearly in the minority… didn’t really fit in with what everyone else believed. He wasn’t sure if this other man was really a Christian or not… so different was he from this other man. Another day… not too many days later… the other man came to me complaining about the first man. He didn’t agree with his views. He didn’t understand what that man was doing as a part of this congregation. That man was clearly in the minority… didn’t really fit in with what everyone else believed. He wasn’t sure if that man was really a Christian or not… so different was he from this other man. Both men did agree on one thing… the congregation would be better off if the other man left.
A parable of polar opposites being lived out over and over on both the large and small scale. If we could get rid of him, the church would be better. Then we wouldn’t have to put up with him and his weird ideas. In everything they thought that mattered… these two men were different. There was only one problem with these two men. They shared a spiritual gift in common. They were what I like to call “doers.” Doers are the first ones who sign up when there is work to be done… especially mission work… the kind that really serves others directly… that hands-on, sweat equity, personal mission work. Both of these men questioned the faith of one another… until there was a project that called on their shared spiritual gift and then they would work side by side without a problem… their focus no longer on how wrong the other one was compared to how right they understood themselves to be. In doing the work before them, their focus was now on the faith that each shared in common in service to their servant lord. To use Paul’s language, each man was a hand… it’s just that one was a right hand and the other was a left hand. But having two hands made that congregation stronger than if it only had one… or the other… alone.
And truly… that’s what I want to believe. That’s the way I want to operate. That’s the message I want to speak this morning. Faith… or maybe I should say beliefs always sits on a scale determined by background and personal experiences. Our beliefs… the way we believe… or perceive… or process… I’m not sure of the right word here… those things are going to vary… and can be healthy in a community as our empathetic and understanding horizons open up. We challenge each other… sharpen each other… learn and grow in our small conflicts of point of view. While these men found themselves in opposition, I think… if we had really sat down and talked it out… they would have discovered even more theological commonality beyond just their sharing the same Spiritual gift. Their methodology… or their pathways to get to those commonalities differed, but the answers they reached would have likely been very similar. Of course, there would have been things they would never agree upon… but I believe there would have been more there in connection than there would have been in opposition. That’s the positive that I want to believe.
But… at the same time… I don’t want to embrace the happy ending too soon here. On the one hand, there is great value in putting our differences aside and focusing on the work that Christ calls us to do… of putting aside our differences and coming together as the one body of Christ in the world… pulling together all our resources… both practical and spiritual… to bring the good news into the world. It’s the lesson Jesus teaches in the gospels when the disciples tell him about a man who is doing good in Jesus’ name, but… and here’s the real problem for the disciples… but he is not following them. For Jesus, the good… well… the good is good enough. That’s an important lesson to keep in mind especially when we do ecumenical projects or partner with other people who don’t share the same faith… or any faith at all, but we’re working together for the clear common good. We can put our differences aside and focus on the good in front of us that ought to be done.
But… on the other hand… Paul is struggling within these different faith communities… not just with the people at Corinth but in these letters we have its pretty much with all these different communities… Paul is struggling because there is bad Christian theology at work… and the people within these faith communities can’t seem to get away enough from the grip of the bad theology to see the Spirit working there among them… to appreciate the new God is doing. The bad theology is keeping them in conflict. There are still those who… because of bad theology… will not accept these Gentile converts. They keep insisting on circumcision or that those Gentiles need to follow a certain amount of the Jewish religious law in order to be acceptable. There are still those in the larger Christian community… and in the community at Corinth… who are dividing people based on their social status or on their gender. There’s a reason that Paul in his letters has to keep repeating that we are one… there is no longer Jew or Greek… slave or free… male or female… we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord. Paul has to keep countering the bad theology and the bad fruit it is creating.
Different gifts. Different roles. Different people coming together… sharing together to create a community that is one in Christ through the Holy Spirit. That’s the standard Paul is putting forward. That’s the vision that measures and checks the reality we find ourselves in. We know we’re on the right track if that’s the result of the application of our theology… one body of Christ using their gifts for the upbuilding of the common good. We will know the truth by its fruits. It’s the same measure that gets presented in the gospels. Look at what is created. Bad theology was creating division. Bad theology was putting the focus on itself alone as the true measure… one’s adherence or loyalty to the bad theology was the ultimate measure. Fruit be damned. Gentiles must be circumcised was the bad theology Paul fought against. Those who supported that bad theology were saying that this one action… if it was not done… the lack of this one action was greater than whatever spiritual gift that may have been given by the Holy Spirit. No spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit could overcome the sin of not being circumcised. The bad theology of that statement is not just on its surface… it goes deeper. Switch out “circumcision” for something else and listen. No spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit could overcome the sin of homosexuality. News from a week or so ago… another denomination has split because of that belief. The United Methodists will do the same this year or next because of that one belief. And it’s a little worse than that… behind the split is not just a statement against homosexuality… it’s a clear statement that says we can’t be in fellowship with anyone who is willing to welcome homosexuals and whatever spiritual gifts they may bring. No spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit could overcome the sin of your welcoming sinners. That’s the real split happening. This bad theology takes all kinds of different forms. No spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit could overcome the sin of not being male. Same bad fruit. Same tree, different branch. No spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit could overcome the sin of not being white. That one has more followers than we care to admit. No spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit could overcome the sin of wrong political ideology. Churches are dividing over bad theological and political hybrids… breaking communion within the congregation… within the greater community… within families. Bad fruit growing under the guise of righteousness in the pursuit of power. All manner of higher principles being sacrificed in exchange for a chance at control. None of this jibes with the New Testament witness.
That’s the bad fruit Paul warns us against time and time again. To the Galatians he will write “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” That’s the still more excellent way of chapter 13 in 1 Corinthians. Love. Love that is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love that does not insist on its own way; is not resentful or irritable. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing and lies, but rejoices in truth. Enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy… none of these are signs of the Spirit at work in us through love… especially the love of God shown to us so clearly in Christ Jesus our Lord. Without this love, the whole body of Christ falls apart.
To each of us is given a gift of the Spirit for the upbuilding of the common good. And the only way that works is if that gift is working through love. Love is the measure… of our community… of our theology. Amen.