I Corinthians 12:12-31a
It might be hard for you to believe, but not all churches are harmonious centers of grace, wonderfully reflecting the love of God both internally and to the surrounding community. Sometimes churches get caught up in a web of deceit and misinformation which hampers their primary mission of living the good news that Jesus Christ died and rose again. A prime example of how a church, with all the best intentions, can end up devouring itself is the church in Corinth. This church was located in one of the most important cities in Greece. The church had been established by Paul and seemed to be the jewel of Paul’s churches on the Greek peninsula. But very quickly the church began to disintegrate as factions argued over theological issues. In all fairness to the folks in Corinth, the good news of Jesus Christ was in direct contradiction to many of the prevailing ideas in Greek culture. Before Paul had a chance to fully develop the faith and mission of the congregation, Paul had moved on to his next challenge. His leadership was primarily through letters, which were no doubt helpful, but did not provide the day to day guidance which was desperately needed. The church struggled with the identity of Christ, the significance of the Lord’s Supper and most of all, the role of leadership. Members argued over who could be trusted and who was in charge?
In the twenty-fourth verse of the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul makes a radical statement which I believe still confuses the church today, “God has arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior members.”
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? How would Wall Street, or Pennsylvania Avenue, or even Main Street work without someone in charge? That was exactly the question the church in Corinth was raising. The body can’t function without a head. Someone has to be in charge, someone has to be making the critical decisions, and someone has to be picking up the pieces when everything is going haywire. That is the way businesses have worked in the past and that is the way businesses will continue to survive. Why should the church be any different than a business?
Paul makes three points which question this belief. Certainly institutions have a blue print for success, but Paul questions the idea that the church should even function as an institution. When a church spends all its time on institutional priorities it forgets its purpose for existing. This lapse in memory leads to dysfunction, internal disruptions and eventually death.
Paul’s first point – Who is the head of the church? When Paul left Corinth, immediately there was an argument over who was in charge. Was it Paul; was it Apollos; was it Cephas? Paul countered this inquiry with this question, “Who was crucified for you?” It seems like a trick question. We all know the answer is Christ. The first paragraph in our Book of Order boldly states Christ is the head of the church. The real question is what does that really mean in the every day life of the church?
Philip Gulley dares to ask, “What would it mean if Jesus were a model for living rather than just an object of worship?” As I read the scripture, Jesus did not claim special status but committed himself to faithfully living out God’s priorities which included justice, righteousness, forgiveness, compassion, and hospitality. It also seems to me Jesus was committed to helping others do the same. Jesus was constantly accepting the excluded, healing the sick, strengthening the weak, loving the despised, and challenging the powerful to use their influence in a redemptive fashion.
I was sitting with someone the other day and asked what it was he admired about Jesus. He immediately gave me the standard list of answers and then he stopped, thought a second, and responded, “No one was more humble than Christ. We could all use a little more humility.” I think he is on to something. If the head of the church responds to us with humility, imagine what the world would think if the followers of Christ were more humble in their relationship with other and the world.
This leads us to Paul’s second point. If Christ is the head of the church, who is the number two guy? If we can’t have a head, can’t we at least have a CEO?” Ministers hate Paul’s response to this question. We like to see ourselves as important. We also like for you to see us as important. You got to vote on my terms of call a few weeks ago. My salary is the biggest single item in our budget. It would seem that I should be the one wielding the greatest influence and making the tough decisions. I guess there is some truth in that yet Paul has a better way. Being a bit poetic, Paul uses the human body as an example of how the church functions best. Certainly the eye is important, but is it more important than the hand. If all we were was an eye we would see but never act. Paul states all the parts of the body are called work in harmony to accomplish the mission of Christ. The amazing thing is by involving the whole body, everyone is involved in the work of Christ.
Let’s look at this from a practical standpoint. If the dishwasher isn’t working, do you really want me to try to fix it? If you have to think about that ask my wife how handy I am under the sink. What about the church’s spiritual development. Who is more important to our children, the folks downstairs teaching Sunday School for forty five minutes or my forty five second children’s sermon? I love our kids but some really special stuff is happening during the Sunday School hour.
I have been here for a year and I have witnessed your remarkable witness to each other. I am convinced each one of you has been given a gift, a unique way of sharing and serving Christ. It might be Pat Zerkle’s smile, it might be Mary Lee’s hands on a piano, it might be Pat Frink’s announcements, it might be the way you come to this lectern to read the scripture with such adoration. I’ve witnessed your words of encouragement to each other; I’ve noticed your attentive ears that listen to those who are seldom heard; I am overjoyed by the kindness and empathy that flows from your hearts; I observe the little things each of you do without requiring notice or praise. These gestures, these acts of compassion, are what make a church healthy. They are what make a church holy. They are what make God smile.
Finally….don’t you love it when the minister says finally…. Finally, Paul is helping us to realize that part of being a healthy church is being able to recognize and celebrate growth within the body of Christ. God, if nothing else, is certainly the deity of the second chance. Sometimes church members can be a lot less forgiving than the God who is continually forgiving us. We only remember the sin and fail to acknowledge the growth. One of my favorite stories is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The musical simply enriched my love for the story. As you are aware the story centers around two people, Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and Javert, a policeman charged with enforcing Valjean’s parole. Through the kindness of a priest, Valjean has a conversion in which he rejects his identity as a thief and embraces a life of serving others. But Javert can only see prisoner 24601. His dogma was, “once a thief, always a thief.” Throughout the story he searches for Valjean, determined to bring 24601 back to prison in order that society will be safe from such a man. And in the end, well you know the end. Are we willing to die to keep another from living?
You know what happens when individuals in a church, God’s vessel of grace, forget the very meaning of forgiveness. You know what happens when individuals fail to recognize someone who has learned to utilize the gift God has placed on her heart. And we know what happens to a church that chooses to be captured by the pains of yesterday rather than celebrating the opportunities for tomorrow. Why be Javert when we can celebrate the gifts of Jean Valjean? Paul reminded those folks in Corinth that that nothing destroys a church quicker than suspicion and distrust. Fortunately, each day is a new day, each day a new opportunity to see through the eyes of God.
To quote Lee Barrett, “In Christ, we are a unified body. Our organic oneness is a gift of grace. All we need to do is act on who we already are.” I could not have said it better.