1 Corinthians 12:12-31: “One Body, Many Parts”

This past Sunday, I preached at my church. Soon the church will post the audio of it on its Web site, but for now here are my notes. I’ve fleshed them out a bit so you can follow the gist of the sermon:

What do the letters “INFP” mean? They are a Myers-Briggs type, and this is in fact my Myers-Briggs type. I visited a Web site this week that lists famous people who are listed under each personality type. Just for fun, I’ll read some famous INFPs:

Homer (author of the Iliad and the Odyssey)
Mary, mother of Jesus
John, the beloved disciple
Luke, author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts
William Shakespeare
Helen Keller, deaf and blind author
Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood)
Dick Clark (American Bandstand)
Neil Diamond, vocalist
Tom Brokaw, news anchor
Julia Roberts, actor
Fred Savage (“The Wonder Years”)
Fictional INFPs:
Anne (Anne of Green Gables)
Calvin (Calvin and Hobbes)
Bastian (The Neverending Story)
E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial

The Myers-Briggs isn’t the only personality test out there. Every time I log in to Facebook, it tells me that another one of my friends has taken a test to, say, find out which Muppet they are. In addition to personality tests, for Christians there are also spiritual gifts inventories. You take them, and you can figure out where you fit in the church: whether you should be prophesying or making coffee.

Why do people love these kinds of assessments so much? I would argue that we want to know that we’re not strange. We want to know that we are unique and that our quirks have a purpose. We want to know where we fit in.

There were no Myers-Briggs types in the ancient world, but here Paul is scratching that itch for significance for the Corinthians. He does it with a twist, though: he says “you are unique, and you matter – but it’s not all about you. You have special gifts, but you fit into a larger body.” The big idea in this passage is not just that we are special, but that God has put us all in the same body, each with unique gifts, and we need each other.

The Corinthians thought the Christian life was all about them. They thought that having spectacular gifts was the sign of true spirituality, and people who didn’t have them weren’t really spiritual. The spectacular gift to beat all spectacular gifts for them was speaking in tongues. So their worship was very disorderly, because the people who spoke in tongues were falling all over themselves to prove how super-spiritual they were, and were ignoring other people. The passage breaks into four parts:

12-13: No Lone Rangers

Paul tries to correct the Corinthians’ error by comparing the church to a body. We are Christ’s body, and we are each parts of that body. What unites us is not our race or our culture or our social status, but our baptism by one Spirit. Take a minute to think about how radical this is – especially in Corinth, where many of the problems the church had had to do with their preoccupation with status. Now take a minute to think about how strange this seems even today. There are, or should be, no race divisions in the church, no distinctions based on status. If the church remembered this throughout its history, modern slavery wouldn’t have happened – or at least the church wouldn’t have been complicit in it. It’s a good thing that some Christians, like William Wilberforce, understood what verses like this meant.

What unites us is that we were all baptized by the same Spirit. What is spirit baptism? It is not necessarily the manifestation of a spectacular gift. This is what happens to all of us when we trust Jesus and begin to follow him. Everyone is baptized once, and from then on they’re part of Christ’s body together with everyone who is now following or has ever followed Christ.

14-20: No Reason to Feel Inferior

What Paul says next is directed to those people who think that because they are not gifted in a particular way, that they are useless. Some people may think, “Well, if the church is a body, then I’m just an appendix. I’m not up front, I can’t play an instrument, I don’t have anything to contribute.” Paul is saying, though, that there are no unimportant parts in Christ’s body. The person who makes the coffee or vacuums the floor is just as important as the one who is preaching.

Also, if everyone had the so-called “important” gifts, then the church couldn’t function. If everyone did the same thing, Paul says we would be like a body covered in eyes.

I used to work at a camp when I was in college, and one summer our staff was pretty dysfunctional. One way this dysfunction manifested itself was in chapel, which we had every day. A lot of the staff wanted to be part of the worship team. A few weeks into the summer, half of the counselors were up on stage during chapel and everyone else was trying to look after their kids plus the kids of everyone on stage! This happened because we let ourselves believe that being part of the worship team was the best thing to do, so everyone wanted to do it. The problem is, when you think that some gifts are more prestigious or better than others, the church becomes dysfunctional.

21-26: No Reason to Feel Superior

Next, Paul defends against the other side of the coin: letting our significance blow up into self-importance. No gift is important on its own. Each person has his or her own proper place in the body, and we all need each other to function properly.

In v. 22, Paul says that the “weaker” parts are actually more necessary – like the internal organs. Your liver and your kidneys might look weak, but you can’t survive without them.

In v. 23, Paul is probably talking about sexual organs. We make sure that they are covered and treated with respect. God has actually given greater honor to those parts of his body that seem inferior. This is the way God works. He lifts up the weak.

In v. 26, Paul says we are knit together. We are supposed to care if someone else in the body is suffering. This applies to the local body, the church, and also to the worldwide body. When a member of the body is persecuted in a distant part of the world, we are supposed to suffer. When a member of the body is dying because of disease or hunger, we are supposed to suffer.

Likewise, when it’s going well for a member of the body, we are supposed to rejoice, because our destiny is tied up with these other members of the body.

27-31: The Best Gifts Build Others Up

Paul is driving the metaphor home here. Just in case anyone missed it before, he’s saying “YOU are the body of Christ.”

When we keep reading, we might think, “Hold on a minute. Paul has been going on about how no gifts are better than others, and now it looks like he’s ranking them.” Paul does give a list of gifts here at the end, and he does say some gifts are better than others, but he has a totally different ranking system from the Corinthians. The Corinthians say that the best gifts are the most spectacular ones; the ones that let you show off how spiritual you are – but he’s saying that the best gifts instead are the ones that build up other people the most. What are the greater gifts? Gifts that build up others, like prophecy (see 14:1-5):

“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy… Those who speak in a tongue edify themselves, but those who prophesy edify the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. Those who prophesy are greater than those who speak in tongues, unless they interpret, so that the church may be edified.”

What does it mean to “desire the greater gifts”? It doesn’t mean that we can ask the Spirit for what we want, and then like a vending machine he will give it to us. Then the focus would still be on us. It means that we should desire above all to build others up and serve the rest of the body.

In America, individual freedom and self-expression are part of our history. Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” People don’t go to New York City to visit the Statue of Responsibility. They don’t go to Philadelphia to see the Love Bell. Liberty is part of our DNA as a nation. And today, individual liberty and self-expression are becoming more important than ever. Sociologist Jean Twenge wrote a book recently called Generation Me. In it, she writes about how the current generation of young people is more focused on the needs of the individual than ever:

“So much of the “common sense” advice that’s given these days includes some variation on “self:”

Worried about how to act in a social situation? “Just be yourself.”

What’s the good thing about your alcoholism/drug addiction/murder conviction? “I learned a lot about myself.”

Concerned about your performance? “Believe in yourself.” (Often followed by “and anything is possible.”)

Should you buy the new pair of shoes or get the nose ring? “Yes, express yourself.”

Why should you leave the unfulfilling relationship/quit the boring job/tell off your mother-in-law? “You have to respect yourself.”

Trying to get rid of a bad habit? “Be honest with yourself.”

Confused about the best time to date or get married? “You have to love yourself before you can love someone else.”

Should you express your opinion? “Yes, stand up for yourself.””

Freedom is better than slavery, but it should never be the number one priority. Biblically, this is the wrong way to go. Instead, love should be our number one priority. Building up others should be our number one priority. Not using our gifts and our freedom the way we want.

Some of us might say, “God has gifted me to play the bagpipes, and I’ll leave the church unless I get to play them during worship.” That’s not what God gives us gifts for. God gives us gifts to build others up, not for making ourselves happy through self-expression.

Being part of the body also helps us to discern what our gifts are. Apart from community, we can deceive ourselves into believing we have gifts that we don’t.

Finally, Remember 1 Corinthians 12:7: A spiritual gift is a “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul goes on in chapter 13 to tell us how we should exercise whatever gifts we have. Love isn’t a special gift that some of us have and others don’t. It’s how all of us should exercise whatever gifts we have, no matter what they are. We can’t all have spectacular gifts. We can’t all have gifts that make other people sit up and take notice. But that’s not the point. We can all use our gifts to build one another up in love, and that is more important.

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One thought on “1 Corinthians 12:12-31: “One Body, Many Parts”

  1. Elliot's Mom May 28, 2009 / 6:56 am

    I am thrilled with this sermon. I’ve reviewed this passage frequently because of the Pentacostal’s emphasis on speaking in tongues. They never seem to comment on I Cor. 12 when discussing tongues. I think you’ve detected the Biblical emphasis on love and building each other up, rather than on gifts that can feed someone’s sense of superiority. Even speaking in tongues was given as a witness to others and a means of self edification, rather than as a sign of special closeness to God. My current pastor does not emphasize tongues as the sine qua non for faith, as did my previous pastor of the Pentecostal emphasis. At that church, I couldn’t be on the education committee or any other because of not speaking in tongues. A person of my education and experience! Talk about wasting a contribution to the Body. I’m glad the Word states a different way for Christians to treat each other. As my husband would shout in church, “Preach it”!

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