I’m excited this morning. It’s good to be back here with you. It’s good to see your faces. But I’m also excited because as we kick off 2016, we will be listening together and pondering God’s word about leadership in the church – elders, deacons – who they are and what is our relationship to them. And we are do this now for two reasons.
First, it is a matter of timing. Next week, we will be ordaining and installing elders and deacons. The church year has just begun in Advent, one consistory is transitioning out and the new is coming in. This is part of our annual rhythm of change in leadership in the church. So right now, it is fitting that we think together about what a deacon and elders is according to God’s word. That’s the first reason: timing.
But the second is simply this: the Bible repeatedly speaks about the role of elders and deacons in the church. Most of the New Testament is made of letters to particular churches and their leaders from the likes of Paul, Peter, and others. These letters explain the gospel, its implications, and clarify it against all sorts of misunderstandings. But including in all that, again and again, elders and deacons are mentioned. So if Paul and Peter, inspired by the Spirit, think it is important enough for us to hear, then maybe it would be wise to take some time to listen and think together.
So that is what we will be doing in the next few weeks together. Next week, elders. Two weeks, deacons, and then in three weeks, what is our relationship to those who hold these positions. But this morning, before we get to all of that, I want us to have an image imprinted in our mind – a guiding image for how we think about the whole church – an image given by the Spirit through Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. But before we hear God’s Word, please take a moment to pray with me.
Father, may your Word be our rule, Your holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
These are the very words of God:
Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed’ and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in every one, it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by the one spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so, the body is not made up of one part, but of many.
Now if the foot should say, “because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” And the head cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” On the contrary, those parts that seem weaker and indispensable and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. But God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
And I will show you the most excellent way.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Did you catch the image? Paul wants us to think of the church as a human body. We just heard it in verse 27: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. Not just you personally are the body of Christ, but the thrust of the image is that us together, the whole church, we are the body of Christ. Or to southernize it, ‘Now all-y’all are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’ That’s the SSV – Shaffer Southern Version.
But you start to get it, the picture Paul wants us to have in our minds is a flesh and blood body. It’s an image that is organic – living and breathing. It’s an image that is relatable – each of us has a body, we know what it is like be people with hands and feet and lungs and eyes. We know all this and this is the image that epitomizes the church.
The image of the body of Christ is rich and deep, but let us notice together just three aspects of this image. First, every part of the body has gifts. Every part of the body has gifts. We see this is verse 7: Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
to each one. Every one who belongs to the body of Christ has received gifts from God for the common good. Everyone one who, by the power of the Spirit, has proclaimed Jesus is Lord has received gifts from the same Spirit. Every single person who belongs to Christ has been given gifts by God.
In starting in chapter 12, we have jumped in midway through a conversation. The church in Corinth was obsessed with spiritual gifts. They were fixated on the ways that God’s spirit showed up in the lives of believers. But they had begun to have a problem. They started ranking the gifts, giving privilege and honor to those gifts that seemed more impressive – miracles, speaking in tongues, healing – the spectacular gifts. And on the flip side, they had downgrade or dishonored the simple gifts of encouragement, hospitality, and teaching. Everyone wants to be like the ‘gifted people.’
And without denying those spectacular gifts, Paul introduces the image of the body of Christ. It is an image that destroys any absolute sense of hierarchy. A body where everyone has gifts, where Paul can say, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
A body where one part cannot dismiss the other, where an eye cannot tell a hand that it is unneccesary, where the head cannot belittle the feet. Because just as in the human body, in the body of Christ, every part has a purpose, every member has a gift to contribute to the body.
How many of you have ever stubbed your toe? Now unless you like to paint your toenails, toes are on the less end of the spectrum of exciting and interesting parts of the body. Yet, if you’ve ever stubbed a toe, you realize how important and unnoticed the toes really are.
A couple of years ago, I broke the big toe on my right foot learning Hebrew. Ask me that story later, but even after wrapping the toe, I hobbled for weeks. My balance was off, I stumbled and ached, and I learning just how many activities require me to walk in some fashion or another.
The toe is an important part of the body, even if it doesn’t get all the glamor. Switching back from the image to the church, every member of the church is significant and every gift that god has given us has a purpose. Whether that gift is exercised visibly and noticably or not, every one who belongs to Christ has gifts that matter.
That means that Angela, the Spirit of God has given you gifts for the common good of the church. That means Bob, the Spirit of God has given you gifts for the common good. Velma, the Spirit of God has given you gifts for the common good. Fred, the Spirit of God has given you gifts for the common good.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
This is the first thing about the image of the body we should notice, it includes everyone who belongs to Christ and all of their gifts. Each one of you has gifts.
That’s the first thing. Here’s the second: there are a diversity of gifts in the body of Christ. Paul puts it this way, Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. and just a little later: If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The human body is not an eyeball, not even a series of eye balls. Instead, it is a diverse, complex organism with a variety of unique parts. The same is true with the body of Christ, the church. There is not simply one gift that counts. Or even a small set. Not only has the Spirit given gifts to each one, but these gifts are different. The fact that some of us have greater gifts in one area than another is not a problem to be solved, but something to rejoice in.
Part of the make-up of the church, just like the make-up of the human body, is a natural diversity. We have two hands, two feet, two eyes, a nose, a heart, a stomach. All these different parts with different functions. Maybe this sounds obvious to you, but these teaching is significant as we think about leadership in the church. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap as the Corinthians. Maybe the gifts we prize are different, but we begin to put a hierarchy in place of what gifts ‘count’ and what don’t. No one says it out loud, the list is never written. But it is easy to think that some gifts are more important than others. Whether it is standing up front and speaking, playing an instrument, or praying out loud in front of others, we tend to value the visible actions and gifts more highly than those that go unseen.
But Paul will have none of it. He offers a list of gifts that I believe is meant to illustrate more than exhaust how the Spirit distributes gifts to the church. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, help, guidance, speaking in tongues. Other lists in other places give a different set of gifts, because the work of the Spirit is diverse. To put it simply, we are not all the same, that this a good thing. Pastor Olga and I, married, yoked together, working together, we are not the same, we have different gifts and lead in different ways and this is, in fact, part of God’s design. But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
First, every part of the body has gifts. Second, the gifts we are given are different. And lastly, united in Christ our gifts serve a common purpose. Paul says, Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. For the common good.
God has not given us gifts for our own sake. They are not primarily for our own benefit, but for others. To take the gifts that the Spirit has given each of us and to use them just for ourselves, would be like a hand saying, “You know what, I like being a hand, I like this opposable thumb business, but I’m just going to do what I want to do. Thumb war all day, play the piano, whatever I want.”
But that’s not how a human body works. Our hands, our eyes, our feet are united in one body for a common purpose – our life and work in the world. The same is true of the church, the body of Christ. Our gifts, whether we are hands, feet, a pancreas, or a nose, we are united together by the Spirit for a common purpose – our life and work in the world. Or more particularly, the life and work that Christ has given us. Though our gifts were given to us, they don’t belong to us, they belong to Christ. They are to be used to love God and love our neighbor.
Even as we spent the next few weeks thinking together about the roles of elders and deacons, we began with the image of the body to remind us that each of us has gifts. It is not just the ordained people of the church who are gifted, but all of us, in our own diverse, spirit-led ways. But that these many gifts are designed to work together for the mission of God, the good of the church, and the glory of Christ. Whether you are serving on consistory or not, whether you are attached to a particular ministry or not, whether you are five, fifteen, or fifty-five, all of us who belong to Christ have received gifts.
But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
May all of us live out our beautiful gifts for the glory of Christ. In Jesus’ name, Amen.