January 23rd, 2022 homily on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a by Pastor Galen
Greatest athletes of all time
Who were some of the greatest athletes of all time? Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King and many others would probably make the list.
It’s amazing to watch a world-class athlete perform at the top of their game. We watch in awe as they seem to fly through the air, or hit the ball with amazing force or accuracy. Their names become household names, people pay good money to watch them perform, we buy their merchandise. They’re featured in video games and advertisements and commercials. In many ways we idolize them for their strength, their talents, and their endurance. To us it seems as though they have superpowers.
In truth, the skills and athletic prowess of elite athletes are a combination of God-given talent, and hard work and dedication. No one gets to be a world-class athlete without countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears put into practicing. Most face injuries along the way, they’ve had to overcome tremendous obstacles, and in many ways they may deserve the recognition that they get.
But what we often don’t think about are all the people it took to help get that top athlete to where they are today. The dedicated parents or grandparents who drove them to little league or gymnastics practice when they were little. The coaches and teammates, the managers and agents, the physical trainers and physical therapists, the sponsors and publicists. If we extend it out even further, the janitors who clean the stadiums, or the people who sell tickets or work at the concession stands. The sports engineers who design and develop equipment, technology, and other items that athletes and players use in sports activities, the people who sew the uniforms. And the list could go on and on.
The point is that even incredibly talented, hardworking, and dedicated athletes could not reach the top if it weren’t for a whole entourage of people who helped get them there.
Each of us, no matter how incredibly gifted we are, need others in order to succeed.
Beholden to More than Half the World
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way:
“We do not finish breakfast without being dependent on more than half of the world. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge that is provided for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee that is provided for us by a South American, or tea by [someone from China], or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are beholden to more than half the world.“
We are interdependent on one another for our very survival.
Paul’s Analogy of the Body
Last week as we began our study of 1 Corinthians chapters 12 to 15, we talked about the wide diversity of gifts given to the various members of the Church – teaching, preaching, gifts of encouragement, healing, great faith, administration – the Holy Spirit has given each and every member of Christ’s church a spiritual gift to use for the common good, and the building up of the Church. And those gifts are not all the same – and that’s a good thing!
Here the Apostle Paul extends the conversation even further by emphasizing that we cannot function properly in our spiritual gifts if we are trying to use them on our own, separately from the rest of the Church community. Just as an athlete cannot function without their entourage, and just as we are indebted to half the world for our very survival before we leave for work or school in the morning, so too our various spiritual gifts only function properly when we are working together in unity as a church, because our gifts are interdependent on one another.
Paul uses the analogy of a human body, and how the various parts of our body only work when they are connected to the rest of our body. Our foot or hand or ear could not just decide on their own to go off and do their own thing – that wouldn’t work! The various parts of our body only work because they are connected to the whole body.
In the same way, in order to function properly as a church, we need to work together in unity, using our gifts in synergy with one another, if we are to be a healthy and whole organism.
We Cannot Function apart from the Body
Today it’s popular for people to say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” Fewer people are attending church, and many people are trying to function as individual followers of Christ without being connected to a church. They say that they love Jesus, but they do not love “organized religion.”
But although it is important for us to cultivate our own individual relationships with Christ, and although it is possible for us to grow spiritually to a certain extent through individual spiritual practices, the reality is that when we only practice our spirituality in isolation, without input from other members of Christ’s Church, then our view of God becomes narrowly focused. We deny other members of the Church the benefit of our gifts, and we fail to receive the benefits of others good gifts.
And in many ways it’s impossible to operate in our spiritual gifts if we try to do them in isolation. If you are gifted at teaching, how can you operate in that gift without others to teach? And if you do try to teach others without someone who is gifted in wisdom or encouragement coming alongside you, then you might end up teaching the wrong thing and leading others astray, or growing discouraged and giving up.
If we try to function alone, in isolation, as an individual follower of Christ without other believers around us to encourage us and uplift us and keep us accountable, and without the synergy that comes from exercising our gifts in unity with one another, our spiritual growth will be stinted, and the whole body will suffer because we have denied others the benefit of our particular gifts.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many (1 Cor. 12:12-14).
My Gift is Not Better Than Yours
In reminding us of our interdependence on one another, Paul is also teaching us not to think too highly of ourselves or our own individual gifts, but instead to honor and acknowledge each other’s gifts, recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and valuing their gifts as much as our own.
You see, the problem is that as we begin to discern and develop and grow in our own giftings, we begin to think that our gifts are the most important. We think that everyone should have our gift, and we begin to look down on those who are not gifted in the same ways we are.
But as Paul says, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1Cor. 12:17).
In other words, if everyone tried to teach, who would preach? And if everyone spoke in tongues, who would give the interpretation? And if everyone spent all their time prophesying, who would administer the affairs of the church?
Not only do we need to individually stay connected to the Body of Christ in order to properly function, but we need to encourage and fan into flame the gifts of people who are very different from us.
As a preacher, my role is not to train up other preachers. It’s to use my gifts to encourage and train others to grow in their giftings. Teachers are to teach others – not just to teach, but to use their gifts, whatever they may be, for the building up of the church, and for the common good.
This means that we should never put down someone else’s gifts or disparage them simply because their gifts are different from ours. In fact we should encourage them to grow in their gifts, because we need them, and they need us.
In order to function properly as a church, we absolutely need the wide diversity of gifts that God has given to us, and we need to value those various gifts and work together in unity if we are to function properly as the Body of Christ.
The Fragmented Body of Christ
Unfortunately, the sad reality is that Christ’s Church is not united, but rather we have become fragmented along the lines of race, and class, and creed, and culture. Political divisions have crept into the church. The observation that Martin Luther King Jr. made in 1963, that 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour of the week seems even more true today, almost 60 years later, as Christians of different races and cultures frequently gather separately to worship.
Often this is related to language differences or theological differences, and preferences in styles of worship. And sometimes this is related to the valuing or devaluing of certain gifts. People with certain spiritual gifts often gravitate to churches where their gift is going to be valued.
Over the past century there have been a number of movements that have tried to encourage Churches to work together. On a global level there’s the World Council of Churches. There are a number of relief organizations that transcend denomination and culture, and try to bring Christians together across various denominations to work for the common good.
Here in our own community we have the Hampden- Woodberry- Remington- Mount Washington Christian Fellowship, that has brought churches together to work in partnership for 60+ years.
And here in our own congregation we are seeking to reach a diverse population of people in our community and beyond, and we are seeking to encourage and equip and build up each and every member of the church to utilize their unique spiritual gifts for the building up of the Church, and for the common good. But I recognize that we have a long way to go.
So Where Do We Start?
We start by learning to appreciate and value the unique contributions of each and every member and participant here in our own congregation. Those who serve behind the scenes are just as important as those who serve up front. Those who cannot make it out to church in person are just as valuable a part of our congregation as those who are gathered here in this sanctuary this morning. Young and old, whether you are a lifelong member or whether you are a first time visitor, your gifts are needed, and your gifts are valuable to the Church.
We can also start by getting to know Christians who are different from us in our workplaces, neighborhood, at school or a business that you frequent. Maybe you’re not sure if your friend or neighbor or coworker goes to church or is a believer or not – and that’s OK, you can still recognize their unique gifts and contributions! They are still someone who is made in the image of God, and whether they are a follower of Christ yet or not they deserve to be treated with respect. As human beings we are still interdependent on one another. None of us can do it on our own.
When we treat each other with love and respect – when we recognize the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person with whom we interact, especially those who are different from us and have different gifts from us – we give glory to God and to Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Body – the Church.