There were problems in Corinth. The church Paul founded there was soaking in conflict. One of the main issues at hand was glossolalia. More commonly, we call it “Speaking in tongues. Some of the members were speaking in tongues, claiming it was the Spirit moving among them. And others thought that was a load of hooey. Paul, the widely known founder of churches around that area, heard of their troubles and wrote to them to offer some advice. It was the first time anyone had done church. It was new territory–and like any community endeavor, you’ve got lot’s of opinions and personalities: all out to serve the same purpose, but striving to do it in different ways.
So Paul writes to the good folks out at First Church, Corinth and sets them straight: a little encouraging, a whole lot of loving. Now, it’s only fair to tell you that Paul isn’t my favorite New Testament author. He can be uppity bordering on a jerk, but the man could write, and write he does through this first letter. Some of the most iconic segments of the New Testament come from this letter: “now, we see through a glass, darkly,” or “when I was a child I thought as a child,” or the passage we’ll hear more and more of as we approach Valentine’s day: “Love is patient, Love is kind” or “and now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
This letter is so chockfull of iconic, formative passages that we forget Paul was writing to real people to address a real divide in the church.
And among this advice and instruction is the passage we find today, is one that has spoken to millennia of preachers, teachers, churches and church-goers: The body of Christ. Paul is known for his rhetoric, for his ability to eloquently prove his point and this is a prime example:
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. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Beautiful when you dissect it from a literary standpoint. Meaningful when you when you really listen to what Paul is saying–that all of us with all of our gifts are a vital part of the body of Christ. Each valued, each essential, each loved.
I love Paul’s image of the Body of Christ. I love how it reminds us that we are all in this together, all part of the body—yet all different. And to me, that comes as a great relief.
Because one way to look at this body of Christ passage is this way: we don’t have to be all things to all people. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Doesn’t Paul say three chapters earlier that we should be all things to all people?”
To which I would respond, “sort of…”
In chapter nine of 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to his friends out at First Church, Corinth:
“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
It’s that next to last line, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” that we get caught up on. Here’s the thing: this passage is less about being all things and more about meeting people where they are. And while Paul often felt that he was on his own, we are blessed to be on this journey not just with one another but with the entire body of Christ.
So while we we strive to be hospitable, we can be confident that hospitality does not have to take the form of being all things to all people. Which is actually kind of hard, isn’t it? Because we want people to like us, both as individuals and as a church. But the truth is we just can’t—we can’t be all things to all people. It isn’t sustainable. And the good news is we don’t have to be.
Last week, I walked around the corner to Cornerstone Baptist Church to meet their new interim minister, Erica. As we were visiting, I found myself describing the different churches by how they ministered to the community. “The Methodists across the street from Westfield have a deep heart for poverty ministry, opening their doors to multiple organizations to provide multiple meals a week. And Cornerstone has,” I continued, “in the past been very dedicated to social justice work—identifying who’s being taken advantage of and bringing that to the attention of the wider faith community. And we, it seems, have been called to remind members of this community that they are worth it—that they are part of the beloved community. And so far, that has taken lots of forms. It’s looked like parade planning and luminary lighting and new Christmas traditions and painting doors of welcome and feeding and gathering and proclaiming.”
Walking back to Westfield, I was thinking how grateful I am to serve in a community where there isn’t a sense of competition among the local churches—where we get along and understand that this isn’t a zero sum game. Because while we are all part of the body of Christ, one of us is the hand, another the ear, another a foot. We’re all connected, all working toward the same end.
Later I was reflecting on Luke’s words for us today, of how Jesus was “filled with the power of the spirit” and went to the people—met them where they were, and proclaimed his role in all of this, quoting the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Perhaps we could read it another way: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. God has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And we aren’t doing it alone, but with the entire body of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.