Sermon for Sunday January 27th, 2019, the Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Lessons: Psalm 19; Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21
The Text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
The Topic: Implications of the unity and diversity of the Church as the Body of Christ
Jenny Thompson has won ten Olympic medals in swimming, eight of which are gold. However, she didn’t win any of the golds in individual events; she won them in team events with three other swimmers.
As a result, some people have questioned whether Jenny’s swimming accomplishments ought to rank her with the “great” Olympic champions. She asks that herself. “It’s got to be very different to experience an individual gold versus a team gold,” she says.
I find Jenny’s accomplishments in the ego-driven United States culture refreshing. With ballplayers moving from team to team, demonstrating little team loyalty, Jenny is a marvelous example of someone whose genuine success came in the context of team play.
This is how the church should work. Our true “stardom” occurs when we participate as part of a winning team. On God’s team, there is no room for superstars or mega-celebrities who do it on their own.
— Jon Mutchler, “Jenny Thompson’s Gold-Medal Teamwork,” PreachingToday.com
It is a familiar metaphor, the Church pictured as the body of Christ, but Christians often lose sight of its implications.
Our Second Lesson/Epistle begins just after St. Paul has listed the gifts of the Holy Spirit and emphasized that they are all the work of the same Spirit, who distributes the gifts to each person as He wills (1 Cor. 12:1-11). The opening verse of our Lesson tells us that Christ is like one human body with many members. How does Christ have many members? The universal, or Catholic, Church is here conceived of as the spiritual body of Christ, consisting of all Christians. We became members of this Church, this one body, when we were baptized in water and in the Holy Spirit, and were all given the one Holy Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13). This passage indicates no idea of a separation between Baptism in water and Baptism in the Holy Spirit. The one is understood to take place with the other. Whenever we were baptized, whether as children or as adults, it is important that we know and experience the Holy Spirit, for a hallmark of belonging to the universal Church is that we have been given the Holy Spirit to drink. Believing in the Lord Jesus Christ leads to the receiving of the Holy Spirit, as our Lord himself indicated in this saying:
In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)
(John 7:37-39, KJV)
The great diversity in the Church, or body of Christ, is declared in St. Paul’s statement about how we came to be members of the body – “whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free” (1 Cor. 12:13, KJV). Race, national origin, language, economic class, all indicate diversity in the Church, but they are not the only ways in which the members of the Church are different, but we all have different natural abilities, spiritual gifts and ministries. Just as the human body has many different members, so does the body of Christ.
Now two misconceptions can arise among members of the Church based on their different gifts and ministries. The first is for someone to deny that he has any usefulness as a member of the Church because he does not have the gifts or functions of another in the Church. This, St. Paul writes, is like the foot saying to the hand, “Since I am not a hand, I don’t belong to the body” (1 Cor. 12:15). Although someone may think like this at times, it doesn’t mean that what he thinks is true. Everyone who is a Christian nonetheless belongs to the body of Christ. The nature of the human body is that its parts are different, and need to be different for the body to function effectively as a whole. If every member were the same, there would be no difference of function. If the whole body were an eye, for example, how could it hear (1 Cor. 12:17)? If the whole body were one organ, or one limb, how could it be a body (1 Cor. 12:19)? The insight we derive from St. Paul’s answer to the first misconception, that someone feels he doesn’t belong to the Church because he differs from another in function, gifts or ministry, is that all of us in Christ are needed for the proper functioning of the whole Church.
The second misconception is really opposite to the first. Instead of thinking, “I am not useful to Christ’s body and don’t belong, because my gifts are different from those of others,” a person can be tempted to think, “I don’t need this or that member of the Church, or anyone for that matter, since I am self-sufficient.” This, St. Paul points out, would be like the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or the head saying to the feet, “I have no use for you” (1 Cor. 12:21). St. Paul counters this argument with the truth that even the weaker members of the body have a purpose, and the less honorable parts of the body are treated with more honor ((1 Cor. 12:23-24). For example, these days we cover our feet with sandals or socks and shoes to protect them. In terms of the Church, everyone is needed, and so are their gifts and abilities. God has put us all together in the body of Christ, giving more abundant grace and honor to those of us who are weaker, or who may seem to have less important gifts and abilities. St. Joseph of Cupertino, a 17th century friar, found it hard to learn things, as a child forgot to do what he had been told, seemed clumsy at times, but later was made deacon, then ordained priest, and often while saying mass or praying, he would be given the grace of being lifted up off the ground, or levitating. Such an ordinary person received such grace from God, as have many other holy men and women of God in different ways. Yet none of us should think that because we can’t levitate, our Christian faith is invalid, or that the gifts of others are unnecessary. There are many gifts and graces God has given to us through his Holy Spirit.
Why has God put together in the mystical body of Christ such a diversity of members with different gifts, abilities, ministries and functions? The Lord’s purpose in doing so was that there should be no division in the body, but that all should have the same care, or consideration, for one another (1 Cor. 12:25). What are the practical implications of this unity and diversity in the Church? One important implication is that if one member of the body suffers, all suffer with it, and if one is honored, all rejoice with it (1 Cor. 12:26). So suffering and rejoicing are not limited to the individual Christian, but the Church shares in the suffering or rejoicing of even one of its members. But for us to be able to suffer with our fellow Christians, or to rejoice with them, we need to care about them sufficiently to know what’s going on in their lives, and when any of us meets with cause for rejoicing or encounters any trial, we need to be able to share that with them. Because we Christians are the body of Christ and since we are individually members of it (1 Cor. 12:27), we must love one another, appreciate one another’s gifts, ministry and service, honor one another and have one another’s welfare as much at heart as we have our own.
We must realize with thankfulness that we are not all apostles or prophets, or teachers, or miracle workers, or healers, or administrators. There may be many gifts we do not have, many things we cannot do, many ways in which we cannot serve, but we must thank God for the gifts God has given us, the things we can do, and the ways in which we can serve! We must all prayerfully discern our gifts, use them to God’s glory and the edification of the Church, and be thankful that we all need one another and are placed in Christ’s body so that we may all have the same care for one another.