Building Up the Body of Christ – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 for Pentecost A

June 2, 2017

We just heard the amazing story of the Holy Spirit rushing among the disciples who had been praying together for fifty days. We think of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, because it was on this day that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on  those who were gathered. But for centuries, Pentecost had been a major Jewish festival, and people came from all over the world to  celebrate it in Jerusalem.

The disciples had been huddled in an upper room together for weeks. Now they dispersed through the crowds, each speaking a different language. The people who had come from far and near each heard  the Good News in their own tongue. As Peter preached to the  crowds, thousands responded to the gospel and believed in Jesus as  the Son of God.

This is where it all began. After Pentecost, there was no going back. Somehow, these new believers had to figure out how to be the  Church, how to live and worship together in a new way.

It didn’t take long for conflict to emerge. Some thought faith should be lived out this way, and others thought it should be that way.  There were arguments over worship and teachings and how to  observe the Lord’s Supper. And because the church was made up of human beings, there were arguments over power and hierarchy.

Some thought that they had a corner on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that the gifts they had been given were somehow more important than “lesser” gifts. In the middle of all this conflict, the Church at Corinth sent a letter to the Apostle Paul, asking for some clarification. It’s a good thing for us that Paul wrote back.

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now
there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are
varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are
varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all
of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the
Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit
the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of
knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by
the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to
another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of
tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these
are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each
one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
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.
(1 Corinthians 12:3b-13)

The earliest affirmation of faith in the Christian church opens this passage of scripture. Before the Apostle’s Creed, before the Nicene Creed, before there was a Declaration of Barmen, there was this one simple statement: Jesus is Lord. These three words sum up the whole of Christian faith. If we are to agree on anything, it has to be this one thing: Jesus alone is ruler of our lives. Jesus is Lord.

2000 plus years into this journey, these three words may have lost their impact on us. We say them, but I wonder if they mean the same thing to us as they did to those first Christians, whose very lives were at stake every time they boldly claimed that Jesus, not Caesar, was their Lord. It was treason for them to take such a stand against the emperor of Rome.

How would you feel if you knew that every time you said, “Jesus isLord” you were risking your life? Would those words trip off your tongue as easily as they do now?

This letter to the church at Corinth gives us a glimpse into the culture of the first century. There was already tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians. They struggled to find common ground. Their religious customs and cultural understandings were dramatically different. The Jewish Christians thought the Gentiles ought to become Jews in order to claim Christ – that meant circumcision, and following all the rules.

Gentile Christians had a completely different understanding. They came from a polytheist culture, where many deities were worshiped. For them to claim One Lord in Christ Jesus, they had to abandon all of their previous assumptions, all their ingrained loyalties and ideologies.

Everyone who became a Christian, whether Jew or Gentile, had to give up some dearly held belief. They had to allow their minds and hearts to be changed by the power of the gospel.  What have you given up lately for the gospel? What has it cost you to say, “Jesus is Lord”? To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhöffer, How is your life so much different from non-believers’ lives that they have to question their disbelief? How are you using your gifts?

The word we see as “gifts” here is rooted in the word “grace” or charis in Greek. These gifts are the effects or evidence of grace in our lives. They are not evidence of natural talent or our own preferences or opinions. So how can we tell the difference?

The first way we can identify that a gift comes from the Spirit is that it claims Jesus as Lord. Using the gift brings glory to God, and honors Christ as ruler over our lives. When we use these gifts for our own gain, to promote our own agenda, or to be praised by others, the Spirit is absent.

The second way we can know that a gift is from the Holy Spirit is that it is not used for our own benefit, but for the common good. These are gifts that build up the body of Christ, this gathering of believers we call the church. Gifts of wisdom and knowledge, faithand healing – these are not gifts to be held selfishly for ourselves. They are to be shared, so that others may grow in faith, may learn to know and trust Christ, and may experience healing.

If a grace gift cannot be shared for the good of others, it is not from the Holy Spirit. Ranking gifts according to their importance doesn’t work here – all gifts from the Spirit are important to the nurture and growth of the Body of Christ.

Paul writes that there are many varieties of gifts, service, and activities, but only One Lord (vv 4-6). Paul must have been a Methodist. He talks about apportionments four times in this passage alone. It might get translated as “varieties” and “distributed” or “allotted” but it’s all the same Greek word as the one that means “apportioned”.

As Methodists, we might think of apportionments more as a “temple tax” than a distribution of gifts. Maybe we would be less grudging about paying our apportioned dollars if we thought of them as the way we participate in the many ministries of the whole church – distributing resources in places we might not be able to reach otherwise, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

But here, Paul is not talking about an offering we collect and redistribute according to some formula. He is talking about God-given abilities that we receive when the Holy Spirit invades our lives, and we surrender fully to Christ.

Brian Peterson writes, “The gifts of the Spirit are the active, experienced instances of God’s grace at work in the church. All
believers are given such gifts of the Spirit (notice “everyone” and “each” in 6b-7a).

“To be gifted by the Spirit is not something that happens to some believers but not to others. Paul never gives us the impression that he expects some people in the church to be the ones who are ministering, and that there are others who are simply ministered to because they haven’t been given any of the Spirit’s gifts…. Yet it isn’t quite right to simply equate talents with “gifts of the Spirit” either; there is something more involved than simply talent.”

The Spirit gives each of us a gift to use for the common good, but every gift is different, just as every human being is different. This is such a wonderful paradox! The body has many members, each equally diverse and uniquely gifted, yet they all work together in unity for the good of the whole body. (vv 12-13) We can be sure, given this broad diversity among our various gifts,
that living this out is going to get messy. That’s actually another sign that these gifts come from the Holy Spirit.

Mary Hinkle Shore writes, “The Corinthians were the original enthusiasts, giving every evidence of having swallowed the Holy
Spirit, feathers and all. Many of them seem enthralled by the more dramatic external manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work (tongues, prophecy, healing, etc.). Sadly, at the same time, they ignored the quieter work of the Spirit to draw them into a community that respects all its members. They could not, for instance, share the Lord’s Supper together equitably (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34). When Paul tries to redirect the Corinthians’ attraction for spiritual gifts, it is not because he likes tradition more than innovation or because he is trying to erase difference. Paul directs the Corinthians to the “still more excellent way” of faith, hope, and love (see 1Corinthians 12:31; 13:13) because that way will bring them back to valuing one another more than their own knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, miracles, tongues, and all the rest. The person sitting beside you in the pew or kneeling alongside you at the altar rail: that brother or sister in Christ matters more than all the spiritual gifts in the congregation. Paul’s goal is not a tidy community life but a loving one.”  So how does that look here among us? How can we tell that the Spirit is at work here at First Church?

  •  When everything we do or say proclaims that Jesus is Lord – not only on Sunday, but in every aspect of our lives;
  •  When everything we do or say is for the benefit of the common good, to build up the body of Christ, nurturing faith and growing more deeply in love with God and neighbor; and…
  •  When everything we do or say acknowledges that we are messy, broken people who need a lot of grace, and who offer that same grace to other messy, broken people.

Then, we will know that the Holy Spirit is actively working in us.

We are in the midst of a process in our church called the Healthy Church Initiative. It isn’t called the Sort of Okay Church Initiative, or the Maintain the Status Quo as Much as Possible Initiative or the It’s Okay to Change as Long as Somebody Besides Me Does the Changing Initiative. It’s a process to make us a healthier church, a church where the Spirit of God can blow through us and change us – all of us.

I am not talking about cosmetic changes, like new doors, or windows and brighter lights in this worship space. While we certainly want to make this building be as welcoming to guests as we can, so that we can offer Christ to them, a remodeling project won’t make a bit of difference unless we allow our hearts to be changed.

No matter how many dollars we spend on spiffing up our physical space, they will be wasted if we neglect our spiritual space,
something Dallas Willard calls “the renovation of the heart.” What good will it do to have a beautiful building, if we aren’t willing to share ourselves, our gifts, in ways that show we mean it when we say, “Jesus is Lord?”

We each have a gift that has been given to us to build up the whole body of Christ. Our many gifts are different, and that can get messy, but every gift is necessary and important to the life of the whole body. We need to recognize the Spirit at work in us, and call attention to that work as a manifestation of Christ’s Lordship in our lives. And if we don’t see it, we need to ask ourselves how we are thwarting the Spirit, how we are rebelling against Jesus as Lord.

Before you approach this Table today, I urge you to repent of the notion that you are okay the way you are, that you don’t need to change what you think or how you believe. Because we all need grace. We are all broken. We all have places in our hearts that have been hardened, areas of our lives that we have stubbornly refused to surrender to Christ. Despite what the pop psychologists tell us, I am not okay. You are not okay. We all need forgiveness.

We all need Jesus.

He offers us his body and invites us to be part of it. So come to this Table, “not because you must, but because you may. Come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ, and desire to be his true disciples. Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on the grace of God, but because in your frailty and sin you stand in constant need of his mercy and help. Come, not to express an opinion, but to seek his presence and pray for his Spirit.” (Communion liturgy, Covenant Book of Worship)

Come, ready to say with all your heart, “Jesus is Lord.”

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