The Gift to Rule Them All
July 27, 2014
1 Corinthians 12:14-31
THE GIFT TO RULE THEM ALL
July 27, 2014
1 Corinthians 12:14-31a
14 The body is not composed of one body part, but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “I am not a hand therefore I do not belong to the body,” it belongs to the body nevertheless. 16 And if the ear should say, “I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it belongs to the body nevertheless. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would that leave the hearing? And if it were only an ear, where would that leave the ability to smell? 18 Instead, God has placed each individual body part into the body as he intended. 19 If all of them together were only on body part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many different body parts but only one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I am not dependent on you.” The head cannot say to the feet, “I do not need you.” 22 On the contrary, especially the body parts that appear to be weaker are indispensable. 23 So the body parts we consider to be less honourable we honour more, and those we consider to be less presentable we treat with greater modesty, 24 which the more presentable body parts have no need of. God has fitted the body together in such a way that the lesser body parts receive greater honour 25 in order that no division should arise, but all body parts will care equally for one another. 26 Therefore, if one body part suffers, all body parts suffer with it. And if one body part is honoured, all rejoice with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each individual is a body part of it. 28 And in the church God has placed some as apostles, others as prophets, others again as teachers. He gave to some the power to do miracles, to others the gift of healing, to others the ability to help or to lead or to speak in a variety of tongues. 29 Is everyone an apostle, or everyone a prophet, of everyone a teacher? Does everyone have the power to perform miracles 30 or the ability to heal? Does everyone speak in tongues or interpret tongues? 31 But eagerly seek after the higher spiritual gifts!
Because the church in Corinth was so messed up, if I had lived in Corinth in Paul’s day, I would have gone to the church “down the road,” had there been one. But that simply wasn’t an option. The next church “down the road” is over 70 km away in Athens.
Traveling there on foot or donkey would take about 14 hours if you didn’t rest.
I think I would have given up on this congregation, but Paul didn’t. We know that he corresponded with the believers at Corinth beyond the two letters that have survived. Combined, the two letters we do have are longer than any surviving letter we have. In fact, 1 Corinthians is nearly as long as Romans.
As an aside, if you wonder why Paul’s letters are arranged the way they are in our NT, is that they are basically listed longest to shortest. I would have actually preferred to list them by the date of writing:
1 & 2 Thessalonians 51-53
1 Corinthians 53
Galatians & 2 Corinthians 53-56
Philippians, Philemon 60-62 etc.
The point is that Paul went to great lengths to reach out to the people in this church. Why? Probably because he was the one who was instrumental in converting and teaching the initial core of believers, but more than that, because he knew that God hadn’t given up on them.
God had blessed them with spiritual gifts and is continuing to do so, even though there was a misuse and misunderstanding about how they are to function. God doesn’t give up on me, he doesn’t give up on you, despite the fact that we are far from perfect.
I’ve given up on myself when I say:
1. I Don’t Belong vv.14-20
Paul is trying to make a point with his reference to different body parts not being able to disassociate themselves from the rest of the body because it isn’t like the other body parts in order to point out how nonsensical it is to disassociate from other believers because they aren’t exactly like me.
When was the last time you said, “Wow, I wish I could see with my hands or touch something with my eyes”?
Or when was the last time you said, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if everyone just to exist as an eye or a hand”? We could really fix each other, understand each other. Not true, because the hands without the eyes couldn’t be doing what they are and single body parts cannot exist because they have no way of feeding themselves.
So Paul draws this absurd picture to point out that trying to leave a church because not everyone thinks like you, does things the way you do, isn’t involved in what you think is most important, and so on, is just as irrational.
Imagine someone saying, “Because I can’t speak like Fred, or play the piano like Nancy, or pray like Sally, or teach like Tom, or be as outgoing as John, or be as caring as Betty, therefore I cannot be part of this church.”
Yet something was happening in the church in Corinth where believers were disassociating themselves from other believers based on something having to do with spiritual gifts.
Perhaps there was envy by some who didn’t have a certain gift and so they felt second rate or left out. Or perhaps some were trying to impose the same spiritual gift on everyone and offended when that didn’t happen. In either case, this can lead to dysfunction within a church.
What Paul is not commenting on is what we often do when we feel the need to move to a new church home. The first thing we will ask: Are there people like me here? Are they my age? Will I be able to connect with them? Are there programs and ministries that will serve me and my family? Is there a way I can get involved?
These simply weren’t questions that were asked in first century Corinth because there weren’t any choices.
Perhaps what was happening in Corinth is that some had disassociated themselves from the church services or tried to live the Christian life in isolation because they seem to lack a prominent ministry.
We can try to do this, but, as Paul points out, we are not functioning and living out our lives as God intended. Paul knew that spiritual growth happens in the community, it happens when others influence us for good and we do the same for them.
I may not be gifted the way others are, but I can still be a brother to them without insisting that we have to be twins.
So, I’ve given up on others when I say, I don’t belong. And I’ve given up on others when I say …
2. I Don’t Need Them vv.21-27
Paul goes back to another impossible picture, that of one body part saying to another, “I don’t need you,” “I can manage just fine by myself.” But is that even possible?
The truth is that I cannot scratch my head with my toes. I cannot see with my chin. I cannot walk on my fingers. I cannot speak with my ears. I cannot pick my nose with my ears.
Yes, some humans who have lost the use of their sight or hearing or ability to walk, can do amazing things to cope and function as normally as possible. However, if not everything functions, it makes life so much harder. There isn’t a single one, who given the chance, wouldn’t asked to have a fully functioning body.
And so it is in the community of faith. God simply did not intend or equip any single one of us to be able to do everything, which is why I cannot act as an independent but an interdependent person, without becoming codependent.
To use another allegory, the believers gathered are somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle. Each puzzle piece has protrusions and indentations. The protrusions represent strengths, spiritual gifts, while the indentations represent our weaknesses, our lack of spiritual gifts. But when fit together, a wonderful picture can emerge.
But if even one piece is missing, it somehow manages to ruin the overall effect.
The overall effect depends on the size of the puzzle – in the left, the missing piece in the water might be hard to spot. But still, some of the cleansing water is missing. In the puzzle on the right, one person gone might make the difference between seeing or not seeing God’s hand at work
To use another picture, imagine for a moment that the tools of a carpenter were speaking to each other.
Some of them didn’t like the hammer, because he was too noisy. Some didn’t like the planer, because he was so superficial. Others didn’t like the tape measure because he didn’t measure up. Others didn’t like the saw because he was so cutting. Again others didn’t like the sandpaper because he was rubbing them the wrong way.
Then the carpenter from Nazareth came to build a table for a poor family. He employed all the tools and, at the end of the day had the most beautiful, sturdy and useful table you can imagine. Look, said Jesus to the tools, you get along very well when you’re being used.
Now it is possible to take this principle a bit too far. Former pastor, Eric Harris, started a fire in the Kentucky Missionary Baptist Church in Benton, Arkansas on August 24th, 1996. The church ended up burning to the ground. The reason for this arson was that the church had divided into factions over the issue of church discipline, and Harris wanted to give his congregation a project that would promote greater unity. Bad move.
Paul then makes the point that there are certain body parts we honour by covering them up in public; or we honour them by protecting them more because they are more critical to our survival.
But I don’t think that Paul meant for that allegory to go too far: “Oh, you are just the armpit in the church and stink the place out, so just sit where no one can see or smell you.” I think he simply wanted to point out that no matter what spiritual gift a person receives, all of them are vital and important if the community of faith is to flourish.
Paul’s understanding was that everyone in the church is working to build others up toward spiritual and emotional maturity as each believer is present and does his or her part.
Paul notices that when everyone is accepted in this way, it leads to unity and mutual care. What happens when a part of your physical body gets hurt? Let’s say you hit your thumb with a hammer. Several things can happen at once. You may toss the hammer and say a few choice words. But much more important, your eyes tear, your hand waves back and forth, you may jump up and down, all in an effort to deal with the pain.
Even though just a small, relatively insignificant part of your body was hurt, the whole body was somehow involved in the attempt to lessen the pain.
In essence, Paul was saying that if we value each person, when they hurt, possibly with the loss of a loved one, or the souring of a relationship, or the absence of a job, or the failure to overcome an addiction, or a physical illness, then those close to them can come around in the attempt to lessen the pain.
When we treat each other with the realization that everyone is equal before God – then we can honour each other, which in turn enables us to grow, to become whole, healthy, safe, it enables us to change as our image of ourselves and our thinking about others and our circumstances is changed. For the better.
A story is told about a Chinese prince who died and was shown both heaven and hell. In hell people sat around a wonderful banquet table, but they were hungry, mad, and frustrated, as they quarreled with and hatted each other. Why? Because they were not allowed to use their fingers to pick up their food, nor could they feed themselves with the 5 foot chopsticks they were provided with.
In heaven, the prince saw people sitting around a similar banquet table with the same 5 foot chopsticks, but they were full, happy, content, and loving those who surrounded them. What was the difference? Each person fed those seated across from him or her.
I’ve given up on myself when I say that I don’t fit in.
I’ve given up on others when I say that I do not need them.
And I’ve given up on myself when I say that …
3. I Do Not Have The “Higher” Gifts vv.28-31
In essence, I think that all of these three points hang together in describing the situation at Corinth. Some people were staying away because they felt that they weren’t like the others in the church, possibly because they didn’t have the “gift to rule them all.”
Others caused grief, possibly because they insisted that they didn’t need anyone else since they have “the gift to rule them all.”
Now again, Paul has to remind them that the diversity of gifts is God-directed and that there isn’t one gift that is “the gift to rule them all,” even though some gifts may be of value to a greater number of people.
In this section, Paul focuses again on the fact that God is the one who determines who has which gifts: As we read last week
The Spirit gives (spiritual gifts) to each individual as he decides. 1 Corinthians 12:11
And in our passage, Paul writes:
12:18 – God has placed each individual body part into the body as he intended
12:28-29 - In the church God has placed (different people in different positions or ministries) … God gave (the gifts)
If God determines what spiritual gifts I receive, is my job finished in discovering what my gifts are and then using them in service to others. I mean, nothing will change. There are simply some things I will never be able to do.
What I have found is that I may only be gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit in certain ways, but that one of two things can happen.
I don’t even realize I have a gift until I try doing something I’ve never done before. Given a new situation, that gift will manifest itself. And then there is this “aha” moment. Wait a minute, maybe I can do this after all. It may not be what I am best at, but I can still do it and be effective.
However, we may have that propensity to write ourselves off because we compare ourselves with those who seem more intelligent, stronger, capable and more gifted than we are.
Perhaps common messages come to mind. I can’t do this, I will mess up, I will make a fool of myself, I will flounder, I will fail. We write ourselves off when it comes to sharing our faith, or teaching a Bible study, or facilitating a discussion, or giving advice… because of self-doubt. We are trapped by past mistakes. We are immobilized because we are afraid to fail.
One of the messages that God sends our way is that we are not to put ourselves in a box. We are usually able to do a lot more than we give ourselves credit for.
If I should compare myself to other pastors who have a much larger church or who are well-known, those who are great leaders and pioneers, who are fantastic public speakers, I am tempted to cringe and write off myself off as insignificant in comparison.
Of course, I have encountered the exact opposite as well – those who think they are God’s gift to others, who think they are the latest, greatest thing, but who aren’t.
What are the “greater” gifts we are to seek after? Paul maybe putting them in some kind of order:
Apostles, prophets, teachers
Miracle working and healing
Lastly tongues and interpretation of tongues
In a parallel passage in Ephesians 4, Paul writes very similar to chapter 12 in 1 Corinthinans:
He (Jesus or God) appointed some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, in order that they prepare God’s people for deeds of service that build up the body of Christ.
The greater gifts are likely in reference the ones that this passage says will prepare other believers for deeds of service – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
As Paul will write in chapter 14:
Earnestly seek after spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. … The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues. 1 Corinthians 14:1
The gift of prophecy is basically the gift to bring someone a message from, or on behalf of, God. Jesus was functioning as a prophet when he said, “repent for the kingdom of God is near,” when he told a parable, or when he taught his disciples in private.
So the gift of prophecy can be unassuming and shared privately, as much as it can be public.
It can be vocal or non-vocal, written or painted or portrayed in another way. One of the reasons why the churches in the Middle Ages had stain glass windows was to portray biblical scenes or tell a story. Since most of the population was illiterate, the statues and stained glass windows and paintings were to speak to them.
So what does that mean for us today? For one, we shouldn’t disqualify ourselves too quickly from acts of mercy or service. We can all intercede for the hurting even if we don’t have the gift of healing. We can all be open and honest about our faith without the gift of evangelism. We can all give a helping hand even if we don’t have the gift of mercy.
For another, we should never become so disillusioned with “religion” or “church” that we disassociate ourselves from other believers. You and me ARE the church, and we can only live out our lives as God intended as we nourish other believers and are nourished by them.
Thirdly, to the degree that we refuse to play our role, do our part, serve where God has called us to, will determine the degree to which the church at large as well as the local church can be used by God to carry out his purposes.
Fourth, I think that if we are unwilling to let others use their spiritual gifts, given the right context and level of maturity, then we are robbing them of their rightful place.
That is not to say that the church leadership has to run 1,000 different programs. For one, individuals can take initiative themselves. For another, while some may not be able to use their gifts on Sunday morning, what is keeping them from using it in a small group setting or even in the greater community?
Often we think the most important statistics are attendance and giving numbers, and they do say something about the spiritual tenor in the church.
However, it would likely be more valuable if we speak in terms of people getting involved in some way, whether they be regular attenders or those new to the church.
WHAT, IF ANYTHING, IS GOD SAYING TO ME, AND WHAT AM I GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?
I envision a church where every person is connected with at least one other person who they can minister to, and, at least one person they can be ministered by