Epiphany 3: 27 January 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
This passage belongs to the discussion "about spiritual gifts", which began in 12:1. It is clear from the way our passage starts that it continues that discussion. It does so by focusing on unity. Claims to spiritual gifts had lead to disunity in Corinth. Paul is not denying the claims to have spiritual gifts, but he is seriously undermining the assumption that if one has such spiritual gifts one is spiritual. On the contrary gifts can be used inappropriately. That includes: divisively. When that occurs, such abilities generated by people's (original) openness to the Spirit, become the enemy of the gospel. By driving a wedge between people's gifts and their ultimate source Paul is able to call people to account whose spirituality is divisive. Next week we shall see that he does this by identifying a higher criterion: love. Whatever does not embody and reflect love is not Christian spirituality according to Paul.
In our passage Paul employs a common image used to understand both the way the world works and the way communities work: the human body. 12:12 is interesting for the way it ends. Having stated that the body is one despite having many parts, he declares not that this is an illustration of the church, but states simply: "so also is Christ". Christ is a body with many members. We are often more familiar with the later use of the image in Colossians and Ephesians according to which Christ is the head and the church is the rest of the body. That is not what Paul is saying here. Here he states that Christ is the body.
In 12:13 Paul goes some way towards explaining what he means. By baptism (read: by faith and baptism) we entered Christ's body. So his body is like his risen life reaching out in communication. It is like a sphere of influence and life. The end of 12:13 uses an alternative image: we drink of the one Spirit. Behind this is the same idea: the Spirit is the active influence which brings Christ to us and us to Christ. So on one image we enter a body, a personal sphere of influence and being. On the other image we begin to drink of the one Spirit. Paul knows and uses a tradition which emphasised the unity of Jew and Gentile as we all enter the one body. Gal 3:28 links Jew and Gentiles with slave and free and male and female. Male and female is missing here, probably because it has been subject to some misinterpretation which Paul had to deal with in 1 Corinthians 7.
So Paul now uses what originally celebrated the unity of Jew and Gentile, to argue that the same sense of unity should characterise local communities, especially as they seek to respond to the Spirit. In 12:14 he returns to where he began in 12:12, to emphasise that there is one body, though it has many parts. 12:15-19 he expands the argument. It is absurd to imagine parts of the body denying they need one another or claiming to be all that matters. So in 12:20 Paul again restates the main point: we are one body with many parts. 12:21-26 expands the argument still further. The parts of the body need each other. 12:22 turns to the weaker parts of the body, noting that they are very necessary. Then he goes a step further, somewhat playfully noting that the parts of the body about which we are most modest (have a sense of shame) are those we honour most by giving them special covering (12:22-23)! God made us that way (12:24). 12:25 reemphasises the unity of the body and the mutual caring of its parts for each other. 12:26 underlines solidarity in suffering and success.
The illustration is rich. We might wonder what specific situations Paul had in mind as he wrote this to the Corinthians. Were so called less important people being neglected? On the basis of 1 Corinthians 11 one would have to say, yes, indeed. There, too, Paul complains of lack of unity - even when they were celebrating holy communion, a feast of solidarity! In the early chapters there are similar signs: some claiming to be wiser than others, more gifted in speech and miracles. Paul will bring all such claims down to earth in 1 Corinthians 13.
12:27 returns again to the main point: Christ is one body and we are parts of his body. So there ought to be a sense of unity and solidarity. 12:28-30 brings us back to the area which seems to have generated conflict: how people exercised their gifts. It echoes the statement in 12:8-11, only here particular roles, rather than gifts, are listed. All these roles were vital for the life of the Christian community, especially those first mentioned. There is a hierarchy of importance, but it is not meant to be a hierarchy of the kind that puts others down. The roles relate to particular functions, not to any sense of status on its own. Apostles were authorised pioneers who helped spread Christianity to new areas and then tried to ensure the new communities kept in touch and on the rails. Prophets probably referred to preachers in local communities, but may also have included a role of inspired prediction and utterances.
Paul's list should not be seen as a complete compendium. It is about functions. People have different functions. There needs to be solidarity among the various roles so that the body of Christ can be healthy and communicate effectively. The focus should be on those roles which come earlier in the list. Matters like speaking in tongues come last, because Paul probably sensed that they were given too much emphasis at Corinth. This is why he gives it special treatment in 1 Corinthians 14.
Paul challenges us to see ourselves as the embodiment of Christ in the world, not primarily as individuals but as local communities, yet belonging also to a larger whole. Difference is acknowledged. People are not all the same. They do not all have the same abilities. The common life is nothing other than the life of Christ, the life of the Spirit. This remains the constant. In each situation the working out may vary, although not without the apostolic connection which keeps us connected to the whole in present time and in history. Thus Paul deals with the common problems of divisiveness, especially of the kind generated by claims to the Spirit, by bringing people back to basics. Our sense of identity lies not in the role we play, nor the status, nor the reward our role brings, but in the sense of oneness with the life of Christ which is the life of God - and ultimately the life of all that is. We are not asked as individuals to be Christ or Christs, let alone saviours of the world, although many suffer from this misconception and the burn out it produces. We are asked to be members of a body, of Christ, and to play our part - not more, not less.
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