Last year, as we came out of the first round of lockdowns in Pennsylvania, I started to get outside more and ride my bicycle—something I hardly did for the past couple years as I buried my head in my textbooks for my undergraduate program. The rail trail running next to our apartment was empty, so it was a great time to really push myself (and not look like a fool to others with how out of shape I was). However, that freedom came to a screeching halt one day.
It was Monday morning, and I was still working out of my home office. I had just punched in for the day when I remembered I had freshly brewed pour-over coffee waiting for me downstairs. My wife just joined a meeting, so I snuck around here, empty coffee mug in hand, when I started to go down our stairs. However, I don’t remember walking down the stairs. In fact, I remember talking my first step or two and then ending up at the bottom and hearing the words, “Umm, I think my husband fell down the stairs, I’ll be back.” (Thankfully and yet sadly, there was no hot coffee in my mug.)
Yep, I had fallen down the stairs. If only I had gotten my coffee sooner, maybe I would’ve been more alert and could’ve avoided this whole situation. I felt nauseated and couldn’t stand on my left foot without pain radiating throughout my whole foot and ankle. My wife helped me to the truck, where she took me to the emergency room. The many helpful nurses took x-rays of my foot and the one nurse exclaimed, “I don’t see anything wrong, you probably just sprained it!” However, a couple minutes later, the radiologist found a small hairline fracture on my navicular bone.
What’s the navicular bone you may ask? Well, two blood vessels vital to delivering proper circulation run on that bone and all the tendons in your foot connect to this bone. It’s extremely difficult to break, but most common among soccer players. My foot was set in a cast, eventually a boot, and the rest of my summer was spent in physical training, nursing my ankle back to strength.
I tell you this story because I had no idea this bone existed. I under appreciated the vital role that vital bone on top of my foot played in offering support to the rest of my ankle. It enabled me to walk around the house with ease and bike long distances. However, with the fracture, I noticed immediately that something was not right and needed fixed in order to return back to my normal health.And I think this is where Paul is getting at for us today. Paul uses the human body as a metaphor of the vital role each one of us plays in the body of Jesus—the church. In my mind, I couldn’t say, “I don’t have any need for that bone on my foot!” And if that bone felt taken advantage, it couldn’t say “I’m no toe to offer balance, I don’t belong to the body.” As fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus who belong to his church, we each have been given gifts to help build each other up in this church and in our community. Although the gifts may be different and —at least from our perspective—seem more important than others, each one is vital to the body—the church.
In the time we have today, we will explore the unity in diversity we have in our spiritual gifts.
Before we get too far into our passage today, I think it’s important for us to consider the context of this passage. You see, the Corinthian church was a mess. You have divisions of Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Jesus. People refused to grow. Sexual immorality was rampant in the church—so much so that even the pagans were disgusted at what was going on! Sons with their mothers. They were a prideful church. They sued each other. They dabbled with idolatry. Disgusting stuff.
Paul, in an attempt to unify the church, addressed the various gifts and offices that a church had. He did not want the church to divide over who had what gifts, which would lead to factions, lust, pride, and litigations. This many argument in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 is that there are many gifts, but one Holy Spirit (whom we are all unified to). We all complete our work with our special talents, but we all serve the same Jesus. We perform various functions, but all by the grace of God. He then goes through and lists out the various gifts the church members have: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation. He does not put these gifts on various tiers, but recognizes the value each one has in service to each other and to God. Our passage today unpacks this understanding that we all have various functions, but all are in service to each other, our communities, and the Lord.
There is One Body with Many Members (12-13)
The first point I want for us to consider today is that there is one body with many members both physically and spiritually.
A. The Physical Body (12)
Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror? (I’ll speak for myself – first in the morning, of course. A horror movie could be directed and filmed about that fright.) What do you notice? You notice that there is one body. You’re not divided or split into two separate bodies. You do not somehow disembody yourself and float above yourself. You are one.
However, there are many members to your body. You notice your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, teeth, tongue, throat, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, chest, abdomen, pelvis, hips, thighs, knees, shins, calfs, ankles, feet, and toes. Each one of these parts—or members—serves a distinct function. Your eyes do something fundamentally than your ears which do something fundamentally different than your nose which does something fundamentally than your mouth and so on and so forth.
However, each one of these members function in a unity. Teeth help breakdown our food and the tongue gives us the ability to enjoy what we’re eating. Our shoulders enable us to roll our arms to a different position—even up over our heads—to reach for objects at different angles. All of our fingers can work together to grab something. Our knees bend our legs so we can walk and run or even bike and swim. Even though each one of these parts of our body serve unique functions, when they come together they do a lot of miraculous things that make our body the body.
B. The Spiritual Body (13)
As I mentioned, Paul is using the physical body as a metaphor to describe the spiritual reality. And in 1 Corinthians 12:13, he makes that pivot to the spiritual sense.
First, he affirms that there is one Spirit. In our Bible texts today, the S in Spirit is capitalized. However, in the Greek, Spirit is often not capitalized. This means we have to make a decision about what’s going on here with the word “Spirit.” Are we talking about the Holy Spirit or our spirit or someone else’s spirit? Looking at the text, we have an immediate reference to Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12. Additionally, as you all probably heard sometime ago during your sermon series on Ephesians, we read in Ephesians 2:18 “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Theologically, we believe that we come to the Father through Jesus by the Spirit. We are not baptized into my spirit or your spirit, but the Holy Spirit. Now, Paul reminds us that we all are baptized into one Spirit. The Westminster Confession of Faith in chapter 28, paragraph 1 defines baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.
Baptism, in essence, is the sign that by the Spirit we have fled from the former ways of life, embraced the way of Christ, and that we are a part of God’s people. This baptism is not sectioned off for a particular ethnicity or socio-economic class. And that’s what Paul is getting at with this side statement “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” You see, Jews and Greeks did not get along very well. The Jews could not stand there many gods and outright denial of Yahweh as Lord. The Greeks could not get the way the Jews only devoted themselves to one God. The Jews regarded the Greeks as the licentious of society, indulging in whatever sin they could. The Greeks regarded the Jews as the prudes of society, too afraid of their own shadow lest Yahweh punish them for their sin. Not only that, but slaves and free are diametrically opposed. One the one hand, slaves were indebted to a particular family until they could achieve their own financial means. However, it was often best for them to give up their freedom for the rest of their life lest they gain their freedom and society eats them alive. Freed people for all intents and purposes owned these slaves. Sure, they provided a roof and some income, but they exercised their freedom over these people. What Paul is getting at is that in our diversity in society, all these people—plus more!—are baptized into the same Spirit, with the same water. And this is not the first time Paul has hit on this point; in Galatians 3:28 he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Also Colossians 3:11: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” And finally, a passage you heard preached a while ago: Ephesians 2:13-17.
Finally, Paul proclaims that we all drink of one Spirit. This statement seems a little odd. If we’re talking about baptism, we need to consider our baptismal practices and make sure the baptizee takes a big gulp of water. However, if we’re talking about the Lord’s Supper where we drink of wine, then we’re talking about a completely different sign and symbol. In short, the context seems to indicate baptism, but our sacramental practices seem to point to the Lord’s Supper. I’m inclined to take this passage to mean the cup of the Lord’s Supper as drinking during baptism is not a practice of the church, but it is for the supper (see Calvin’s argument in his commentary). Essentially, what Paul is getting at here is that when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we are drinking “from one cup.” Though we might not literally drink from a common cup, we achieve this idea by all drinking wine or juice. When we partake of the supper, we are proclaiming our unity in the Spirit by partaking of Jesus’ death, remembering his resurrection, and being reminded of the benefits of his redemption for our life.
Now, Jesus does say in John 7:37-39
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
It’s entirely possible that drinking from one Spirit could refer back to this passage. For, Jesus is often equated with “the living water.” When one places their faith in Jesus, their spiritual parchment is quenched by his Spirit, through Jesus. Again, this is true. However, the main emphasis of this passage is not in the unity each and everyone of us possess. Instead, it emphasizes the coming of Jesus’ work on the cross and the outpouring of the Spirit. Earlier in this letter we read in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 21 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. … You [all in the Greek] cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. [Again] You [all in the Greek] cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
Paul in his sharp rebuke is communicating essential and important truths to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper: it is communal. Though we are many, this meal brings us together through our eating and drinking
God Arranged Each Member as He Chose (14-26)
This understanding of being one body with many members both physically and spiritually leads to our next point: God has arranged each member as he chose both physically and spiritually.
The Body Has Many Members, Not One (14-21)
We’ve belabored the point that many members make up our body. However, lest we go too far with this idea, Paul reminds us that even though we have one body, we do not have one part or member, but many. Essentially, our diversity makes up our unity, but our unity does not make up our diversity. Let’s unpack this with two examples Paul uses.
For the first example, the foot cannot say “I am not a hand, I do not belong.” That idea is absurd. Remember back to the story I shared earlier, the foot actually provides a vital function for mobility in our body. Once I broke that bone in my foot, I was immobile while it healed. Just because it can’t reach out and grab things, type sermons, or play instruments does not mean that it is any less valuable as a part of the body. Besides, simply because the foot proclaims that it doesn’t belong does not change reality. In fact, it does belong to the body.The same thing goes for the ear. Simply because it can’t read the words on the page or see the beauty of creation does not make it any less valuable of a member. In fact, it provides a vital function! We can hear beautiful poems read or the wakening of creation early in the morning or the honk of an oncoming car as we accidently run a red light. Again, just like the foot, simply because the ear proclaims that it doesn’t belong does not change reality. The ear provides a vital function for the body.
Essentially, if each member of the body desired to be another part of the body—the knee a foot, the calf a thigh, the teeth as eyes, the eyes as tongue—then we would be a misconstrued body—we would run contrary to God’s original design for a body. Even if all of our members of the body wanted to be the same body part, we would loose out on so much. If everything wanted to see the beauty of creation, then we would never hear the voice of our friends, spouse, or children. If everything wanted to hear those voices, then we would never be able to smell the food of restaurants or our parent’s or grandparent’s cooking.
God designed our bodies in such a way that even though each member serves a specific function, when they work in harmony together, the whole body takes in the creation around them. We are able to use our bodies to accomplish what God has in store for us in our life. If we simply all had the same part, we would only be able to take in an aspect of God’s creation and work. Our diversity of parts builds in us unity.
God Arranged the Members (18-20)
In Genesis 1:26-27 we read:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
This passage is foundational to a biblical understanding of humanity. However, what’s not detailed is the design process of humanity. Where Scripture is silent, we don’t want to spend endless hours debating what happened. But, if I could image for a moment, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit spent time to design what humanity should look like. A head with a brain, two ears, two eyes, a nose with two nostrils, a mouth with 32 teeth and a tongue, and hair. A neck. A chest with heart, lungs, digestive systems, all protected by these hard bones. Two arms with 5 fingers each. Legs with feet and 10 toes. We often take it for granted, but God took time to design our physical bodies in this particular way. He didn’t give us extra fingers so we could type even quicker, but could instead take our time. He didn’t give us eyes on the back of our heads to see what our kids were doing, but instead wanted us to turn around see these little ones. He didn’t switch one of our arms and one of our legs around, but created a symmetry.
This level of details seems useless, but Paul is building his argument slowly, bit-by-bit, to drive home and important point: each member of the body is needed! Without all the members in proper order, we would fall apart and not function properly. Just like the church—our spiritual community, our body.
Paradox Leads to Unity (21-26)
The jealousy can be real. Eyes see what hands do all the time, but eyes can’t reach out and type, grasp something from the pantry, or play an instrument. They send a signal to the back of the brain telling it where things are in one’s environment. In an act of jealousy, the eye can’t say, “I’m sick of their mobility. I see them work, but I can’t work. Let’s jettison these guys.” And the head, well it just sits there. Sure, it turns around and looks. It contains many important organs like the brain and the eyes and the mouth. However, it can’t go anywhere: that’s the job of the legs. What Paul is getting at here is that God uses paradoxes to exalt and humble.
In God’s world, the weak are indispensable. The eyes are vulnerable organs. A piece of dust just ruins them. You’re stuck there wiping away tears and blinking like crazy just to get it out. Yet, as anyone who is blind may tell you, they are so vital to everything you do. Surely, you can compensate without them, but you will never be able to perform in the same way again.
God used these paradoxes to design the body. He used these paradoxes because his desire was for a unified whole—an equal power shared across the whole body. Just because a body part is perceived to suffer in some —like the eyes not being able to do anything active—it benefits in another way—seeing the beauty of God’s creation. In fact, even when a part of the body suffers—think back to my foot—the whole body suffers.
Earnestly Desire the Higher Gifts (27-31)
Here’s Paul’s main point: We all have a variety of gifts, but we all participate as a whole.
We are a spiritual body together. God has created many offices and gifts for his people. For some of us, we are more inclined to go forth with the gospel in our communities to across the globe. Some of us are called to stand up here or in the classroom and proclaim God’s Word week in and week out. Some of us are called to healing ministries. Some of us are called to help others. Some of us are called to administrate the church. However, could you imagine if we all went across the globe to proclaim the gospel? Where would the fundraising be? Where would the churches be in our communities? What if we were all called to be pastors, who would listen to the gospel explained? What if we were all called to teach, where would the students be? Each and everyone of us who has been saved by the work of Jesus has a unique gifting placed by the Spirit on our life and we are called to use that gifting to benefit the church. If we’re called to be primarily pastors, then let’s not be missionaries. If we’re called to be primarily administrators, then let’s not teach.
Some of you may be saying, “Okay Austin, back up a little bit. You and Paul in the text have just affirmed the equal validity each person and gifts has. Now you’re saying that we’re supposed to ‘earnestly desire the higher gifts’? What’s going on here?” Not well that what I am not saying is that we are stuck in these giftings. Though God by his Spirit may be developing special talents in our life, we can still serve in other ways. Pastors can help others. Administrators can teach. Teachers can go on missions. However, when Paul calls us to desire the higher gifts, he is not calling us to abandon what God has equipped us to do.
Now notice this final little paragraph that may be in your Bibles: “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” Often, when we’re at weddings, we here 1 Corinthians 13 read as one of the Scripture readings. While this passage speaks profoundly about love that certainly has applications to marriages, the original context was actually set in our passage today.Paul transitions his discourse to something more profound. What is the one thing that keeps us unified in our diversity? Love. 1 Corinthians 13:4-10
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
As we exercise our giftings, let us be patient with others who may not have our gifts. Let us be kind to them. Let us not envy the talents of others. Let us not boast in what we’ve been gifted with. Let us not take pride in our talents. Let us insist on the mission of God rather than our personal mission. Let us not resent what others have. For each of our gifts will one day cease. We may be hindered by illness. We may have to sideline for a season. We all will die. But what will endure is our community forever that we have in the gospel.
And it’s with this understanding of love we explore how this passage transforms our life together.
Non-Christians certainly possess many talents. We believe in the doctrine of common grace: that though things are marred by sin, God can still use the things of this world and people to execute his will. We should applaud when their gifts help our communities flourish. However, they are not in service to the church. If they’re having an impact on their communities in such a positive way, then how much more so could God use them if they repented of their sins and utilized the resources the church has to offer—all of us—to help their communities flourish?
Because we have many gifts, we can go out from this place and serve those around us. As we interact with our neighbors, we can bring our conversations around to the gospel. If we’re called to be helpful, like in the capacity of a deacon, we can serve our church and communities through the financial resources we have (or if others have gifts and abilities). These gifts are not for our personal pleasure, to further our personal agenda. If it is true that each one of us has received special gifts from the Spirit (and it is true), then each one of us are called to exercise our giftings for the benefit of others.
I mentioned that we all have different skills and functions, but how much more is this manifested than in our work. Some of us are called to industrial work, to knowledge work, to home work (and I’m not talking about class assignments to my fellow students). Since each of us have a plurality of giftings, then that translates into our work. Could you imagine if everyone was a plumber or carpenter? Or what if everyone was a teacher or computer programmer? And in fact, it is often in our work that we get the opportunity to identify our giftings and exercise them regularly. Just as the body needs all the members, just as the church needs all the giftings, so too our society needs all of our work to seek its flourishing.
Don’t we also see this worked out in our gender, in our marriages, and in our families? Our gender matters. We need both male and female—with all of the blessings and curses of each gender—to balance each other out. This is most evidently worked out in our marriages. When a situation comes up in our marriage, I want the brute facts to make an assessment of how to help someone or when I’m trying to consider their actions. My wife, on the other hand, considers the emotional aspect of a person’s situation. While I think my way is right (I’m saying this tongue-in-cheek, of course), we need both. And we’ve found that we’ve often refined each other because of what we bring to the table. Now, this isn’t exercised merely in marriages, but in our common life together. While it’s important to bring together the best and worst of our genders, we can also double down on our maleness and femaleness in our ministry to others. Our gender offers us the unique ability to minister to each other.Let’s also not lose this imagery of the body. Our physical life matters together for we are embodied beings. We need to come to this place each week—if not, meeting each other regularly throughout the week—to minister to each other and grow together through encouragement. These concepts are not some abstract principles, but are worked out in our regular life together—they have real implications.
Your Local Church
The pinnacle of application for us today is in our local church, in Lebanon Valley Presbyterian Church (PCA). There are all sorts of assessments out there—ones that I have taken regularly—that help you identify where you strengths and weaknesses lie, where you’re giftings are and aren’t. As a church, we follow the outline Paul shares with us to guide how to serve and use our gifts. However, by participating in this community, we have fellow brothers and sisters that can gather together and help us work through various opportunities to discern what our giftings and callings are, how we can actually help each other. Sometimes, it looks like trial and error. But, as a church body, we must strive together to grow into unity through our diversity.
May God, through his Son, by his Spirit take our diverse gifts and unify us so that he may build his church and his gospel may go forth into the world. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This post was originally a sermon delivered at Lebanon Valley Presbyterian Church, a mission church of the Presbyterian Church in America on October 17, 2021. It has been modified from its original version.