Sermon for St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church,
Winter Park, Fla.
Sunday June 23, 2013
“Lessons we learn from weaker, less presentable parts”
Rev. Michael S. Beates
Lord Jesus, the Word of Life, in you are hidden all the riches of wisdom and knowledge. In your grace and by your mercy, enlighten our stubborn minds that we might learn your truth, and soften our hard hearts that we might believe your Gospel. We ask this humbly in your matchless name. Amen.
Context of chapter 12 in the Corinthian letter (12:1-11)
As we consider what God is telling us about the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, we need to be sure we understand how this teaching fits into the context of Paul’s letter. D.A. Carson wrote a wonderful exposition of chapters 12-14 in a book entitled Showing the Spirit where he wisely reminds us that this entire section of Paul’s letter is a discussion of the gifts of the Spirit and their place in the church. Paul opens chapter twelve reminding the Corinthian believers that all the gifts of grace come from the same Spirit and the same Lord. It seems that there may have been, probably was, confusion in Corinth about these manifestations of the power of God among believers. And Paul sought to bring clarity to the church.
We find here in the opening verses of ch. 12 one of Paul’s lists of the Spirit’s gifts, a list that includes utterances of wisdom and knowledge, gifts of faith, healing, prophecy, and more. After establishing this list, Paul says that all these gifts are empowered by the Holy Spirit and distributed according to the will of God. Then Paul turns and unfolds this intriguing metaphor of the people of God as a body. But let’s not miss this important context. Understanding this, we can look first at God’s intention for the Body and for the way His people function together.
1. God’s intention (12:12-13)
In the middle section of the chapter, our text for today, Paul opens up this powerful image of the Body. It is one of several metaphors used in Scripture to describe the people of God. In 1 Peter, we are called a Temple with living stones. In one of Paul’s letter to Timothy we are called the household of God; then of course, there are multiple uses of the marriage metaphor with the church being the bride of Christ. In other places, God’s people are a flock, a field, an olive grove.
But this metaphor of the body reveals that God intends His people to be a deeply complex, interdependent, mutually supportive organism with parts and systems as different as can be imagined, but all working together in a mysterious manner that should cause us all simply to bow down in wonder. This is God’s intention for us as a body. And of course, the local manifestation of the church is a complete body, just as the global church is also a complete body. It is, after all, a marvelous and overwhelming image, is it not?
God’s intention (as we see in vv. 12-13) is that though we are different (and in this context specifically, possessing different gifts), we are also one. We breathe the same air as it were, we survive with the same heartbeat, we have the same mind of Christ. So God’s intention is unity in this Body. Though there are differences of age, ability, gifting, ethnic and socio-economic experiences, God’s intention is a unified body.
2. God’s invention (12:14-21)
In verses 14-21, we see that though we have one heartbeat – though we are a complex unified body, in God’s wisdom, this unity comes from, is built with, a staggeringly wide diversity. Only God could have invented our bodies, and I believe that God gave Paul this metaphor to help us understand more deeply and clearly what God is doing through His people.
Look carefully at what Paul is saying here about what God has invented in the Body. Commentators seem to agree that one of the struggles in the young church in Corinth was that some gifted people seemed to be receiving all the attention, or power, or control, or blessing. This led other people to feel as if they were not important or were even unnecessary to the body. So, in vv. 14-20, Paul hypothesizes the lesser parts saying, “Oh well, I’m a foot, or an ear – but those hands and eyes do so much more than I do, get so much more attention than I do, are so much more vital than me. I’m really not all that important.” And admittedly, parts of the body seem to carry more obvious or noticeable gifts: the teaching and ruling elders are like the tongue, teaching and preaching; Deacons and servants are like the hands; the choir is perhaps like the vocal cords. But every part – man, woman, boy, girl, old young, single, married or widowed – has a function in Christ’s body.
Think about that for a second. There are parts of our bodies we rarely think about – unless of course they’re not working. Have you ever felt like this? Like you’re not necessary? Like you would not be missed if you just disappeared altogether? Perhaps you have felt that in your place of work, your school, your home. Perhaps it has even happened in the church.
But in v. 17 Paul makes this important – and admittedly rather obvious – point that every part of the body is necessary. If only the “important parts” constituted the body, we would look like something from “Monsters, Inc.” – a big eye ball walking around on little feet. More importantly, we would lack functions that we don’t even think about. But then in v. 18 Paul tells us this design is not a mistake. “God has arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as . . . he . . . chose.” God’s intention is further displayed by His invention. Each part just as He has sovereignly determined for His glory and for our good. Let that idea sink in just a bit. God has arranged His people according to His design. No mistakes, no errors, no “oops.”
Last week Frank mentioned that there is a definite plan and purpose to what God does in history. So also, the phrase in v. 18 “God arranged the members in the body each one of them, as he chose” or “just as He intended.” The church of Christ, the people who comprise His body, have been arranged according to the definite plan of God just as much as major movements of history. And this is an encouraging thought.
In fact, if I can digress just a minute back to Frank’s series on Exodus, when God revealed His Name to Moses, it has always been and always will be rendered “I am who I am” or “I am” – and that is true and good. But for those with a sense of Hebrew grammar, the word “Yahweh” carries signs that the verb “to be” is related to a Hebrew verbal form called the hiphil – which denotes causation – and is third person. So I would humbly submit that while God is surely the great “I am,” ever more so He is “the One who causes to be.” We see this truth displayed in God’s purposeful bringing together the parts of His body the Church. Sometimes we may mistakenly wonder about a part of the body, why we need it.
But Paul addresses this in v. 21. He flips the coin as it were, offering the other perspective. First he spoke for the “lesser parts,” but now he hypothetically speaks for the “greater, more important parts.” The eye, for example, he says has no reason to say, think, or presume, that it is for some reason any better, more important, or more vital than any other part of the body.
3. God’s inversion (12:22-27)
So we have seen God’s intention and invention, but now, we turn to God’s inversion.
Let’s be honest, we are not all equal as human beings. Some of us are taller, heavier; some of us are more apt with words, others with numbers; some with athletic skills, others with aesthetic sensibilities music, art, or photography. We are not the same. And our world clearly values gifts differently, amen? If you can put a very small ball in a small cup hundreds of yards across green lawns, you are rewarded exorbitantly by our culture. Or if you can put a larger leather ball in a small hoop ten feet from the floor, you too can be feted like a king by portions of our culture. We are not the same, not equal. That is a given. And our world rewards and values people according to what they can (or cannot) do.
But God hardly ever does things the way the world system expects. Look at v. 22. Contrary to the way the world works, in God’s inversion, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” That is a strong word! Indispensable – the Body cannot function without these weaker parts. This is foolishness in the world’s eyes. What team, what business, what organization intentionally builds into its strategy weaker parts? But God turns the wisdom of the world on its head, intentionally inventing ways to invert the system of the world.
But Paul does not rest there; He goes on as we see in vv. 23-ff. Less honorable parts in the world’s eyes receive greater honor. Less presentable parts in the world’s eyes receive special modesty – which does not, by the way, denote embarrassment; on the contrary, this modesty indicates a bestowal of greater dignity. And why does God do this? So there will no division, for the very purpose of creating unity and mutual care one for the other.
The suffering of one means that all share the pain in some sense. The honoring of one means all rejoice together for honor received.
Remember in Paul’s context the weaker, less important parts seemed to be related to spiritual “sign” gifts. Who are these “weaker, less presentable” parts in our church today? I think in our culture, a strong case can be made that this at least includes the disability community. So the natural question we must ask is what gifts do our friends with disability bring to the Body? What is God’s intention for them in Christ’s church? Why are they indispensable? I think there are three big ideas I would offer.
1. Our friends with disabilities honor us by reminding us all that everyone of us is a broken human being. Admittedly some more than others, but all of us are broken body and soul. We do a good job of covering, masking, and hiding our brokenness in our culture, but the hard reality is we are all profoundly broken sinners who need redemption body and soul. Their presence reminds us of who we are. That is a gift they bring to the church.
2. We can begin to imagine and experience grace in a new way as we extend it to others with no expectation of return. In the world’s system, favors are naturally returned. Relationships in business and many other realms are in part for the mutual benefit of both parties. But some of our friends who live with more outward and profound disabilities are not able to return the grace they receive, just as we are not able to return to God reciprocally the grace we receive from Him.
Think about this: from the world’s perspective, the disability community is not a strategic component for institutional growth and prosperity. They cost a lot, they demand a lot with no prospect of return (in the world’s economy). But then again, Jesus did not follow church growth strategies when He selected a bunch of illiterate fishermen, stubborn rebels, prostitutes, and social outcasts to begin His redemptive movement for the world. The disability community honors us with the opportunity to serve, to give, and to love, as we have been loved by God.
3. Finally, our friends who live with more outward disability remind us of this important truth: This world is not our home – we are pilgrims passing through; we journey toward a place where brokenness and fallenness disappear and our weaker friends remind us of this hope. Again, our culture has created such an environment of personal comfort and control that we need people around us whose lives say to us, “Don’t get too comfortable here – we have a better and more lasting possession.”
Do you see the Gospel in all of this? We are broken people, even the most “together” among us, all in need of a Savior and redeemer. And disability is not, as our culture would have us think, restricted to “those kinds of people.” In fact, though the culture tries to separate itself from people with disabilities, the separation is not one of “kind,” but rather, it is only one of “degree” of brokenness. And when you know you are broken, then you more gladly lean heavily on One who save, redeems, and restores, even the Lord Jesus.
This past week, I read an article from 2009 (for Lincoln’s bicentennial), appropriate again, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg ten days from now. Wilfred McClay wrote in an article on Lincoln and leadership the following:
On the day [Lincoln] delivered the Gettysburg Address, he was preceded by the famed orator Edward Everett. The contrast could not have been more stark. Lincoln was the gangly, awkward country boy who had risen in the world by sheer determination, with little formal schooling and no social advantages. Everett was an educator from a distinguished New England family, a graduate of Harvard (and later its president), a Congressman, Senator, Governor of Massachusetts, and the first American to receive a Ph.D. Everett gave a two-hour-long speech, a tour de force full of florid language and learned allusion. Lincoln gave a two-minute speech, that, he predicted, the world would “little note nor long remember.” Many of the journalists who covered the event agreed, and dismissed Lincoln’s speech as a trifle. Yet today all the world remembers those few words of the self-educated frontiersman President, not those of the supremely well-pedigreed former president of Harvard. The stone that was rejected became the cornerstone.
The Gospel teaches us that God’s economy is full of such unexpected reversals. But in our hyped and hyper-mediated world, we need to remember that this is how history actually happens. The background music does not swell at the crucial moment, helping us distinguish the substantial from the merely splashy. Trumpets do not sound. . . . It does not matter how many advanced degrees one has. There is no voice-over narrator to tell the orator or the soldier whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact warranted, whether time will vindicate him or judge him harshly. There are no spin doctors or pollsters to create “public opinion” out of thin air. To be “the man in the arena,” as Theodore Roosevelt would later put it, is a lonely and uncertain position, with neither guideposts nor guarantees. Few great men have felt this lonely burden of leadership more fully than Lincoln. “I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln mused during the course of his presidency, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Sometimes God uses people who say little to speak volumes of truth if we would have ears to hear. Sometimes God uses people who cannot walk to help us take steps of faith. Sometimes God uses people who cannot see with their eyes to help us see the light of life in Christ. Sometimes God uses people who cannot think to help us think more carefully about the grace of God lavished upon us.
How good it is to know that God has ordered His body just as He intended, for His glory and for our good. May He also give us grace to embrace this upside down way of thinking and living for the sake of the Gospel.