1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
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. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
There is no useless person in the church. If we look throughout church history, if we look at our congregations, indeed if we look within ourselves we can see that we have unique gifts, material, practical, and spiritual – that equip us for service of God, and God’s kingdom. This is often the point that we stop talking about Paul’s “body talk” in Corinthians. We see that all people have a place, and we neglect Paul’s bold statement at the end of today’s reading. “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this”
On a practical level, it seems that Paul is stating the obvious – we wear clothing over the parts of our body that we cannot show publicly. The “dishonorable” parts of our body are given the honor of being dressed, usually with more pieces of clothing that we’ll ever put on what we claim to be most essential to our lives – our hands or our head. Not only are we talking about what is “honorable” or “dishonorable”, but we also have Paul talking about “weaker” and “stronger” we regard the strong as necessary when what we really need are the weaker. Again, to speak of our own bodies – I will never hear someone call their liver the strongest part of them… Well, I take that back, I know a few people at WVU who would – but most would not. Still, when our Liver begins to become sick, we are debilitated. What we regard as weak, is indispensable within our body.
When is the last time that you heard of a church doing that though? We may talk about having good pastors, or great people in our congregations with spiritual gifts we can only begin to imagine. When is the last time you heard a church be thankful for those without obvious gifts? When is the last time that we as a church were thankful for our weakest, our most “dishonorable” members?
The economy of God is bizarre. We are told throughout the Gospels that God is establishing a world in which “the First shall be Last and the Last will be First.” Those with gifts of money and fame in this life are expected to give well of it, or else lose their inheritance in the life to come. Likewise, the poor and the oppressed are given a special place in the world to come. The Thief on the cross, a sinner and a criminal at the end of his life, is told he will be seated beside Christ, in a place of honor – because of his faith in Christ. The economy of God makes no sense to our earthly minds.
In the same way, those of us who are given spiritual gifts are warned constantly that we should not think too highly of ourselves for our gifts. Do you have a gift of prophecy – to tell people the consequences of their ways? Good! Of proclaiming the Gospel to any you meet? Wonderful! Of teaching, of building, of discernment, or any other multitude of gifts? Good! Good! Good! In the world to come, that gift will not last. Preaching will not be needed when God lives next door. Prophecy is useless when we all live in perfect harmony. The only thing that will matter in the World to Come is that we loved, is that we served God with all our heart. So those of us without gifts are not innately better, are not more valuable than those of us who at times feel we do not have a gift.
Do you feel that God has not given you a spiritual gift? Or that you do not have the most lucrative gift you could? It is ok to feel that way. Not everyone is given gifts that are obvious or grandstanding. Many people in the church feel like they don’t fit in because God seems not to have given them the special insight the most vocal members of the church may have. Beloved, blessed are those with gifts that are not seen.
Sometimes, we enter into a space where we are without advantage. For example, if you put me in a conversation about Sports, I lose my ability to be articulate at all. I don’t know pass interference from a sack, and honestly, at this point, I’m afraid to ask. Likewise, someone may enter into a church that is blessed with many preachers, or many workers, and feel like they are out of their depth. In some way, you may be. The danger is that we the Church will make people feel inadequate if their gift doesn’t fit our understanding of Spiritual Gifts. An example of this would be those who see the Spirit as only coming to people in the speaking of tongues. One gift is raised up above all others, and the others feel they don’t have a place to stand because of it.
If you are hearing this today and feel that you have never found your spiritual gifts I invite you today to hear this word. “That which we, mistakenly, call weak is indispensable. That which we, wrongly call, dishonorable is honored.” You may have heard someone tell you that you lack sufficient faith, or that you will one day find your grand gift. I’m telling you that the subtle ways that you contribute to God are worth more than even the greatest of preachers. Perhaps God gave you a heart to love, and you love more than anyone. Perhaps God gave you a gift for knitting, and you make a hat better than anyone. Or you’re a coder. Or you’ve got something in your court that you just really shine in.
To we who feel our gift is insufficient, God tells us we are enough. No matter what we bring to service in Christ, we bring from God and give to God. Whatever ways we shine, let us shine in God’s reflected light. Let us now consider though, not we who feel we have a lesser gift, but we who feel we have no gift.
There is no one who has no gift in this life. We are all gifted spiritually by God. We are all given innate talent by God, focused and refined by our experiences and the privileges afforded to us. Whether you feel that at all times or not, God has given you some part to play. The only person who is without a gift is the person who does nothing. Let me repeat that, only when we do not participate in God’s work are we truly giftless. No matter the part we play, and no matter the size of it, it’s important that we are playing a part.
Recall the parable of the talents, a man gives his workers money. Each one makes amazing amounts of return on his investment, except for one. When this worker is approached he tells his investor, “I did not feel I had enough, and I was afraid I would lose what I have. So I hid your money, and I give it back to you in full.” That servant is reprimanded for their inaction – similarly, we of the church – no matter how much we think we are given, should work with what we have. Do you feel that you have no gift? Work anyway, because in working you will develop more for yourself and for the kingdom of God.
We should also erase from our minds the idea that a gift is given once and for all in Christ. That those who preach were always amazing preachers, that those who discern were always good at telling good from bad. They worked at it. No matter what innate gifts God gives us in our birth or our upbringing, what we do with it can determine a lot of whether or not we grow. Obviously, there’s more nuance to that idea, and some people have stumbling blocks put up to keep them from advancing. A prime example is women in the church, a lot of them weren’t allowed to preach after the Church decided it needed to resemble the groups around them. Imagine, how many Billy Grahams were denied their pulpit because they were born to sit in the other half of the pew.
As we come to a close with our time. I wish to share two small stories, the first from the life of Christ, and the second from a Jewish teaching. In Christ’s life, we see that as a child, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Yes, even Jesus in his humanity worked to be better at what he did. Through some divine mystery, Jesus took on more of his Christ-likeness as he grew. Then he entered into the world, and we are told in today’s readings that wherever he preached he was “praised by everyone” for his understanding. Then he came home, and the synagogue where he spoke was silent. They stared at him, afraid of what the little boy they knew was now saying to them. After they chase him out of town, Jesus tells us, “a prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown.” Well, that word, “without honor” is the same word Paul used earlier. That which we call “dishonorable”, “without honor”, “ἄτιμος” – that’s right. If you feel that you are not blessed by God, you are in very good company. And what’s more, you are honored, you are indispensable.
The second story comes from a Jewish text, “The Tales of the Hassidim” the story goes like this, “The Master [teacher] teaches the student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated since everything is here to teach us a lesson.
One clever student asks: ‘What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?’
The Master responds: ‘God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.’
‘This means,’ the Master continued, ‘that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say: ‘I will help you’.”
In the same way, I would argue. Those of us who feel that they did not receive a gift from God, but still go on working for God. Loving God. Serving God with all their heart. They have inherited a better portion, because they serve God, not for the gifts given to them, not for the fame or the attention, but because they truly love God. What a love. Let us learn then, to honor those of us who would not traditionally be honored. To bless our fellow believers, and to be bold in our faith – whether we are overflowing with gifts, or struggling from day to day.
God is with us. God works alongside us. God does not see as we do. So let us put away all feelings of superiority, all feelings of inferiority, and unite together in love. For love remains when all else passes away, and love regards what is truly honorable, and sees the strength in what is truly indispensable.