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“As Much Unity as Possible”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 12

“As Much Unity as Possible”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 12

The Bishop's Blog

Bishop Ken Carter
The Commission on a Way Forward

The apostle Paul is writing to a divided church. There were divisions in the church, even in the first century. In this instance, the divisions were about the gifts of speaking in tongues (glossalia) and prophecy (prophetea). Some saw themselves as being more spiritual than others. Paul speaks into the context of the church in Corinth by using the framework of God’s gifts and grace.

Now there are varieties of gifts (charismata), but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services (diakonia), but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities (energemata), but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Corinthians 12. 4-6)

Here Paul speaks of the relationship between gifts, service and energy. We are in our “sweet spot” when we these dynamics form a triangle. We are at our best, we are fulfilling God’s purpose in our lives, our callings, when we hold these three words together.

The word gift (charismata) is rooted in the word for grace, charis. This reminds us that any gift that we might have is a gift of God’s grace, and not our achievement or merit.

Spirituality is also connected to service. My colleague and friend Richard Pereira of the Methodist Church of Cuba told me once of the revival in that church. Many would pray through the night to receive charismatic gifts. Once two young men came to him and said, “we prayed all night, we have received the gift, now what do you want us to do?” He responded, “Now that you have received the gift of the spirit, there is a mop, leaning against the wall. You could begin by cleaning the church!”

What is your gift?
How are you serving?
Where is your energy?

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (sympheron) (.7).

The word sympheron comes from Greek and Roman politics, and it is related to coming together for mutual benefit. It is also a cognate of our word for symphony. How do we hear many voices, the louder and the more muted voices? It is clear that we are given spiritual gifts not for individual self-definition, but for others. When I left pastoral ministry after twenty-eight years and began to serve first a district superintendent, briefly, and then as a bishop, I realized that this work is not about us. We do this work for others. We sit at these tables in order to see the gifts of others.

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 (.12).

Here Paul writes of the paradox of holding together differences amidst a common source, the one and the many. A paradox is literally two truths, side by side. I often want to see “my” truth in contrast to what is “false.” How can we think in the way of the apostle Paul, who was able to place more than one truth alongside another?

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks (ethnicity), slaves or free (economic class)—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (.13).

Here Paul does not add “male or female” (Galatians 3. 28). Why? I invite you to pursue this in your own study of the Bible!

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 (.14-.20).

The composition of the members of the body leads to its healthy functioning. To identify the body through only one of its members would be to restrict its capacity. This is the beauty of diversity.

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 (.21-.24),

Throughout this passage, Paul names the relation of strength and weakness, honored and despised, superiority and inferiority, privileged and marginalized. In a siloed and gerrymandered world, where we retreat to our own kind (I confess this as my own temptation!), the organic connection of each part of the body to another is essential. God has designed us in precisely this way—to be in relationship with each other, in the body of Christ.

These relationships have a profound way of shaping our life together. Richard Hays writes that “a conversion of the imagination will be necessary for those in a position of privilege truly to see themselves as bound together with the weaker members of the body”.

that there may be no dissension (scisma) 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 (.25-.26).

Paul writes to a divided church, but the divisions should not be regarded as normal or the status quo. God’s design is that there be no divisions or schisms. The word schism is a cognate of our word for scissors—our calling is not to cut up the fabric that is the church. Schism might be described as the absence of our suffering and rejoicing together. There is no form of church that will not include suffering. As Thomas Merton notes, “the body of Christ can be described as the resetting of a body of broken bones”. In the church we will suffer together. And yet this calls forth our compassion.                                                                           

The writings of the New Testament did not originally include numbers for chapters and verses. These were actually added many centuries later. I Corinthians 12 through 14 actually form an extended teaching, related to divisions and spiritual gifts. At the core of this teaching is 1 Corinthians 13. We do often isolate this chapter—for example, it is most often read publicly at weddings. And yet love is at the heart of the healing of divisions, love is at the center of any biblical spirituality. John Wesley did not speak about holiness or perfection without speaking also about love (Mark 12).

Paul writes of love as “the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12. 31) and “the greatest gift” (1 Corinthians 13. 13). He also writes:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (1 Corinthians 13. 4-8).

In practice, love makes life in community possible. In practice, love overcomes all that tears us apart. And in practice, love is the path toward holiness. Amen.

Sources: Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation; Richard Hays, First Corinthians: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; the phrase “as much unity as possible” is taken from the Mission, Vision and Scope document of the Commission on a Way Forward of the United Methodist Church.