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1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a


January 25, 2004

© John M. Connan

“’M[u]m, does Bill have to go with me to Sunday school?’

Richard Whitaker groaned. He was ten and an only child. Suddenly, Bill had come to live with his family.

Bill was different: ‘slow to learn’ Mrs Whitaker had said before she brought him home. She’d talked about how Richard should share his room and his toys with Bill, since he’d been taken away from his home because of abuse and neglect.

Bill was six months older than Richard, but everything he did seemed wrong. Bill didn’t like to take showers. He left his toys in all the wrong places. And he followed Richard around like a shadow.

Richard was sorry about Bill’s mistreatment. But he really didn’t want a foster-bother – especially one who was slow to learn!

‘Richard,’ his mother went on, ‘Bill may be with us for some time, and he hasn’t been to Sunday School for several years. I’d like him to go with you to your class next Sunday.’

‘But he might embarrass me in front of my friends, Mum,’ he replied. ‘Why can’t he go to your class?’

Richard knew he’d lose the argument. He knew his mother usually had the final word around their house.

On Sunday morning Bill he stood outside the classroom and told Bill to go in first. He didn’t want Bill sitting next to him. When everyone else was in, he sat on the far side of the circle. Bill wasn’t near anybody. He was sitting by himself.

‘Good morning, everyone,’ he heard his teacher saying. “’We have a visitor today. Did someone bring him?’

Richard froze. He said nothing. Then, as he thought he would, Bill said hello and gave his name. His speech was slurred. Then he pointed to Richard, who hung his head wondering what his friends were thinking. Some began to snicker and laugh.

‘Did you bring him, Richard?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘We’re always glad to have visitors,’ Mr Stephens commented. ‘Bill, would you like to read the first part of the lesson today?’

‘Oh, no,’ Richard thought. ‘Bill can’t read well, and everyone will laugh at him.’ And he began to feel angry at both his mother and Mr Stephens. How could they do that to him?

With difficulty Bill began telling a story from the Old Testament, even though the lesson was about Jesus and the disciples. Richard felt like hiding under his chair.

When Bill finished, everyone looked at Richard and then at Mr Stephens. Richard couldn’t look at anyone. Finally Mr Stephens said, ‘Bill, thank you for sharing that story. It’s special to me, too. I hope all of you have your own special Bible verses and stories you’ve memorised.’

Then he said the class was a place where everyone felt welcome and accepted. Richard began to feel guilty. After all, Bill was among a group of strangers, and they were Richard’s friends.

He looked at Bill and felt surprised that he could remember a Bible story he must have learnt years before. He’d retold a story that Richard had to admit to himself he couldn’t remember well.

He finds it hard to explain, but Richard says he began thinking more about Bill and less about himself. He got up and moved to sit next to Bill.

‘Mr Stephens,’ he explained. ‘Bill has come to live with us for a while. He doesn’t read too well, but I’ll help him with the words in our lesson – if that’s okay.’

‘That’s what being a friend is all about. Please begin, Richard – and Bill.’[1]”

Paul was writing to the Christians in Corinth. The city had had a chequered history. Situated on the isthmus separating northern and southern Greece, it was a crossroad for land and sea. It had long been prosperous. In the Greek wars of the second century BC the city was destroyed and lay deserted, until colonised by Rome a hundred years later. The rebuilt city attracted people from everywhere. Even in its re-establishment, as the site of the Temple of Aphrodite with its 1,000 sacred prostitutes, it never lost its reputation for loose living. Once again Corinth was a byword for profligacy and immorality.

This didn’t make life easy for the Corinthian Christians. It wasn’t easy being counter-cultural. It wasn’t easy being followers of a newly emerging faith. It wasn’t easy following the Jesus way. And it would only get harder in the not-too-distant future.

Paul spent some time in Corinth. After he moved on, others arrived wanting to change and dilute Paul’s message. Arguments broke out. Things within the Church got heated. Paul wrote in rather strong terms. They resented his tone. As anti-Pauline feeling developed, his authority was questioned.  Was he an apostle? Was he as spiritual as he claimed?

Paul didn’t take criticism easily. In this letter we call First Corinthians he offered advice – and strongly defended his right to give advice!

Among the arguments in the church was the issue of gifts. Some valued particular gifts more highly than others. Those with “higher” gifts despised those with “lesser” gifts. Unity was under threat.

The way Paul deals with this problem seems rather strange to us. He’s dealt with the issue of sexual immorality, food sacrificed to idols [an issue of concern then but not now], the place of women in worship, and what Paul believes to be appropriate ways to share the Lord’s Supper. They were all divisive issues.

He goes on to suggest that all followers of Jesus have been gifted by the Holy Spirit, and because of that all are part of the one body.

Paul uses several different images of the church in his letters.  Here he uses an old image: the body. It was familiar to anyone who knew Greek tradition. It had been used most famously some five hundred years before[2]. In the fable by Menenius Agrippa parts of the body rebel against the stomach, and all suffer from emaciation. His point: the plebs should not be seditious: all should be united in common cause.

Paul takes a different line.

Followers of Jesus are already united in the Spirit. All are gifted by the Spirit. All are part of the one body. He assumes unity. What he stresses is, in fact, diversity.

Among followers of Jesus there’s great variety. God has gifted different people with different gifts. Each gift is needed. Each gift has its value. None is more important than another. All are needed for the sake of the whole. All contribute to the well-being of the body of Christ.

Within the church there’s room for those who value tradition, as well as for those who value new ideas. There needs to be freedom for a variety of ideas and for new ideas. There’s place for those who give most importance in the Christian life to worship, as well as for those who give highest importance to social action. There’s room for those who are enthusiastic evangelists and for those who are deeply committed to Jesus and the church, but find evangelism’s not their gift.

All are needed. Without one another the body is incomplete – just as individuals we are incomplete without each other.

We are one within this congregation with its 138 years of tradition; one within the Uniting Church with its 26 years of tradition and centuries of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions; one within all other traditions of congregations around us.

Sometimes we need Paul’s reminder: we are one; we need each other.

The Body of Christ is one. Unity is a given. What we need to appreciate – to live with and to work toward – is diversity within that one Body.

Here at Wesley we know we’re facing a future punctuated with question and exclamation marks. We need one another’s support and we need the support of others. We’re not alone in this. Across Australia and in many other countries of Christian tradition the church is discovering what we’ve been discovering. The future needs to change; but, how? That we will discover only as we venture from the old to the new. Meanwhile, we need to discover our interdependence: our need for each other.

In Bucharest there was an underground prison. It was dark and damp with water dripping from the ceiling. On one occasion eighteen elderly members of the National Peasants Party were put in it. They made themselves into a human chain and walked around in the dark. They were soaked by the icy water, but survived by clinging together; each receiving warmth from the person in front and the person behind. They survived because they knew they needed each other[3].


[1] Adapted from Readings for Lent and Easter. The Upper Room. Nashville: 1993. pp. 69-71.

[2] The fable of Menenius Agrippa (ca. 494 BC) recorded in Livy, Hist. 2.32.

[3] John Hargreaves. A Guide to 1 Corinthians. TEF Study Guide 17. SPCK: London. 1985. p. 162.

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