First, the context of the season. Like every Epiphany season in the three-year lectionary, this Sunday begins the first of a semi-continuous series of readings from 1 Corinthians. In year C, these readings cover chapters 12-15, and the next three weeks comprise a continuous reading of chapters 12-13. For preachers who are into that kind of thing, this lends itself to a sermon series, but I’d leave it to you how that series might take shape and apply to your own context of preaching and ministry. Suffice it to say that this Epiphany season contains some of Paul’s most cherished passages about spiritual gifts and the body of Christ (ch. 12), Christian love (ch. 13), and the resurrection (ch. 15). Suffice it further to say that 1 Corinthians is an apt apostolic word for the Christian church in the United States of America as we enter 2022 in a society wracked by the kinds of destructive divisions and factions Paul addressed in chapter 11, immediately before today’s reading.
Now, to the text at hand:
“Now concerning…” (v. 1). This repeated phrase (cf. 7:1, 8:1, and 16:1) provides the structure for the body of Paul’s letter, which is essentially a laundry list of concerns Paul sees evident in the troubled congregation at Corinth. This gives the reading a sense of in medias res, that we are starting our seasonal reading of Paul’s epistle in the middle of things. Such is perhaps a fitting way to start our observance of Epiphany, this season where we keen our senses to the “manifestation” (v. 7) of God in Christ. God is always and everywhere at work, so those times when we, by the power of the Spirit, catch these glimpses, we always catch it as it is already happening, even when it is “the first of his signs” as John’s Gospel reading for today will reveal of Jesus turning water into wine. And yet, this is also the last time Paul will use this phrase until this particular series of readings is over, which would suggest that there is also a continuity, a flow, to how Paul sees spiritual gifts leading toward love leading toward the resurrection of Christ rising for us all.
“…and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (v. 3). It is simply worth noting here that Paul is quoting the church’s first creed, and it establishes the power and authority by which we can find the unity in diversity that Paul will eloquently describe in the rest of the pericope. To confess the lordship of Christ expresses not only past continuity with Israel’s YHWH, the Lord who freed the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land, but also the present and future hope that Christ is extending his reign of power and promise to the entire creation. To confess the lordship of Christ is also to defy and resist all the “mute idols” (v. 2) of our lives. Paul refers to these idols in the past tense, but we should not deceive ourselves into thinking they do not still hold sway over our thoughts and actions, whatever our idols du jour may be.
To confess the lordship of Christ is also to defy and resist all the “mute idols” (v. 2) of our lives.
“…for the common good…by one and the same Spirit…” (vv. 7, 11). What springs forth from those who gather together to confess “Jesus is Lord” are the “varieties of gifts” united in “the same Spirit…the same Lord…the same God” (vv. 4-6). This is the unity in diversity that makes a congregation the church of Christ. Next week we focus on the diversity of actions within the body of Christ. But what strikes me most in the list of vv. 8-10 is how much it is focused on types of “utterance,” of discussion and discourse, of how we speak with one another. For Paul, the goal of such speaking is not to win the argument, but of “discernment” and “interpretation,” that together we may discern the ways of God—in Christ, by the Spirit—among us and for us in this place. How does this kind of speaking take place in your own context? What does it look like? What are the spaces—physical and/or virtual—where it can happen? If a sermon were to attempt to model this kind of “discernment” and “interpretation” centered in the Gospel, abstractions won’t do. It has to be concrete speech, taking up the particulars of its time and place. Even amid the platitudes, we’ve lost so much of a sense of “common good” in our society and culture. What does the “common good” look like within our congregations? And how does that “common good” spill over into the neighborhoods and communities our congregations seek to serve?
Thus, it also strikes me that one of the most counter-cultural things the church can do right now has nothing to do with religious liberty (however we may define the term), or mainstream media (whatever cable news network we watch), or whatever is the latest skirmish in the perpetual cycle of culture warring. The most counter-cultural action any Christian church could take right now would be to foster healthy and constructive conversations among its members and neighbors across their variety of opinions and perspectives. Where else in our society are such conversations happening? And if we know anything about what it means to be “activated by one and the same Spirit” (v. 11), such conversations just might show forth again that Jesus is, indeed, Lord.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.