We continue where we left off last week in our semi-continuous reading from 1 Corinthians in the Epiphany season. Whereas last week’s reading focused primarily on types of “utterance” and the way we speak with one another, Paul now focuses us on actions, activities, and functions within the Body of Christ. But the underlying theme of unity in diversity remains and is even intensified in this passage.

No matter how many times we have heard it before, or how many times it can be called upon as an image in ministry, the way Paul extends the conceptual metaphor of the body and its members in verses 14-26 is simply brilliant. It begins with a radical declaration of equality. Each member finds their value, worth, and identity from the same inexhaustible source: The grace-drenched water of baptism which splashes every living body just the same. This fact cannot be overlooked or overemphasized. The gift is God’s and not ours, and the fact that any of us have any role to play at all in the Body of Christ is an amazing grace. So, any self-awareness we may have of our own gifts in life and ministry begins (and ends) in gratefulness.

This is the flip side of the first temptation Paul sees in the Corinthians’ church (and ours). It is the worst enemy of gratitude, namely envy (when we look at others) and its self-deprecating cousin, shame (when we look in the mirror). Paul explores this temptation by artfully personifying the metaphor: “If the foot should say...” (verse 15 and following). Envy would seek to steal someone else’s gift for its own. Even more tragically, shame would steal from itself by depreciating its own gift and its value to the community. Paul’s vision cuts through both. The body simply cannot work unless everyone is involved. And we cannot all be involved unless we acknowledge our mutual dependence on each other. If any single one is missing, the whole thing breaks down. Thus, it is significant how Paul appeals to the eye in verse 17. From classical sources to the present, sight has usually been regarded as the body’s chief sense. Yet, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?”

The body simply cannot work unless everyone is involved. And we cannot all be involved unless we acknowledge our mutual dependence on each other.

This leads Paul to extend the metaphor further, from how we regard our own role in the body to how we regard the roles of others. But the principle is not simply that we all just tell each other how great we are and get along. Nor is it that those who have “greater” gifts should condescend in sympathy to the others. Paul’s vision is even more radical, and it comes in a strikingly perceptive insight into how the body itself works. “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (verse 22). If you do not think it is so, just try doing nearly anything you might do in a typical day without an opposable thumb. Or try looking at anything for more than five seconds without blinking your eyelids. What Paul is doing here is upending our whole scale for how we consider what is greater or weaker, indispensable or replaceable. And he is replacing it with God’s own perspective: “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division” (verse 24). This is the same paradox by which Jesus of Nazareth, beginning with His appearance in the synagogue in today’s gospel, will preach the greatest to be least, the first to be last, and vice versa. This also becomes the basis for genuine empathy and fellowship within the Body of Christ. When one suffers, we all suffer, and when one rejoices, we all rejoice (verse 26).

Paul ends the metaphor at this point and brings it back to brass tacks. What is important to note about the listing of positions and gifts in verses 27-31 is to note what it is not. This is not an official list of ecclesiastical offices. It is also not an exhaustive inventory by which to determine what is my own (or someone else’s) spiritual gift. If we read the text to figure out which position or gift is mine or theirs, we will miss the point entirely. The argument, for Paul, is that we will only find our function in the Body of Christ by, first, seeing how God has already united us in baptism to do the work we are all called to do together, and second, by acknowledging with a holy reverence how God is vitally using the others He has brought, and is bringing, into our midst.

In this sense, the “higher gifts” Paul mentions at the end of the reading refer not to everything he just listed, but to the “still more excellent way” he will show us next week.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a.