“Seek to overflow in the spiritual things that build up the Church.” That imperative from Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:12 serves as a hinge, a kind of summary of the first part of chapter 14 and a springboard into what Paul wants to say next. The heart of this hinge verse emphasizes the goal Paul wants us to pursue: Building up the Church.
Building has been an important part of the argument so far in this chapter about spiritual gifts. Five times in the first twelve verses Paul uses either the verb οἰκοδομέω (to build or build up) or the related noun οἰκοδομή (a building). Paul wants his hearers to desire and seek after and pray for the things which help in the process of building up the building that is the Church.
In Greek as in English, this home construction includes a process of building as well as a resulting artifact, a building. The process of building requires someone with skill and experience to collect separate and distinct materials (bricks, stones, etc.) and bring them together as a whole. In this new whole, the parts are often still identifiable as parts, but they are no longer on their own; they function together for a purpose. Bringing about unity is a key element of the building theme.
Earlier in the book (1 Corinthians 3:10-17), Paul describes his own ministry among the Corinthians as laying a foundation (preaching Jesus Christ) and acknowledges the fact that other coworkers will be building on it. The Corinthians themselves are being built into a building that is, in chapter 3 at least, explicitly a temple in which God’s Spirit dwells.
Here, in chapter 14, the Church (that is the people of the Church) are again being built up and, although the word “temple” is not used, the presence of the Spirit is clear. The edifice the Church is being built into has a purpose: To be a dwelling place for the Spirit of God, a place of encouragement and consolation (14:3), of revelation and knowledge (14:6), of catechesis (14:19) and worship (14:25).
In this context, Paul addresses some of the things dividing, or unbuilding, the unity of the Church. We probably do not have the exact same cultural expression of these differences, but if anything, the message of unity Paul speaks may be even more difficult to hear in a Western Democracy than it was in the metropolis of ancient Corinth. You see, the thing Paul says opposes the building up of the Church is the building up of the individual.
We Americans like our unity to be grounded in the freedom of the individual. Paul says what builds up only individuals hurts the building up of the Church. Paul imagines a time when we are no longer immature children, seeking to show off spiritually, but instead demonstrating the maturity that comes from edifying others. When you build up others, you are being truly spiritual, and your community becomes a dwelling place for the very Spirit of God.
When you build up others, you are being truly spiritual, and your community becomes a dwelling place for the very Spirit of God.
If you think the specifics of speaking in tongues without interpretation will be foreign to your listeners, and you agree with me how the American context makes it difficult to hear anything which threatens the rights of individuals and their own individual building up, then you might choose a sermon structure that allows you to bring up a touchy subject and look at it from several angles.
I think Andy Stanley’s Relational Model could fit that bill. You may recall the Relational Model begins with the preacher sharing a personal perspective or experience with the topic (ME). In this case, the topic is something like “unity and division in the Church” and the goal is to motivate and enable your hearers to, as Paul says, “Seek to overflow in the spiritual things that build up the Church.”
This would be a chance to share both some of the joyful unity you have seen in your ministry and share some of the division that has caused brokenness (without throwing anyone under the bus). The more (appropriately) vulnerable the preacher can be at this point, the more likely the hearers will put down their guard to hear what is actually being said.
The second move in Stanley’s method is to consider the different experiences of the hearers gathered (WE). You could reference the apparent division of the congregation in Corinth to show one kind of division, though if you do not have spiritual experience overshadowing understanding, you might not want to dwell there. You could possibly touch on the opposite—a situation where an emphasis on the mind to the detriment of personal experience is causing division—but you can probably get pretty concrete and specific to your local congregation pretty quickly.
The trick to this second move is to look at several different or even competing experiences of division and unity in a realistic and non-judgmental way. In other words, an outside observer should not be able to tell which side you would be rooting for (or joining) if it came down to a fist fight in your congregation.
You could reference a congregational celebration or joint mission project that really brought unity. In our current milieu, experiences of division abound. I find it interesting how the way opposing sides have been formed in debates about masks or vaccinations seems to cut across older chasms concerning worship style or music choice. A brave preacher might bring up these kinds of fundamental divisions and notice how everyone involved feels the tearing down that happens when divisions persist.
A brave preacher might bring up these kinds of fundamental divisions and notice how everyone involved feels the tearing down that happens when divisions persist.
The sermon flow moves from (1) ME, to (2) WE, to (3) GOD: Here is where we examine God’s Word together to see what God has to say about unity and division in the Church. You can notice the building theme, and Paul’s desire that we earnestly long for and pray for the things which build up the Church, the gifts serving to build others up. You might observe how our typical answer would allow everyone to seek the thing that builds them up as an individual, as long as it does not prevent others from building themselves up. Then call your hearers to a more biblical vision of setting aside your agenda (what builds you up) for the sake of building up the community. This kind of other-focused, unity-driven community is a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.
You can stay in 1 Corinthians and the language of building and construction to preach Christ, crucified and risen and coming again, as the cornerstone of the temple being built up to the glory of the Father. You can proclaim the promise of God’s presence with us to forgive and heal and bring an end to our divisions now, in part, and fully in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That application of God’s Word to individuals and to the congregation is Stanley’s movement to (4) YOU. Each of the different experiences noticed in (2) the first “WE” section gets addressed personally by both Law and Gospel in the (4) YOU section.
The sermon then ends with (5) a second, “WE” section where the preacher paints a picture of what a congregation would look like as they (we) live according to this Word. Your conclusion could, therefore, imagine people in your setting continually seeking to overflow in the spiritual things which build up the Church, focused increasingly on the common good rather than their individual rights. That kind of a community can cause even outsiders to recognize the presence of God in this temple of people we call Church.
(1) ME, (2) WE, (3) GOD, (4) YOU, (5) WE; the Relational Structure shapes the preaching of Law and Gospel from the text in a way that invites hearers to see other perspectives on their experience. It might open them up to a Spirit-led desire to build up the real people in their God-given community.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Corinthians 14:12b-20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 14:12b-20.