Working together - 1 Corinthians 12
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1 Corinthians 12:1-14
Let me read to you a little parable entitled, ‘Life aboard the Fellow-Ship.’
‘God has enlisted us in his navy and placed us on his ship. The boat has one purpose—to carry us safely to the other shore.
This is no cruise ship; it’s a battleship. We aren’t called to a life of leisure; we are called to a life of service. Each of us has a different task. Some, concerned with those who are drowning, are snatching people from the water. Others are occupied with the enemy, so they man the cannons of prayer and worship. Still others devote themselves to the crew, feeding and training the crew members.
Though different, we are the same. Each can tell of a personal encounter with the captain, for each has received a personal call. He found us among the shanties of the seaport and invited us to follow him. Our faith was born at the sight of his fondness, and so we went.
We each followed him across the gangplank of his grace onto the same boat. There is one captain and one destination. Though the battle is fierce, the boat is safe, for our captain is God. The ship will not sink. For that, there is no concern.
There is concern, however, regarding the disharmony of the crew. When we first boarded we assumed the crew was made up of others like us. But as we’ve wandered these decks, we’ve encountered curious converts with curious appearances. Some wear uniforms we have never seen, sporting styles we’ve never witnessed. “Why do you look the way you do?” we ask them.
“Funny,” they reply. “We were about to ask the same of you.”
The variety of dress is not nearly as disturbing as the plethora of opinions. There is a group, for example, who clusters every morning for serious study. They promote rigid discipline and sombre expressions. “Serving the captain is serious business,” they explain. It’s no coincidence that they tend to congregate around the stern.
There is another regiment deeply devoted to prayer. Not only do they believe in prayer, they believe in prayer by kneeling. For that reason you always know where to locate them; they are at the bow of the ship.
And then there are a few who staunchly believe real wine should be used in the Lord’s Supper. You’ll find them on the port side.
Still another group has positioned themselves near the engine. They spend hours examining the nuts and bolts of the boat. They’ve been known to go below deck and not come up for days. They are occasionally criticized by those who linger on the top deck, feeling the wind in their hair and the sun on their face. “It’s not what you learn,” those topside argue. “It’s what you feel that matters.”
And then there is the issue of the weekly meeting at which the captain is thanked and his words are read. All agree on its importance, but few agree on its nature. Some want it loud, others quiet. Some want ritual, others spontaneity. Some want to celebrate so they can meditate; others meditate so they can celebrate. Some want a meeting for those who’ve gone overboard. Others want to reach those overboard but without going overboard and neglecting those on board.
The consequence is a rocky boat. There is trouble on deck. Fights have broken out. Sailors have refused to speak to each other. There have even been times when one group refused to acknowledge the presence of others on the ship. Most tragically, some adrift at sea have chosen not to board the boat because of the quarrelling of the sailors.
“What do we do?” we’d like to ask the captain. “How can there be harmony on the ship?”
In the passage we are looking at this morning, the apostle Paul gives us the answer as to how such harmony might be achieved. And in order to do so the picture is changed from a ship to a body.
There are three characteristic hallmarks of a church which is working well together.
The first is that, Jesus is always exalted-vv 1-3. ‘Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.’
Here the apostle is pointing to the key feature of the possession of God’s Spirit by drawing attention to what the Holy Spirit does. The great miracle of the Holy Spirit is that he produces Christian believers, those who are able to proclaim by both what they say and how they behave, that Jesus is Lord. Just think about it: as Paul reminds them, not that long ago these people were pagans, who, for all their cleverness and sophistication, were being led by the nose into the worship of dumb idols. And you can be quite sure that as with many pagan cults around at that time, strange, ecstatic utterances- what is called ‘speaking in tongues’ took place, as in the cults of Dionysius and Cybele. Even today there are some Muslims who claim they have the ability to do this, which means that tongue speaking is neither here nor there as being a sure indicator of God being at work, which is what the Corinthians where focused on as we see in chapter 14. But that someone from the heart can declare that Jesus is Lord- the God who became a man so that men and women can become friends with God-that is remarkable, in fact it is supernatural and we are never lose sight of that.
But what does Paul means when he says that no one speaking by the Spirit says, ‘Jesus is cursed’? Well, that is not a good translation. It could be rendered, ‘Jesus-curse’ that is, someone saying, ‘In the name of Jesus I pronounce a curse on you.’ But you might well ask: would a Christian do such a thing as that? It is sad to say, yes some would and, furthermore, some actually did. You see, it was accepted common practice in the Roman world that you could use the name of your god to put a curse on those who were making life difficult for you. There are actual records from the early church in Egypt of a Christian curse, which is of a woman using the name of Jesus to put a hex on someone. Now we may not exactly do that today, but we can think it of somebody can’t we? Maybe there is someone in the church we feel has treated us badly, and so we wish they would simply go, that God would get rid of them; or that something unpleasant would happen to them which would teach them a lesson! And Paul says you shouldn’t be thinking like that. No. The Holy Spirit has been sent to exalt Christ not attack Christians.
The second point Paul makes is that in the church: the Trinity is always to be reflected, look at vv 4-6:‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord [that is Jesus]. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work [that is the Father].’ Within the Godhead there is ‘sameness’- we are talking about one God, but there is also ‘plurality’- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So it is within a local church. I am sure that looking around you this morning it will not have escaped your notice that we are not all the same and neither do we all have the same gifts and do all the same work but we all belong to the same church.
God loves both unity and diversity. What does God do when he freezes water? He makes snow flakes, every single one of them unique, beautiful and different. What do we do when we freeze water? We make ice cubes, everyone exactly the same as the other. God loves variety, but not a dispersed, chaotic variety, but a unified, working–together-kind of variety- being united in a common faith with a common purpose- namely, knowing Jesus and making him known. Isn’t that what we are about?
To illustrate how this works, Paul draws on this wonderful picture of the church as the body of Christ, -v 12, ‘Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.’ Every Christian here this morning is spiritually and organically related to every other Christian by virtue of being united to Christ by His Spirit. Just as the different organs of a human body are all connected and each one contributes to the overall well- being of the person, so each Christian is connected to every other believer so as to contribute to the overall well-being of the fellowship. Do you see?
Paul tells us that different members of the Trinity are involved within the church in different ways and yet still working together as one God. And so the term ‘gifts’- charismata- tells us what God the Spirit shares-love gifts. The term ‘service’, ‘diakoniai’, ‘ministries’- tells us what the Son gives them for- building each other up. The term ‘workings’ -energemata- tells us how God the Father brings them into operation in our lives-by his supernatural power.
The point is this: since within the Godhead the different persons have different roles to play and yet all are equally God, this should be mirrored within the church. We all have different roles to play and yet we are all equally brothers and sisters in Christ; no one superior or inferior, better or worse than any other. We are to work together for the common good. So, here is the rule: everybody has something, nobody has everything, and every gift is given for the good of all.
Which brings us to Paul’s third point, when we are working together, valuing each other’s worth, that is when believers are built up-vv 7-11.
Carefully note what Paul is saying.
First, all Christians have gifts, they are not the possession of an elite v7- ‘to each one the manifestation of the Spirit has been given’. Why is that? Well because all Christians have been baptised by the Spirit and so has the Holy Spirit working through them- v13. If you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit in his fullness without remainder living within you and working through you. So we are to cherish that thought and act upon it.
Secondly, not all Christians have all the gifts. Having given a sample list of gifts, which is certainly not exhaustive, Paul says in v11, ‘All these are the work of the one Spirit, and he gives them to each one as he determines.’ The Sovereign Lord exercises his right of discretion. We may desire certain gifts but we can’t demand them, we can pray for them but not presume upon them.
Thirdly v7, gifts are to be used ‘for the common good’. Now let us be clear about what these gifts are that are to be used to help build up other Christians and so the church. Sometimes Christians make the mistake of thinking that because they do not have more ‘high profile gifts’ like teaching they don’t have any gifts. This is often because we make false division between ‘natural gifts’ and ‘spiritual gifts.’ Sometimes God uses a person’s natural gifts in such a way that they become spiritual gifts. Natural gifts are given by our Creator but two things can happen to these natural gifts when Jesus becomes your Lord.
First, there is a change in the motivation and direction of the use of the gifts. As Paul spells out in chapter 13, Christian love shapes our motivation in using our gifts, and serving other believers determines the direction in which we use those gifts, namely, outwards towards other people to help them and not inward to make ourselves look good. The use of gifts is meant to build up other fellow believers in love and not puff ourselves up in pride.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit energises our gifts. When I was 14 years old I won a prize in a public speaking contest which seemed to indicate I had some natural skills in that area. Now God by his Spirit empowers that ability in order to teach the Bible. You may have a gift in music, encouragement, administration, practical matters- the gift of helps- I don’t know what gifts you have but you do have gifts.
Let me tell you something: a famous conductor once stopped a full symphony orchestra in full flight saying. ‘Stop, I can’t hear the piccolo.’ And you know what, God is like that. He has called us into his divine orchestra and he wants to hear us. The question is: are we barely audible so we are hardly noticed at all? Or, on the other hand, are we so loud that we are drowning out others so they can’t get a look in? He wants to hear the piccolo- the smallest instrument- it still matters. Why are we here today, to worship God? Yes. But worship is bigger than praise, it includes that other element Paul is illustrating here with the picture of the Body-service or to use the more religious word, ‘minister’.
You know the church tends to oscillate between idolising their clergy and despising them. A visitor from Britain in the United States saw three types of toilet in a building: ‘Men, women and clergy.’ Let me ask: Who are the ministers at St John’s? Is it myself, Scott and Pete- are we the ministers? Is it just us plus the members of the staff team? No. That is a woefully incomplete list. Everyone here who is a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ is a minister of Christ. However, to say that we are all equally ministers does not mean that we all minister equally. As those ordained as a presbyter or elder, Scott, Pete and I have ministerial authority, we are placed by God in his church to serve his people by building up his people through the preaching the Gospel which has a magisterial authority. That is, what the Bible says, God says- it is God’s authority which is to be gratefully obeyed. So as we open that word, God’s voice is heard. And as we receive that word in the power of the Spirit we are built up individually and as a fellowship to become more like Jesus. That is our primary responsibility. But as we all share God’s word with each other, we all share in that ministry too.
But let me say, just by being here, your presence is a ministry. To have a larger number of people singing has a different feel to it compared to just a few, so please don’t ever think. ‘Oh I will give it a miss today, no one will miss me’- yes we will, and especially if a dozen other people think the same thing! To have a big toe missing still means that the Body is incomplete even if the hand is still attached! So let’s not short change our brothers and sisters in Christ by being lax about church, it should be the highlight of the week.
A friend of mine who was the senior minister at a church in Nottingham, was telling me of a time when the church was going through a difficult time with the church members, who, to be frank, were being less than charitable with each other than they should have been. And yet one day a non-Christian came into a service and afterwards commented, ‘It was like walking into a wall of love’.
I believe that has been the experience of people coming here. People have expressed similar sentiments. There is not a day goes by without me thanking God for this church and each one of you. I am constantly oved and humbled by the many acts of kindness, and examples of devoted service which take place in this fellowship. Sure, there is always room for more and we should be constantly asking, ‘Lord, what should I be doing what I am not yet doing, how can I give of myself to your people, for your sake who has given everything for me?’ But the wall of love is here and my prayer is that it will grow with each passing year.
 Max Lucado, ‘Life aboard the fellow-ship’, In the Grip of Grace p. 160
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