TEXT: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3)
On the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C) we read from the 12th chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians … but only the first 11 verses. Of course, the letter is much longer than that—a total of 16 chapters, in fact.
In ancient times—like when the apostle Paul was alive—letters were written either on parchment—which was worked leather—or on papyrus. Papyrus was a composition of thin, crossed strips of reed. It varied in thickness and smoothness, and was formed into sheets measuring about 10 or 12 inches wide. Neither parchment nor papyrus offered the smooth writing surface we expect in paper today.
A pen was made from a split reed or a goose quill. The ink was a mixture of carbon and glue or gum. With rough quality papyrus, writing was very difficult. The scribe struggled intently to form each letter.
On average, each papyrus sheet held about 140 words. To write three syllables required about one minute, and an hour’s work produced about 72 words.
Now, I don’t know how many words were in the Greek original of First Corinthians, but in English—at least, in one English translation—this letter has 9,539 words. At 72 words per hour, this document would have taken over 132 hours to write!
Not only that, but—because writing was such a laborious task—only two or three hours in a working day could be devoted to a letter. That means this single letter to the Corinthians must have occupied Paul and his secretary for somewhere between 44 and 66 days.
Evidently Paul had a lot to say to the Corinthians! But then, Corinth was an exceptional kind of place.
It was one of the richest ports and largest cities in all of Greece. And it was also the site of an impressive—and famous—temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation.
In Paul’s time, Aphrodite’s cult was very strong, and her temple employed more than 1,000 sacred prostitutes.
Can you imagine the challenges of trying to plant a Christian Churchin that city? How could you ever compete with Aphrodite? On the one hand, 1,000 beautiful women were waiting for you at Aphrodite’s temple. On the other hand, the church was offering …
Well, there must have been a few people who loved potluck suppers. But for the most part, I imagine that Christianity would have been a tough sell in Corinth.
In light of all this, I think the fact that there was a Corinthian church at all is quite a testimony to the power of God—because Paul had indeed founded a thriving church there. However, that fellowship included some pretty extreme characters. As some of you may recall, the Corinthian Church had more than its share of troublemakers and show-offs.
So do all of our churches, of course. But, really, I think that our unusual characters pale into insignificance when compared with some of the parishioners of that church in Corinth.
When you consider that Paul had to deal with incest in the church there—and with gluttony and drunkenness at the Communion table—you can understand why his constant plea to the Corinthians was that they keep their fellowship on a spiritual level.
Now, this is the background against which we need to understand Paul’s assertion that, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
You can imagine (can’t you?) that some of the more together parishioners might say to the apostle: “Uh, Paul … I really don’t think that guy was sent here by the Spirit of God!”
But Paul replies: “Does he say that Jesus is Lord? Then he’s got the Spirit. He is your brother!”
That doesn’t mean you should trust your daughter with him, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be any number of problems he might cause; but if he confesses Jesus as Lord, he’s got as much right to be in church as you have!
This is fundamental to Paul’s understanding of the church. For Paul, the church is a place of radical equality—a place where no distinction is made between rich or poor, black or white, male or female, Jew or Greek. The body of Christ has no “elite corps.” No disciple is more important than another, because we are all one in Christ Jesus.
No one person has any more privileged a church membership than anyone else. Consistent with that is Paul’s other key point in this passage—that every member of the fellowship has a significant role to play in serving the needs of the group. Remember what he said? Listen to the way Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s words:
God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel; clear understanding; simple trust; healing the sick; miraculous acts; proclamation; distinguishing between spirits; tongues; interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when. (1 Cor. 12:4-11)1
Now, I’m not going to get too caught up in the particularities of what Paul is saying here. His point is simply this: everybody in the church has a gift. Everyone has something to offer. All of those gifts are needed by the community—and all of those gifts are from God.
I think this is, quite frankly, where the Protestant reformers got it dead right. Traditionally, the church made a distinction between the religious and the laity—thereby giving the impression that priests and nuns were of a higher spiritual order than the rest of us. But the reformers insisted on equality; they called it “the priesthood of all believers.”
Luther, Calvin and all the rest of them believed that everyone in the church was called to ministry—and that all those ministries were important. They wanted to regain the understanding of “church” that the apostle Paul had: each member of the church is a minister. Everybody has a gift to offer. And all those gifts are significant.
Of course, it’s not always obvious what everybody’s contribution is supposed to be. The biggest problem for most churches, I suspect, is that not everybody is making a contribution. But then, the opposite can also be a problem; some people can be too eager to exercise their gifts—and not always with sufficient discretion.
I heard a story once about a very keen Christian—a man who was something of a “diamond in the rough”—who constantly pleaded with his pastor that he should be given some area of responsibility in the church so that he could more actively serve his Lord.
Finally, in desperation, the pastor gave him a list of ten names, saying: “These are members of our church who seldom attend Sunday worship. Some are prominent people in our city. Contact them any way you can and try to get them to be more faithful. Use the church stationery if you want. See if you can get them back in church.”
The guy accepted the challenge with enthusiasm.
About three weeks later, a letter arrived from a well-known local physician, whose name was on the list. In the envelope was a cheque for $1,000 and a note: “Dear Reverend … Enclosed is a cheque to make up for my missed Sunday offerings. I’m sorry for missing worship so often, but be assured I will do my best to attend more regularly in the future. P.S.: Would you kindly tell your secretary that there is only one ‘t’ in ‘dirty’ and no ‘c’ in skunk.”
Bottom line: we are all called into the service of Christ. If we want to move forward as a church, that can only happen if we all contribute our gifts to the needs of the fellowship as a whole. And bear in mind, I’m not just talking about money here. Not all of us have money. But every one of us has something to offer. And all contributions are significant, because every gift comes from the same God.
During World War Two, England needed to increase its production of coal. So Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the labour leaders together to enlist their support. At the end of his presentation, he asked them to picture in their minds a parade which he knew would be held in Piccadilly Circus after the war ended.
“First,” he said, “will come the sailors who had kept the vital sea lanes open. Then will come the soldiers who had come home from Dunkirk and then gone on to defeat Rommel in Africa. Then will come the pilots who had driven the Luftwaffe from the sky.
“Last of all,” he said, “will come a long line of sweat-stained, soot-streaked men in miner’s caps. Someone will cry from the crowd, ‘And where were you during the critical days of our struggle?’ And from ten thousand throats will come the answer, ‘We were deep in the earth with our faces to the coal.’” 2
Not many of us are called to play high-profile or glamorous roles in the church. Most of us just have to put “our faces to the coal” and keep chipping away as best we can. But remember: everyone has a contribution to make. Every contribution is significant. Every gift is given by God. And everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord shares in that same Spirit which makes us one.
There is our unity! Thanks be to God for it. Amen.
1The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson.