Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The lectionary text for this second Sunday of Epiphany finishes out this chapter in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
It is clear that this section continues many of the arguments stated in the first half of the chapter, and the themes and issues discussed in last week’s commentary are still very present in this discussion. Paul persists in working out the unity that is present and possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One issue that comes to the surface in working with these texts from 1 Corinthians is how quickly, after the extraordinary unity, community, and fellowship we experience during the season of Christ’s birth, we succumb to the divisions to which we have become accustomed and with which, more often than not, we feel more comfortable.
Paul moves into one of his most well-known, memorable, and effective metaphors of Christian community, the image of the body. The word that is translated in the NRSV as “member” can also be translated as “part” or “limb.” While the term “member” makes sense in the context of Paul’s argument for and support of the meaning of community and the church of Christ, I do wonder if most hearers of this text equate Paul’s terminology with their voluntary church membership and are not aware of Paul’s radical claim in using this metaphor.
Being a member of the body of Christ means an absolute, out-and-out conjoining of one with the other, a sister or brother in Christ. To exist in division, to see only difference and not the unity we are able to profess because of Christ, to demand conformity without celebration of difference, is to entertain the notion of dismemberment. We will find ourselves cut off from the very source of our life, our existence, and in a way, our ability to be most fully who we are. To what extent are we able to live out fully our callings when we are not able to rely on and give support to others to live out theirs? Is it not true that who we are called to be necessitates our fellow members of the body of Christ to embrace and embody their callings?
Once again, we are reminded of our interconnectedness as a community of Christ. It is tempting to spiritualize Paul’s words in this passage, but the call is to a far-reaching communal ethic and a need that transcends any and all differences that we try to put in place. While our tendency is to elevate certain spiritual gifts over others, Paul’s words here are a deliberate claim of evenhandedness, even giftedness, when it comes to how and in what ways God chooses to work in and through our calls to faithful living.
One direction this text might take in preaching is toward the issue of vocation. At the very least, this is not an unhelpful claim at the beginning of a new year. In my current church membership context, every January and February we offer an annual vocation series with the intent to offer different perspectives on the meaning of vocation, but in addition, the desire to encourage members to embrace the truth that their vocational pursuits can indeed be the living out of God’s call. The opportunity to hear members express how God has chosen to work in and through the ways they have instinctively known to live out their lives becomes a powerful and meaningful experience for all of our members to recognize God’s same activity in their own lives.
Another issue that this text raises is how we associate certain criteria with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The tendency to equate certain manifestations of the Spirit at work, while eschewed by some believers, is much more assumed than we want to admit. The real challenge of this text is to celebrate difference that is possible because of the radical claim of Christian unity. To celebrate difference finds its necessity in the history of human existence. How we reject, negotiate, and accept difference has been a constant of our collective experience.
On a practical level, I am reminded of a memorable mantra of one of my yoga instructors: “Let go of all judgment, competition, and expectation.” In the context of yoga practice, this is a call just to be: to be who you are, to be who are in the moment, to be who you are called to be; never to compare yourself to anyone but yourself. The reality is such that this is something that humans need to practice. The propensity to measure our worth up against the standards of others’ societal perceptions is the condition that creates the need to hear God’s gospel word in these words from Paul. Sadly, we need to discipline ourselves to such frank and open acceptance of ourselves, when the truth is God knows us intimately, thoroughly, and still calls us to service.
On a theological, cultural, historical level, I cannot help but hear this portion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians without thinking about my recent visit to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. When we operate from a place and perspective that sees difference as primarily negative, to what extent does the criteria for difference become an unending search for the need to find difference? While most knowledge of the Nazi program recognizes the pure hatred of the Jews, the extent to which difference manifested itself within the entire project and persecution of the Nazi regime is beyond comprehension. Differentiation was itemized to the size of one’s nose, the color of one’s eyes, or the shape of one’s ears. Any variation from “the” standard features of the Aryan race was considered an anomaly at best, abhorrent at worst, and in the end, the criterion for experimentation, sterilization, and extermination. While this may sound like a hyperbolic example, the propensity of humanity to think in categories of incongruities, irregularities, and inconsistencies exposes our extraordinary need for abundant forgiveness and our need to claim over and over again our unity in Christ.