Rev. Rebecca M Heilman-Campbell

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

You’ve heard me share this story before. In her book, Breathing Space, Heidi Neumark writes about her friend, Miss Ellie. Miss Ellie lives on John’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina on a small dirt road in a one-room wooden home. Neumark often visited Miss Ellie sharing stories as they drank a tall glass of sweet tea.[1] And Neumark was not Miss Ellie’s only friend. Miss Ellie would walk for miles around the stream, through the tall, dangerous, snake-filled grass in order to visit her good friend, Netta. But, as Neumark writes, “Netta’s home was not that far from Miss Ellie’s place.”[2] It was practically right across from her, right over the stream that divided them. Understandably, Neumark worried about Miss Ellie traveling through the tall, dangerous, snake-filled grass. So Neumark, with the help of others, built a bridge for Miss Ellie for a more safe and quick travel to Netta’s place. When Neumark showed the bridge to Miss Ellie, Miss Ellie did not show the enthusiasm that Neumark expected. She writes, “There was no smile, no jumping in the sky. Instead, for a long time, she looked puzzled, then shook her head and looked at me as though I were the one who needed pity…”[3] Miss Ellie said to her, “Child, I don’t need a shortcut.” You see, Miss Ellie would walk around the stream to stop and visit with each of her neighbors. She would see Mr. Jenkins “whom she always swapped gossip.”[4] She would stop by Miss Hunter’s place, who always “looked forward to quilt scraps.”[5] She’d stop at one place for raison wine and another to exchange biscuits. She used that time, and that long walk around the stream, to check in with each neighbor. Miss Ellie finally tells Neumark, “Child… can’t take shortcuts if you want a community in this world. Shortcuts don’t mix with love.”[6] How true this is. As we all know, it takes time, energy, intentionality, and to often go out of one’s way to build relationships and a community.

Paul knew this just as much as Miss Ellie. To create community takes work, sometimes hard, brutal work! You can’t take shortcuts as Miss Ellie reminds us. Among the love, support, and accomplishments in community comes conflict, competition, and division. It’s inevitable, from the minor divisions to major splits in the community. This is exactly what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Corinthians.

During Paul’s time, the Roman Empire pushed to promote and ingrain the imperial cult into the life of the city. This “federal” imperial cult brought political and financial benefits, along with obligations to now celebrate the emperor’s birth, religious ceremonies, and Roman festivals of celebrations. Overtime other systems of power fell into place. They established the patronage system. A patron was a person who “got things done” and in return, they received respect, rank, and power. For example, the emperor was technically a patron to the empire. The system created space for those on lower levels to rise in ranks if they “got things done.”[7] While this system uplifted people who may never have had access to such rank, it also created intense competition among friends, families, and strangers.[8] Therefore, “one such association formed in the middle of the first century AD, the ekklēsia (the church) founded by Paul, would have existed in an environment in which patronage was accepted as the normal way to organize internal, as well as external relationships.”[9] Such competition found in secular life, soon became a part of the church. Thus dividing the church in what is important and what is not. What are the best gifts and what are not.

Paul learned from a letter from the Corinth community that there were divisions within the church around hierarchy and gifts. It’s believed that there was a sense of superiority among some members of the church that threatened the harmony of the community, perhaps spiritual in nature, but also socially.[10]  Robert Scott Nash, a theologian writes, “In short, the internal culture of the church had come to reflect the external culture of Roman Corinth. The spirit of competitiveness that reigned in Corinthian society affected those who became a part of the association founded by Paul. The social hierarchy that prevailed in daily life began to assert itself in the relationships of within the church.”[11] Don’t we as a 21st century church know something about this! While I’m not suggesting competitiveness is in our culture or even in the church, we do see how our 21st century culture has asserted itself into the church.

And so Paul turns to talk about “the body.” “The body” (sōma) was a common metaphor used during this period, especially in political writings to talk about the different parts or offices of the city or state. It was used to promote harmony in society, a sort of rhetoric in the public square. To hear the church referred to as the body was not a new concept to the Corinthian congregation. And so here, Paul is using this common understanding and applying it to the church in order to promote harmony, equality, and purpose of each individual part, member, or gifts within the church.  They are all respected and appreciated equally. The first verse, while small, carries something new for its listeners during this time. Paul is not just talking about the church, but Christ as well. Nash, the theologian, writes, “This leap over the church to Christ suggests that Paul saw the image of the body as more than a metaphor.”[12] Paul is saying, “Now you are the body of Christ.”  But it’s not that we are respect each part of the body. It’s not that we give a body part more power than the other. This is how politicians used the metaphor of the body. Instead, Paul is inviting the congregation to welcome diversity within the church and that God, creator of the universe and our image, arranged the diversity perfectly. Another difference is that Paul used the metaphor of “the body” to urge all members to utilize their gifts for the common good rather than to urge the demotion of some members to others for the good of the whole.”[13]

 Just like the church in Corinth, we know something about conflict and division today. It’s not just over politics, but generational differences. A mentality of a village mindset to a individualistic mindset. A mentality that there are more important things in life than Sunday mornings, even tho this is not what most of us were taught growing up. A mentality to give less financially and even our time and energy. While I hope we’ve reaped a lot from our Covid years, we also have seen more challenges and tensions as we’ve come out of those years. We’ve all experienced different of opinions, seen tension, and raised a lot of questions about the meaning of community. And there has been pain, lots of pain.

Friendships have been broken, trust has been lost, fear of losing meaningful members and the changing of the church is at the forefront of most conversations. Not only that, but with the changing of the church, we are even more challenged with anxiety and fear within the church. Members are stretched thin financially, not to mention with their time and energy. The church has changed and continues to change and for many of us this scares us. Hard questions are asked and hard decisions are made. And as Steve said last week, we know how much you love this church and are inclined to say “yes” when one of us, or a session member, asks you to volunteer.

And we also know that schedules are tight. Bandwidths are short. And churches are notorious for asking people to do the same things over and over again, whether or not they align with your passions. We know you love this church and the church. Paul knew this too. He knew their differences steamed from love and a curiosity of what the church might be some day.

Paul’s most powerful message from this text is that diversity among the community creates unity. Whatever we can bring to the church, whatever gifts we can share with the church, they all matter. They are all important. They are valued. Thank goodness we have members who know how to manage a budget. Thank goodness we have members who can share the complex good news on a kindergarten level. Thank goodness we have broad thinkers and detail managers. Thank goodness for tech gurus and that peaceful presence  that a prayer team member holds in tough times. Thank goodness for the people who are not afraid to say hello and talk to a stranger. Thank goodness for the silent soul in the meetings who somehow carries a base in his voice on a Sunday. Thank goodness for the poets and the busy bees and gardeners who feed hundreds of people. Thank goodness for the diversity of gifts that make the church what it is today. There is equality first and foremost among the differences. Not one gift is valued over the other. Raymond Collins, a theologian, writes it beautifully, “[Paul’s] first glance at the body emphasized its diversity; later he turns his attention to the unity of the body. His overarching concern is for the church, which is to be built up.”[14] Paul beautifully invites the diversity in. Names that the ears need the eyes, and the eyes need the hands. Let’s be honest, in our church today the doers need the idea creators, and the idea creators need the budget masters. There’s a place for everyone and every member of the body of Christ should be seen, value, and uplifted in the gifts they have to share.

And so this brings me to what Steve preached on last Sunday. We would like to introduce to you our Ministry Match Assessment. For the past year or so, we have been working with an organization called Ministry Architects. They created an online quiz or assessment  that reflects Trinity’s tasks, ministries, and roles. And guess what? It only take three minutes. Like Steve and I said, we know you love this church. I love this church and we have so much to offer. Our hope is that this will help make your service here more life-giving and meaningful.

In just a few minutes, we will take 5 – 10 minutes, depending on how much help is needed to take this assessment together. You can take it online or you can fill out the paper copy and we will send you the results later this week. There are a couple of good things to keep in mind before we take this assessment. Listen carefully,

  1. There are NO RIGHT or WRONG ANSWERS!! This is not a school quiz. Respond honestly and remove any “I should” from your mind. Be curious and be yourself!
  2. Try to avoid “middle of the road” answers because they won’t be as helpful in matching you to potential opportunities.

It’s that’s simple. So I’m going to go ahead and invite you to take out your phone and scan the QR code on small hand out on the back of your bulletin.  The instructions are there, along with the link to take you directly to the quiz.

If you would rather fill out a paper copy, they are at the end of your pews along with pens. When finished, please place them in the offering plate. Steve and I will be walking around to help with tech support or any questions you might have. When you have finished and you have taken it on the phone, an email will be sent to you with your results. And Steve and I will receive them as well.

The reason Steve and I wanted to invest in this assessment is so we can invest in you and in this church that has so much to offer. Everyone has a gift, but do we see those gifts? Do we know those gifts? Are we even aware of our interests and passion?  And then, do we value those gifts, honor them, and use them for the life of the church? Paul knew something had to be done differently within the Corinthian church. He had to change up his rhetoric, call out the hierarchy and competition, and invite the congregation into a new idea that diversity leads to unity and within that diversity is equality and a shared interest to build up the church of Christ, the body of Christ. That is what we are doing here at Trinity and that is what we hope to do more of.

[1] Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South of Bronx, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 17.

[2] Neumark, Breathing, 17.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid., 12.

[10] Nash, Smyth, 25.

[11] Ibid., 27.

[12] Nash, Smyth, 363.

[13] Collins, 1 Corinthians, 460.

[14] Collins, 1 Corinthians, 461.