(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

Paul wrote this pithy passage because the existence of supernatural gifts of the Spirit was proving divisive. Some gifts were more highly valued than others and this led to pride, jealousy, despair and a judgmental attitude. Christians blessed with the high status gifts were inclined to look down on brethren with lower ranking abilities. Those with the mundane gift of encouraging and helping others may have been jealous of the prophets and teachers. It is more than likely that some who never spoke in tongues were in despair of ever being 'proper' Spirit filled believers. Sadly, a majority of the tongue speakers probably considered that church members lacking their particular gift were scarcely Christians at all. This can be the attitude of the 'charismatics' today!

What Paul wrote can apply to everything that makes one Christian different from another: natural gifts, acquired abilities, disposition, character, culture and social standing. Paul taught that notwithstanding the huge variety of ways Christians are dissimilar all are one in Christ Jesus. For the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though its parts are many, they form one body. v12. This great truth is also emphasised in Romans12v3to8. and of course in Jesus' teaching about the vine. See exposition on John15v1to11.

(B) A threefold unity

Christians are one:

(1) By initiation. For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body. v13.
The body Christians are baptised into is Christ. Paul wrote: They (the parts or Christians) form one body. So it is with Christ. v12. Paul could have written that the church is the body believers are baptised into. By stressing that Christians are initiated into Christ he reinforces the teaching of Jesus who spoke about Gentiles being grafted into the vine - grafted into him, the True Vine. Today with so many different 'churches', each with its own peculiar doctrinal stance, it is vital to hold firmly to the teaching of Paul and Jesus - that believers are one in Christ.

It is in Christ, and none other, that Christians receive forgiveness, newness of life, their status as Sons of God and their hope of glory.

(2) By sustenance. And we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Every Christian relies on the Holy Spirit for spiritual insight, energy and effectiveness. We do not serve in our own strength. The Spirit is our ever-present helper. See exposition on the Holy Spirit.

(3) In representation.
When God the Son was incarnate he was visibly present on earth as the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Since his ascension Jesus remains visibly present - in all his followers. Christians collectively represent Jesus on earth. Christ is made up of many parts - like the body is made up of millions of cells. Christ literally consists of his innumerable adherents. We are his body. If we really believed this we would be humbled by our awesome responsibility. We need to function to the very best of our ability!

(C) It is foolish for any Christians to underestimate their contribution to the body.

Obviously there were Christians at Corinth who felt they had little if anything to contribute because they lacked the high status gifts. Paul illustrated the utter folly of such thinking by making different parts of the body speak. It is a brilliant, witty device. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body" it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.

We can, perhaps, imagine the foot getting upset because it hasn't the dexterity of the hand. The foot lacks the much sort after creative skills of the hand. But the foot is very strong. Consider the pounding the foot stands up to when we walk, run and jump. The man who loses his feet is in a sad condition.

Highly creative Christians are sometimes envied by those that lack their talent. The creative folk in the church - the preachers, poets, musicians, singers, artists and flower arrangers - get much praise. However, the church also needs those who are strong - those who can withstand shocks, disappointments, dissent and persecution. The body of Christ needs both David the sweet psalmist and Joshua, valiant in battle.

We can understand the ear being annoyed that it is not an eye. The eye is valued for the freedom it imparts to the body. But without the ear the body's ability to communicate is seriously impaired.

Christian scholars are a bit like the eye. Their insights into the meaning of Scripture are liberating and life enhancing. But surely the church would not be without its listeners - the sympathetic and merciful. Paul lists showing mercy as one of the gifts of the Spirit!

The key point Paul makes is that no believer can opt out of service. Paul was wonderfully gifted as Christ's apostle to the Gentiles. He still needed the help of less able Christians. We have only to read Romans16 to discover the variety of folk who assisted Paul. One such was Phoebe. The little apostle wrote of her: For she has been a great help to many people including me. Rom16v2. It was Phoebe who took, and safely delivered, Paul's tremendous letter to the Romans. If she had not faithfully discharged her duty Christians through the centuries would have been incalculably poorer.

Dr Paul Brand, world famous as a hand surgeon and a specialist in the treatment of leprosy, wrote this in his book, 'Fearfully and Wonderfully Made': Our little church at Carville includes one devout Christian named Lou, a Hawaiian by birth, who is marked with visible deformities caused by leprosy. With eyebrows and eyelashes missing, his face has a naked, unbalanced appearance, and paralysed eyelids cause tears to overflow as if he is crying. He has become almost totally blind because of the failure of a few nerve cells on the surface of his eyes.

Lou struggles constantly with his growing sense of isolation from the world. His sense of touch has faded now, and that, combined with his near-blindness, makes him afraid and withdrawn. He most fears that his sense of hearing may also leave him, for Lou's main love in life is music. He can contribute only one "gift" to our church, other than his physical presence: singing hymns to God while he accompanies himself on an autoharp. Our therapists designed a glove that permits Lou to continue playing his autoharp without damaging his insensitive hand.

But here is the truth about the Body of Christ: not one person in Carville contributes more to the spiritual life of our church than Lou playing his autoharp.

Every Christian has a part to play in the body of Christ. If we malfunction the body suffers.

(D) It is foolish for every Christian to aim for the high status functions.

Paul graphically illustrates the truth of this in verses 17 and 18: If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, everyone of them just as he wanted them to be.

The body is highly diverse. It is not only made up of many different parts but of many different cells: brain, skin, bone, kidney, muscle, liver, lung, nerve and so on. When our tooth aches we might feel that we could dispense with our nerve cells. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leprosy is a disease of the nerve cells. They gradually cease to function. The leper is no longer warned by pain that he is damaging his hands and feet. That is why lepers have deformed hands and feet. If the nerve dies that triggers the eyelid to blink every few seconds for lubricating moisture, the eye dries out, and the person becomes blind.

The body of Christ needs its nerve cells - those that warn the body of danger. One of the functions of a pastor is to do this. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, warns the church of beliefs and practices that threatens its health. But not everyone can be a pastor. We wouldn't want a body that was only a collection of nerve cells!

We probably do not give the white blood cells of our body much attention. Our condition would be desperate without them! When dangerous bacteria invade our bodies it is the white blood cells that go to the rescue. They go on the attack and blast the bacteria out of existence.

The church needs members who are quick to respond to danger and rush in to repair damage. I can remember once being very angry and upset about an incident that occured in my church. I phoned up Edward, my fellow elder, and blew my top! Within a few minutes of putting down the phone there was knock on my door. It was Edward and his wife come to pour oil on troubled waters. They behaved just like those white blood cells. They hurried to where there was trouble and dealt with the problem.

The fact of the matter is that the body needs every type of cell and all its parts to function properly. So the church needs the contribution of all sorts of different Christians to work as God intends. We shouldn't wish to be other than we are. But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, everyone of them just as he wanted them to be.

(E) It is foolish for Christians to write off those that do not share their abilities.

Paul put it like this: The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" v21.

Somewhat unusually for him Paul employs a touch of humour to make three points:

(1) The indispensable weaker member. On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable. v22.

One of the weakest parts of body is the skin. We soon find this out pruning our roses! It doesn't take much to puncture the skin. But how incredibly sensitive the skin is! It can detect the gentlest breeze. It can feel the footstep of a thunderfly. The skin's sense of touch allows a woman to do the finest embroidery, the craftsman to carve exquisite, tiny figures and the surgeon to undertake painstaking, delicate surgery. Dr Brand describes how Dr Gwynne Williams used to place his warm hands flat on a patient's belly to detect tautness, inflammation and the shape of tumours.

The body of Christ needs its skin! The church needs sensitive, perceptive, aware believers. Mary the sister of Martha was a Christian of this variety. Like many sensitive, emotional, feeling people in the church she wasn't always appreciated by Christ's other followers. Jesus valued her contribution. When Mary anointed him with precious ointment in anticipation of his death and burial, Jesus said of her: "She has done a beautiful thing to me." Mk14v6. What a wonderful tribute! I wonder if we have ever earned a tribute like that from the Master. There are times we need to be handled sensitively, carefully, gently and compassionately. We require help from a 'skin' Christian.

(2) We are glad of our less attractive parts. And the parts we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. v23..

There are some parts of the body we do not think about much like the bones and joints. However, we are glad that they are in working order! Very few ladies of my acquaintance are proud of their knees and elbows. It is not often that a sweet, young thing gets congratulated on her shapely knees. (Unless she has been taught by a rather peculiar old Geography teacher!) Nevertheless very few ladies would be without their knees!

There are some hard, angular fellows in church - the knees and elbows brigade. They are needed - men who are unyielding so far as the truth is concerned - saints who have the integrity of seasoned oak. Many of the great reformers like Shaftesbury, Wilberforce and Luther King have been like this.

(3) We pay special attention to our rude parts. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. v23.

Most of us prefer to cover up our bottoms, bellies and sex organs but are quite happy for our presentable parts - faces, hands and legs to be exposed for all to see. What does Paul mean by this observation?

Some think that Paul is telling his readers to pay special attention to the more inadequate, less attractive and graceless Christians. The highly gifted require no special treatment. This may be true but it does not fit well with Paul's next sentence: But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it. v24. In other words it is God who bestows special treatment on the unpresentable parts.

We must remember that at Corinth all sorts were initiated into Christ - the depraved, debauched, inadequate, uneducated and socially disadvantaged. I believe that the Holy Spirit compensated such people when they believed in Jesus. They were probably given a dramatic conversion experience and an abundant filling of the Spirit. It is possible that they were given supernatural gifts like tongues and faith to make up for their lack of natural or acquired abilities. Paul wrote: But God .... has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it. v24.

It is likely that God still acts in this way. I had every advantage in becoming and remaining a Christian thanks to my upbringing and education. Perhaps, I did not need a Saul of Tarsus type conversion. I can only suppose that God did not consider I required a supernatural gift of the Spirit as I have never been given one. Others, especially those in Asia, South America and Africa without my benefits, may receive more liberally of the Spirit! This is one of the ways, and one suggested by this passage, that I can reconcile the diverse, real experiences of different groups of Christians.

(F) Christians should be able to empathise.

Paul puts it this way: The body's parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. v24to26.

If I have toothache the whole body suffers and not just the tooth. I do not say, "My tooth is suffering" but, "I'm suffering."

If I am cold and warm my hands by the fire the whole body feels better. If I listen to fine choral singing I do not say, "My ear enjoyed that." No, I say, "I enjoyed that."

So, when one member of our church is hurting we should all hurt with him or her. The concern, anxiety and distress of just one Christian in the fellowship should be felt by all.

Amputation is an extreme remedy. No-one wants to lose an arm or a leg although in exceptional circumstances it may be necessary. The church should not welcome the loss of a troublesome member! Our attitude should never be: 'Good riddance.'

A Christian fellowship will be especially glad when a brother or a sister runs well, serves well, witnesses well and finishes well. It was a joy to attend my brother Paul's farewell service at Clapham after 32 year in the ministry. He did not ask his older brother to take part in any way but in spite of this I was very happy that Paul's many years of service were singularly blessed of God, ended on a note of triumph and were marked by many warm expressions of love from his congregation. It is life enhancing to rejoice with those that rejoice. Only those with the mentality of the older son shun the celebrations and refuse to go in.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net