30 March 2017

“In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (v. 13)

Psalm: Psalm 129


Baptism matters more than anything else. For Paul, this is fundamental to his understanding of Christian identity. He has already emphasised this to Christians in Galatia: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Here, he makes the same point to the Christians in Corinth. Whatever differences society or even faith create, they are swept away by the overwhelming, life-changing reality of union with Christ through the Spirit in Baptism. The most important thing about Christians is that they have died with Christ (symbolised through the 'drowning' of immersion Baptism) and risen to new life with him (Romans 6:3-5; 2 Corinthians 5:17).

This new life is already ours in part, but we shall not receive it in full until Christ returns (Romans 6:8). For the moment, therefore, we live with tension, even paradox. As Christians, we have new life and yet we also still have the old life, with all its differences of social status, faith and gender. And on top of that, as Paul has just noted, we have different gifts from the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8-11). We have so many differences alongside the one key attribute we share.

To help the Corinthians make sense of this, Paul draws on a story from the Roman world, recorded by the historian Livy about 50 years earlier but evidently part of popular culture and associated especially with Stoic philosophy. The story centres on the rejection of one part of the body by all the others, which quickly leads to disaster. The moral of the tale is that each part of the body needs every other part to flourish.

Paul uses this story as an allegory of the life of the Church. Though we are all different, though we all have different gifts of the Spirit, we all have our part to play. He develops it by distinguishing between 'honourable' and 'less honourable' parts of the body and explains how we treat the less honourable parts with greater modesty.

Why does Paul choose to do this? He is moving towards a rebuke to the Corinthians for valuing certain gifts of the Spirit above others. He finally reaches this point in chapter 14 but he lays the ground here through his insistence that the Church, the Body of Christ, needs every gift of the Spirit equally, and needs to show greater respect to those who are blessed with the less flamboyant gifts. No-one should boast; no-one should feel inferior; we all depend on each other in our union with Christ.

To Ponder

  • Who is there in your church whose gifts could be better used for the good of the whole body? (This might include you!) How could you go about helping this change to happen?
  • Paul borrows the story of the body from his cultural context. What pictures or stories from your own culture could you use to make the same point for our own times? 

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Caroline Wickens 

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