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Sermon Ideas For 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 Part 1

The Corinthian Christian community is splintered (1 Cor 11:18-19). Factions form around key leaders or heroes: Cephas, Apollo, Paul, even Christ himself (1 Cor 1:11-12; 3:3-4). Each faction believes that it possesses a higher honor-rating than the others. Within each faction, individual members vaunt a spiritual gift as entitlement to higher honor than others. Yet all Corinthian Christians are agreed that speaking in tongues in the most honorable of all spiritual gifts.
This is normal life in the honor-driven culture of the Mediterranean world.1 Boasting is a normal strategy for proclaiming or augmenting personal or group honor. (Consider Paul's famous and lengthy boast in 2 Cor 11:21-33). Factions, a type of pseudo-family, are also a normal part of Mediterranean culture which is essentially family-focused. Factions like Jesus and the Twelve, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, compete among other things for group-honor in their special way of obeying and serving God.
If all this is normal, what disturbs Paul in Corinth? Why has he written today's passage as part of a larger reflection on spiritual persons in Corinth and their gifts (see 1 Cor 12:1--14:40)? Paul writes to redress two shameful outcomes of this normal cultural behavior among the Corinthian Christians: disunity among Christians, and disregard for Paul's status as apostle.
Disunity among Christians. Some scholars think Paul's use of the body and its parts to make his point was inspired by the body-part-mementoes left at the Asclepian shrine in Corinth by those who sought healing. Whatever its source, the image of a unified body containing diversified and necessary parts allowed Paul to address the elitism that was dividing the Christian community (vv. 12-26).
The body needs all its parts to function properly: both its noble parts (represented by hand and eye) and its more ordinary parts (represented by foot and ear). Paul's clinching argument is the common, Mediterranean clincher: "This is God's will!" God wills that there may be no discord in the body" (v 25). God wills order not chaos, coordination and not confusion, as Genesis 1 clearly reveals.
Even in a democratic society such as the United States, elitism exists in society and very often in church communities as well. American fondness for European royalty and prestigious American families suggests that Americans do not find elitism as threatening to social or church unity as Paul did.
Moreover, Paul's analogy drawn on the ancient understanding of the human body loses its impressiveness in a western technological society capable of creating artificial limbs and organs and transplanting organs to replace malfunctioning organs.
Whatever causes the problem in a corporate body, whether elite or non-elite, can be replaced. The preacher willing to address elitism in the congregation or in society and basing the sermon on this reading from Paul must skillfully translate or adapt the argument.
Paul's status as apostle. Paul did not establish the Church in Corinth and claims to have baptized only one household. There is evidence in the Corinthian correspondence that his status as apostle was doubted or denied (see 1 Cor 9:1-2 and 15:8-10 for Paul's emphatic insistence on his status). Recall that honor is a public claim to worth and a public acknowledgment of that claim. The public rejection in Corinth of Paul's public claim to apostle-status is shameful to Paul.
To add insult to injury, some Corinthian spiritual persons prized certain spiritual gifts above others and assigned higher status to those who possessed those gifts. In their view, speaking in tongues was unquestionably the highestgift, and it bestowed the highest honorable status on its possessor. This status was even higher than that of an apostle.
How does Paul respond to this expression of elitism? He reaches back deep into his Pharisaic tradition and once again pulls out "God's will for order and precision" in creation and in human affairs. In the Mediterranean world, God's will clinches every argument whether in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
The divinely willed order reflected in Genesis 1 and in the Temple shaped the specific cultural definitions of order known and generally respected by all Jews. This order was drawn on many verbal "maps" found in the Bible, the Mishna, and the Talmud. Throughout all his letters and particularly in today's reading from Corinthians, Paul presents his "maps" displaying the order that God wills.
On Paul's "map" of gifted persons (see vv. 27-28), speaking in tongues appears dead last. Apostles, prophets and teachers lead his list; "then" others follow with glossolalists in last place. The justification for this map is found in verse 18: "God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose." God also wills order and hierarchy in the corporate body of believers. Anyone who uses God's hierarchical arrangement as an excuse for elitism misunderstands God's plan. Besides, as Paul will continue shortly, everyone should "earnestly desire the higher gifts" (v. 31), and Paul will show "a still more excellent way." This is Paul's corrective for elitist tendencies in Corinth as well as the defense of his status as apostle.2
Some ministers in some contemporary western Christian congregations may feel kindred spirit with Paul who perceives himself as an undervalued minister in Corinth. Paul based his vindication on Mediterranean cultural values: honor and shame, the supremacy of God's will, and a hierarchically ordered society. What western values might a western minister draw upon to bolster sagging respect?
Finally, notice that honor is at the center of all three of today's readings: hearing the demands of God's Law made Ezra's listeners painfully aware that they had failed to obey and thus lost the honor due to one who keeps God's Law (Neh). In contrast, the honorable reputation of Jesus already charted by his genealogy (Lk 3) spreads throughout Galilee as Jesus opens his ministry. "All were loud in his praise" (Lk 4).
In Corinth, Paul figures out how to draw honor out of a shameful situation, how to "save face." Everything in an honor-driven culture is about gaining and maintaining honor, about "saving face."
John J. Pilch Catonsville, Maryland
1. For a contrast of American and Mediterranean values, especially American guilt versus Mediterranean honor and shame see John J. Pilch, Hear the Word! Volumes 1 and 2 (New York and New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1991). 2. A good discussion of Paul from this cultural perspective is Jerome H. Neyrey, Paul in Other Words: A Cultural Reading of His Letters (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990).
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