I read recently of an orchestra where the violinists have started a court case. They are suing the orchestra because they want to be paid more money for playing their violins. The violin players claim that they deserve to be paid more than any of the other musicians in the orchestra. Why? They point to how many notes they play per concert. Those playing the flute, oboe, or trombone, claim the violinists, play far fewer notes than the very busy violinists. And since the violinists play more notes per concert, they want more pay. It’s an intriguing example of the way in which we often devalue others’ service. These violinists seemed to overvalue their own service and undervalue the service of others. They didn’t seem to appreciate the contribution the other musicians were making to the orchestra. And, often we do the same thing. Sometimes we even do this in church.
Fred Craddock writes about a time he was the guest preacher for a church in Oklahoma City. Just before he stood to speak a woman came up to him at the pulpit. She said, “Before you talk, I need to know something.” Craddock asked her what she needed to know. She said, “Are you a knocked-down, killed in the Spirit, washed-clean, picked-up, Spirit-filled charismatic Christian?” Craddock replied, “Well, I’m a Christian.” The woman protested: “That’s not what I asked you.” “What did you ask me?” Craddock replied. “Are you a charismatic?” the woman pressed. “Craddock said, “Yes, ma’am, I am.” She was very pleased, smiled big, and said, “What’s your gift?” She hoped he was going to say something like “Speaking in tongues,” or “Healing,” or “Prophesying.” But Craddock simply replied, “Teaching.” His charismatic gift was teaching. And the woman said, “Oh,” and left, disappointed. She seemed to value only the “flashy” gifts of the Holy Spirit. She didn’t seem to believe that the gift of teaching was worth very much. Sometimes even in church we devalue the service of others.
We find this taking place in the church in Corinth: 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 Now 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. 16 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. 17 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? (1 Cor. 12:14-17 TNIV). We catch Paul in the middle of a section where he’s writing to the church about their acts of service. He uses the metaphor of a body. Paul imagines a body where a foot suddenly starts talking: “Hi there. I’m a foot. But I’m just a foot. See that hand way up there. If I could be anything, I’d be a hand. I mean, a hand gets to put food into the mouth, paints pictures, writes life-changing words, plays musical instruments, and carries heavy objects. Me, I’m just a foot. I’m dirty. I smell. And I frankly look funny.” Paul imagines a similar comment being made by an ear who wishes she were the eye. And finally, Paul imagines the eye commenting, “Just look at the pathetic ear. Look at that hopeless foot. Compared to me they are useless. I wish the whole body could be one big eye. Then it could really do something.”
This imaginary conversation reflects the real conversation among church members in Corinth. And the conversation seems to have taken two directions. First, some in Corinth devalue the service of others. In chapters 13-14 we can read how some of the Christians in Corinth who serve using their talent of speaking in tongues believe their service is superior to that of anyone else. They are like the eye who keeps telling the ear and the foot—“Too bad you’re not like me. Because what you do in this body doesn’t really amount to much.”
And it’s easy to do that in a church. It’s easy to think that those who don’t lead a Reach Group like you do just aren’t doing much. It’s easy to think that those who can’t teach a Sunday School class like you do don’t have much to offer. It’s easy to consider those who “only” watch babies in the nursery as a little less important than those who organize ministries for the poor. We sometimes devalue the service of others, even in church.
But the conversation taking place in the Corinthian church not only had to do with some devaluing the service of others. It also had to do with some devaluing their own service. Sometimes we devalue our own service. Because those able to speak in tongues are looking down on those who cannot speak in tongues, those who cannot speak in tongues are now thinking less of themselves. The feet are thinking of themselves as inferior because the eyes keep talking about how useless the feet are. Some of the Christians are beginning to think that their service matters little compared to the service of others in the church.
I wrestle with this. Sometimes I devalue my own service One of our elders, David Ralston, recently attended the Summer Celebration at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He brought back some CD’s of someone who spoke at that event. They contained two presentations given by Patrick Mead from Rochester, MI. I listened to both presentations. And as I listened I thought: “Man, I wish I could preach like him.” As he talked about ministries he was spearheading to reach non Christians, I thought, “Man, I wish I could lead like him.” After I finished listening, I considered him an eye and I felt like a foot. Do you ever do that? You ever devalue your own service? You ever listen to someone, watch someone, hear someone and say, “I wish I could do what they do? What they do is so much better than what I do.”
And in light of both of these struggles—devaluing the service of others and devaluing our own service—Paul turns us back to our baptisms: 1 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. 12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Cor. 12:1-13 TNIV)
Here is what I think Paul is saying: Through baptism God’s Spirit empowers each of us to contribute valuably toward Christ’s work. Verse 2 of chapter 12 states that when it comes to understanding the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, the Christians in Corinth have been influenced by their pagan background of idol worship. Their pagan background would teach them that there are many gods and that spiritual things can be caused by any of those gods. But Paul wants them to realize that the true God is present and true spiritual things happen only in the Christian faith. The true Spirit is at work where people are saying, or “confessing” that “Jesus is Lord.” There were many forms of spirituality and supposed supernatural work in the religions in Corinth. But it is where Jesus is confessed that the true Spirit of is at work.
Paul then moves on to talk more about the Christian faith and how the true Spirit works in the Christian faith. In vs. 3, Paul mentions the Spirit of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—the trinity. This reference to the trinity continues in verses 4-6 where Paul mentions the “same Spirit,” the “same Lord,” and the “same God.” In other words, in the Christian faith there are different kinds of gifts, different kinds of service, and different kinds of spiritual work, but they all rooted in the Christian godhead of Father, Son, and Spirit. In the Greco-Roman culture of Corinth, people believed that different gods were responsible for different spiritual activities. Paul counters this by teaching that all the different activities in the Christian faith are rooted in one God: Father, Son, and Spirit. Though God is at work in his church in different ways, it is the work of the same God.
And, Paul writes in verse 7, all of this different work—all of these different acts of service which the Spirit enables people to do—is for the “common good.” This work comes from one source—God—and is for one purpose—the common good of the body. In verses 8-10 Paul lists specific examples of the different ways in which God’s Spirit works through Christians for the common good.
Then, beginning in verse 12, Paul discusses this work using the image of a body. As I noted earlier, many Christians in Corinth seem to value only certain kinds of spiritual gifts or work. To address this, Paul speaks of “many parts” and “different” gifts, service, and working. Paul uses the body image to help everyone see the value and contribution of each part of the body. There are different body parts, there are different talents each of us have, but every part, every talent contributes valuably toward the work of the entire body.
In verse 13 Paul then reminds the Christians how they came to belong to this body: they were baptized “by/into one Spirit” and were “all given the one Spirit to drink.” Both images refer to the same thing—the water baptism experienced by every believer in Corinth. Both images involve liquid. One focuses on the outside—baptized by/into one Spirit. The other focuses on the inside—given the one Spirit to drink. In one image Christians are covered on the outside with liquid: baptized by/into one Spirit. In the other image Christians are filled on the inside with liquid: given the one Spirit to drink. In other words, Paul is saying that baptism was an experience in which the Christians were completely merged with the Spirit—inside and outside.
Thus, the argument goes something like this: the Christian faith is where true spiritual work takes place. That work takes place primarily by means of the Holy Spirit. And what does this Holy Spirit do? He provides different gifts. He enables different kinds of service. He makes possible different kinds of working. Each of these is valuable. None are more valuable than others. None are less valuable than others. Each contributes toward the “common good”—the building up and work of Christ. The Holy Spirit provides abilities so that every Christian can contribute valuably to the work of Christ. And that, in fact, is one of the primary identities given to us through baptism. Through baptism we were immersed into the Spirit and filled with the Spirit. We became people who live in the Spirit like a fish lives in water. We became people who are filled by the Spirit like a human is filled with air. And one of that Spirit’s primary functions is to enable each of us to take up our role in the work of Christ. Through baptism God’s Spirit empowers each of us to contribute valuably toward Christ’s work.
Max Lucado tells of Charlie Steinmetz. Steinmetz designed the generators that first powered Henry Ford’s assembly lines in Dearborn, Michigan. At some point after the retirement of Steinmetz, the generators stalled out. The entire plant came to a standstill. Ford’s engineers couldn’t get the generators going again. So, Ford called Steinmetz. Steinmetz arrived, tinkered around for a few hours, and then threw the power switch. The generators hummed to life. Later, Ford received a bill from Steinmetz. The bill was for $10,000. Ford thought this was terribly excessive. He wrote Steinmetz: “Charlie: It seems awfully steep, this $10,000 for a man who just tinkered around with a few motors.” In response, Steinmetz sent Ford an amended bill. Here’s what the new bill said: “Henry: For tinkering around with motors, $10. For knowing where to tinker, $9,990.” Sometimes we may view our talent, our service, what we are able to do and little more than tinkering around. Or others may view it as just tinkering around. But Paul wants to remind us that through baptism you received a gift, a talent. And even if it seems that your talent is just tinkering around, the truth it, it is invaluable. It is irreplaceable. It is priceless. The body just could not keep going without it.
Last Thursday four Highland elders and six Highland staff members gathered at our new property at Houston Levee. There, we prayed over and ate lunch with every worker and contractor associated with the project. I spoke briefly, and one of the things I emphasized was how important the work of each individual there was to the whole project. Afterwards, Rusty Linkous of Linkous construction, told me that was exactly what they needed to hear. He said it’s very easy as a construction worker to feel under-appreciated. Usually the only time you hear anything is when something’s gone wrong. Rusty said they really needed to hear that the job that every one of them performed was absolutely critical to the project. And as we walked around after lunch, we saw a man putting in electrical tubing, we watched a man unroll the waterproof fabric that will go in our baptistery area, we talked to the men who will start laying bricks in just one week, and we met the guys who will put in the ceiling tiles. I could see how one or more of them might devalue their own contribution. But I could also see how each person’s contribution was valuable and necessary if the building was going to be fully functional and beautiful. Paul is reminding us that the same is true when it comes to the church. Through your baptism into the Spirit, you’ve been given a job, an ability, a piece of the project of God. You may feel underappreciated. You may devalue your contribution or others may devalue it. But the truth is, without your part of the project, the church, the body simply cannot be what God intended for it to be.
If there is a coin that is devalued today, it’s the penny. When I see a penny on the ground, I don’t even stop to pick it up anymore. They just aren’t worth anything anymore. But an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution might cause us to rethink the value of pennies. For example, they calculate that if Coca-Cola just increased the price of each case of Coca-Cola by one penny, they could earn an additional $45 million a year. If we billed Delta Airlines one additional penny for each gallon of jet fuel they use each year, Delta would owe us an additional $25 million. If all the employees at Home Depot were given one additional penny for every hour they worked this year they would take home an extra $6.5 million. And if Krispy Kreme increased the cost of each donut by one penny, the company would earn an additional $27 million. We may feel like what we do in the church or in the kingdom is about as worthless as a penny. But a penny’s worth a lot more than we may think. And what you do, or can do, in the church and in the kingdom is worth a lot more than what you may think. Through baptism God’s Spirit empowers each of us to contribute valuably toward Christ’s work.
Each week in this series, I want us to make a confession and a pledge together.
Let’s say it together: I struggle with amnesia, but this week I will remember who I’ve become through my baptism. Remember this week that you’ve been given a talent, an ability, an act of service that absolutely essential to the work of Jesus Christ. Go, and live out that Identity.