1 Corinthians 12:12-31 – Unity in diversity: reflections on Australia Day and the Church

This reading from Corinthians seems a very appropriate one for us to reflect on as we celebrate our Australia Day weekend. Since the White Australia Policy has been brought to an end, it has been our desire to affirm multiculturalism, and therefore, affirm diversity, but speak of unity.  However, working that out and making that happen is the challenge.  Paul, in this reading, challenging a Corinthian Policy of Special People and Exclusion, using the analogy of the human body, makes the point that the church is diverse in form and function because it is better for the whole if it is diverse.

What cheeses us off is when we see some members in the community, local and national, who are behaving in a way that is contrary to what we understand our common purpose to be.  Most of us, I hope, feel uncomfortable with the bashings of Indian students.  We feel even more uncomfortable with the branding, by Indian nationals, that Australia is a racist country because this has taken place.  We also get cheesed off when youth with Bosnian and Serbian ancestry, now living in Australia, kick off at one another at a tennis game because of unresolved and unreconciled history in their ancestral countries.   Funnily enough, I raised this last issue when I preached on this passage 3 years ago.  Nothing is new.

Acknowledging that prejudice and racism are a part of all of us because of our sinful nature and our fear of that which is different, we are uncomfortable with these examples, as retired Colonel Peter Cosgrove said recently, and I paraphrase, “Australia is a work in progress, but it is not a racist country.”

So our experience tells us that, as a nation, and as a church, we want to affirm diversity, but that does not mean that anything goes and everything is acceptable.  In our diversity we desire to have unity, so there are limits to our individual diverse expression where it interferes with the unity of the whole.

Paul, in the next chapter of this letter to the church in Corinth, goes on to explain, perhaps, how to make this diversity operate in unity, “now I will show you the most excellent way,” we find out if we read on, is love.  But, as they often say in the romantic comedies, sometimes love is not enough.  Perhaps the answer to this question has something to do with a part of the work of loving, that is, knowing what our common purpose is and undertaking activities, as diverse as they might be, that are working toward the common purpose.

I can’t hope to identify what the common mind and purpose is for Australia, what it means to be Australian.  I look to those we have elected to leadership of this country and they seem to offer me no such statesperson-like direction.  I believe there is a committee of people who are coming together to discern that question, so I hope that offers better results than a citizenship test asking what Don Bradman’s career test cricket average was.

That we are a church places a more refined sense of unity in diversity than the unity in diversity of a nation.  For example, where a nation may advocate to honour the diversity of religions, because we are church our understanding of our purpose will be different from someone who does not believe that there is a god.

Paul begins by saying,

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For 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.’ (1 Cor 12:12-13; NRSV)

That we are baptised means we are a part of the body of Christ.  A fundamental unity is that we all share in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

It is unfortunate, therefore, historically, that which has separated, and continues to separate, the diverse expression of the Christian church, is a focus on how we did, how we do, worship.  There is, for me, an important distinction between faith and religion.  Faith is trusting in what God has done to reach out to us, religion is what we do to reach out to God.  We make a mistake assuming unity based on us all doing the same thing, when it is not concerned with what we do, it is concerned with who Christ is and what he has done.

Our unity is often shattered out of competition or jealousy with those who are around us.  Note that the foot does not compare itself to an eye; the comparison is made to the hand.  It is in our nature to compare ourselves to those who are similar not, as Leon Morris says, to those who are out of our league.   The purpose of the foot can never be compared to the purpose of an eye, but it is very similar to the hand, so there is a natural inclination to comparison.

The foot, comparing itself to the hand, comes up wanting against the sophistication of an opposable thumb, softness and ability to feel.  Likewise the ear, eye and nose are compared as they are organs of 3 of the 5 senses: hearing, seeing, and smelling.

How often have the relationships in our household been damaged by arguments over whose job takes precedence over another, or work takes precedence over family outing, and conflict between importance of work because one is paid and the other is voluntary.  And, yet, we miss the point that all the members of the household are working, one way or another, for the benefit of the members of the household.

Paul goes on to use his anatomical analogy to speak about how we, in reality, treat the weaker and less honourable parts of or body with greater respect.  We would cover our balding head with a hat to save it from the burning of the sun.  We would not go out in public without any clothes on, or at least the majority of us wouldn’t, because we would find it embarrassing.

But the point Paul wants to make here is, ‘God has arranged the members in the body, each of them, as he chose.’  (1 Corinthians 12:16, 28; NRSV)  Diversity is no fruit of sinfulness, is not the product of our broken relationships with one another.  God has no desire that we should all be the same – according the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) it is dangerous and dysfunctional when we are.  As the character played by Morgan Freeman,  in Kevin Costner’s, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, says, ‘God loves variety.’

Just as there is a diversity of people within the body of Christ, there is also a diversity of ministry appointed by God, ‘first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.’ (1 Cor 12:28; NRSV)  Paul does give them a rating of importance to counteract the misplaced rating that was leading to the Corinthian Policy of Special People and Exclusion.  Those gifts which are the most amazing and would attract the most attention are placed low in the list.  Seek, ‘strive for the greater gifts’, says Paul, that is, apostles, those who are sent out to make new connections; prophets, those who speak the word of God to the community, and teachers, those who continue the teaching of the Christ to the community.  The amazing gifts are actually less important.

So we come to a crunch.  There must be something about these gifts which is important to the unity of the body.  There is some purpose of the body that determines what activities are more important than others and, as we know about Paul’s 2 letters to the Corinthians, things that should not be done.

The work of apostles, prophets and teachers, is the work of helping people to come to and grow in their knowledge and love of God, their relationship with God through Jesus – because this is the fundamental source of unity in the diversity of the body of Christ.

Our unity in diversity, then, must come out of our common expression of purpose determined by how we understand God to be revealed by the person of Jesus in the Bible.  Building on my premise that we should not act out of ‘bounden duty’ as the old prayer book says; our ministry and mission must only be motivated by how we are inspired by our understanding of the nature and person of God as revealed by Jesus.

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