All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:
first are apostles,
second are prophets,
third are teachers,
then those who do miracles,
those who have the gift of healing,
those who can help others,
those who have the gift of leadership,
those who speak in unknown languages.
Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! So, you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts.
But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all. (New Living Translation)
“Ubuntu” is an African Zulu word for humanity. It roughly translates into English as, “I am because we are.”
In whatever way it is to be translated, the idea behind ubuntu is a belief of being connected in a universal bond of humanity. So, an authentic individual human is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental, and spiritual world.
That is precisely what today’s New Testament lesson is all about. Believers in Jesus are connected to one another, as well as having a human bond with all people, since everyone is created in the image and likeness of God.
“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”Desmond Tutu
So, then, we are all to use whatever spiritual gifts and divinely given abilities for the common good of everyone. Just like the triune G-d who is both unity and diversity, and just as an individual human body has many parts yet one person, so also believers are diverse in every way yet thoroughly unified as one Body of Christ.
The Church at Corinth had divided into special interest groups who followed a particular person. Each was continually lobbying for what they wanted, rather than seeking to work together as one temple of G-d. And each group believed their gifts were superior.
Paul identified some spiritual gifts – neither to give an exhaustive list, nor to rank them in importance – but to clarify that all these diverse people and their G-d-given skills are to be used for the building up of the congregation. Ideally, the people’s gifts are to flow together in common worship, fellowship, encouragement, and mission:
- Apostles. There are two kinds. Capital “A” Apostles are the original ones. They are set apart as those who saw the Lord and were his disciples. Little “a” apostles are “sent ones” or missionaries, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed to those who need to hear.
- Prophets. These are folks possessing a function and gift of encouragement, building up the church through picturing a special future for the ministry of the community.
- Teachers. Explaining sound doctrine through careful application of Scripture to daily life and ministry is the function of a biblical teacher.
- Miracle workers and healers. Yes, miracles and healing happened and still occur. These are believers with an unusual gift of faith who are able to discern with spiritual eyes what others tend not to see.
- Helpers. A necessary element of any Christian fellowship are people who serve in all kinds of capacities: giving to others’ needs; doing acts of mercy and benevolence; and attending to whatever physical needs Christians are faced with.
- Leaders. Men and women who provide guidance and steer the church in directions they ought to go. They are skilled administrators, able to give wise counsel.
- Speakers in tongues (languages). It must be borne in mind that this gift is not an end in itself. It is a Spirit-given ability to help include people. Christianity was never intended to be an exclusive club of Jews or devoted solely to a particular class or race. The gospel is meant for every type of person.
Reflecting on all these gifts and abilities within the Church, Paul rattled off a flurry of staccato-like rhetorical questions. The point is to lift up all the gifts as equally needed and appreciated. The ghettoized Corinthian Church needed an understanding of this. Their individual identities were too wrapped up in their abilities, rather than in Christ.
Keep in mind that today’s New Testament lesson immediately precedes the great ode to love of chapter 13. It is the primacy and permanency of love which holds everyone together. Love is the supreme end of all the speaking and serving gifts.
The most excellent way of engaging our giftedness is expressing it with the love of G-d in Christ Jesus. Anything less than this is a mere shadow of the gospel and severely truncates Christian mission and worship.
What’s more, not only does every local church need to function in unity through diverse exercise of gifts with the individual members, so every local church must cooperate and live in harmony with all other churches. Yes, if you are reading ecumenism in this, you are correct. An ecumenical spirit is a generous spirit which pays attention to other believers in our communities, countries, and throughout the world.
If leaders, teachers, helpers, healers, church planters and encouragers are all doing their jobs, according to the grace given them, then working together with believers everywhere simply happens. And it never seems weird to extend basic Christian mercy and care to believers everywhere – no matter whether they are in full agreement with our doctrinal statements, or not.
When Jesus prayed for all potential believers to be one as G-d is one, he wasn’t thinking of special interest groups, separated Christianized ghettos, nor some believers as being more right or special than other believers.
Diversity, unity, equity, inclusion, and most of all, love, are what characterizes the Lord. It should characterize us, too.
Methinks the Zulu were on to something with the concept of ubuntu. A person is most fully a person through other people. It seems to me it is high time to affirm the basic humanity in others through appreciating their unique difference.
You and I are more than independent individuals. Our shared humanity is a quality we owe to each other.
I am because we are.
Lord G-d almighty, Creator of the universe, who made us different from one another in myriad ways we can see and in more ways we shall never know yet made us all in your image; fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom, that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.