1 Corinthians 14:12b-20
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
How are you doing? We’ve been spending the last few weeks looking at the book of 1 Corinthians, and we’ve got a couple more weeks to go. We jumped in where Paul began addressing the question of spiritual gifts. His main point is that the Spirit is more important than the gifts He gives. In fact, because you and I have all been given the Holy Spirit in our Baptism, we have been bound together like the different parts to the body. Each person is like a different body part: we each have a different role to play, and that’s good and right. So, better than focusing and fighting about those roles, those spiritual gifts, is simply to love one another. But that love is more real and intense than how the world speaks of love. For Christians to love is to follow Christ. It’s to live not for yourself, but for your neighbor, your brothers and sisters in Christ. Are you still with me? Maybe I should better ask, are you still with Paul?
We’ve skipped ahead a bit and are just touching on a small section of chapter 14 before moving on next week to chapter 15, but in these verses, and in chapter 14 as a whole, Paul deals with the idea of speaking in tongues. In the sections we skipped, Paul built up his argument to the conclusion in today’s reading, and he follows up with some of the ramifications of that conclusion. If you’d like to talk more about speaking in tongues or how Paul gets to where he does, sit down and read 1 Corinthians 14 in its entirety as part of Paul’s larger discussion and then give me a call so we can get together and talk about it.
For now, we’re just going to look at Paul’s main point. The goal of believers is to build up the body of Christ. Our reading starts with that very phrase, “Strive to excel in building up the church.” This is how he evaluates every spiritual gift. Does it build up the body fo Christ? If not, then you might as well sit down and shut up. Why is speaking in tongues, speaking in another language a problem? Because without someone to interpret, to translate, all you’re doing is building yourself up. Instead of glorifying God and serving your neighbor, you’re only glorifying yourself and serving your own pride. Speaking in other languages is good and right when there’s someone who can understand you and grow because of what you say, but that’s not what was going on in Corinth.
No, in Corinth, though they thought they needed to hear about spiritual gifts and speaking in tongues, they needed to hear about their own self-centeredness. I’m sure it’s not what they wanted to hear about, but it’s what they needed to hear. The self-centeredness of these Corinthian Christians had overtaken them. It popped up in every aspect of their faith and their relationship with one another. Time after time in 1 Corinthians, Paul has to correct them on issue after issue, each one a symptom of the bigger issue. They struggled with putting others ahead of themselves. They struggled with putting even God first. And If we’re honest with ourselves, we struggle with the exact same things.
You and I struggle to put others ahead of ourselves. It’s our selfishness and self-centeredness that comes up time and time again. It’s much easier to do what I want, to listen to what I say, to do things my way. In any case, I know what’s best. I don’t have opinions, I have the right answer. You all have it wrong. I’m hungry, so I go grab a snack and never even think to check if anyone else wants anything, if dinner’s in only 15 minutes, or if I’m eating foot set aside for another meal later on. I do my part in the group project to the best of my ability and then grumble that no one else is pulling their weight. Either that, or I sit back and let others do all the work for me. Maybe the best example of this playing out is actually this time of year. It’s a cold morning and has just snowed several inches overnight. No one wants to be outside longer than they have to, so you clear a path to your car and scrape it off while leaving your wife’s car untouched. You don’t even think about how crazy the morning usually is for her or the fact that she doesn’t like the cold either. Instead of focusing on the wants and needs of those around you, you only focus on yourself.
Martin Luther described this kind of self-centeredness as part of the sinful nature. One of his favorite ways of putting it was that man was “curved in on himself.” Instead of looking out for the needs of others, mankind contorts itself so that its focus is only on your own desires. In this way, mankind is so twisted that it even takes the good things God has given us and forces it to serve our own purposes. In Luther’s day, this played out in the convents and monasteries that dotted the local landscape. People from all over would come to these centers, renounce their families, sometimes even spouses and children, in order to draw themselves closer to God. God loves spiritual devotion, so I’m going to forget everything else, live off the welfare of the state, and use prayer, fasting, worship, confession, and even reading the Bible to get in God’s good graces. Forget the fact that I’m using these things to force God’s hand and try to get Him to bless me. I want what I want and I’m going to push all the right buttons to get God to do what I want.
You and I not only struggle with putting others ahead of ourselves; we struggle with putting God first. We know what He wants of us. We know what He expects of us, and yet we don’t do it. Instead of following Christ, we go our own way, staying silent when we should speak, and speaking when we should remain silent. We love to be on the right side of the political issue, regardless of which side of the spiritual issue we’re on. We hear that God answers prayer, and so we ask for whatever we want, whether it’s actually good for us or not, and get mad or question our faith when God doesn’t do what we want Him to do. And wouldn’t you know it, God doesn’t seem to care all that much about your excuses for not following His Word. It’s almost like He’s God and we’re not. And that just rubs us the wrong way. We want to tell God what to do, to dictate how He should work in our lives and the world around us. For many, God is simply a means to an end. Jesus is good, but what really matters is that I get to be with my loved ones forever. Yeah, Jesus is fine, but what really matters is heaven. Yes, Jesus gets me there, but after that, I have no real need for Him.
When you and I are so focused on ourselves, we’ve missed the point entirely. Your life isn’t about You. Christianity isn’t about You. Even today’s worship service isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus. And what He has done radically reorients our lives so that we can’t stand living for anything or anyone else than Christ alone. While He could have been the only person to ever rightly be self-centered, He is God after all, Jesus chose not to focus on Himself, but on those around Him. He stayed up late to heal the sick. He woke up early to raise the dead. He skipped meals so that He could spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom. Time after time, Jesus could have taken a step back to get a bit of a breather, but He didn’t. His focus was on those around Him. And in serving those in need of Him, He was worshiping His Father.
To the glory of God and in service to all of humanity, Jesus went to the cross. It wasn’t for His own good. It wasn’t convenient for Him. It wasn’t even what He wanted to do. You know what He cried out in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!” But instead of doing what He wanted to do, instead of doing what was the safe thing, instead of serving Himself, Jesus served you and me. For you, He was betrayed. For you, He was arrested. For you, He was condemned. For you, He was nailed to a cross. For you, He died. Instead of focusing on Himself, Jesus focused on you. And for you, He rose from the dead.
This then, is the One whom we serve. He is the one we follow. You and I have been bought with a price. The life we now live is not our own. It’s so easy to slip back into serving ourselves, to forget our neighbor, to forget God altogether, but this should not be so. To the glory of God and in service to all humanity, “Strive to excel in building up the church.” We follow Jesus by building on the foundation He laid. “Strive to excel in building up the church.” We serve our neighbor by living the way Jesus did. “Strive to excel in building up the church.” The church is built up in two ways: by strengthening and by growing. The church is strengthened when you work within it, encouraging one another, serving one another, putting others ahead of yourself. It’s strengthened when you take an active role by coming to worship every week, joining in on Bible Study just as frequently, and by supporting one another as members of the same body. “Strive to excel in building up the church.” And the church grows when you leave these walls and share Christ with those around you in the community. Tell others about Jesus. Maybe it’s your kids who need to be brought back into the faith. Perhaps it’s your neighbor who’s always been on the fringe, but hasn’t made that step forward. It could be that person who just filled up your coffee when you were out to breakfast and could really use your prayers. “Strive to excel in building up the church.”
As we work to build up and as we are being built up, Paul also tells us to grow up. “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” There comes a point when you and I must grow up, looking outside of ourselves for the good of those around us, breaking out of our comfort zones so that God would be glorified. When our self-centeredness is broken by the self-giving God, we are once more able to grow up into the fullness of Christ. And when we do so, we are following in the footsteps of our Savior and are building up the church. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell