Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Three words that have been in the media a lot over recent days. Three words that express the founding ideals of the French Republic. Three words that were proclaimed by millions on the streets of Paris last Sunday. Liberty, equality and fraternity are three words that express a desire for a safe, united and harmonious society. A community where everyone is valued and respected. The sort of community most of us long to be part of, whatever our nationality.
But how can human beings live in harmony with one another? How can any society composed of people of different characteristics, classes and cultures enjoy lasting peace, co-operation and friendship? How can human beings with all our different attitudes, anxieties and ambitions live together as one? It’s a challenge that faces every nation, not just France. It’s a challenge that faces the city of London just as much as the city of Paris.
It was also a challenge for the city of Corinth, 2000 years ago. Corinth was a cosmopolitan trading city in the south of Greece, an important hub of the Roman empire. Corinth’s metropolitan population was a ‘melting pot’ of people with different faiths and cultures. As we are told in verse 13 of our Bible passage today, it was a city with Jews and Greeks, a city that included both slaves and free men. Corinth was a city where some people were well-educated and worldly wise, while others were not. A place where some had power and influence that others lacked. A city strikingly similar to 21st century London, in fact.
In our Bible passage today, taken from 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul shares with us his conviction that a harmonious human community is possible. Out of the raw material of a diverse and divided world, God is forming a united and loving family in his Church.
As Paul writes to the young and diverse Christian congregation in Corinth, he wants them to know that God is at work among them to create harmonious, mutually dependent and loving fellowship. He says that the Corinthian Church, and every Christian Church, can - by God’s grace - be the most united and attractive community we could ever hope to belong to.
As we look at today’s passage, Paul gives us three reasons for his confidence. Three reasons why a Christian church can be a united community enjoying true liberty, equality and fraternity:
- Firstly, because we have Christ in common;
- Secondly, because we have been given God’s Spirit;
- And, thirdly, because we have been made for each other.
Let’s look at each of those three reasons in turn…
- Because we have Christ in common! (v.12, 27)
The first thing Paul reminds the Church in Corinth is that they have Christ in common. Despite the different backgrounds and social standings they are all united by their faith in Jesus. As Paul phrases at the start of our passage today, each of them is part of the one “body of Christ”.
A few times a year I travel ‘south of the river’ to Selhurst Park. I travel there to cheer on ‘Alan Pardew’s red and blue army’ – I’m referring of course to Crystal Palace FC. When I’m in the stands at Selhurst Park I have a love of Crystal Palace in common with my fellow football fans. And in our passage today, Paul wants us to recognise that when we gather as a church, we have Christ in common. We are united as fellow believers in Christ, as fellow fans (you might say) of the Lord Jesus.
When a healthy church assembles it has a common belief that Jesus is the Son of God. A common belief in the Gospel message. The message that through Jesus we can receive God’s free forgiveness, discover true purpose in life, and find real hope for eternity.
Correctly understood, this Gospel message is a great force for unity and humility. A healthy church in which people love Christ and believe the Gospel message will be a community that is free of petty rivalry and pride. Because once we realise that our own achievements contribute nothing towards our salvation, we won’t see the need to compete with other members of our church family. And once we appreciate how much we have been forgiven by God, we will be more willing to forgive our Christian brothers and sisters when they wrong us.
You see, a church can be one body when believes the Gospel. A church can be united once it understands that it has Christ in common.
- Because we’ve been given God’s Spirit! (v.13)
My wife and I are currently trying to choose our summer holiday. We have been searching online and have seen some beautiful beaches, glorious hotels and gorgeous swimming pools. Many of them are beyond our budget, but I think we may have nearly found somewhere to go. But to get anywhere in August we are going to need some fuel in the car, some space on a Eurostar or the help of an EasyJet airliner. To arrive at our holiday destination we are going to need some assistance to get there.
The same is true of the church. To be a united community we need a common faith in Christ, but also something else. We need fuel in our tanks, petrol in our engine. We need something (or rather, someone) to drive us together.
Look with me at verse 13 of our passage today. Because there we find Paul’s second reason why the church can be one. The church can be a united, loving community because Christians have been given God’s Spirit to bring us together. As Paul writes: “We were all baptised by one Spirit into one body”.
Paul makes the same point again at the end of verse 13. Using a different image, he says “we were all given the one Spirit to drink”. I don’t know what is your favourite tipple - perhaps you prefer wine to whiskey, or favour lager over ale? Or maybe you are tee-total? But whatever ‘tickles your tastebuds’, if you are a Christian here this morning you have been given the Holy Spirit to drink. Whenever someone first puts their faith in Christ, God’s Spirit enters their life.
Having come into our lives, the Holy Spirit soon gets to work. And the work of God’s Spirit is a great force for unity in the Church:
- For a start, the Holy Spirit assures us of our adoption as God’s children. It is the Holy Spirit who enables Christians to call God our “Father” and to recognise each other as brothers and sisters. The Holy Spirit is working to create fraternity amongst Christ’s followers. He is working to unite us as one family.
- God’s Spirit is also at work on our characters and temperaments. The Bible tells that over time God’s Spirit produces fruit in our lives. Fruit like love, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. Just the sort of characteristics and qualities a church needs to be united and co-operative, rather than broken and divided. The sort of qualities that only God can create in the human heart.
- And as we learnt last week, God’s Spirit also gives Christians gifts for our common good. Paul lists some of those gifts in verse 28 today. Gifts like teaching, healing, helping and administrating. Gifts that are given to build up the body of Christ and unite us together.
- Because we’ve been made for each other! (v.14-26)
I hope we’ve seen that the church can be a united community because we have Christ in common and because we have all been given God’s Spirit. But the third and final reason Paul gives, the reason which occupies most space in our passage today, is that Christians have been made for each other.
Paul wants members of every Church to know that we are like parts of a body. We are like the limbs and organs that all have their part to play in the healthy functioning of a human body. Just as God has designed the different parts of our bodies to complement one another, so too has he made Christians for one another. Our differences are by design. Our spiritual gifts and natural talents have been given to us by God for the common good.
Our individual God-given qualities make us all essential components of the body of Christ. As Paul writes in verse 22, even “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable”. So even if you feel too weak, busy or ill-equipped to contribute to church life, the truth is you are not. You are indispensable to the body of Christ.
For example, even if you are physically weak your prayers for others are still priceless. Even if you are someone who is short on time to serve in church, you can still contribute financially to our church’s ministry. Or perhaps you feel you don’t have the confidence or capabilities to contribute at the front of church. If so, there is still much to do behind the scenes, from the coffee rota to caring for our church site. We are all indispensable.
People often say that a newly married couple are ‘made for each other’. By that we mean that the man and woman concerned complement each other beautifully. We should use the same expression when we look around a Christian congregation. Our diversity is a strength not a handicap. God has made us all different so we can complement one another. No man is an island, and no Christian has every attribute and gift. We must all recognise our need for each other. We must all acknowledge our mutual dependence.
In verse 17 today Paul asks us to consider what would happen if the whole human body had just one component. Listen to what he writes: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” And in verse 21 Paul goes on to say: “The eye cannot say to the hand ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet ‘I don’t need you!’”
The same is true of the church. We need to be humble enough to ask for help from our Christian brothers and sisters. And we need to be generous enough to give our time, treasure and talents to help others. We need each other. We are made for each other.
As I finish today, I hope our Bible passage has begun to persuade you that a local Christian church – a church like St. Michael’s - can be the most united and harmonious community in the world. A community that will be enormously attractive and welcoming to outsiders. A community that anyone can join by believing in Jesus. A God-given community that enjoys a level of liberty, equality and fraternity that no secular state or society can ever hope to achieve.