Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
Sermon Title: Many Members, One Body
Scripture Text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-21
12 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. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
We became Christians when we heard the gospel presented to us and we believed it. That’s something we can all agree with. But here’s the question, the gospel presentation that you heard, did it include any mention of the church? Which is to say, how many of you, when you heard the gospel, understood at that time, the place of the church in the good news of Christ.
See I grew up in a Christian home, and like all second generation Christians, we heard the gospel presented to us from a young age countless times. Sunday School, Vacation Bible Camp, Youth ministry, Church camp, Youth camp, Scripture Union camp, I even went to a mission school, where we had an annual evangelistic Spiritual Emphasis Week, where guest speakers would share the gospel with the students every morning for a week.
And if the gospel presentation I heard on all these occasions, where anything like the one you heard when you first believed, it would roughly go like this:
That to me, was the storyline of the gospel. Does it sound familiar? I wonder if its more or less the same gospel that you heard when you first believed.
I am not saying that gospel presentation I just outlined is unbiblical. By no means. Those are the major themes of the bible. But I do wonder if it’s insufficient. Because where does God’s community – the church – fit in, in a gospel presentation like that?
It seems to me that the gospel presentation that we typically hear, is essentially a description for personal salvation. Christ died for you, believe in him, and you shall be saved. But if the whole message is about a personal relationship with Jesus, where does the church fit in?
They’ll say, after you have established a personal saving relationship with Jesus, you have to join a church. Why? Because a church organises worship services, where you can worship God in a church. Okay, now there are dedicated TV channels and Youtube Channels where you can stream a worship service live, in some cases, in High Definition, if that’s the point of church, I can manage that fine on my own at home.
Well, you have to go to church because if you love Jesus, you would want to know him better, and the church teaches you more about Jesus. That’s why you have to go to church. Well, that may be true 50 years ago, but with the internet, you find sound doctrine and good preaching at a hundred different sites, all at the click of your finger tips. Why do I have to bother with waking up on a Sunday and going to church and make small talk with strangers just to know more about the bible? Also, if the point of joining a church is to be “fed” with the word, doesn’t that mean that the right thing to do is to hop to a different church with better teachers and better preachers if I don’t feel “fed” in my church?
Okay, you have to go to church to exercise your spiritual gifts, to serve others, to love your neighbour. Good works, acts of service, these are important part of Christian living, and that is why you have to go to church. But haven’t you heard? Missions and social justice ministries are only a fraction of what my church does. I’d do a lot more good work if I spent my Sunday mornings volunteering at this soup kitchen, or at this social work centre, or that NGO, rather than at a church.
When church becomes merely one application of the gospel, rather than the content of the gospel itself, the institutional church inevitably becomes unnecessary to Christianity.
In a gospel presentation where the message is of a personal salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus, the various reasons offered to us for church-going proves ultimately uncompelling. If my personal, vertical relationship with Jesus is all that matters, church becomes just one way to live out my new life in Christ, not the only way, nor even the essential way, but just one way out of many.
Little wonder why commitment to the institutional church seems to have fallen out of fashion in our society today, even as “spirituality” remains a cultural buzzword. So often you come across a “Christian”, and you can’t even be sure if they are active participants in the fellowship of their local church.
When someone says they’re a student, you can assume they are enrolled in a school. But when someone says they’re a Christian, you can’t assume they’re members of a church. It’s just not a given anymore.
What’s the big deal with church membership anyway? After all, isn’t Christianity about me and Jesus? Isn’t that the gospel?
For a long time in my teenage years, into my young adulthood in fact, I couldn’t understand why we needed so many books in the OT testament to make sense of the Gospel. To make sense of the gospel, it seemed to me, all we really needed was Genesis 1-11, and then the New Testament.
Why would the rise and fall of ancient Israel be essential to the gospel? I can see how it adds a bit of drama to the story, it provides moral examples for us to avoid and follow, and gives testimony to God’s miracles and power and all that. But those things are there in the New Testament too.
The Old Testament is a spiritually edifying read, no doubt, but we took it out of the bible, it wouldn’t make much of a difference to the gospel as I understood it. As it was presented to me. Take out a large chunk of the OT, and the elements of my gospel remains intact. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Salvation.
But for the gospel to be biblical, shouldn’t it encompass the whole bible? Shouldn’t a truly biblical gospel make sense only if it accounted for all of the bible?
Jesus appears to take that approach. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
If the Christian gospel is, in fact, incomplete and incomprehensible apart from the OT, it means that the story of Israel, the story of God’s covenant community is essential to our understanding of the good news of Christianity.
It means this: It means that the ministry of Jesus Christ cannot be understood apart from the OT, but as a fulfilment of the OT covenants, not least of which is the promise of redeemed community under King Jesus. It means that the gospel is not essentially a prescription for personal salvation, nor an invitation to personal faith in Christ, but a declaration that the promises of God to Abraham to make from his descendants a covenant people, and the promise of God to grant David a son to be king over his covenant people, is fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Do you see, it’s always been about a covenant people. God’s good news for salvation has always been about a covenant community. The good news is that Jesus Christ, through his cross, has redeemed a people who will bring redemption to the world by obeying the Redeemer in their lives, proclaiming the Redeemer with their words, and testifying to his reality in their love for one another.
There is no Christian gospel, apart from the church. To put it in technical terms, your soteriology must boast a robust ecclesiology. In other words, your understanding of salvation must embrace a robust view of the church.
Let me offer a few examples of how the NT illuminates the priority of the new community:
In the high priestly prayer that Jesus prayed just prior to his death, he prays for future believers this way:
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23)
Of all the things for which Jesus could have requested for believers, he prays for our unity, our oneness. This prayer makes sense only when we see that gospel isn’t simply about a personal, vertical relationship with Jesus. It vitally about a communal, horizontal oneness with fellow believers.
What is more, listen to the reason that Jesus prays for our oneness. “So that world may know that you sent me.” The oneness of the redeemed community is not merely an essential facet of the gospel, it is itself the proclamation of the gospel that Jesus Christ is the sent son of God.
Again, just as Jesus’s petitionary priority for believers is their unity, his prescriptive priority for believers is likewise their unity.
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
The aim and rationale for this commandment is the same as his petition. The oneness of believers for the sake of gospel proclamation. That the world may know who we are and whom we follow.
How is the world to know that we are disciples of Jesus? Because we said the sinners prayer once upon a time? Because we worship faithfully on our TV screens at home? Because of our sound theology? Because we are committed to social justice?
Jesus says, it is our love. Our love for each other is the badge we wear before a watching world to identify ourselves as disciples of Christ. It doesn’t really matter how many worship services streams you watch each week, how many sermons and books you consume each month, how much you give to charity each year. The criterion is this: do you love your fellow believer? Are you one with the redeemed community of Christ? That’s how you identify a Christian. That’s how you know that someone is a disciple of Jesus – he loves the church.
Perhaps even more pointedly, this episode is recorded for us in all of the synoptic gospels.
46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his lbrothers1 stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus, at risk of filial impiety, announces that is a relationship that supersedes family ties. A view that is wholly out of sync with his Jewish cultural values. Jesus is claiming that his relationship with his disciples holds priority over his relationship with his family. He is claiming, as the saying goes, that “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”.
As a Jewish Messiah, you do not say something like that unless you want to make it radically clear that the bonds of fellowship between disciples is stronger than any other bond known in the world. We tend to think that our biological family always comes first, and then our spiritual family. Jesus appears to say otherwise.
So you see, it is not the case that God’s covenant community is central to his plan of salvation once upon a time in the Old Testament, but has somehow morphed into a story of personal salvation in the New Testament. No. God’s redeemed covenant community was and still is central to his good news for the world.
Therefore, without comprehending the church as a central component of your gospel, not only will you be unable to see the necessity of much of the Old Testament, you will not even be able to understand a lot of what the New Testament is saying.
For your gospel to make biblical sense, your soteriology must be accompanied by a robust ecclesiology.
Now, we come to the work of the Spirit. And the reason the Holy Spirit is significant is because while the centrality of God’s covenant community remains the same across the Old and New Testaments, their composition has changed from the Old to the New Testament.
Whereas in the Old Testament, it is the biological descendants of Abraham that makes up the covenant community of God, in the New Testament, it is the spiritual children of Abraham that makes up the church – God’s new community.
Which means to understand the nature and purpose of the church, we have to grasp the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Again, in technical terms, your ecclesiology must be informed by your pneumatology. Your understanding of the church must be informed by your understanding of the Holy Spirit.
This is not comprehensive, but I want to touch on three things:
Let me take each point in turn.
The book of Acts records that after his resurrection, Jesus remain on earth with his disciples for forty days.
4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Do you see what’s happening? The mission of the church is to bless the world by witnessing Christ. That is the essential function of the church. And Jesus did not allow the church to function as the church without the Holy Spirit.
Do not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the Holy Spirit, and then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth. The believers can’t do a thing without Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t let them. The Holy Spirit is that fundamental to the life and ministry of the church.
These are the disciples who walked with Jesus Christ himself for three years, who witnessed his life, death and resurrection, and who for the past forty days was in fellowship with the risen Christ. Surely they can do it! Surely they can preach the gospel, and witness Christ effectively.
No. Wait for the power of the Holy Spirit. He kick starts the church, he empowers the church to fulfil its calling as the church.
That’s first thing I want to note about the church and the Spirit.
The second is this.
If the Holy Spirit is so important for the life of the church, what does the Holy Spirit do for the church? Amongst other things, the Spirit unites the church.
As far as this point is concerned, I appreciate the way Pope Francis puts it:
“The Holy Spirit is the creator of communion, the artist of reconciliation … He builds the community of believers by harmonizing the unity of the body and the multiplicity of its members,” – Pope Francis, 19 June 2019.
This view of the Holy Spirit is derived from several verses in the New Testament, a key one from Ephesians 4, and another from our text this morning.
First, Paul writes in Ephesians,
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-5)
The unity of the church, the unity the Jesus prayed for in John 17, the unity which Jesus commanded in John 13, is a unity that is created by the Holy Spirit. We do not produce our unity, we simply maintain it. It is the unity of the Spirit. That’s why the Spirit is so important to the church.
In our text today, we read,
12 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. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12-13)
The reason why we in the sanctuary and watching at home, are at the same many members but one local body of Christ is because of the Spirit that unites us. The sacraments of the church, our Baptism and the Holy Communion both involve the Spirit who makes us one in Christ.
The Spirit is essential to the life of the church, and one its ministries is to unite the church as one.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Cor 12:4-11)
Simply put, every Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered believer in Christ is given a gift by the Spirit for the common good. Which means, members of Mt Hermon, just as you were baptised into the one body in the one Spirit, there is a gift that the Spirit has empowered you with, for the good of the body.
This spiritual gift is given to you, but not given for you. Because the ministry of the Spirit is to unite the church, so his gifts serve that function. Your gift is given to you for the common good of the church into which you baptised in the Spirit.
Let’s pull together what I’ve been saying thus far.
First the biblical gospel we believe in must feature a robust view of the church. Your view of the church must be informed by the ministry of the Spirit, which is to unite the church, not least by every member serving the common good of the body with the gifts given to us.
Let’s apply this now to our church. What does this mean for us?
It means we need each other.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
It means we need each other. It means, believe it or not, that I need you, and you need me.
You might say, “Luwin, I really don’t think I need you”, and I would reply, “It depends on what you’re thinking”. I can think of many instance where you would be right in thinking that you do not need me. You do not need me in order to have a successful career, you do not need me if you want to get A in O level Chinese – you really don’t want me, much less need me, for that. You do not need me to put food on your table, to take care of your children, or to help you choose your course of study in university. I can think of 1001 secular day-to-day objectives for which you do not need me in order to fulfil.
But if your objective is to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel to which you were called, if your goal is to live out your gospel identity before the world as a disciple of Christ, if your aim is to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus through your life, then member of Mt Hermon, you need me.
In fact, you need everyone else in Mt Hermon, and everyone else needs you. Either that is a fact, or Paul is a liar.
There are many applications to this, returning for physical worship, CG participation, service in ministry, ACM attendance, and so on.
But let me make just one pointed application. If you are a member of Mt Hermon, it would be a very strange thing to even consider the question, “Should I stay or should I go, when Hermon goes to Henderson?”
When your family moves houses, does it ever cross your mind to ask whether you should stay put and accommodate with the new owners or move along with your family?
If factors like distance and convenience are strong enough to overpower the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the body of Mt Hermon, are we really able to continue singing songs that extol the greatness of our God?
If a mere change in physical location is sufficient to dissolve our spiritual unity, what exactly is Christian community made of? What kind of oneness did Christ pray for, for the church? What quality of love is it, that Christians share with one another, that is unable to withstand a simple change of circumstance?
But perhaps the application I made today I made in vain. Because the members of Mt Hermon know better than I thought, they love better than I imagined, they are more united than I assumed.
For they hold fast to a biblical gospel, they walk in step with the Holy Spirit, and they see the need for each other.
And they recognise that though they are many, there is not one too many, for the many are one in the body of Christ.