Happy New Year! Midnight tonight the countdown for the New Year will pass in a flash as it did in previous years. We may have had a great 2015 and don’t want it to end, but if it doesn’t we will miss the opportunity for a new beginning as a friend to the helpless as did two very unusual students who graduated from a Chicago law school. One of them, the highest ranking in his class, was a blind man. When he received his honors, he insisted on publicly sharing them with his friend, a man who was born without arms. The two men met during their freshman year and became fast friends who worked out a convenient system that became a beautiful example of interdependence. They took the same classes so the blind man carried the books and the armless man read them aloud during common study. In that way, they compensated for their individual deficiencies. After graduation, they continued their collaboration in a very successful law practice. Like those two men who learned to pool their resources to overcome their handicaps, so must we, the church of Christ, unite in the coming year to become one in fulfilling the yet unanswered prayer of Jesus for unity (John 17:20-21) among His beloved people.
All along, since the beginning of Christian Church history, God’s people have had insights into and solutions for mistakes, disorders, disputes divisions, even shameful vices and corrupt communication. Yet the call for unity has been strangely misunderstood or unattained. Only a quarter of a century after Jesus ascended into heaven as the God-Man of the universe and the Spirit had descended as the promised Paraclete, there was strife and confusion in the Corinthian Church. Today, more than two centuries later, our dilemma is still disunity among Christians. There are two major problems in the life of the church directly related to this issue. The first is that we often forget we are not spectators, but participants whose spiritual gifts are to be combined to win the race against our common enemy – the devil. A second problem is that these spiritual gifts are not always used to fulfill the mission of the church in the world, but are the basis of boasting and divisions among believers.
The solution to both of these problems, this New Year and new beginning, is the proper appropriation and understanding of spiritual gifts. None of the many books or any one message is capable of exhausting the subject of unity through spiritual gifts. However, the Apostle Paul makes an appeal for unity amidst diversity, as opposed to unvarying uniformity among believers. That is crystal-clear in 1 Corinthians 12 where the appeal is specific, direct, resolute and pungent with power. It can scarcely be called imagery since it has no poetic element to rouse our aesthetic senses. It is, however, a figure that is the product of reason in a business-like style peppered with imagination to explain this inspired revelation. In it, Paul uses his favorite illustration – the human body – to carefully elaborate the summons for unity (verses 12-14).
Although the different parts, or members, of the body are separate and distinct in shape and size, they are all essential and must be harmoniously united to make the entire body operate in a successful, coordinated manner. Even the parts that seem too small to mention or so delicate they are covered with two or more pieces of clothing, all are important as expressed in an untitled poem by Alice Bennett:
I have no voice for singing, I cannot make a speech,
I have no gift for music, I know I cannot teach.
I am no good at leading, I cannot ‘organize,’
And anything I write would never win a prize.
But at roll call at meetings, I always answer ‘here.’
When others are performing, I lend a listening ear.
After the program is over, I praise its every part,
My words are not to flatter; I mean it from the heart.
It seems my only talent is neither big nor rare,
Just to listen and encourage and to fill a vacant chair.
But all the gifted people could not so brightly shine,
Were it not for those who use a talent such as mine.
As in this poem, whatever part a person plays in the Christian life is important. Likewise, when we surrender to Jesus Christ and are gifted by His Spirit, all previous differences and all humanly constructed barriers between the new convert and others disappear because “we recognize no one according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16). Furthermore, in the sight of God there’s no race, gender, nationality or social class. None of those things count! For in Christ, we are all one and are on the same level at the foot of the cross. What really matters to God is a contrite heart, a humble spirit and a willingness to let Jesus lead all the time in all things.
We agree that as the body is composed of various parts, so is the church of many members with a variety of functions to perform. Just as each member is gifted for one purpose – the edification of the church, so they are to be united for one person – Jesus Christ, the giver of eternal life which His people have in common with Him (John 11:25); the source of authority, issuing the commands which govern our activity and service (Luke 9:1-2); the center of harmony, peace and hope around whom those who accept Him revolve as the planets around the sun (John 14:27).
A well-known conductor was holding a rehearsal one night with a vast array of musicians and a hundred-voice choir. While the mighty chorus sang out there was the loud peal of organ, blare of horns, and clashing of cymbals. Far back in the orchestra the piccolo player thought, “In all this noise it doesn’t matter what I do.” So he stopped playing. Suddenly the conductor flung up his hands and stopped the music to find out why the piccolo’s shrill note could not be heard as it was written in the musical score.
Just as many notes (some shrill or bombastic and ear shattering) are needed to make a tune, and many colors are needed to make a painting, so every gift, great or small, is essential for unity in the body of Christ. We have the variety, the authority and the new beginning, but we need each other to answer the prayer request of Jesus for unity – so let’s unite this New Year, for Christ’s sake!