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A BODY FORMED BY THE SPIRIT: A Sermon on the Church / Leviticus 9.8-24; Corinthians 12.12-28

Copyright © 2008

I want to talk to you today about the Church of Jesus Christ as Paul describes it in many places in his writings but especially in First Corinthians chapter twelve. To do that, I have also read Leviticus 9 in which fire from God himself came down to consume the sacrifices inaugurating the altar and the sacrificial system it was designed for.

It is important you realize that God himself lit the fire on the altar. The very next chapter describes Aaron’s priestly sons Nadab and Abihu trying to add their own fire and use it to offer incense. God responds by his own fire burning them up. God’s own fire was the only fire in the Tabernacle. The same is true of the Temple, as we read in Second Chronicles 7.1-3:

As soon as Solomon finished his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house. When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the ground on the pavement and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

So the fire starts with God’s own presence. No one offers God anything through his own accomplishments. God takes the initiative by coming to us and establishing a place where he dwells and where we meet with him.

How is this story relevant to what Paul says about the Church?

The relevance will become obvious if we think about how the altar looked to most Israelites most of the time. What did an Israelite see through most of the centuries of Israel’s history during the time of the Tabernacle and then during the time of the Temple later?

He saw a fire on the altar that looked just like any other fire. Yes, the first generation of the Tabernacle and the Temple saw fire come down and consume the sacrifices. Yes, they could swear to their children that they witnessed this great event, when God himself in his glory filled the structure and ignited the altar. But no one else after the actual event could ever know except to rely on the testimony of others.

Ultimately they had to rest on the testimony of Scripture about what happened. They could see the fire. They could see the priests regularly keeping the fire going. But determining where it came from was entirely a matter of trust. The fire was there to teach them to rely on God’s work and not man’s, but for all they could tell the fire was man’s work and not God’s.

And that is why I think our story from Leviticus is important for what Paul says about the Church, because the Church is not a man-made institution.

There are many institutions today that claim to be divine when they are only man made. The Mormons, the so-called Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, claim to be divine. The Watchtower Society, known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, claim to be from God. And we know that these are man-made institutions, not works of God’s Spirit. So the idea of a man-made institution is perfectly plausible.

And Christians can even come to view the Church that way. Sure, they know the truth, but they can be tempted to view the Church as a man-made institution that happens to confess the truth. The Church, in this view, is a help in confessing the truth and living the Christian life, but it is almost no better than the Christian family or some other Christian organization in that regard.

But the Apostle Paul tells us that God made the Church, not man. It is the body of Christ formed by the Spirit. “For in one Spirit,” Paul writes, “we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

We can think of two things here. First of all, Paul mentions baptism as the Spirits work. This has caused headaches in some parts and ages of the Church because baptism doesn’t seem like that special an action, just like that fire on the altar didn’t seem that special. But if the Church is formed by the Spirit, then the means by which people are added to the Church must also be used by the Spirit to build up that Church.

Secondly, certainly in speaking of the Spirit and the Church Paul’s readers would be reminded of Pentecost. Just as the fire came down on the altars in the Tabernacle and the Temple, so in Acts 2 we read about tongues of fire coming upon the disciples in the upper room. The similarity in the two events emphasizes the difference. Where once fire fell on things and people were driven away from the glory of God, at Pentecost the fire of the Spirit fell on people who were shown that God’s glory is now given to them.

And just as the Apostle Paul says that baptism makes you a part of a body that is different from your nationality or your social or economic society, so in that first sermon at Pentecost Peter offered the Spirit to people who needed to be separated from their natural corporate identity and made part of a new corporate identity.

Remember his words: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”

So just as the first hearers of the preaching of the Spirit-formed Church needed to be rescued from that generation that had crucified Jesus, so everywhere the Gospel is preached, men and women are called upon to be separated from their natural identities as members of race and class and be given a new Spiritual identity by being added to the body of Christ in baptism.

That new identity, that new membership in the body of Christ, entails a new ethic. Paul has much to say about it in all his letters. Here he emphasizes that each member of the Church is a gift for the perfection of the Church.

This again requires us to actually believe that the Spirit is the source of the Church. First Corinthians 12.18-19: But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The new people who come into the church, the babies that are brought in, the people who have been in the Church seemingly forever—God promises that they have all come together for a reason: to form one body in the way he wants them to. It isn’t chance. It isn’t natural. It is God’s supernatural work through the Spirit.

And let us be clear: I am talking about the visible Church. Paul isn’t speaking of all the elect as a group throughout history, and he is not discussing here what is unique to the sincere believers as opposed to temporary believers. He is simply talking about the Church as we see it as a community and organization.

Vv. 24-28
God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.

How can this not be visible? Paul is talking about a community in which the members are to help one another, to suffer and rejoice together. He wants his readers to avoid division in their Church community because God wants “no division in the body.” And if this were not enough, he says that church offices are gifts of the Spirit. Apostles and teachers are not invisible. They are offices in a visible community.

Somehow we have gotten the idea that anything associated with the Spirit must be intangible and immaterial. But nothing could be further from the truth. We first read about the Spirit in Genesis 1.2. The Spirit hovers over the dark, formless, void. What happens next? Does God make a bunch of invisible things? None are mentioned in the text of Genesis 1. No, he makes the physical world that we live in. That visible, tangible environment is the Spirit’s work.

And what is true of the first creation is true of the second creation. Just as the Spirit gave us gifts of trees and air, so in the second Creation he gives us Jesus and one another. The Spirit, remember, did not make Jesus into an immaterial ghost but rather transfigured his body and raised him from the dead. And likewise the Spirit forms true tangible communities and organizations, churches that make up his international Church.

We tend to assume that because the Spirit is invisible his work must also be invisible. Thus, it is natural for us to associate the Spirit exclusively with the invisible Church or with undetectable stuff in our hearts to the exclusion of anything else. But while there is no doubt that the Spirit can deal in unseen things, if we think that is all he does we are missing the point.

The invisibility of the Spirit doesn’t mean he can’t be associated with visible things. It means just the opposite, that he is the reason behind visible things that you don’t see but must believe by faith. You see how that works? We can look at the Church and say that it looks pretty lame. We can easily think that it is just a human contrivance, the result of people agreeing with one another to form it. And we can say that the true Spiritual things are unseen.

But the Spirit’s hidden nature entails just the opposite. The Spirit is the hidden but essential cause of our life together. The fact that the Church looks like a natural human institution most of the time is exactly what we should expect, if the Spirit is invisible. Rather than the Church looking like an obvious miracle, it often looks normal. You have to trust that what the Scripture said is true. You have to receive the blessing of fellowship in the Church as a blessing sent to you by the Spirit for the building up of the body of Christ.

And that should tell us something about “Spiritual” blessings. It is common, I think, to find people who compare the blessings of Old Testament Israel to the blessings of the New Covenant church as a contrast in which the Israelites were promised earthly prosperity while we are promised “spiritual” blessings which are immaterial, like internal attitudes. So someone might think that a blessing of the covenant was sheep or a good year’s crops under the Old Covenant, while now a blessing would be inner peace, or maybe the joy down in our hearts.

But that’s not how the Apostle Paul explains it here. Paul tells us that each one of us, physical, embodied, people, are called and given by the Spirit to be a blessing to one another.

When Jennifer and I first went to seminary, we had no idea what we were doing financially. I think our strategy was to get there and hope we could figure something out. And when we arrived in Saint Louis, having quit our jobs in Nashville, the first thing we discovered was that fertility was inversely related to financial ability. God blessed us quite surprisingly with our first child.

One of the many ways our local church helped us was in providing a baby shower for Jennifer. And at that baby shower, we received a stroller. Not just any stroller. We received a really great high-end, easily collapsible stroller. It opened real smoothly with a loud audible click when it was fully open and ready to be used.

And every time I heard that click I heard God tell me that he loves me. You see, that stroller was given to us to supply a real need by our Church. And that wasn’t just some group giving something away. That was the body of Christ formed by the Spirit. There are many blessings we receive in Christ, many much greater than that stroller. But that stroller was still no less a gift from the Spirit. It was a result of the redemptive work of Christ communicated by the Spirit to His body the Church. That stroller was a Spiritual blessing. God blessed Old Testament Saints with livestock or crops. He blessed me with a luxury stroller!

In this life we all face many trials. We especially face them in the Church where the Spirit strives with us for our own good as well as life in general. But amid those trials, God sends us tokens of grace, at the very least. Don’t shut your eyes against those visible blessings by denigrating the Church. Paul is here concerned with making sure you realize each person has his place. My emphasis to day has been more on the general point, that the church as you see it in various churches, including your own, is truly the Spirit’s work and part of the body of Christ.

Notice, by the way, that Paul has no doubts about who belongs to this church. In a letter written to all the members he says, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” This is how we must regard and treat one another.

Let me close by pointing out how emphatically Paul puts this. I have been emphasizing that the Church is the Spirit-formed Body of Christ. But I haven’t yet said anything remotely as extreme as what Paul writes by the inspiration of God: “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.”

Would you have ever dared write that way about the Church—to call it by the royal title of Jesus, “Christ”? Honestly, if you didn’t know this sentence was Scripture, wouldn’t you be tempted to rewrite it? Paul is clearly committed to the importance of the Church as Christ’s body through the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit. He wants you to know in no uncertain terms that if you love Jesus you have to love the Church and regard the members of the Church as gifts sent from the Spirit for the sake of the good of His Body.

Copyright © 2008

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