A sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 11/13/22, as part of our annual stewardship campaign. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.
In what year does the story of the United States of America begin? It’s a simple question—the kind of question you should be able to answer with a short, factual answer. At least…it sounds that way. Is it 1776? Is it 1492? Is it 1619? History has never been a static discipline, but the last few years of American public life have reminded us just how contentious and controversial history can be. I’m thinking of something like the 1619 Project, this journalistic effort by Nikole Hannah-Jones and others that became so controversial by asking fundamental questions like, “In what year does the story of the United States begin?” or “How central are the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans to the story of the United States?” The controversy reminds us that the questions we ask about our history are just as important as the answers we find.
I’ve been thinking about history because we’re right in the middle of our stewardship series. We’re picking up a theme we introduced last year called “Our Story Continues: Remembering Our Past, Building Our Future.” Today we’re focused on remembering our past. It’s the story of how God has been at work in this church community, holding us together and leading us forward. It’s also the story of so many saints through the years, stewarding all the gifts God gives us.
And yes—when it comes to history, the questions we ask are just as important as the answers we find. This includes the history of our church here, LaSalle Street Church. I’ve discovered that it’s really hard to define our history! You start with a question—”In what year does the story of LaSalle Street Church begin?”—and the answer is, “Well, it depends on what you mean.” Do you mean the story of this building where we meet? Do you mean the story of our lineage as a worshipping congregation who happens to meet in this building? Do you mean a theological history across many centuries that informs our traditions?
I’ve been on staff here since March, but I started attending LaSalle as a visitor about four years before that, in May 2018. Over time I asked a lot of questions to try and understand the history of the church, and I heard a lot of different perspectives! My own personal project was just a small expression of what we’re always doing together, writing and rewriting a living oral history. If you’re really curious, you might have discovered that there are many published stories about LaSalle out there. There’s a documentary called The Heart Cannot Run and a book called The Church That Takes On Trouble. More recently, there’s the book Love Let Go about the Loaves and Fishes campaign. Once, LaSalle was even featured on the Christian Broadcasting Network as their “Church of the Week.” I’m sure there are more artifacts we could add to the list.
As I was trying to understand our history, all that data was fascinating to me. But in truth, beneath all my questions about our history, I think the real question I was asking was simple: “Who is LaSalle Street Church now?” All my searching to understand LaSalle’s history was really a means of making sense of understanding who the church is today. Why are the walls of our sanctuary blue and yellow? Why do we take communion every other week, instead of weekly, or monthly, or quarterly? Why do we have a Racial Righteousness Journey Leadership Team? Who are we, as a church?
Okay, stay with me, because I think there’s a deeper question still. I was asking all these questions about LaSalle’s history because I wanted to understand that deeper question of who LaSalle is. But below that was yet another deeper, heart-level question: Who will I become if I join this church? It’s the same question you might ask when you’re considering marriage to someone, or a prospective job, or even choosing a potential university to attend: What is your influence going to do to me? What kind of people does LaSalle produce? Do the members of LaSalle reflect the fruits of the Spirit? If I become part of this body, will I be formed into someone who resembles Christ?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how and why we become part of a body like LaSalle. I was thinking about this a couple weeks ago, when I had the chance to travel to Dallas for a conference about faith and sexuality. The theme of the conference was the phrase “A Place at the Table.” Over the course of a few days, I heard a lot of different metaphors to describe the dynamics of belonging and inclusion in church for LGBTQ people and, more broadly, for other groups the church has historically kept at the margins. There were images like the concept of an infinite game that always has room for more players. There were also images taken from Scripture, like the image of a banquet table, which appears in so many of Jesus’ parables. And there was the image of a human body, with all its different parts.
That’s our passage for today: 1 Corinthians 12, starting in v. 12. Go ahead and turn to it in a Bible, if you have one. When I began to study this passage in preparation for this sermon, most of the commentaries offered the same terse warning: “It’s very hard to say anything new about 1 Corinthians 12!” It’s hard because if you grew up in church, you’ve probably heard this passage again and again, maybe in conversations about spiritual gifts, or about diversity, or even about stewardship. It’s also hard because the writing itself is so clear and illuminating and almost self-evident. By drawing a connection between the body of Christ and a human body, the implications become obvious: Of course the church is better off with a diversity of personalities and identities and gifts. Of course none of us is in any position to look at someone else in the church and say, “You know, I don’t think you’re really necessary to what we’re doing here.”
First Corinthians is one of many letters in the New Testament attributed to St. Paul. He wrote it to one of the churches that he started in the decades following the life of Jesus. Corinth was a lot like Chicago: a big and diverse city. When you read between the lines of this letter, you start to discover a picture of a dysfunctional church. The church is wrestling with power struggles and class conflicts. And yet it’s clear that Paul deeply loves this young church and sees God at work within it. Early in the book, Paul offers the church a warm greeting, in chapter 1 verse 4: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” He continues later in vs. 9: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Our passage today comes from chapter 12. Chapter 12 opens a discussion that stretches for the next few chapters about spiritual gifts in the church. Evidently part of the problem for this church in Corinth was that some church members were experiencing visible spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, but they weren’t using those gifts for the benefit of the church. They were using them to puff up their own egos. These spiritual gifts—gifts from God—were doing the opposite of what God intended. Rather than building up the unity of the church, they were creating conflict and hierarchies.
That’s what Paul has in mind when he introduces this long metaphor about the human body. Yes, a body has different parts that serve different purposes, but they’re all essential, and there’s no use in one body part trying to argue that it’s any more important than another body part.
In all my years reading this long and developed metaphor of eyes and hands and ears and feet, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to ask: “What sort of body does Paul have in mind?”
I wonder what kind of body you imagined when the passage was read earlier. Paul is comparing the body of Christ to a human body, so maybe you pictured classical art of Jesus, an image like our Good Shepard window. Maybe, if you’re like me, the biological slant of this passage with all its emphasis on the interconnectedness of the body’s systems brings to mind something more academic, like one of those models of the human body you find in a high school science classroom. Maybe your mind’s eye imagines artwork—maybe the way this passage describes the perfection of all the parts arranged together reminds you of attempts through the centuries to depict a quote-unquote “perfect” human form.
I don’t know anybody who looks like Michelangelo’s “David” or Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” I don’t think Paul knew anybody who looked like that, either. No human body is static or perfect. Paul wrote this in the days before TikTok filters and Photoshop, and I have to imagine that what Paul had in mind wasn’t some painting or diagram. No, I think Paul was picturing the actual, flesh-and-blood bodies that would have surrounded him: bodies that were growing, and moving, and sweating, and healing, and aging. Living bodies.
In so many ways our bodies tell the stories of our lives. Our bodies are like history books. Our laugh lines, our tattoos, our stretch marks, our scars, for our younger folks the gaps in our smile where a baby tooth just fell out —all of it is a testimony to what we have survived. Of course we can’t judge others by appearances, but in so many ways we wear in our bodies an account of all the things that have made us who we are.
So I wonder—how does it change our perception of this passage in 1 Corinthians 12 if we let go of some theoretical model of the human body and instead read it through the lens of our own imperfect living bodies? Paul wrote this letter to a real-world church that was facing a lot of its own unique problems. How does it change our perception of the body of Christ if we let go of some distant ideal of a perfect church and instead believe that God is at work here and now in this exact, imperfect version of LaSalle Street Church?
There is no ideal human body out there; there is only the living body of Christ.
There is no ideal church out there; there is only the living body of Christ.
If I can be candid, I think it’s really hard to figure out how to steward your gifts in a living body. I mean that in both senses of the phrase. It’s hard to know how to steward your gifts as you occupy your own living body, because you have to manage all your time and obligations and desires and ambivalence and everything else. You have to weigh your commitments to this church against all your other commitments. That math isn’t easy.
It’s also hard to know how to steward your gifts in this living body, the church. If you’ve been part of LaSalle for a while, from time to time you might find yourself asking: How do I fit in the church now? Maybe your status in life has changed—maybe you’re suddenly an empty nester, maybe your mobility is different from what it was before, maybe you recently moved and are still adjusting to the new route you take to get to the building. At the very least, I know the church has changed. Our neighborhood has changed, even in the four years I’ve been here. You might not be able to serve in exactly the ways you did five years ago.
If you’re new to LaSalle, you might also be trying to figure out if you have a place here. You might be discerning whether this is the local expression of the body of Christ you want to commit yourself to. You might be wondering how and when you will cross that invisible threshold from outside observer to inside participant.
I want to speak for a moment to that crowd—to folks who are trying to discern whether they want to be more actively involved here and how to do so, especially if you’re carrying any history of bad experiences with churches. If you’re new here and trying to figure out how and when to plug in: I think in most cases the timing is usually sooner and later than we expect. Let me explain.
When I started visiting LaSalle as a guest, I needed to coast in the background a lot longer than I initially expected before I was ready to get involved. Even so, when I did begin showing up for events and volunteering with the church, it still felt a lot sooner than I thought I was ready for. This week I went back and searched through old emails and social media posts trying to reconstruct my personal timeline at LaSalle. I started attending in May 2018. It wasn’t until the following January, in 2019, that I started serving on the Welcome Table. I remember feeling so intimidated the first time I volunteered to manage the Welcome Table, greeting people who were new to the church. I was afraid that visitors would ask me intense and pointed questions about LaSalle’s theological positions, so before my first Welcome Table shift I thoroughly researched LaSalle’s website and statements of belief so that I’d be ready to answer any question I encountered.
When I arrived early on that Sunday morning to set up, I found a printed nametag with “Brent” on it, and I was surprised how a nametag could stir up all this baggage and all my complicated history with church in general. At the time I was emerging from a few years of spiritual wilderness and searching, and I remember wondering: “Am I ready for this? Am I ready to be a representative of a church, trying to offer a welcome to other outsiders?” I don’t know if this story is landing with everyone in the room, but I trust that there are a few of you here who understand just how heavy and charged something like an official church nametag can feel.
I’m telling you all this because I want to emphasize that it’s hard to figure out how to steward your gifts in a living body. It takes time. If you’re visiting this church and still trying to discern whether LaSalle is the church God is calling you to, I want you to know that you have time to figure that out. If God is calling you to this church, God is calling your whole self—all your experiences and history and uniqueness. You have time to figure out how all of you fits with all of us. What matters is that you are a gift that God is giving to this world and maybe to this body, and either way, we’re grateful for you.
That’s the good news today, the challenging news. When we talk about stewardship and how we handle our resources, what we’re talking about are all the gifts of God, given for the purposes of God’s work in the world. First Corinthians 12:27 says, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” This is the body of Christ, right here. We are the body. You and you and you and you, you are the parts that God has arranged. There is not some perfect, ideal church out there that God is waiting to use. There is not some objective standard of LaSalle Street Church out there that God is measuring us against. This is the body.
There’s more good news. Verse 13: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” In July and August, we explored the concept of belonging—what it means to belong to one another as the family of God. Paul writes this elaborate metaphor to describe how we’re all different and bring different gifts and capacities, but the entire metaphor hinges on this crucial reminder: We were incorporated into the body through baptism. In baptism we died to ourselves and were brought back to life as members of the body. It happened to us. We are part of the body of Christ because of his saving work in our lives. None of us has any more of a claim to be here than anyone else. All of this is given to us freely.
You might have noticed the title I assigned to this sermon: “Joint Account.” It’s a play on both meanings of the phrase. When we talk about financial stewardship at a church like LaSalle, what we’re talking about is trust—giving to a church is an expression of your trust that the church will use its financial resources responsibly and generously. Quite literally, your money becomes our money, an “our” that includes you and also includes many other people’s priorities and perspectives.
But when we think more broadly about stewarding all our gifts at LaSalle—our money, our time, our service, our worship—I hope we’re also thinking about how we might give an account for the ways we use those gifts collectively. When I started attending LaSalle and tried to understand the history of the church, I thought I was doing so as an outsider: How does that group of people describe themselves? How do they tell their stories? But eventually I became part of the community. I became part of the story of LaSalle. That happens for many of us, and I hope it happens for you—that you find yourself wrapped up in the story that God is telling here. Your story becomes an essential plotline of our story, this great account of how God has moved through our church.
Folks, let’s keep writing and rewriting our history. Let’s pool our gifts together to create a joint account, a living testament to God’s work through this church for the world around us.
I’ll begin, with some help from a church profile that we recently revised.
“In 1884, a group of working-class Swedes pooled together their limited resources to build a church at the corner of Elm & LaSalle Street in Chicago. In the nearly 140 years since its creation, our church building has seen many congregations and known many names as the Near North side came to be populated by different immigrant groups. It was the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church to the Swedes that first worshiped here. Then it became the Christ Church of Deliverance, then the Italian Mission of Moody Church, then the Elm-LaSalle Bible Church, all before adopting our current name, LaSalle Street Church….”
In 2022, the church had persevered through a global pandemic and the loss of beloved leaders and members. Church members looked ahead with trepidation and eager expectation in the face of all the challenges and opportunities they faced.
They could only begin to imagine what God would do next.