Grace Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2016, Epiphany 2C
Just As the Spirit Chooses
Last Sunday the internet humor site Unvirtuous Abbey posted an image that suggested the Apostle Paul at work writing one of his letters to the various churches under his care. The captioning of this image, however, took a creative slant: the imagined text of the letter under construction began thus:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, to the churches of the United States of America – grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ: I don’t even really know where to begin with you guys…
It’s a funny line, and easily evocative of just how far much of the church in this country have strayed from being Christlike in any discernible way. The truth is, though, this isn’t that far from how the actual Paul began some of his actual letters, and how he was compelled to speak to the churches in other letters even when he was able to keep his opening more cordial. For example, in the letter to Galatians Paul barely manages to get through a fairly doxological opening statement before turning to chastisement in verse 6: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…”. Things were evidently that bad.
As for the letter we are reading today and in the forthcoming weeks, Paul actually manages to get though not only the formal greeting, but a nice blessing as well, before turning to the matter at hand at the beginning of this letter: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” Paul elaborates that the Corinthians have apparently devolved into factions around one leader or another in the larger church – Paul, Cephas (or Peter), Apollos (the evangelist introduced in Acts 18), or even – in a super-self-righteous move – Christ. Paul quickly admonishes the Corinthians for this, but the correction of this division will go much deeper and in fact constitute the bulk of this letter. There are many things going wrong among the Corinthians, and Paul is setting out to address them.
Paul’s work in his travels was frequently made more challenging by the difficulties of churches made up of diverse groups of people and the disputes, disagreements, or contests that too often arose between those groups. For example, by the time Paul is making his travels, the congregations to whom he preaches and writes are usually composed of both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity. At times the Jewish party would contend that the Gentiles needed to take up practices associated with Judaism (most notably the act of circumcision for males) before they could be fully accepted into the fledgling group of Christ’s followers. To put it more briefly, they felt that Gentiles should become Jews in order to become Christians. Paul, despite his own thoroughly Jewish heritage, argued against that claim, agreeing with those who called that an unnecessary burden.
The conflict Paul addresses here in today’s reading is a different one, not necessarily based on Jewish-Gentile dividing lines, but one that caused tremendous strain in the church at Corinth no less. In this case, this local church was struggling with the effects of spiritual pride and even a kind of competitiveness, in which some claimed that their specific and distinctive spiritual gifts made them spiritually superior to others. This kind of spiritual elitism never ends well, and Corinth was no exception.
After much chiding and critique earlier in the book on this and other matters, Paul now turns with chapter 12 to address “matters pertaining to the Spirit.” “Spiritual gifts,” the term you see in verse 1, is certainly part of the matter, but not the full extent of what Paul wants to address.
First, Paul is compelled to remind his readers – a great many of whom in Corinth were Gentile converts to The Way – that all of them had been equal in ignorance before following Christ. The lot of them had been, as Paul describes, duped worshipers of powerless, speechless idols. Even as followers of Christ now, Paul challenges them to understand that they have much to learn, particularly about the Holy Spirit.
For example: no one who is speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit could ever utter the phrase “Let Jesus be cursed!” You can’t do it. [To be sure, there are times when even we followers of Christ speak decidedly not under the influence of the Spirit! But that’s a different story.] Similarly, but not quite the same way, one cannot make the claim that “Jesus is Lord” except by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even being able to make the confession “Jesus is Lord” is evidence of the work of the Spirit.
Understand what it means: anyone who confesses “Jesus is Lord” is doing so by a gift of the Spirit. There is no one who confesses Christ is Lord that is not gifted by the Spirit. If that’s the case, no one has any business claiming that any other believer has no spiritual gift. We all do. That’s how we can even be followers of Christ at all, by the gift of the Spirit. You didn’t think you earned your salvation, did you?
With that understanding, Paul turns to the issue of differences in spiritual gifts and other workings of the Spirit. One of the common threads of what Paul has to say is that difference or variety or diversity is inevitable, and indeed is “baked into” the way that the Spirit “gifts” the followers of Christ. Each of us receives different abilities or talents or gifts, and that itself is a very intentional work of the Spirit.
Paul sketches out a few of these possible gifts or abilities in verses 7-10. By no means is this a complete list, but Paul mentions the speaking both of wisdom and of knowledge; faith; healing; miracles; prophecy; discernment; and the speaking and interpreting of tongues. And as Paul notes, the Spirit allots these gifts to the children of God quite according to the Spirit’s own choosing, and nothing other – “just as the Spirit chooses,” as verse 11 puts it.
Paul here is urging the Corinthians to understand that this dispersal of the gifts of the Spirit was absolutely no cause for pride. There is no basis for any claim that having any one spiritual gift made you in any way superior to or more important than any of your sisters or brothers in Christ.
I have been called as the pastor of this church almost exactly seven years now. I believe I do have some gift for the speaking of wisdom or knowledge, perhaps a way of describing preaching. Hopefully those three years I spent in seminary helped develop that gift to some degree. But if I were ever tempted to think that this specific gift was somehow “more special” or more important than other gifts, … well, let’s just say that many weeks or even months in this vocation have really caused me to wish I had a gift for healing or miracles instead.
What Paul needs the Corinthians (and us) to understand is that we need all the gifts. This church can’t survive on preaching alone. Nor can it survive on any one of the gifts the Spirit might bestow. We need them all, both our own church here and the greater church around the world. And when we turn inward, when we start failing to welcome others into our church, or when we start drawing lines to keep some out and include only certain people – “folks like us” – then we are cutting ourselves off from some of the very gifts or manifestations of the Spirit that we absolutely need to survive, for the common good.
And it’s not even about our surviving, in the end. Our church, local or universal, is not put here on earth to serve ourselves. These flourishings of the Spirit that are made manifest in us are here to show God’s glory to those all around us. We are here to bear witness to the gospel, to be the vessel by which that good news is given to all the world around us. And those gifts of the Spirit are scattered out among us for that very end; giving glory to God that the world might see.
Beyond the matter of not indulging in pride over one’s spiritual gifts, there is also the matter of not dismissing what one contributes to the body as somehow being unimportant or not really mattering. If everybody in a congregation is determined that because their gift isn’t for preaching or prophecy it isn’t important, the church misses out on those less flashy gifts like faith or discernment and suffers for it. All the gifts are needed.
This is part of the church “being an epiphany,” participating in showing Christ to the world. When we all pull together using each of our distinctive gifts for the work of the kingdom of God, we become a revelation of God to the world, through the working of the Spirit. We show Christ to the world. We show the world what it looks like when the Spirit is working among us. Or, when we start elevating some gifts and demeaning others, when we start indulging in pride about our own spiritual abilities, or when we cut ourselves off from the gifts we need in the church because we don’t like the people who have them? Or when we hold back the gifts God has given us for whatever reason? We fail to bear witness to God’s Spirit, and in fact do damage to that witness among the larger church.
Right now, all things considered after the weirdness of the last two years, our congregation is doing alright. We’re not overflowing with people, which considering ongoing health and safety considerations is at least good for facilitating social distancing. But it is taking every spiritual gift that is present among the people of this congregation, and then some, to keep things going. We don’t have space for anybody to decide that their gifts or abilities don’t matter; we need them all. There is no one whose gifts or talents or abilities don’t matter. We need them all.
The abilities we bring to the body of Christ are not an accident. The Holy Spirit is working in us, each of us, all of us, so that we might bear witness to God and to the gospel of Christ to a world that desperately needs to be reminded of that story and to hear that witness. Being prideful about some gifts or dismissive of others is failure to show Christ to the world. We have no margin for error; we need all those manifestations of the Spirit to do our job in the world.
For gifts of the Spirit, and the opportunity and obligation to use them together, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #385, All People That on Earth Do Dwell; #292, As the Wind Song; #282, Come Down, O Love Divine