January 20, Varieties of gifts

Varieties of gifts

1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

Okay, so you are familiar, I am assuming, with the fact that the apostle Paul, the writer of many of these letters that appear in the New Testament, these letters often called Epistles, wrote these letters to churches that he founded on his three missionary journeys through Asia Minor – mostly areas that we know as modern-day Greece and modern-day Turkey.

And in many of these places that he stopped on these missionary journeys, he was only there for a relatively short time – in some cases a year or more, but in other cases months, or even just weeks. He’d stop in a city, preach the gospel, start a church, and then move on – sometimes moving on because another place was beckoning, but just as often moving on because he was run out of town.

This ‘moving from place to place’ style of ministry created some issues, because, as you can imagine, the people who joined these new churches that Paul had started had, in some cases, their own ideas of where the gospel of Jesus should lead them, and once Paul left, they were kind of on their own.

And in some cases, there were old behaviors of a life before their introduction to Christ that they brought into the newly formed Christian community. In other cases, there was persecution or local pressure. In some cases, there were people who tried to take over the new church or there was conflict between different factions. And in some cases, these new Christians just had questions.

So, they wrote letters. They would write a letter to Paul and Paul would write back. And it is these letters that Paul wrote back to the churches that make up a significant portion of the New Testament – letters filled with guidance, instruction, correction, clarification, and encouragement to these newly minted Christians.

So, for example, to the congregations in the region of Galatia (in what is now Turkey) he wrote the letter that we know as the book of Galatians; to the Christians in Philippi and Thessalonica, in the region of what was at that time Macedonia, and is now part of Greece, he wrote the books of Philippians and Thessalonians; to the church in Ephesus, another church located in what is modern day Turkey, he wrote Ephesians, and so on. And the letters we know as the books of first and second Corinthians, from which our scriptures for today and the next two Sundays are drawn, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, a city in Greece.

Now, like I said, these letters from Paul to the fledgling churches were meant to offer instruction, clarification, and encouragement to the new Christians in these young congregations, but the Corinthian Christians apparently were a special case. Eugene Peterson, writing in his introduction to his translation of this letter of First Corinthians has this to say:

When people become Christians, they don’t at the same moment become nice. This always comes as something of a surprise. Conversion to Christ and his ways doesn’t automatically furnish a person with impeccable manners and suitable morals.

The people of Corinth (Peterson continues) had a reputation in the ancient world as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people. When Paul arrived with the Message and many of them became believers in Jesus, they brought their reputations with them right into the church.

Paul spent a year and half with them as their pastor, going over the Message of the “good news” in detail, showing them how to live out this new life of salvation and holiness as a community of believers. He then went on to other towns and churches.

Sometime later Paul received a report from one of the Corinthian families that in his absence, things had more or less fallen apart. He also received a letter from Corinth asking for help. Factions had developed, morals were in disrepair, worship had degenerated into a selfish grabbing for the supernatural. It was the kind of thing that might have been expected from Corinthians.

Peterson goes on to say that Paul’s response to the situation through this first letter to the Corinthian church is affectionate and firm, clear and unswerving, as he instructs the church about the continuing presence of God and the calling they have been given to love one another – the calling and the practice of loving one another.

So that’s some context for the scripture for this morning. Clearly the Corinthians are struggling in lots of ways, and they are not unique in that (among all those early churches), except that their situation seems pretty serious and somewhat urgent. And, unlike some of the other early congregations, their issues are not so much with doctrine, as they are with behavior: they are not treating each other well; they are not doing very well in regard to matters of unity and diversity; they are not being respectful or kind or gracious to each other. They’re got some issues with greed and with superiority and with selfishness.

And those behavioral issues seem to be rooted in issues of attitude. And maybe at the heart of it, is this: It seems that they don’t understand that coming together in Christ means cooperation not competition. That is, they can’t seem to see that being God’s people means being God’s people together, and that means being people who need to be “with” each other in a new way, and that being “with” each other also means being “for” each other.

What Paul wants them to understand as he writes back to them, is that the gifts they have from God – the gifts of the Holy Spirit – are not doled out so that some can be “haves” and some “have-nots” and therefore some persons are superior or more important, while others are inferior or unimportant. Rather (Paul is trying to tell them) they each have been given individual and special gifts, and so each person is individually and especially important, but not for their own sake. They are each individually and especially important because each is a contributor to the common good. Each one has something that comes from God to contribute to the common good. Each one has something to contribute.

Now, I know this seems kind of obvious to us: that each person has particular gifts, and each person has something to contribute, and all of these gifts come from one source – from God, who made us, so no one is more important than anyone else. Each is unique, but no one is more important; all gifts are needed and welcomed.

But as obvious as that might be to us, think about the ways in which every day, over and over, some people are devalued while others are inflated. Think about how much we are in the habit of comparing ourselves, and trying to be “important,” and yearning for position and power, and wanting our contributions to be valued and noticed, and how much we are measuring – always measuring – things like importance and influence and self-worth. And think also about how whole groups or categories of people are summarily dismissed by our culture, our society, even in some cases, by the church. How they, and what they can contribute – the gifts that they have to offer – are dismissed.

How can that be? What is it that pits us against each other? What is it in us that dismisses some contributions and celebrates others? Why do some people feel gifted and others don’t (that is why do some have an over-inflated self-worth and others feel like nothing)? Is it the difference in people? The difference in gifts that people have, that people offer? Is it that we want to be important and somehow the way we most often feel important is by comparison, by contrast?

I’d invite you to hold some of those thoughts, some of those questions, but then also to think about something equally important: the matter of what gifts that we actually have, the matter of what gifts we each uniquely have. And whether you think of those gifts – your gifts, the gifts of others – as spiritual gifts.

Paul has a particular list – perhaps the gifts that the Corinthian Christians were arguing about, either inflating or dismissing or comparing. Paul includes in his list of gifts the following: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues.

It would seem that he is talking about gifts that might be exercised in worship – so perhaps that was the place that a lot of this Corinthian congregational comparison and competition was going on. But widen your thoughts for a moment: What is a broader view of the gifts that we have been given and the gifts that we give? In the context of not only these four walls, but as you think about life more generally, what is the scope of giftedness that you see within you and around you – your giftedness and the giftedness of others? What gifts (what skills and abilities and perspectives and knowledge) do we have and what gifts are needed – in our shared life, but also in the wider world?

We could talk about just what is on Paul’s list, even digging into some of the gifts he includes in his list that puzzle or mystify us – things like healing and speaking in tongues – but that’s not what I am really interested in today. What interests me – what calls to me – is this question of our giftedness, and whether we can see all aspects of our giftedness as something that has a single tap root (into the Holy Spirit, let’s say) but that branches out into all kinds of directions – so that we have before us the matter of variety and value.  

Because I would make the argument that our understanding of spiritual gifts should reach far beyond the experience of what we might bring to worship. I would argue that spiritual gifts are any and all gifts that have to do with the building up of the body, with the strengthening and resourcing of the community, and with the promoting of God’s way in the world.

And on that basis, the variety of gifts that we might have and we might offer, the variety of gifts that others might have and others might offer – what we might call “spiritual gifts” – could be more numerous than the stars in the sky. And at the same time, those gifts might be as unique and particular and precious as each one of you.

I thought this week I’d do a little experiment related to our recognizing our spiritual gifts, so I started close to home, so to speak, and went out to the front desk at the church to interrupt a conversation that Peg and Karen were having on Thursday morning and to ask them each: “What are your spiritual gifts?”

I actually wanted to know two things: how other people see themselves in terms of giftedness, and whether or not the word “spiritual” would limit or even stunt the conversation.

It only took a few moments for me to realize that I needed to reframe the question, so instead of asking “What are your spiritual gifts?” I asked, “What is your gift – the thing that you naturally and generously offer into the community, and into the world?” And then I changed my question a little bit and I asked, “What’s the good thing that you offer because it comes from deep inside you and because it matters deeply to you?”

That’s a similar, but maybe even better question than “What’s your spiritual gifts?” isn’t it? Because what’s deep inside us is God’s Spirit, and what comes from that deep and good place, is our gift – what we have to give: What’s the good thing that you offer because it comes from deep inside you and because it matters deeply to you?  

Then, launching from that question, for a few moments we talked about our “gifts,” and what I realized in that brief conversation was this: We are a little hesitant to talk about our own gifts, but not because of an aw-shucks humility, so much as because the ways in which we are each gifted seem so normal and natural to us, so as not to be (to us anyway) any big deal.

So, you might not recognize what your spiritual gift is, because it seems like the normal and natural “you” – like your own heartbeat or the air you breathe – but here’s the thing: ask someone else, someone else in your community, someone who knows you well, about your good gift, and they won’t hesitate in being able to name it for you, because they see it, and not only that, they gratefully receive it over and over.

Maybe that’s a good lunchtime conversation for today: Tell each other what you think the other person’s gift is – that is, what good thing it is that they offer because it comes from deep inside them and you can see that it matters deeply to them.

The other thing that came up in that conversation at the front desk is the way that our gifts complement each other. When you are with others who know and love you (and we would hope this is especially true in the church community) there is always a sense of celebration rather than competition when one or the other of us does well, or offers something particularly remarkable, or succeeds, or acts in a way that is especially true to who they are.

(That’s all the further I got with my experiment in asking others about spiritual gifts– only as far as a conversation with two other people at the front desk – but I got what I needed, didn’t I?)

The Corinthians thought somehow that this thing about gifts and giftedness was a competition or a comparison. They hadn’t understood or figured out that it is through the blessed uniqueness of each of us that all bases get covered for the common good.

And maybe it’s those two words that matter most in this talk of spiritual gifts: “common good.” Is what we offer, is our generosity and humility, is our thought and action, is our attitude, our skill, our unique and precious gift…offered for the common good? If so, then God is pleased.

You’ve got some good thing that you offer because it comes from deep inside you and because it matters deeply to you – some movement of the Spirit in you. What is it? And will you offer it for the common good?

 

Amen.  

 

Benediction: For all good gifts, we give thanks. Share your gift this week. Let the Spirit move through you, from you, into the world. Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

January 20, 2019