Grace Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2016, Epiphany 2C
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
What It Looks Like: We Use Our Gifts Together
Baseball fans and lovers of the game’s history were saddened this week by the news of the death of Monte Irvin. Irvin starred with the New York Giants from 1949, when he was thirty year old, to 1955, leading the majors in runs batted in with 121 in 1951 and finishing his career with a batting average of .293. He played one season with the Chicago Cubs before retiring in the spring of 1957.
Despite what would seem a short career by Hall of Fame standards, he was elected to the Hall in the 1970s. Of course, to understand why Irvin’s career seems so slight and yet he’s a Hall of Famer, you need to remember the state of baseball at the time, and that Irvin was black.
Even a casual baseball fan most likely remembers that until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Major League Baseball had barred African-Americans from the game throughout the twentieth century. Irvin had spent the first part of his career in the Negro Leagues, the shadow league that hosted numerous talented players, such as Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, Buck O’Neill (the native of Carrabelle, over in the Panhandle, who became the “star” of Ken Burns’s series Baseball), and other future major leaguers such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and even Hank Aaron for a year.
While the Negro Leagues provided great entertainment and a place for black players to put their talents to use, and Major League Baseball did include pretty fair talent in its pre-integration days (Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Ty Cobb come to mind, among others), it doesn’t take a brilliant mind to understand that baseball wasn’t at its best.
The best players didn’t play against each other. Babe Ruth in his prime didn’t get to take his hacks against Satchel Paige in his prime. A pitcher like Dizzy Dean never had to try to keep Cool Papa Bell from stealing a base. Both leagues had talent and entertainment, but baseball simply wasn’t the best it could be as long as players like Gibson, Bell, or O’Neill weren’t part of the game.
The Apostle Paul would get that.
You see, Paul’s work as he traveled around the Mediterranean 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 1 Corinthians is a different one, and not necessarily based on Jewish-Gentile dividing lines, but causing tremendous strain in the church at Corinth no less. Rather, 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 particular 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, 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 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. 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.
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.
The challenge for the Corinthians was to understand that this dispersal of the gifts of the Spirit was absolutely no cause for pride. There is no grounds 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 and have been here almost exactly a year 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 particular gift were somehow “more special” or more important than other gifts, … well, let’s just say that many weeks, including this week, 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.
This is part of the church “being an epiphany.” 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 God 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.
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 really needs to be reminded of that story and to hear that witness. And we have no margin for error; we need all of those manifestations of the Spirit to do our job in the world.
For gifts of the Spirit, and the opportunity to use them together, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (PH 478), “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (PH 276), “When Hands Reach Out and Fingers Trace” (GtG 302), “We All Are One in Mission” (PH 435)