17 January 2010

Claiming Our Gifts(2)

1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 17th January 2010

Paul wrote this letter to a church in conflict. The church in Corinth, which was founded by Paul himself, was burdened by many quarrels, disagreements, and strong differences of opinion. Paul’s challenge was this: how to gather a widely-divergent group of people around their love and commitment to Christ, to form them into what he called a fellowship, a koinonia,– a community that sought to embody the love of Christ in the world because Christ was at the center of their lives.

One of the many problems in First Church, Corinth – a busy, intellectual, cultural trade center at the heart of the Roman Empire, full of all kinds of temples and religious practices – was that there was a group of people who thought they were better than the others because they claimed to have special spiritual gifts. Paul refers to them as the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones. They seemed to be a class or sect within the church that sought special status and authority because they claimed to be better Christians, as it were, than everyone else. This infuriated Paul – he was a bit of a hot-head and had strong reactions against anything that contradicted his vision for the church. But, first and foremost, Paul was a pastor, who, as a pastor, helped the community to theologically reflect upon what it really means to say one is spiritually gifted.

You can hear the matter at hand in 12:1, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed,” because, obviously, they were grossly misinformed. They were misinformed about the work of the Spirit within the community. When the Spirit is present one never says, “Jesus is cursed,” either in words or in action. No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” because that confession of faith, too, requires the Spirit who gives the gift of faith.

The point here is that the church needs to pay attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of its people. And in the church – and one can even argue beyond the church – the Spirit of God is unleashed in the world endowing, giving, gifting God’s people. Whether the church likes it or not, the Spirit of God is unleashed in the church and beyond in the world bestowing gifts.

Chapter 12 is probably most familiar because we read it every time we ordain and install church officers. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” In these beautifully poetic verses we find Paul’s pastoral-theological response to the situation in Corinth.

Now, we could go through this text, verse by verse, and analyze the Greek meaning behind the gifts Paul describes: the gift of wisdom, the gift of the utterance of knowledge, the gift of faith, the gift of healing, the working of miracles, the gift of prophecy (or preaching), the gift of discernment, the gift of speaking in tongues (a kind of ecstatic, holy speech), the gift to interpret tongues. But we have to be very careful that we don’t see this as an exhaustive list – Paul wasn’t trying to say there are only nine spiritual gifts. That’s not the point. In Galatians, Paul comes up with another list, the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5: 22-23). Also nine.

Whether we call them gifts or fruits of the Spirit, the point is that the gifting agent in creation, in our individual lives, in the church is none other than the Spirit. (1) What needs to be lifted up here is that before and after each gift we have reference to the Spirit. Listen to Paul: “…of the Spirit…” “Though the Spirit…” “According to the Spirit…” “The same Spirit…” “The one Spirit…” Then we have, “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

The Holy Spirit is the giver of gifts. And not only is the Spirit the giver, Paul makes it clear that the Spirit also activates them within us. I love this. The Greek word here is energei – meaning to work in, to energize. “The word is often used of the working of the power of God in a miraculous way.” (2) It seems to suggest that yes, the Spirit gives gifts, but it’s as if there comes a time when the Spirit turns the gift on within us, activates it, energizes us, gives us power – God’s power – to do, to be, to say, to experience, to see, to bless, to give, to forgive, to love, to suffer in love, to sacrifice, to serve, to care in ways that leave us speechless, in ways we could never have realized on our own without God’s help. When the Spirit activates the gifts within us it’s as if we become the conduits for the power of God to pour through us to reach out and touch the world.

The Holy Spirit is the giver of gifts – many gifts – and activates them in us, in the community. And the stress here is on the many, the variety. That’s why we can’t see this as an exhaustive list. Remarkably, Paul is stressing that variety is the trademark of God’s Spirit and therefore a trademark of the church. Variety can also be translated difference, even diversity. Just as there’s difference and diversity within the Triune God (and there are early Trinitarian references in this text long before the doctrine of the Trinity was formalized), when our lives and the church reflect this Triune God, then expect to find variety, difference, and diversity – wild variety, difference and diversity. Because this is what the Spirit loves to do – to get things mixed up and stirred up, blessing God’s people with a variety of gifts.

In thinking about this text, I was reminded of an experience from my elementary school days. I can remember hearing about the Gifted and Talented Program in the school system, a special program that put special, gifted and talented students in a class, literally, above or apart from the rest. I had one or two friends in the program. I wasn’t part of it. From my perspective, as a child, I was led to believe that they were the only ones with gifts and talent. There are truly gifted and talented children who really warrant special attention and I’m not criticizing the program. But it left me with the impression that there students with special gifts, and the rest of us were out of luck. That gave me a horrible feeling.

It’s easy to see how destructive this idea can be, particularly from a faith perspective, to think there’s a kind of spiritual elite in the church – the truly divinely gifted and talented, as it were, and then everyone else. Scripture doesn’t say this. Paul doesn’t say this. In fact, Paul is saying the opposite – to be in Christ means that the Holy Spirit is active in one’s life and if the Holy Spirit is present then that means we’ve also been gifted. There are a variety of gifts given by the Spirit within each of us. Some were given when we were young and cultivated throughout our life. Others came later. Some might have arrived only yesterday. Others will come tomorrow. The point is – everyone has a gift or gifts. The Spirit is very generous. We are all gifted and talented in Christ – we are called to believe this and claim it and live courageously with this knowledge.

All of us, whatever our age, have been gifted by God and it is incumbent upon us, it is our task, our life purpose to discern our gifts, to claim them, to accept them, to not reject, or deny them, or withhold them, but to use them. In the letter of James we find these words, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17).” God’s generosity has given us a multitude of gifts that we might then give away, showered us with blessings that we then bless others. This is because all the gifts we receive from the Spirit are not ours – they do not belong to us, they are not given to puff us up or make us feel good or better or happy or anything else. “To each is given the manifestation for the Spirit…” Why? Why have you been gifted? Why have we been gifted? Why has God been so generous to us? “For the common good.”

And that is indeed the test whether something is really a gift from God – because the gifts of God can be used for the common good. When they are used and shared for the common good – for everyone – then they are of God. When the gifts we have can edify the members of the community, when the gifts and talents and assets we’ve been given build people up, support and strengthen people, give life and hope and meaning to the common good, then it can be said they are of God. That’s the test. When our gifts and talents and assets are withheld, when they are rejected, or denied, then it can be said they are not of God, that they wear down the common good and humanity suffers.

This week we have seen the horrific images coming from Haiti after the devastating earthquake on Tuesday. Believe me, I have wondered and cried, like you, and have asked how God can allow something like that to happen. Sometimes you have to wonder, Who’s really in control of this universe? We cannot even begin to imagine the depth of pain and suffering of the people, the fear and anxiety, particularly in the children, so many of whom are now orphaned. The country is on the verge of chaos and citizens are walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince with machetes to take matters into their own hands. The many “Why?” questions have no immediate answers and anyone who tries to answer them is probably a fool.

But coming up from under the rubble are stories of people who have witnessed something – dare I say – of the Spirit of God. Why in some places and not in others, I don’t know. Yet, to see the aid workers arriving from around the world,– search and rescue teams, medical personnel, mission workers, military personnel – using their skills, their talents being used for the common good, for the edification of the people, building people up, saving lives (or trying to), caring, holding, extending hope in the face of hopelessness – is this not God’s Spirit? Offering love and kindness – are these not of God? Are they not gifts of healing and the working of miracles, given for the common good? When we are generous in our giving, are we not using our gifts for the common good of the people of Haiti? On Wednesday evening, Session decided to send $1,000 Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, immediately, even though we don’t have our budget in place for 2010. To see priests praying over the dead, to hear the Haitians singing psalms to God in the darkness, having that kind of faith in God when the easy thing would be to give up on God altogether, are these not manifestations of the Spirit – allowing ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things? I think so.

What are your gifts? What skill, talent, asset, gift, passion, interest, what burden or concern has the Lord placed in your heart? In your gut, your body? In your soul? What is the the Spirit trying to activate and energize in you and through you? We’re all gifted – some of our gifts we know and claim. Some we’re using and sharing. This church is gifted. The evidence is all around us, just take a good, hard look around this church and see how we’re using our gifts and talents, assets and resources to do so much for our common good, but the good of others. There’s no doubt God’s Spirit is at work in us, in this place, in this community.

But the Holy Spirit never stops gifting us. One of the ways we grow as Christians – and as a church – is to ask periodically whether we’re really using all of our gifts. With our visioning process now underway led by the work of the vision task force, this is our season to ask – are we using all of our gifts or assets as a church? What are we being called to share, to use for the common good? What gifts need to activated, “flipped-on” in our life together? Are there areas of our life together that are not being realized? Are there gifts we are afraid to acknowledge and claim because if we accepted them, acknowledged them, they would change us or call us to go in directions we would rather not take? And in denying them, are we somehow hindering the common good that can be realized through us? It’s the gifts we’re afraid to admit to, to claim that just might be the ones God is calling us to receive and use and in so doing, grow in deeper faith and commitment. (3) I’m not sure what they are, but it’s a question we have to ask, to discern together.

So let us ask: What are your gifts? What are our gifts? Then let us be open to what we hear, to what we discover. Putting fear – for fear kills the soul – and putting anxiety aside, let us in this season of discernment open ourselves up to what the Spirit longs to give us, given for the sake of the common good, given through us for the world. May it be so. Amen.

1. Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin: “God has gifted creation with everything that is necessary.” Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), German Benedictine abbess & mystic.
2. Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. & Cleon L. Roberts III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 377.
3. Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin, “What gifts are you afraid of receiving?” David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (Riverhead Books, 2002).

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