Second Sunday After the Epiphany
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Today we’ll beginning a short sermon series on the final few chapters of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Also known as 1 Corinthians. The Apostle Paul was a church planter, preacher, leader, church overseer for some of the earliest Christian communities. And so all of his letters have to deal with real people like us. Real communities dealing with real problems.
In today’s reading from chapter twelve is in response to a problem the Corinthians have when it comes to what are called the “spiritual gifts.” “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters,” Paul says. “I do not want you to be uninformed.”
The issue’s about what are known as the charismatic gifts. Charis meaning “spirit-given.” The gift in question is “speaking in tongues.” If you don’t know what these are, basically, according to scripture it’s a kind of ecstatic speech. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, even possessed by the Holy Spirit, the person speaking becomes a divine conduit, and begins to speak in a divine language they do not know, beyond their control. Similarly, others are given the gift of interpreting this divine speech. Unknown words flow out, and another person interprets the words for everyone gathered.
Now, I’ll have to admit, I’ve never experienced speaking in tongues. I tend to be more skeptical, or rationalistic about these things. And in the United Church and other mainline, or so called “liberal” churches we tend to think they’re spooky, or look down on them. Having said that, it is in the Bible. It’s attested throughout the history of the church. Some of you were here back then, but Vancouver Island was a hotbed for charismatic Christianity in the 70’s and 80’s in fact (including St. George’s and Comox United). And I know good and faithful people who have experienced them, and continue to experience them. So, I tend to follow Shakespeare’s advice when he has Hamlet say “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Always good to have an open mind.
Regardless, this text isn’t about the existence or non-existence of speaking in tongues. The issue the Corinthians are having is that some who speak in tongues see that gift as evidence of divine favour. If you can speak in tongues then you’re saved, and more spiritually advanced. If you don’t, you’re not only not saved, you’re spiritually stunted. Because you’re gifted less.
So the underlying source of conflict is. In fact, spiritual arrogance. Arrogance is corrosive to community, and comes in many forms.
Whether it’s speaking in tongues, or there are some who can simply feel God’s presence in worship and in prayer. They feel God’s presence, they see the Spirit’s work guiding them. Active signs of God’s work around them. Warmth, electricity, pouring out of the heart.
Then there are others for whom the life of faith simply isn’t like that. Maybe faith is something more intellectual, or intuitive. Maybe God’s presence is experienced, but in bible study, or it’s in active serving on the street, in the soup kitchen, or working for social justice.
In Corinth, it’s the ecstatic, experiential people who have the sense of superiority, who look down on the people who just aren’t “feelin’ it” as lesser. But there are plenty of churches where they’re looked down on. One pastor whose congregation was thriving in the 1970’s through charismatic renewal said colleagues and others would look down on his congregation as “not United Church.” And often, those of us who have been part of churches for a long time can look down on new people on account of their enthusiasm as a kind of spiritual naivete, with all their kooky ideas we haven’t tried before. And there are plenty of churches where the gifts of the mind, or gifts of service can be elevated over all others. “At least we’re not like those other churches,” is the familiar refrain. Any of us, regardless of our spiritual experiences can fall into the trap of ego, self-satisfaction, and self-justification based on which of God’s gifts we believe to be most true, most important. Or most faithful. No one is exempt from the temptation.
Now, my first response tends to be something like Rodney King’s “can’t we just all get along?” Can’t we just acknowledge diversity as a good thing and just be nice to each other? I mean, that’s a popular cultural sentiment. But it doesn’t acknowledge that significant diversity is a really hard thing to manage. Like, it’s hard for a poor black Pentecostal woman from Somalia to sit next to a wealthy 80 year old Italian Catholic woman, and come to some kind of agreement on what good worship is like.
That’s kind of like what Paul’s managing here. And there are three different things he reminds of the Corinthians as a way to hedge against this kind of conflict rooted in spiritual arrogance.
The first hedge against spiritual arrogance Paul offers comes from the very beginning. It’s in going back to the source of their common faith:
“Now,” he says. “Now there are varieties of gifts… but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of services… but the same Lord. And there’s a variety of activities… but the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
Notice that: varieties of gifts, varieties of services, variety of activities. Same Spirit, same Lord, same God who activates them all. Huge diversity, but the same source—God. And the reason Paul does this is to remind all the Corinthians that God is the source of all of their gifts, whether tongues or otherwise. Spiritual gifts are just that—they’re gifts. The response to a gift isn’t to start rubbing it in everyone’s face who didn’t get the same thing. We call children who do that “brats.” The proper response to a gift is gratitude. It’s humility. Meaning that no matter what our gifts may be—whether ecstatic, intellectual, or practical—we need to always remember that we’re not the author or inventor, nor the source of those gifts. God’s own Spirit is the Source.
That’s the first hedge against spiritual arrogance. Variety of gifts… same Spirit.
And here’s the second. Gifts are given by God, yes. But God isn’t like Santa, bestowing gifts only to the nice. The second point Paul makes about spiritual gifts is that everybody’s got ‘em.
“Some are given the utterance of wisdom,” he writes. “Some wisdom, and some knowledge. Some faith, some healing. Some working miracles, some prophecy, and some discernment of spirits. And then there are the notorious two: “various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually, just as the Spirit chooses.”
There’s something democratic about the Holy Spirit’s work. God gives out gifts like they’re going out of style. As Jesus says “he sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike.” Gifts are different, but they’re equal, and they’re equally given to all. Meaning that everyone has their own, equally important part to play.
Everyone’s given their own gifts. And not all of God’s work in our lives is Holy Spirit fire and divine sunshine. Less exciting ones like wisdom, and knowledge—they’re equal gifts, too. And not only that, but it’s maybe just as important for those of us who don’t seem to have discernable gifts to know that we’ve got ‘em, too. They just might not look like the image of “spirituality” that comes into our heads. But God works with us in God’s own way.
That’s the second hedge against spiritual arrogance. All given gifts by God, all of equal value.
And finally, the third hedge. All gifts are given by God, and all are given gifts. But those gifts aren’t given just for our own edification.
“To each,” Paul says. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” That last phrase “for the common good” is key. Here Paul says that gifts—even the gift of tongues--aren’t given to put the spotlight on the individual. Instead, here Paul says that all gifts are given for the purpose of building up the community. All gifts are for the common good of God’s purposes.
This is a tough one for us. We North Americans think of spirituality, of faith as something only personal. Something to do primarily, in not totally with the individual. And sometimes we might imagine being “spiritual” people only means becoming personally happier through meditation, or having mystical experiences all alone on mountaintops. And, in our consumer society it’s easy to see a faith community as a place like every other store or service, to meet our needs and satisfy our wants and desires. But basically Paul is saying that our gifts as individuals are given to us for the purpose of serving others. Especially in community.
To be honest, we as a church perhaps haven’t emphasized enough the communal nature of faith. We share a lot about grace, God’s unconditional welcome. But we don’t talk much about how that grace is intended to play out. What the life of grace looks like. Because here Paul says that if we keep our gifts to ourselves instead of plugging them in and making a difference for each other, then we’re not actually using them right.
And so maybe it’s not only the third and final hedge against spiritual arrogance. It’s also the hedge against spiritual complacency. For us to always remember that our gifts are all given for the good of the community. They aren’t given just to me and you, or our friends, but all of us for each other. Meaning we’ll never actually experience the by products of joy and personal transformation without each other. So maybe if you haven’t discovered a spiritual gift yet it’s not that you don’t have one. Maybe it’s because you haven’t given yourself fully into community yet. Because no matter how amazing our gifts may be, a gift from God that’s not shared is a gift that, in the end, goes unused. Arrogance and complacency are two sides of the same spiritual coin.
So there we are, brothers and sisters. Like Paul, I do not wish for us to be uninformed about the nature of Spirit-given gifts. Because the truth is our hedge against both spiritual arrogance, and spiritual complacency. The beauty of God’s work in our lives is that it’s God’s work, and not our own, all the gifts we’re given come from the same source. And they come in such a variety that there isn’t one single way of being faithful, or following the Spirit’s leading. Whether some of our gifts are ecstatic, electric, or they are less exciting, more subtle, we’ve all been given them. Given them not only for the purpose of our own growth, but to find ourselves together as Christ’s body in the world, in community. As the old South African proverb goes, “I am, because we are.” God works in each of us by the Spirit. Each in different, and unique ways. Equipping us in service to the church and the world God loves.
May each of you recognize the Spirit’s work in you, no matter what shape it takes. And may each of us respond in joyful thanksgiving, and in service to each other. And for the common good.