Year C ~ Epiphany 2 ~ 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
“What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.”
That’s how The Message Bible translates the first verse of 1 Corinthians 12, and that’s precisely what I want to talk to you about today.
“What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.”
I hope you notice that it starts with an assumption that I take as a fact. It’s not a maybe, or a hopefully. It’s a truth. A reality. It’s not, “Gee, I wonder if God’s Spirit might actually be part of my life?” It’s, “God’s Spirit absolutely DOES get worked into my life – and in various ways. That’s the fact, Jack!”
It’s not just one way or one aspect of my life (like while I’m tuned-in to a worship livestream) – and it may be decidedly different for the next person – but even though it may look different and manifest differently there is no doubt at all in my mind that that Spirit’s working in each of our lives.
Of course, the Spirit’s got some competition. There are all sorts of things working on you right now. Some of them you may be actively participating in and cooperating with – some of them you might be outright resisting – and some of them you may have never given a second thought to.
Worship is working on your life right now. Relationships are working on your life right now. Democracy is working on our lives right now. The social safety net and universal healthcare are working on us as Canadians, whether we’re accessing them currently or not. Covid and pandemic are surely working on us all right now. To be completely ridiculous, gravity is working on us or we’d be floating away. To be completely serious, Love is working on us, whether we are aware or not.
I really like this translation, the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives, because it avoids some of the baggage and interpretive problems of the usual language – “spiritual gifts”. The NRSV translates v.1 as,
Now concerning spiritual gifts, (kindred in Christ), I do not want you to be uninformed.
Spiritual gifts kind of sound like Christmas gifts. Sometimes you get one, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s just what you wanted, sometimes it’s not quite the right fit and you wish you could exchange it! Hands up if you had to do that this Christmas.
But that’s not how spiritual giftedness works. At all!
A spiritual gift sounds like it’s a self-contained package of skills, or abilities, or passions that you then take and use to help people or love people. Really, what it’s talking about is our general state of blessedness. We are constantly being blessed by the Spirit. We are in a never-ending, never-interrupted, never-diminishing stream of blessing. The Spirit is working into and through our lives just as assuredly as oxygen is! Spiritual gifts don’t come and go like Christmas – they constantly flow like your bloodstream!
1 Corinthians 12:4-6
Now there are varieties of gifts or blessings, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services or ways to engage in ministry, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities one can faithfully engage in, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
So there’s all this variety but for some reason Paul felt the need to put in bold italics and underline the part about all of it coming from the same Spirit. I suspect that’s because before being Christians these Corinthian folks were likely worshipping many different gods, each of whom had their own thing to offer. With Jesus’ God, our God, there are many, many gifts but only One God! It also helps us to remember that there’s not just one way to serve, or be faithful.
And then we get what is, for me, the most important verse in the reading.
v.7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
Three big things in that one short verse.
First, is the idea that each and every person is blessed and gifted. Yes, even you!
Second, is that the Spirit is manifested through us – meaning the blessings and gifts aren’t just silent, and personal, and internal – they’re meant to be seen, to be enacted, to be used. And how are they to be used?
That’s the third big idea – our gifts and blessings are for the common good! Each and every one of us is blessed and gifted to do faithful things, to do ministry, for the common good. Every one of us!
Think about the people who make up Faith United. As you do, I bet you can catalogue all the wonderful ways various people here do ministry – how they love God, and love people, and love one another – how they show compassion, and kindness, and care. Can you picture all the people and all the awesome, faithful stuff they do?! But if you asked that person to name those things about themselves, they’d do the “Aw shucks, I don’t know” thing.
The Message Bible puts it brilliantly.
v.7 Each person is given something to do that shows who God is!
I’ve said this many times before – churches don’t have volunteers – we have people doing ministry! When it comes to describing things that you all do in the name of your faith it isn’t just volunteering, it’s ministry! And it’s not ministry just because you’re doing it inspired by Jesus; it’s ministry because these things you do show who God is!
Each person is given something to do that shows who God is!
YOU are given something to do that shows who God is!
The things you do reveal God’s loving Presence! That’s ministry!
YOU do that. All the time! That should strike you as both a great responsibility and a humbling privilege! Each of us is tapped on the shoulder by God and given something to do in the world that shows who God is. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and watch. Every one of us is in the game! Whatever your age or stage, whatever your life situation happens to be, you have a ministry. You!
But not every one of us has the same job. Obviously. That’s the variety part. We’re all gifted differently, because we’re all different. So what kinds of gifts are “spiritual”? Conveniently, Paul gives us a list.
It’s verses 8-10. As I go through the list I bet you can think of people in this community of faith who express and manifest these gifts. This is a marvellous church and the giftedness here, the expressions of ministry here and beyond here, are truly remarkable.
Things like the sharing of wisdom (wise counsel, clarity, insight), the sharing of knowledge (clear understanding), the gift of faith (simple trust), the gift of discernment, and gifts of healing (compassionate caring).
Then Paul mentions some gifts that might at first challenge us modern, rational, educated, scientific types. I’m talking about things like what Paul calls the working of miracles. The Greek words here literally mean “energizing powerful acts” or acts done beyond our own abilities because we draw on God’s power. I don’t know about you but I’ve found myself doing all kinds of things that on my own I probably never would’ve done, but I found a greater spiritual strength somewhere to do it. That is one way to think about working miracles!
Another of the contentious gifts is the gift of prophecy and proclamation. Prophecy doesn’t mean foretelling the future. It means having spiritual insight into God’s ways and communicating it to people in such a compelling way that it sounds like the very voice of God talking.
And, of course, there’s the most misunderstood and contentious gift of all – tongues and interpretation of tongues. Some denominations and churches use this gift as proof that you’re really a believer – which is kind of weird when the whole passage clearly says that different people get different gifts. For me, this gift made infinitely more sense when I heard it interpreted not as the ability to spontaneously speak foreign languages, but the ability to speak and communicate deeply and beyond mere language – the ability to speak right to the heart, to show who God is in such a profound way that language would seem to be transcended. That’s the gift of tongues! Every preacher prays fervently for that gift! So does every grandparent who gets asked a question about God!
1 Corinthians 12:11 – All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
Just as the Spirit chooses! That means we don’t get to choose – we’re chosen! We don’t get to look at the list and decide which gift we’d like the best. Many of us have become very accustomed to online shopping where we can just click a button and select what we want. God doesn’t work that way! And frankly, that’s good because if we only chose expressions of ministry that were easy or comfortable we’d never grow very much.
And then there’s another bunch of spiritual gifts that never get mentioned in the bible but are every bit as powerful, and every bit as faithful, and every bit as effective at showing who God is. Things like the gift of service, the gift of community, the gift of giving generously, the gift of listening, the gift of compassion.
Or how about the gift of welcoming, the gift of hospitality, the gift of praying for people, the gift of gardening at the church, the gift of running the dishwasher in the kitchen, the gift of stacking chairs, the gift of serving on a church committee!
You know what, this is an easy scripture to preach at Faith United. Y’all understand this intuitively, and embody it passionately. If Faith United was the church in Corinth, Paul would’ve had to write a very different letter. Hmm, I wonder what he’d say? Especially about this important topic of various spiritual gifts? Maybe he’d say this:
“Friends, about the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives, I know you want to live this to your fullest. I’ve seen it. You are a wonder! You are a blessing. And I know something else too. I know that you are frustrated – because so many of the ways you are gifted to serve and love in seem like they’re not available to you because of all the pandemic restrictions you’re experiencing. I know that some of you are at home desperately wishing you had something to do.
“I know you know that there are varieties of gifts or blessings, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services or ways to engage in ministry, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities one can faithfully engage in, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. But did you know this? There are also varieties of ways you can live out your gifts.
“If you used to be a stacker of chairs maybe you could look around for someone who needs a bit of physical labour.
If you used to be a washer of dishes maybe you could look around for a task that others may not want to do but you don’t mind.
If you used to be a chatterbox at coffee hour maybe you could pick up the church directory and make a few phone calls of care and connection.
If you used to be a quiet encourager maybe you could send a card of thanks or a note of good cheer to someone.
If you used to just be a friend to folks maybe you could arrange to go for a short walk outside with them on a nice day.
“Each and every person is given something to do that shows who God is! I know it’s frustrating to not be able to do what you used to do – and to just yearn for something to do. Just like we don’t get to choose our own gifts, we also don’t get to choose the times we live in. But we do get to choose how we live in them! And how we love in them!
And as we love, God’s Spirit will get worked into our lives ever more deeply. And that is the greatest spiritual gift of all!”