I Corinthians 12:1-11 July 1, 2012
The Spirit of God, One and the Same
During the summer after I graduated from high school, I got a job at a place called “The Appliance Barn.”
As the name suggests, it was an appliance store where we sold and serviced all kinds of appliances. I mostly worked in ‘the back’ where we did a lot of the maintenance on used machines, and we’d sometimes go out on a service call.
I loved working there. I learned a lot about how to fix washers, dryers, stoves, microwaves, all kinds of stuff like that. It was a great job.
I basically worked alongside an older guy who was showing me the ropes.
One day, he invited me to his church for a special evening service they were having.
He was an interesting guy, and I was open to experiencing and learning about ‘spiritual things’, so I went.
After we got to the church, I found out that he was Pentecostal…with a capital “P”.
Once the service started, the guy I worked with every day was transformed before my eyes.
He was normally very calm and mild-mannered.
But at some point during the service he put his hands in the air and they stayed there.
Then he started to jump in place. His eyes were closed and his head was turned towards the ceiling as he jumped with his hands high in the air, and something like words started coming out of his mouth in a tone that was just above a whisper.
At first I thought he was just praying like normal and that I couldn’t understand because he was just talking so low. But enough other people were doing similar things that I started trying to listen to what they were saying…and I was pretty sure that whatever language they were speaking, it wasn’t English.
This was my first exposure to “speaking in tongues”. It made me uncomfortable.
It felt like barely controlled chaos.
It was quite unsettling, but since I was interested in “spiritual things”, I tried my best to get out of the way of whatever was happening.
I was probably one of the few people in the room who weren’t jumping or speaking in tongues…so afterwards, a group of people (including my co-worker) gathered around me, and wanted to lay hands on me to get me to receive the gift of speaking in tongues. I got the impression that they thought there was something wrong with me.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never had a whole lot of interest in that particular gift…and I’ve never been especially comfortable with groups of strangers surrounding me for any reason.
But in that service, I let myself be prayed for because I felt this pressure…this almost unwritten belief…that you aren’t really a Christian unless you speak in tongues.
But I was young, and in Paul’s language, I was ignorant.
I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t know if I should believe this idea that all Christians should speak in tongues…so I let them do their thing (and just to let you know, I never have spoken in tongues…and I’m fine with that).
So, I’ll just admit it. Those experiences left a bad taste in my mouth towards Pentecostals.
But what’s worse is, those experiences corrupted my understanding of ‘spiritual things’, or the kinds of things we’ve come to think of as “spiritual gifts”.
See, there’s a noteworthy thing going on in the greek here. If you look at your Bible, you’ll probably see that chapter 12 in Corinthians begins with the words “Now about spiritual gifts”…and probably that’s the first part of a section that’s labeled “Spiritual gifts” in your Bible. (At least that’s how it is in the NRSV and the NIV; two really popular translations).
And those are good translations…don’t hear me wrong.
But that word “gifts” in verse 1 in our English Bibles; it doesn’t appear in the original Greek manuscripts.
Lots of commentators agree that a better translation of that first verse would be “Now about spiritual things”…because the word that Paul likes to use for “gifts”… “Charisma” doesn’t show up until later, in verse 4.
I’m not saying that the translators added anything to the text…just that there are differences of opinions on how to best interpret that Greek phrase so it makes sense in English.
Greek and English play by different rules.
All I’m trying to say, is that you could just as easily interpret chapter 12 verse 1 as saying “Now about spiritual things…” instead of “now about spiritual gifts”.
So what, right?
That stuff isn’t that interesting.
You didn’t come here this morning for a lesson in Greek syntax.
But I think it’s pretty important for how we take the rest of what Paul says. Spiritual things, and spiritual gifts, are two pretty different concepts. One is a pretty general term; the other is more specific.
After all, we all know about spiritual things, right?
There’s a universal human curiosity about “spiritual things”…
Most of us are at least familiar with the idea of “retreating”, taking some time away to pursue ‘spiritual things’ on our own, or with a group of people.
At least one big reason I hope most of you are here this morning is because of an interest you have in “spiritual things”.
I can think of examples of “spiritual things” that have ended tragically….does anyone else remember the Heaven’s Gate group who committed mass suicide in 1997? They were hoping to spiritually board an alien spaceship they believed was trailing the Hail-Bopp comet.
Or can you remember the debacle in Waco Texas, when a standoff between the Branch Davidians and the federal government ended in the death of 79 cult members back in 1993?
Most of us can probably bring to mind various stories about cults led by fanatical leaders who take advantage of people under the guise of knowing and experiencing ‘spiritual things’.
Spiritual things are everywhere; as they have been from the beginning of time.
And it is these spiritual things that Paul doesn’t want his readers to be ignorant of.
See, what was happening in Corinth at the time was that there were people in the church who felt like certain “spiritual gifts” were more important than others. It was like, maybe they thought that people who spoke in tongues really had the favor of God, while people who didn’t speak in tongues maybe weren’t quite as important.
That thinking led to the formation of a kind of hierarchy within the church, where certain people enjoyed a higher status, with more power and more respect given to them because of certain gifts they had, and other people were valued less in the church because they didn’t exhibit those same gifts.
See…what was happening in Corinth was similar to what was happening that night at the church service I attended with my co-worker.
And what was happening that night is similar to what happens here every Sunday.
And what happens here every Sunday is repeated every Sunday all over the county, the state, and the country when Christians gather together in the place they call ‘church’.
That is, we make judgments about who’s in and out, who’s close to God and who’s not, who we can learn from, and who we can safely ignore.
We create this pecking order based on our past experience, our education, and our status. These things are hardly “Christian”, or “biblical” benchmarks.
We are first and foremost children of God! and until we recognize that, we have no business seeking gifts from the Father, or casting our judgments upon His other children.
The task of discernment is more than a knee-jerk reaction composed in the vacuum of our individual experiences.
One and the same Spirit has instilled within each one of us, something like a gift.
But when we think of a ‘gift’, we tend to think of ownership. Something that’s given as a gift becomes our property…at Christmas or at a birthday party, the gifts that are given are given freely, and the ties to the giver are pretty much cut.
The recipient is free to do with the gift as they choose.
It’s not like that with God’s gifts.
Maybe we can think of them more as ‘callings’…that is, a lifestyle or vocation that becomes more clear and more fitting the more we exercise it within the community of God’s people that we have formed a covenant with, who we are accountable to, who know us as they are known by us.
Each calling contributes to the common good, as Paul says in verse 7.
See, then the conversation gets away from who has what gift, and it becomes more about creating opportunities for these callings to be exercised.
What’s your calling? What’s your gift?
The Spirit is at work within you, within each of us.
Some of the best advice we ever got concerning these issues of “gifts” and “calling” was from the campus pastor at EMU. The advice was to grab hold of your calling with both hands–to pursue it–and to never let it go.
These were needed words at an important time.
We’re used to thinking of ‘calling’ and ‘gifts’, and even the ‘Holy Spirit” itself, as entities that descend from heaven and begin enriching our lives once they’re accepted.
We’re used to thinking of “gifts” as objects: either we have them or we don’t. We can ask for them, receive them, and give them away.
I don’t think that’s what Paul (or God) ever had in mind!
If you want to speak by the power of the Holy Spirit, repeat after me: “Jesus is Lord!”
It really is that simple!
The Holy spirit of God makes that proclamation! It’s easy enough to say with our lips–but the Holy Spirit is also what makes it possible to say it with our lives! That’s what he means when he talks about varieties of gifts, services, and activities, but the same Spirit, Lord, and God who activates all of them in everyone!
I’d like to close with some words from 1 Peter.
“Therefore, above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever.
Amen. (1 Peter 4:8-11)