1 Corinthians 12:1–11 (NRSV)
12 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
Prior to every major movement or resurgence of the Church there has been a significant cultural shift within the community. During the first great schism around 1000 AD when the Eastern and Western churches became the Orthodox and Catholic churches there was a great deal of internal politics within the Empire. It seems long ago, but the issues that caused that divide are still just as fresh today as they were a thousand years ago. With that being said within the church at that time there were also significant movements that propelled it into the future even though the Empire and the church with it was divided. This time of great trail gave us the great spiritual works of the desert fathers, it gave us the monastic movements, and ultimately it refocused the church on the Spirit where so many were focusing on civics.
Fast forward to the reformation approximately four to five hundred years later there was another massive cultural shift. The Roman Empire had fallen, and the church for centuries was the dominate political force in Europe. The church engaged in war attempting to push back the encroaching Muslim influence, they promoted inquisitions that demanded allegiance to whatever the bishops said was right, and after this occurred for centuries people slowly began to reevaluate their faith. Universities emerged and slowly the secular leaders began to gain greater influence over the people. The church seemed to be at its weakest point and then the Protestant Reformation began. We largely see this only from the eyes of those that left the Roman Church, but even within the Church of Rome reforms occurred, there was a greater focus on our individual place within the greater kingdom. Churches and religious orders emerged throughout and the Kingdom of God continued.
Here we are today approximately one thousand years after the first major divide, and around five hundred years from the second. And all around us we see great cultural pressures that seem to be waging war within the church. We might think the church is at its weakest point that our nations are at the brink of collapse but I have often said that this is just the beginning of something greater. I bring this all up again because I have great faith in our God, I have seen Him do amazing things in the lives of those that seek to follow His ways. I have full confidence that God is not finished yet.
There are cycles within history, cycles within cultures, and cycles within the church. With each generation that passes through the journey of time different issues within the human experience become a focal point and we begin to work and minister through them until the issue seems to be eradicated. We look at our world today and we see chaos but it is much better than it was in ancient times. With each turning of the cycles there is improvement and then a revisiting of seemingly new struggles.
The first letter to the Corinthians is a letter that was written to a church that had been passing through one of those cycles and in many ways we are revisiting some of the same issues today that affected that church of ancient days. I find it comforting to know that those ancient saints struggled with issue of mass litigation, intimacy, and spirituality in ways that are so similar to our timeframe. I find it comforting because the church survived and thrived through the ordeal which gives us great hope for today. The things they dealt with in that church were scandalous, yet Paul did not give up on them, and God did not give up on them.
Today’s passage is one that deals primarily with spirituality, or the inner workings of the church. So often we are lead to believe that the ancient church was united on all things spiritual, but there were just as many if not more divisions and ideals back then as there are today. During the time this letter was penned there was not one central church meeting house that everyone gathered at, but it was a collection of many small groups that met where ever they could. These meeting places might be comfortable like a great estate or down in burial chambers, they would gather where they could because their gatherings were seen as illegal. They met to worship, they prayed, and they ministered and their numbers grew. As their numbers grew they would branch off and form new meeting, and find new places to meet. The church was not a building but it was people, they were one body though they met all across the city. It is important to keep that in mind when we read many scriptural texts. Often we view the texts through our own cultural mindset we look at things then through our own experiences and we get trapped.
This letter that Paul wrote to the people of this city is often seen as a reply to a letter or letters that we written to him. Paul is responding to situations that were mentioned, questions that were asked, and they are seeking advice on how to proceed. The twelfth chapter is a response to the mysteries of the church, the graces and gifts that God entrusted them to use within their community.
The Spirit. We often think of the Holy Spirit as being the personality of the triune God that only came after the day of Pentecost but just as Jesus had a preexistence so did the Spirit. The problem is that prior to the Day of Pentecost the Spirit of God was a fearful thing. It was not something that could be controlled and would often be seen as the angel of death, especially if you were the first born of Egyptian descent. This is why Jesus said that the Spirit was like the wind. Something that is unknowable and untamable. But the Spirit can be observed.
One of the greatest things about Jesus is that He taught us to live in the presence of God. He showed us the Holy Rhythm of life: worship, prayer, and service. This lifestyle allows us to observe the Spirit of God, to chase and to follow what the ancient Celtic Christians described as the wild goose. Paul is telling the people of Corinth about this wind, this wild goose and letting them know just a bit about the personality of the allusive Spirit of God. The first thing he speaks about is that the Spirit is full of grace. “Now concerning spiritual gifts…I do not want you to be uninformed.” Often we can get hung up or bogged down by the terminology: Spiritual Gifts. What we translate as Spiritual Gifts could also be companions of the wind, circumstances, cause, experience, or even followers. I bring this up because we can get our attention drawn to an aspect of this phrase that maybe should not be the focus. The word gift in this verse simply means what comes with the Spirit. The Spirit of God is what we are to be focused on not the gifts.
Paul then proceeds to speak about the life the Corinthian people had before they became followers of Christ. Easily enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. The people of Corinth were focusing on the gift. Paul was concerned that the people of Corinth were getting their attention drawn away from the truth by a show. Just as the ancient Egyptian magicians could mimic the signs of Moses there were some within the church that would put on a show that would mimic the wake brought about by the wind of the Spirit of God. Do you sense the concern that Paul has at this moment? There are wolves prowling around among the sheep. They are gaining authority and influence among the brothers and sisters of the church yet did not know the one whom they are supposed to be following.
Paul then says, “I want you to understand…” I want you to see the truth or the reality of the situation. No one can truly have any of the gifts if they do not truly know Jesus and are observing and following the patterns created by the Spirit.
So let us take a step back and again consider the cyclical nature of the human experience. The pattern of wake of our history which has been cut through time and space since the creation of the world. A pattern, something that can be observed. Something that can be used to gain understanding as we approach the unknown future. This is also something that God can and will use to help us minister to those around us as we participate in the Kingdom of God. Patterns of cultural shifts and progression to something greater. Friends, God is still very much at work in the world around us if we are willing to look.
We look out across our cultural landscape and we make observations that we live among godless people that reject every aspect of Christ. You would be right, but I ask a simple question why do they reject? You can give me all the theological arguments you want but I can answer that with a simple statement: we have been lead away from the truth and what they see is not Christ but a manipulated image of Christ that has been emptied of true power. What we are observing is something that has happened countless times throughout our history, the church is weakened because we have turned our eyes from Christ and have looked instead to the mimics who use illusion to boggle our minds.
Is there real power to be had? Absolutely. There are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit, there are a variety of services but the same Lord, and there are a variety of activities but the same God who activates all of them in everyone. The power is not in us but in God who allows those companions of the wind to dwell with us for the common good. Some have wisdom, some have knowledge, some have faith, some have healing, to some the ability to work miracles, to another prophecy, to another discernment of Spirits, and another various tongues and interpretation of tongues. All of this is all around us available to be used, all of this is here in this room and out on the streets we walk and drive every day. But they are not magic. They are not things we can summon with the right words or ceremonies.
We have all these things when we observe and follow the Spirit. Paul says that all these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
Paul wants us to understand something very important. It is not about the gift it is about following the Spirit. No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Do we really know what that means? Jesus is Lord means that we devote everything to Him. Every activity, every possession, every breath is given to Jesus. To be able to say Jesus is Lord we must step back and entrust everything to Him, without holding anything back. We only have the ability to do this if we are observers of the Spirit. That is the gift of faith. What happens after that? To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
If we say Jesus is Lord, everything about us should change, we should become disciples or students of His life and lifestyle. Everything about Jesus was focused on loving God through worship, embracing the Holy Spirit in prayer, and listening to that Spirit and living the love of God with others for the common good. The gifts, the companions, or experience of the Spirit come through that holy rhythm when we personally step back and let Jesus be Lord. When we are brave enough to let go of control and let the Spirit direct our paths as we observe and listen in prayer. When we walk out of this meeting house and allow the Spirit to become active in our lives we will begin to see grace being distributed through us, for the common good.
Friends, we are in one of those cyclical moments of history where the Church is about to explode again in the world around us. An age where God will draw many to Him and His Kingdom will be glorified on Earth as it is in Heaven. But will we see it or will our eyes be diverted from the truth? I have seen God do amazing things. I have also seen mimics. I have seen gifts activated and distributed to people at a moment because there was a need. I have seen much…but you know something more impressive everything that I have seen has been done through people that would not have said they did anything. Most were totally unaware that what they did at that moment had any real value. That is the thing about the gifts they are distributed to those at the right place at the right time, they are activated when the Spirit chooses. Our part is to follow and to be where we need to be.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends let us each just step back and examine our lives. Consider the people that we encountered along the journey of life that brought us to this point how did God use them? Consider the people we have encountered and our responses to them? And let us truly consider the statement fully of Jesus is Lord and what that means for us and to those around us if we were to believe it completely.