2nd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 21st, 2013
Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Christians in Corinth had a problem. Well, actually, they had lots of problems. All the time. If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, to misinterpret its meaning for the life of the community and the individual, Corinth found it. Consistently. Repeatedly. Corinth was Paul’s problem child, always trying and failing, consistently missing the point. Paul’s pattern was to found a church and then move on, keeping in touch with his congregations through letters, some of which now make up part of the New Testament. We know Paul wrote at least four letters to Corinth, though our Bibles contain only two. Four letters. To the best of our knowledge, that’s more letters than he wrote to any other congregation. And these weren’t short letters, either. No, each letter had many, many issues to deal with as Paul tried to keep the Corinthians on track.
There were divisions in the church in Corinth, caused by theology and gender and money and sex and eating habits and anything else you can think of. They cheated and sued one another at the drop of a hat. From what we can tell, they used the Gospel as an excuse for doing anything they wanted, no matter how destructive of themselves or others. They doubted the resurrection. They held grudges. They boasted in their own wisdom. They gave lip-service to God without following through. Their divisions and rivalries twisted their worship of God into a way for the powerful to have fun and exclude the powerless.
Paul addressed all these issues, and more. But while Paul sometimes gave practical advice of what to do and what not to do, what actions should and shouldn’t be taken, Paul realized that there was a deeper spiritual dimension to the Corinthians’ problems. They acted as they did because, on a fundamental level, they didn’t get what the grace of God given to them in Christ Jesus meant. They didn’t understand what was important about the gifts the Holy Spirit had given to them.
1 Corinthians chapter twelve starts off Paul’s explanation of the deeper things they’re missing. Chapter eleven ends with instructions on how to celebrate Communion the right way, with love and unity for the whole congregation. In chapter twelve, Paul starts talking more generally, about gifts the Spirit gives; in the second half of the chapter Paul will speak about how even with our different gifts we are all members of the body of Christ together. Chapter 13 is the climax of this section of the letter, the great love passage that we hear so often at weddings, in which Paul overflows with emotion in describing what love—the kind of love that will allow them to overcome their differences—truly is. Only the love of God and one another that will allow them to make right use of the gifts of the Spirit. Only the love of God and one another brings any meaning to their existence.
With that in mind, let’s turn to the section we read today. It’s about gifts, and unity. First off, Paul assures us that there is a clear way to tell if people are working with the Holy Spirit. The only way anyone can say that Jesus is Lord is through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Faith is a gift of the Spirit, in the midst of doubts and divisions. You can’t reason your way to a belief in Christ. And no matter how much you disagree with someone, if they believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, God is working within them. In other words, no matter if you disagree with them—even if they’re wrong on major issues like the ones that divided the church in Corinth—you can’t exclude them or ignore them. You can’t just wrap yourself in a comforting certainty that you’re right and they’re wrong so you can ignore or attack them.
I know there have been times when I have listened to a Christian I didn’t agree with and wanted to completely shut them up so no one could be led astray by how wrong they are. And they may have been wrong—but they still had the Holy Spirit in them. You can’t say: “I like that person, and I like how they think and what they do, so they must be real Christians working with the Spirit. But that person over there, I really think he’s a jerk and he’s wrong about everything and so therefore he must not really be a Christian.” No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. And if they have the Holy Spirit, they are members of the body of Christ and of the community. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We may not like them, but we do have to love them, and treat them always as the children of God they are.
Next, Paul turns to the gifts given by the Spirit. And they’re all different! Nobody gets exactly the same gift as anybody else, but they’re all important. Paul only describes general categories; the Spirits gifts are far more wide-ranging than the few examples that Paul gives. The ability to preach is a gift of the Spirit; so is the ability to teach. Healing, faith, wisdom and knowledge, all of these and more are gifts of the Spirit. In some people they’re easy to spot: the people who lead worship, who teach Sunday School and lead the women’s group and the youth group, it’s easy to see and value the gifts the Spirit has given them. But those aren’t the only gifts in the congregation, and the ones who are already in leadership aren’t the only ones with the gifts of the Spirit.
Every single person here today has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit. Every single person here, no exceptions. If you believe that Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit dwells within you, and the Spirit never comes empty-handed. But here in American churches, we don’t tend to be very good at identifying the gifts the Spirit gives. We think as if the pastors, the teachers, the leaders are the only people who have gifts. Often times, we don’t even look to see what gifts are in our congregation and our community, or in ourselves. If there’s a hole that needs to be filled, a job that needs to be done, we take any warm body we can guilt into filling it and shove them into it. Instead of trusting that the Spirit will give the gifts needed for ministry, we focus on plugging holes.
Sometimes we acknowledge the gifts, but don’t use them. We think we’re too busy. We fill our lives with all kinds of activities and entertainment, and use that as an excuse to ignore the gifts God has given us. Now, these things we choose to focus on, our activities and our entertainments, aren’t bad in and of themselves. Many times they are a blessing for us. But they become harmful if we treat them as if they’re more important than our calling as Christians. They can be corrosive to ourselves and our community if we let them draw us away from God. We are not given gifts to let them sit on the shelf. We are given gifts so that we can use them.
One last thing. These gifts the Spirit gives are not primarily for the blessing of any one individual. Paul says that the Spirit is given to each for the common good. Everyone comes to the table with different gifts in different strengths—no one person can do it all, and no one person should do it all. Each and every person has something to contribute, something that God is calling them to do in our life and ministry together. We minister to one another for the sake of the Gospel, not for the glorification of any individual.
It’s almost time for the annual meeting. As we look back on the year that has just passed, and look towards the year to come, ask yourself what gifts God has given you for ministry. How can you share those gifts with the congregation and the community? May we be inspired to share our gifts, this year and always, so that together we can be the Body of Christ in the world, full of love for God and each other.