Spiritual gifts and in particular tongues, have been the source of division and controversy in the Church, they were at Corinth and again over the last fifty or so years have been with the rise of the Pentecostal movement and within mainline churches the Charismatic movement. Sadly, some people have been put off the idea of spiritual gifts by the excesses and emotionalism that they may have experienced in these movements. The very excesses that Paul addresses in his letter.
Tongues have been the focus of two extremes, being written off, tongues are no longer for today, and written large, you’re not a real Christian unless you speak in tongues. They have been seen as the sign of being a spiritual fruitcake or being spiritually superior, mixing up giftedness with maturity. It is this last point that is at the centre of the section of Paul’s letter we are starting to look at today.
Church has been likened to a rugby match where thirty people, or in the modern era with reserves forty six people in desperate need of rest are running round being watched by thirty thousand people in desperate need of exercise. When it comes to gifts of the Holy Spirit, churches have often gone looking for a gifted person to lead them and do the ministry, almost turning church into a consumer product. Whereas Pauls teaching here is that we are a gifted people, all given different gifts by the same spirit for the common good.
We are working our way through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to see how they and we as a diverse group of people from different cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic groupings, and with different expectations, understandings, backgrounds and yes theologies can come together and be the new people of God, be one in Christ. In the section of this letter in chapters 12-14 we are looking at how we are empowered by the spirit with a diversity of gifts to be used in unity to be that people.
Paul had been working his way through issues to do with public worship, a couple of weeks ago we looked at how we are to express that there is neither male nor female in Christ, that women and men were toparticipate fully in the worship life of the church as equals. That together we bring the fullness of the image of God in humanity to worship the fullness of God. Last week we looked at the fact that there was neither rich or poor, salveor free in Christ and how that was to be practically worked out in love at theLord’s Supper. And with the words ‘now about’ Paul moves on to talk about spiritual gifts or things.
With those words “now about” like with Food sacrificed to idols and marriage Paul is dealing with an issue that the church themselves had bought up with him in a letter that we do not have. To fully understand this passage we have to understand the underlying problem. It seems to be that at Corinth the spiritual ones saw the manifestation of the gift of tongues as a sign of their maturity in Christ. That they had arrived. In public worship it was used by some in a manner that was over the top and disruptive. That people tried to assert that they were spiritual by babbling away, which even though it was a legitimate gift made the worship unintelligible to the majority and disorderly. Paul writes to correct this misunderstanding.
My wife Kris is studying math and physics at University at the moment and when she tackles a question in an assignment she has to go back to prove things from first principles: The basic laws of Math and Physics. Paul does the same thing with the issue of spiritual gifts. He takes it back to our understanding of God and then our understanding of the church as the body of Christ. Then in a similar way to how he deals with the other issues we have a theological interlude, Paul gives this most profound exposition of the Christian understanding of love, to say that the Gifts are to be exercised in that context before getting down to deal with practical applications for public worship. This is good for us because just as Paul did not want the brothers and sisters in Corinth to be uninformed, we too need to have a correct understanding of the spiritual gifts that God has given to the whole Church for the common good.
Paul starts by differentiating between how Pagans would see spiritual manifestations and the Christian understanding of spiritual gifts. Most of the Church at Corinth would have come from a pagan background it formed their thinking and worldview. In pagan worship there were weird spiritual manifestations. Be it induced because of physical factors, an ecstasy bought about by dance and music and wining and dining. Or as Paul had already pointed out idol worship was the locus for demonic activity. The manifestations, utterances or babbling or whatever, were themselves seen as a sign of the reality of the idol being worshipped. Paul says for Christians it is different, spiritual things and manifestations need to be judged by their content and the way in which they are bought forward rather than simply because they seem spiritual. Our God, unlike the mute idols is able to speak to and through his people, God who is not a dead lump of stone or wood is able to move through his people. The test of these utterances is if they are Christ honouring.
It’s only by the Holy Spirit that people can confess “Jesus is Lord”. We might say well those three words are easy to say but we forget that in the first century they were a strong confession that went against the whole of Pagan and Roman and Jewish thinking. For the Pagan’s there were many lords, for the Romans, Caesar is Lord, and to proclaim a convicted revolutionary who had been crucified is Lord is making a bold political statement about the Kingdom of God. For the Jews such a declaration was also anathema, it was affirming that Jesus was the messiah. It was and is a confession that changes everything about how we live.
Paul then spends the next two paragraphs talking about the fact that God gives a diversity of gifts to the church to be used in unity. The main reason behind this may be that the Corinthians had fixated on the more spectacular gifts and specifically tongues. But Pauls says the whole of who God is is involved in enabling and empowering us to be the people of God.
In v5-6 we have what is arguably the earliest Trinitarian formula in the New Testament. Paul shows that diversity and unity is a part of the nature of the Godhead. More than that the whole of the God head is involved and engaged in empowering us to be God’s people. There are many different gifts but they are given by the same spirit. This is taken up later again and again as Paul demonstrates the different gifts. The emphasis all th way through that list is on the giver, not that they are possessions of a person. There are many services but One Lord. To a group that saw spirit gifts as a sign of maturity and status, Paul reminds them that these gifts are given for service, that to confess “Jesus is Lord” is to acknowledge a crucified King who came not to be served but to serve. Finally that there are different kinds of workings, but they are all the work of God in each believer.
To limit God to a specific way of acting or moving does not do justice to our understanding of who God is. God is free to act as God chooses and God is gracious is giving to all believers the gifts that we need.
Paul goes on to state that the gifts are given for the common good. They are not to show someone is spiritual or mature, how can they, when they are given by grace and when we need each other’s gifts to be the body of Christ and function as a Church. Which we’ll pick up more on next week. The point of the gifts is to build up the body of Christ. One of my critiques of the charismatic movement is that like the Corinthians we got caught up in the manifestations of the spirit rather than the manifesto of the spirit: the common Good and what we’ll look at next week embodying Christ in the world. Like in Corinth it was easy to become focused on my gifts, sort of like a Christian self-actualisation rather than on serving others. In always laugh about a Christmas dinner we ran down in Rotorua. A women from another church came along to observe what we were doing and asked if she could help, and when someone suggested the dishes might be a good place to start she relied,”oh that’s not my gifting’.
Paul demonstrates the diversity of Gifts and the Unity of who gives them by then giving a list of seven different manifestations of the Spirit. Much has been made of this list and others to try and have a definitive list of the ways that the Spirit moves through his people, and there are several lists in Paul’s letters which cover different aspects of the life of the church. The point with this list is that Paul shows that tongues which he leaves till last are not the only ones. God moves in different ways. All the way through this list the affirmation is different gifts but the same God who gives them. Different gifts given as needed not signs of maturity or merit rather for service and the common Good. One of the Corinthians catch phrases was that they were wise, Paul starts out here by acknowledging that words of wisdom, and knowledge are a gracious gift from God. It is the spirit that enables someone to have insight and understanding of the scripture, it is the spirit that gives us insight to different situations. These have been seen as gifts of instruction.
The second set of gifts mentioned has often been defined as the gifts of power: Faith, healings, and preforming miracles. Faith here is seen not like the faith we need to come to salvation in Christ but rather a special spirit given faith to believe that God can act in a certain situation. Gordon fee likes it to ‘the faith that can move mountains’. It’s interesting to note that it is healings in the plural, that the gift to heal is not simply given to a person, we don’t have faith healers, but rather it is god who by his spirit graciously heals, through people who pray. Miracles covers the other acts of power outside of healing. As we will see when we look at the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ, Gordon fee notes that faith is bracketed with these two gifts because again we need each other.
The last grouping has been called the gifts of utterance. That God choses to speak to us. Gifts is listed last with a gift that is equally needed to make the gift of tongue of use to the whole church, that of giving an interpretation of it. If it is for the common Good we need to know what is being said. People have wondered why the gift of discerning spirits is placed here and Godron fee ses that it is here because it is linked with the gift of prophecy, that is making the timeless word of God timely to the present situation. Because while people may give what they think is an inspired word, it is then up to the congregation to discern what that what is being said is from God. So we need the spirits help to do that.
So how does this impact on us today?
It is the same for us today, just as the Corinthians were a product of their culture we are products of our own worldview. It is easy to see spiritual gifts through those eyes. We are unsure of what is and isn’t real when it comes to spiritual things. We can write everything off as emotionalism or attribute it to physical causes. It’s interesting when I am praying in tongues I find myself often saying this is not possible. We can think of God in terms of our materialistic worldview, limiting how God speaks and Acts, or we go to the other extreme of seeing every manifestation as being of God. There are a lot that are not. In the end we need to have the same basic understanding and ability to discern God moving and speaking as Paul gives the Corinthians.
Secondly, God speaks and moves through his people. He is not a mute idol. God chooses to minister to others through you and I, in the power of the Holy Spirit. God gives us different ways to do that, and other lists of gifts include such things as acts of service, administration, mercy. Whereas the catch cry of the reformation with its rediscovery of the salvation by grace through faith was “a priesthood of all believers”, we all have equal access to God, as we rediscovered the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst’s the catch cry is ‘a ministry of all believers”. Our response is often who am I? I’m not super spiritual. It’s interesting that that who am I cry in on the lips of the people in the Old Testament that God chose to use… Moses… Gideon… Isaiah… Jeremiah to name a few and the response is similar to what Paul is focusing on in what we looked at today. It’s not who we are, and by the way our main identity is in Christ, it is who God is and God’s gracious choice to give his gifts to whom he pleases for the common good. In fact this passage goes against Gifts being a sign of being spiritual, to being given to serve.
Finally, We are the spirited people of God and we need to be aware that that means God wants to and is able to work through us all for the common good. That God gives us all gifts to be used so we as a church can function, so that we might be able to witness to Jesus Christ. As we’ll see next week it calls us all to be willing to exercise our gifts to do our part in the body of Christ. We need each other, I need you and your gifts. Church is not a consumer product, and it’s not a spectator event, it’s a team sports. It’s not a one man show or even the efforts of a small ensemble cast its all of us.
It’s all of us… empowered in so many different ways to serve
It's all of us... filled by the same Holy Spirit. the Paraclete who comes alongside.
It’s all of us … gifted by the one spirit for the common Good.