Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 17, 2016
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 Commentary
All four of the lectionary readings for this second Sunday after Epiphany share a similar emphasis on God’s abundant grace to his people. Psalm 36 sings God’s praise for his love and power poured out on his people. Using gorgeous language Isaiah 62 promises the exiles that their God will restore them to their former beauty and glory. In John 2 Jesus miraculously turns water into wine at a wedding, but it’s not just that transformation that shows the glory of Jesus for the first time. It’s the amazing quality and sheer abundance of the wine; six stone jars holding 20-30 gallons are all turned into $300 a bottle wine. God’s grace flows in giddy abundance. And here in I Corinthians 12 Paul reminds the Corinthians that God’s grace has produced a rich diversity of gifts among them, such that everyone who calls Jesus Lord has some special grace with which to serve him.
But instead of celebrating the abundant grace of God and using those gifts for the common good, the Corinthians are in competition, comparing their gifts to each other. Like heroes in classic Greek tragedy, their strength was their weakness. From the beginning of this letter, Paul has been correcting this contentious congregation. They argued about which preacher was better (1:10-15). They couldn’t agree about how to treat open sexual immorality in the congregation (chapter 5). They were taking each other to court over unresolved issues (chapter 6:1-11) and they couldn’t agree about the proper exercise of Christian freedom (6:12-20). That argument extended to marriage, food sacrificed to idols, worship practices, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the doctrine of the Resurrection. They fought about nearly every aspect of the church’s life.
Now we discover that the argument had spilled over into the area of spiritual gifts. Indeed, it is possible that their giftedness was the root of the problem. They were so gifted that each one felt like an expert, especially those who had been blessed with gifts that were more ostentatious and obviously supernatural, like the gifts of wisdom and knowledge and speaking in tongues. Like the citizens of Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, “all the children (of God) were above average.”
Apparently the leaders of the Corinthian church had written a letter to Paul asking for his help on a number of these disputes, as indicated by Paul’s introduction to those subjects, “Now about….” So, here he writes, “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.” That’s an interesting way to put it. “I do not want you to be ignorant.” Is that a subtle put down? You are ignorant. God has blessed you with all these gifts and you are comparing your gifts with boastful claims to superiority, but you are in reality ignorant about those gifts. So let me correct your ignorance.
But before actually talking about spiritual gifts, he reminds them of the Spirit’s role in their conversions. In verse 2, he opens with “You know….” You are ignorant about spiritual gifts, but you know this—“that when you were pagans somehow or other you were influenced and led astray by mute idols.” Paganism is a mystery, because those gods were mute. This, of course, was a common Jewish criticism of pagan gods; they can’t see, they can’t hear, they can’t move, they can’t speak. Unlike the God of Israel. Unlike the Holy Spirit. “Therefore, I tell you (in Greek, “I make known to you”)….” What follows emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in their confession of faith. The Spirit would never lead someone to say, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the power of the Spirit. Unless the Spirit spoke those words into or along with or through the former pagan, none of you would now be a Christian. In other words, you can’t take any credit for the fact that you now serve the living God. You can’t even brag about your confession of faith, because that ultimately came from the Holy Spirit.
So that is triply true of your spiritual gifts. Though his main focus here is on the Holy Spirit, Paul takes pains in verses 4-6 to root the rich diversity of spiritual gifts in the rich diversity of the Triune God. You people want to fight about which gift is best? Listen, no matter what you call your gifts and no matter how you use them, all of your gifts come from the One God who is three persons. Three times Paul uses the same word to describe the superabundance of gifts (diairesis, diversity). “There are a diversity of gifts, of service, of working, but they all come from the same God who is Spirit, Lord, and (implied) Father.”
That should have settled the issue, but knowing that he is dealing with a stubbornly contentious bunch, Paul drives the message home even harder with verses 7-11. He lists 9 gifts that were clearly in evidence at Corinth, though the list cannot be exhaustive. The New Testament names 20 gifts, but even that is probably representative. His point is not to limit the list of legitimate gifts, but to remind them that all of them come from “the same Spirit,” a phrase he repeats over and over. If each one comes from the same Spirit who brought you to faith in Christ, how can you brag about your gift?
I won’t say much about the gifts because Paul really doesn’t say much. He doesn’t tell us, for example, how “wisdom” and “knowledge” differ. And he doesn’t go into detail about how the gift of faith given to some differs from the gift of faith given to all Christians (as in verse 3). Apparently the Corinthians who exercised these gifts knew what he was talking about. I do have one observation, however. The gifts that were most highly valued in Corinth are listed at the end– the gift of speaking in tongues and interpreting those tongues. That place in the list doesn’t mean those gifts are unimportant or illegitimate; they, too, have been given by the same Spirit. But they aren’t the most important either. In fact, says Paul in I Corinthians 14:1, if you want to do any ranking, the gift of prophecy (preaching the Word authoritatively?) should top the list. But the point here is not ranking; it is the common source.
And the common good. Verse 7 is the theme verse of this pericope. “Now to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” I’ll say a word about that word “manifestation” in a moment, but now let’s focus on “the common good.” Here’s a wonderful place to anchor a sermon on this text. Paul is clearly referring to the common good of the church. Forget your competition and use your gift for the community of faith. But I’d like to suggest that we shouldn’t define “common good” so narrowly. When we focus on the church exclusively in our exercise of our Spirit given gifts, Jesus remains invisible and apparently impotent to do anything about the sorrow that engulfs this dark world.
Howard Snyder, in his landmark, The Problem of Wineskins, wrote, “The church’s task is not to keep Christians off the streets, but to send them out equipped for Kingdom tasks.” The problem is that the church isn’t up the job. On our own, in our own strength and wisdom, even the most dedicated of us aren’t able to do those Kingdom tasks. It’s all too much for us, which is exactly why God sent his Son and why the Father and the Son sent the Spirit.
That’s why verse 7 is genuinely good news. On this second Sunday of the Epiphany season, let us encourage our people to do the good they are already equipped to do. Everyone is good at something that can contribute to the common good. Years ago I learned an important lesson from Red Auerbach, the legendary coach of the Boston Celtics basketball team. He had a reputation for being able to use older stars effectively after they had passed their prime. His secret? He sat down with these over the hillers and explained what he expected each player to contribute to the team. “We have a real need here and you are capable of filling it. If you will focus on what you do well, instead of what you once could do, you can help this team a lot.”
We don’t have to be superstars to serve God. As the old coach said, “We have a real need here and you are capable of filling it.” You are capable, says our Lord, because “to each the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” That’s the good news of the Kingdom of God, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” (Garrison Keillor again.)
Just two more notes on which you might focus as you preach this text. One is a grace note, a sovereign grace note. As he concludes this remonstrating word to competitive Christians, Paul reminds them that the abundance they experience is all of grace. Not only are “all these the work of one and the same Spirit (the main point already forcefully made),” but also “he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” That last word is bouletai in the Greek, a word that Paul uses elsewhere to refer to God’s sovereign choosing, his eternal counsel, his eternal plan. Think of that complicated sentence in Ephesians 1:11. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” By using that heavy word here, Paul is saying that the gifts we’re received were the free gift of God’s grace. We didn’t deserve them. We didn’t receive them because we did something right. Yes, we can ask for them. We can pursue spiritual disciplines. And we should develop the gifts we have been given. But it is the Spirit who gives the gift of prophecy or leadership or healing or tongues. So let us humbly receive and faithful use them for the common good.
In that way Christ will become visible in this dark world. Here we can focus on that word in verse 7, manifestation. No, it’s not the word epiphaneia; it’s phanerosis, which conveys the same idea. There is only one place the splendor of the Lord Jesus is clearly displayed in the world today, and that is the church, when it uses those Spirit given gifts “for the common good.” Let us be clear and forceful about this with our congregations and with ourselves. The fruit of the Spirit matters more than the gifts (ala I Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5). The fruit of the Spirit becomes most visible when the church uses the gifts of the Spirit for the common good. Then Jesus becomes visible. When the church hoards its gifts or uses them only for self-preservation or personal glory, Jesus will remain hidden from view. The world will have nothing good to say about him or his body. And Epiphany will be only one day on the church calendar, rather than an everyday occurrence in the life of a dark world.
I know I have used this illustration before, but it is too apt to ignore in the light of those last words above. In his moving book, Father Joe, Tony Hendra tells the story of how a simple Benedictine monk living on a tiny island off the coast of England saved Hendra’s soul. Hendra makes his living as a satirist: he was editor in chief of Spy, the original editor of The National Lampoon, and a college classmate of Monty Python members John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
As a teenager, Hendra was sent to Father Joe’s monastic retreat after being caught in an affair with a married woman. For the next several decades, Father Joe was the primary source of friendship, family, and faith for the cynical Hendra. Hendra was so touched by Father Joe that he even considered joining the monastery himself, but he eventually moved away to Hollywood where he adopted a “celebrity lifestyle.”
But the influence of Father Joe was always with Hendra, a constant light in the darkness. “Far away across the Rockies, across drowsy, sleeping states, across the jagged teeth of my hometown, across that other eternal night of an ocean—thousands and thousands of miles away—was the man who had once been the center of my world, my calm harbor, my sheltering wing. A tiny lighthouse on a tiny island, blinking his faith into the night. Here comes the beam again, sweeping round, a pinprick in the darkness, sending out its simple message. ‘Love. Love. Nothing but love.’ There, now it’s gone again.”
That is a description of every Christian who uses those Spirit-given gifts for the common good—a tiny pinprick of light in a dark world, a tiny epiphany of the splendor of Christ’s love for a hurting world. Together, we can become a magnificent lighthouse, reflecting the Light of the world into every dark and distant corner.
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