When you see a gift in action, it can be a wonder to behold. Think of the gift of administration, for instance. When I think of this, several people come to mind, including someone I once knew who I will call Ellen. Ellen worked for an organization that often required her at any given moment to be juggling a long string of details for four or five major ventures. Yet she kept everything straight, knew exactly where every folder was located that she may need to grab, and on top of that constantly had a sharp eye out to attend to new needs as they cropped up.
So if there is a catered lunch one day and one person in a group of twenty is a vegetarian, you can be assured there will be a vegetarian entree available. When Ellen heard that someone working at the organization was having wrist difficulties from working on the computer, before too long UPS showed up to deliver all new keyboards and wrist-rests designed to reduce the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. When she and I were flying back from a meeting we both attended and that Ellen had organized, the flights into Newark were backed up for hours due to rainy weather. Within ten minutes Ellen had us re-booked onto a flight into Philadelphia, had arranged to have a car pick us up there instead of Newark, and I was back with my family an hour earlier than scheduled!
Some people are “big picture” folks, others are “detail-oriented.” Some people inspire by presenting grand visions, others help realize visions by micromanaging the nitty-gritty. Thankfully, God is both types in one and the Holy Spirit of Pentecost embodies every gift and distributes them as the Spirit sees fit. Few passages lay this out as swiftly as 1 Corinthians 12.
What is striking about this passage is how methodical it is. Although Paul is talking about a host of spiritual gifts and abilities, it is clear that the Lord of the Church parcels those gifts out very systematically. The balance of 1 Corinthians 12 uses the image of the body to make the point that even as the human body needs every single part, so also the church is organized by the Holy Spirit in such a way that all the bases are covered. It is how the church functions. Similar to walking: every time you stand up and walk somewhere, this happens not just because you have feet but also because you have legs, hips, eyes, a sense of balance. Take away any one of those, and you would fall.
This is something the late neurologist Oliver Sacks taught us in his clinical writings over the years. Sacks provides vivid reminders of how interconnected the body must be in order to function. As a neurologist, Sacks know that there are parts of our brains no larger than a pea which, if damaged, will render us unable to walk. In one of his books he tells the story of the man who received a very slight amount of damage to a very tiny part of his brain with the result that this man lost his sense of proprioception.
Proprioception is a big word that refers to your innate ability always to know where your body is located in space. Without even having directly to think about it, you always know whether you are sitting, lying down, standing, standing or sitting straight, leaning sideways, bending forward, etc. But this particular man had lost this sense and so when he walked, although he himself did not notice it, he walked bent at the waist to about a 90-degree angle. In the end, the only way they could help this man was to fit him with a pair of glasses that had a little spirit-level extending out from the bridge of the glasses. So long as he could see the bubble on the level and keep it in the middle, he knew he was standing straight. But the moment you took the glasses away, he tilted sideways again, though he could not sense this! There was nothing wrong with this man’s eyes or legs or feet. But he was missing one small item that turned out to be key.
If we extend that metaphorically to the church, we can see again that we really do need the plethora of gifts, interests, talents, and abilities that our great God in Christ is so very careful to distribute. Take any one of those gifts away, and we walk crooked (and maybe not at all). But put them all into their proper place, and we walk upright once again.
Pentecost is a day when we get reminded of the full panoply of gifts any church—and the worldwide Church—needs to function. Everyone counts. Everyone contributes. Some in flashy, up-front ways; others in quiet, behind-the-scenes ways. But take away any one of them, and the church loses its ability to function, to walk upright, to follow Jesus down paths of discipleship.
When Paul opened this chapter, he said, “I don’t want you to be ignorant about gifts.” Preachers today need to say the same thing. Everyone has a gift. Everyone spends that gift thoughtfully in order for the Body of Christ to function. Pentecost comes just once a year but its truth shines every day of every year and this has been going on in dizzying ways for a couple millennia now. Thanks be to God!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 4, 2017
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 Commentary