For many Anglicans, reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians chapters twelve to fourteen is really like visiting a foreign country; it’s as if we got lost on the way to St. Margaret’s and wandered into a Pentecostal church instead! These chapters talk about supernatural gifts – speaking in tongues, prophecy, healings, miracles and so on – things that we tend to associate with more emotional and sensational forms of Christianity. We Anglicans don’t tend to ‘do’ this sort of thing; our favourite verse of the Bible is the one that says, ‘All things should be done decently and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14:40)!
Well, interestingly enough, that verse comes right at the end of these three chapters in 1 Corinthians, and so apparently Paul didn’t see any contradiction between using supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy and healing on the one hand, and doing everything decently and in order on the other. And so perhaps we need to get over our phobia about things that aren’t traditionally Anglican, and ask ourselves if there are gifts that God has given to other parts of the Christian family that we can learn from, just as there are things we have to teach other parts of the Christian family as well.
Let’s begin today by reminding ourselves about the people Paul was writing to. Corinth was a city in ancient Greece, famous throughout the world for its sexual immorality. It was also a place where the Greek mystery religions were very popular. Those religions went in for spiritual experience in a big way; the people who participated in them were used to being moved by powerful supernatural forces. They might go into a trance, or experience a powerful emotion like ecstasy, or be transported out of the body, or carry out some other strange course of action. This sort of thing was regarded as normal in the mystery religions; not only that, it was the way you knew that you were encountering something real. If you didn’t experience any of this, there wasn’t much point in being involved in that particular cult or religion.
But now these Corinthians have left all this behind. They’ve heard the good news of Jesus, they’ve believed it, and they’ve been baptized into Christ. As they stood at the waters of baptism they proclaimed their Christian faith in the words, ‘Jesus is Lord’. They used this word ‘Lord’ in full awareness of its significance. In the Roman world it was one of the titles of the emperor. In the Greek version of the Bible it was used commonly as a translation of ‘Yahweh’, the name of God. To say, ‘Jesus is Lord’, then, was to testify to your belief that in Jesus, God has come to visit this world, and that he is supreme over all other gods, over the Roman emperor and any other civil authority, and over every possible cosmic principality and power.
What a huge change has happened in the lives of these people! On the one hand, they’ve left behind their belief in the power of the mystery religions, or their belief in the divine Caesar, Lord of the universe. On the other hand, they’ve come to belief that there is only one God and Father of all, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God’s anointed King! What could possibly bring about such a change? Paul is quite clear about this; he says, ‘No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ (v.3). He’s not just talking about saying words; he’s talking about the heartfelt decision to commit yourself to Jesus in baptism and to consciously accept his Lordship over the universe and over every part of your life. This is what the Holy Spirit does; he works in people’s hearts and minds, leading them to the place where they can accept that Jesus is Lord.
But how does Jesus exercise his Lordship in the world today? After all, we can’t see him, and he certainly doesn’t seem to be in control of the world in any political sense. So how can we claim that God has made Jesus the Lord of all, when the world doesn’t seem to submit to his Lordship in any tangible way?
It’s a fair question, and in answer we need to remember how Jesus exercised his Lordship when he walked the earth as one of us. He consciously chose to reject the political and military model, and take the way of humble service instead. In John chapter 13 he gets up from the supper table and washes his disciples’ feet – the job the servant was supposed to do when people came in from walking on dusty roads. He then says to them,
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-14).
And in another place, Jesus says to his disciples,
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
So in the Bible there’s this strange paradox: God has exalted Jesus and made him the Lord of all, and yet he chooses to exercise that lordship, not by controlling the world, but by serving it. Apparently he is not interested in changing the world by political campaigning or military action or coercion of any kind. He is the servant king, and he calls his followers to follow his example.
So Jesus continues to exercise his lordship over the world by serving it. The difference is that today, unlike the days when he walked the earth, he serves the world through the members of his Church. It’s through his Church that Jesus is present in a physical and tangible way in the world today. In next week’s passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 Paul is going to use the illustration of a body; it’s as if Christ is the head, he says, and we are all limbs in his body. Each of us is a particular limb, with a particular job to do so that Jesus can continue to serve the world through us. No one among us has all the gifts necessary to do this job; no one of us can be Christ-like all by ourselves. Only a community can be Christ-like, because only a community can exercise all the gifts that Christ exercises.
And this is how Paul chooses to work his way into his discussion of spiritual gifts. The purpose of spiritual gifts is so that the members of the Body of Christ can serve each other and serve the world in the name of Jesus. It’s important to say this, because so often people exercise the gifts that God has given them, but they do it as a way of showing off and bringing glory to themselves. There’s a long history in the Christian church of musicians playing their music to their own glory and not to the glory of God. There’s a long history of preachers who want to make a name for themselves as great speakers rather than lifting up Jesus. None of this comes from the Holy Spirit.
Look at verses 4-7:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
That’s the purpose of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: ‘the common good’. Jesus is building up his Body so that it can serve the world, and he does it by giving its members the gifts they need to serve one another and serve the world in his name.
What gifts? Well, Paul gives us a list of nine in verses 8-11. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, by the way – he gives another list at the end of chapter twelve, and another one in Romans chapter twelve, and while there’s some overlap there are some differences as well. So it’s not likely that he’s claiming there are only nine gifts of the Spirit – there are more, but he’s chosen a few to make a point.
Why has he chosen these nine? Well, it seems to me that he’s especially emphasizing here what we might call ‘supernatural’ gifts. Not all of his gift lists do that; some of them have a balance of the supernatural and the more ordinary. But the Corinthians seem to have been especially interested in supernatural gifts – they were sexy and exciting and all that – and Paul wants to point out how these gifts aren’t an end in themselves, but fit into Jesus’ plan to serve the world. That’s why he mentions them here.
So what have we got? He starts by talking about ‘a word of wisdom’ and ‘a word of knowledge’ (v.8). Sometimes people seem to know just the right thing to do in a given situation, or seem to have access to knowledge they couldn’t possibly have had by their own natural investigation; that’s the Holy Spirit at work. Rikk Watts, who teaches New Testament at Regent College in Vancouver, told a story about this at a conference I attended. He went to a healing service and went to the front at the end to be prayed for, and the person who was praying for him – who was a stranger to him – prayed through his whole life, mentioning details it would have been impossible for her to know in any natural way. This stuff happens, and sometimes it’s really amazing.
Paul goes on to mention special ‘faith’. We’re all called to have faith, of course, but some people seem to have it in a supernatural way; they can step out confidently, just knowing that God will be there to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that involves the next two things Paul mentions – healings and miracles. Modern western rationalism would like to dismiss these things as impossible, and of course there have always been charlatans and deceivers, but even today there are stories from around the world of God healing the sick and doing miraculous things, and I know some of you could tell a few of them yourselves.
Paul goes on to mention ‘prophecy’ – delivering a message from God to an individual or to a community. He talks about ‘the discernment of spirits’ – the ability to know when the Holy Spirit is at work and when it’s some other kind of spirit, one that we wouldn’t want to encourage at all. He ends by mentioning ‘various kinds of tongues’ – the ability to pray or to deliver a message from God in a language you don’t know – and ‘the interpretation of tongues’ – the ability to interpret what has been said by the person who was speaking in tongues so that everyone can understand it.
Almost all these things are related to the ministry of Jesus in a real way. We know from the gospels that Jesus healed the sick and performed miracles. We know that he sometimes knew things about people that he wouldn’t have been able to know under ordinary circumstances. We know that he ‘prophesied’, in the sense of delivering a message from God to the people. We know that he exercised great faith, speaking a word of healing in the absolute confidence that his Father would hear him and grant his request. We know that he exercised discernment of spirits, being able to detect when the powers of evil were especially at work in people’s lives.
Notice what Paul says about how these gifts are distributed: ‘to one’ is given through the Spirit a certain gift, ‘to another’ is given another gift by the same Spirit. This means that every Christian is a minister and every Christian has a gift to share. And this also means that some of our traditional Christian understandings about the role of priests and pastors are dead wrong. Paul does not expect that the leader or leaders of a congregation will be the only ones to exercise spiritual gifts. He doesn’t expect, for instance that the person who preaches will necessarily be the person who prays for the sick, or that the person who has supernatural wisdom will also be the person who has great faith. I myself know that God has given me the gift of preaching, but faith is difficult for me; I find it really scary to be in a situation where I have only God to depend upon, whereas some people, who have that spiritual gift, would revel in it!
Let’s close by facing the big question: where are these gifts today?
The answer is, they are still present in the Church of Jesus Christ, when the Holy Spirit leads his people to desire them and to exercise them. But because through the last three centuries or so the western Christian tradition has tended to emphasize the rational element of Christianity and neglect the emotional and the supernatural, we western Christians have found it harder to have the faith to exercise these gifts. We like to be in control; we like to know when the service is going to start and when it’s going to end, and we like to know what’s going to happen in between. We want God to touch our lives, but not in such a way as to make us late for our Sunday lunch!
But we do a great disservice to the mission of Jesus Christ by our neglect of these spiritual gifts. Paul seems to be suggesting to us here that this is one of the ways in which the Church is called to be Christ-like. Jesus healed the sick and did miracles and spoke words of prophecy and knew what he needed to know to be able to help people, and he did all of this by means of the Holy Spirit’s help. And the world needs the Church to be like Jesus here, as in so many other areas of its life.
Next week we’ll think some more about the great analogy of the Church as the Body of Christ, the way Christ embodies and shares his love with the world. And the following week we’ll focus on Paul’s great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13, where he describes what he calls the ‘still more excellent way’. But before I finish this morning, I want to refer you to 1 Corinthians 14:1, where Paul says, ‘Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts’. Let me ask you to make that your prayer today. This verse reminds us that spiritual gifts aren’t about seeking thrills or causing sensations; they are ways of loving one another and loving the world that Jesus loves.
And this is relevant for us today, whether or not we find ourselves exercising the more supernatural gifts. We might find that sometimes we have hunches about situations that turn out to be true – what Paul would call a ‘word of wisdom’ or a ‘word of knowledge’. We might find that God has enabled us to preach sermons that challenge and inspire people. We might find ourselves praying for sick people and seeing what look suspiciously like answers to our prayers, or we might find ourselves playing music in a way that helps people to worship God. We might find ourselves praying in a language that we don’t understand, that just seems to flow from us, or we might find ourselves gifted with a special sympathy for others that makes us good at listening, caring and compassion.
Some of these gifts we call ‘natural’, some ‘supernatural’, but in the end they’re all about the same thing – loving one another and loving the world God loves. It’s possible to preach and lead services for the glory of God and the love of God’s people, and it’s also possible to preach and lead services for our own glory, or because we have a need to be loved and recognized by people. Outwardly it may look the same, but one attitude builds up the Body of Christ and the other does not.
So, as Paul says, let’s all ‘pursue love and strive for spiritual gifts’. Let’s pray that God will help us to grow in love for one another, and also that he will give us the faith to exercise these spiritual gifts in such a way as to cause his kingdom to come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. Amen.