16 January 2022
Text; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11
by the Rev’d Colleen Clayton
May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
A couple of years ago, Stephen and I went on a tour of Turkey and Greece, visiting many of the places that St Paul visited on his evangelistic journeys. It was amazing to enter the ruins of the library in Ephesus, see the layout and the tiled floor of the church in Laodicea, peer into his prison cell in Philippi, and gaze at some of the treasures of the fabulously wealthy city of Corinth.
St Paul lived and preached in Corinth for roughly two years. He founded a church there in the year 50AD which, although it had some Jewish members, was mostly Gentile. This was the city where Paul worked with Priscilla and Aquila, two greats of the early church. It was also in Corinth that Paul was tried by Gallio. Paul was brought before him on charges that he had violated the law of Moses. Gallio, however, was not at all interested in getting caught up in religious disputes so he dismissed the charges and had both Paul and the Jews removed from the court.
The church Paul founded in Corinth was lively. It struggled with many issues; factionalism, division between those from different socio-economic groups, litigation, arguments about the legitimacy of Jewish and Gentile practices and their place within Christianity. After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote letters to them, two of which have been preserved and form part of our New Testament.
Our Epistle today is a part of chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. This whole letter deals with how to live as the people of God, the Body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit in a world which is overwhelmingly non-Christian. It is, therefore, a very helpful text for us to consider and for the next 6 weeks, our lectionary presents parts of the later chapters of this letter for our reflection.
The part we heard today is about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul encourages his readers to recognise that all the gifts of the Spirit are good and valuable, and that, although there are a variety of gifts, they are all given by the one Spirit.
It is only a few weeks ago that we were all in the middle of gift giving of our own. Choosing presents for loved ones, considering what each would like, wrapping them and giving them, hoping they would bring the joy we intended.
There can be great joy in the planning of thoughtful gifts, chosen with knowledge of the recipient and given with generosity, but however good that gift giving is, it is all about the individual. The exchange takes place between individuals who know and care for each other, the focus is on particular relationships.
This is not the case with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts are given thoughtfully, they are chosen with knowledge of the recipient and given with generosity, but their purpose is to give what will contribute to the life and health of the whole community. These are gifts whose purpose is the common good. God does not offer gifts for the benefit of individuals, let alone to improve their status. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to be used for the benefit of all.
This aspect of the gifts of the Holy Spirit should be even more strongly highlighted as we consider them in this season of ‘Sundays After Epiphany’. Looking though an Epiphany lens brings into focus the ways in which prompts the gifts of the Holy Spirit help to reveal God to God’s people, how their use makes God manifest in the world God loves.
In verse 7 Paul writes, ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’. These gifts are given as epiphanies. They are to be used to bring everyone together, to advantage every member of the community. Epiphany is not just about having our own personal revelations from God. It is not a season which gives me licence to luxuriate in my latest insight that shows the great depth of my understanding of God!
Instead, Epiphany, the manifestation of God to all the world, invites us to see the gifts that each of us has received and to seek new ways of using those gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ through the proclamation of Christ to all the world.
The Holy Spirit of God gives diverse gifts. Some are easy to identify and rejoice in, others are far more discomfiting, hard to see and unwelcome. The way in which the gift of generosity contributes to our corporate life is easy to see, and the results of that gift bring pleasure for all. On the other hand, the gift of raising a dissenting voice, of speaking uncomfortable truths to our friends, that is a far less welcome gift (to giver and receiver!) but, when offered in love, it makes a vital contribution to the long-term health of our community.
Sometimes, receiving and using our gifts is a fearful thing. It can take courage to accept what God has planted in us. The American author Marianne Williamson wrote:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear in that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I
to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the World.
There is nothing enlightening about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel unsure around you.
We were born to make manifest
the glory of God that is within us.
It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.
As we let our own Light shine,
we consciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.”
Nelson Mandela quoted these words in his inaugural speech as president in 1994, and they are often attributed to him.
Whether or not we like the gifts with which we, and those around us have been blessed, whether or not we find it comfortable to identify the gift that God has given to us, we are called to receive those gifts and to use them to shine God’s light in the darkness of the world and to set God’s people free. We are blessed to be a blessing to others.
The manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit is given to each person so that the church might make God Spirit manifest to the world beyond our church doors. Paul wrote this letter to a church surrounded by a complex, non-Christina society. He knew the difficulties and the tensions that occur when God’s gifts are offered to the world. He also knew God’s grace in the midst of those tensions.
The full value of God’s gifts to us is only ever realised when they are used to contribute to our corporate life. The assessment of our use of the gifts of the Spirit is not based on whether they make us as individuals look better, but on whether we have used them to grow God’s kingdom and to build up the Body of Christ. The authenticity of our gifts can be determined from the use to which they are put.
When Paul writes his letter about spiritual gifts, the Corinthian community is split by the gifts they have received. Instead of using their individual gits for corporate good, they are tearing their community apart by competing over whose gift is more important, diminishing the gifts of the Holy Spirit by seeing them as rewards for merit, rather than as expressions of God’s grace.
We too need to humbly accept our own gifts, offering them in service of Christ’s body, the church. We also need to work to recognise the value of the gifts given to others, and encourage them to use them for the good of all. We need to work and pray that we may receive and use the gifts of the Spirit for our building up, not for our tearing down.
Ultimately, it is only as we recognise and value everyone’s spiritual gifts, and encourage each other to use them to God’s glory, that we become a community that makes manifest the God who is revealed to us. That is our corporate task, and it is as we do so that many will say, ‘Jesus is Lord!’
The Lord be with you.