1 Corinthians 12:4-13
On the day of Pentecost some however many thousand years ago, the first Christians tasted the grace of God. In sharing their common life together they expressed this grace. In this sense they were a community of grace, in the Greek “charis”, a charis-matic community. And this parish of St. John’s, this church as a Christian community, is also one of grace. We have all experienced and tasted God’s grace, after all that’s what Christ’s death on the cross is all about. We’re here this morning, because we have come together to give expression by word and deed, in song and silence, in prayer and praise, in sacrament and worship to the grace of God.
I’m pretty sure that almost everyone who’s here this morning must, in some way, have heard of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Or the World Wide Wait as someone once dubbed it! If you hadn’t, then you have now! The Web contains millions of pages of information put there by anyone and everyone. And each page has it’s own address, a reference so that you can find it. Each address is prefixed by three w’s. So for instance if St. John’s had a web page our address might be: WWW dot St. John’s dot com or whatever. The three w’s indicating the World Wide Web.
Since the Church began, it’s the Spirit that has created and sustained the community of grace. In particular we see through the acts and letters of the apostles the Spirit inspiring a three-dimensional Church. It is a witnessing, worshipping and working community of servants. So in fact we might already and justifiably put our address as WWW St. John’s. Witnessing, worshipping and working St. John’s.
When I first realised what the theme for today was and what the relevant passages were, I must admit that my heart was in my boots. Year after year, countless numbers of preachers have stood in this pulpit and told you about the Gifts of the Spirit. I know, because for at least the last eight of them, I’ve sat with you in the congregation and listened to them. What can I say that hasn’t already been said dozens of times before, and we’ve ignored it. Then I thought, “Well that’s a bit hard, because if you look around the Church there’s plenty of evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in our community.” Sadly, though, we’re not perfect, no Christian community is. What really concerns us and I think, unites us, is this question: Is there yet more of God’s grace and his Spirit that we have yet to experience? The answer must surely be yes.
At the heart of Paul’s teaching on the work of the Spirit he speaks of the presence, the personality and the purpose of the Holy Spirit. In our New Testament reading we heard him say, “All these gifts are the work of one and the same Spirit, distributing them separately to each individual at will.” It’s the Spirit that is at work in the lives of Christians both as individuals and in community. The gifts which Paul mentions are the evidence of his presence. They are the visible signs of God’s grace at work saving and redeeming the human family through the ministry of the Church. But, Paul tells us, the Spirit reserves the right to distribute these gifts as he determines and wills. The decision as to which gift we receive is not ours but the Spirits. The reason for this is “for some useful purpose” as we heard earlier, or for “the common good” as the NRSV puts it. To build up the Church. The gifts are bestowed upon us as is appropriate for the tasks of witnessing, worshipping and working to the glory of Jesus.
There is a danger that we can all to easily become impatient at the absence of certain gifts within our own church. We get annoyed and often in our frustration overlook the the gifts that are already there. Paul reminds us of three things that we need to be aware of when we consider these expressions of grace.
First of all he tells us that there are varieties of gifts. If we were to look through the New Testament we’d find that there are in fact a total of at least twenty-one gifts or expressions of grace that are specified. Now that’s a good starting point for our own earnest desire for the spiritual gifts, but there’s no reason to think that there aren’t other gifts that God wants to give us which aren’t mentioned at all. For example, neither worship nor prayer are mentioned, yet both are expressions of the grace that we have tasted, and are inspired by the Spirit’s work in our lives. We should also be aware that, if we’re honest, we aren’t necessarily sure what some of the gifts that Paul mentioned were. The way different translations render there meaning is sufficient indication that we don’t know exactly what they were or how they were used. The gifts that are mentioned simply provide us with a starting point. One Christian author puts it like this. “We must avoid the folly of ending where we begin. There is a constant danger in the Christian life of making our point of departure a terminal in which we think we have arrived.” As individuals we need to see how the gifts named in the epistles relate to our own experience, whilst at the same time being open to other spirit-inspired expressions of grace that we find in others and may ourselves be led to later. As a church we should be wary of trapping others and ourselves within the boundaries of our own experience, which reminds me of the story of the dog that goes into the local Job Centre. The interviewer is a little nonplussed but eventually sends him along to a circus that is in town. Next day the dog is back again and the Job Centre man asks how he got on at the circus. “Oh, that was no good.’ replies the dog. “They wanted a performing dog and I’m a bricklayer.”
Secondly, there are varieties of service. Ways of which we can be servants of one another, of our neighbours and of God. Paul here emphasises the attitude of mind towards things of the Spirit which he wants the Christians at Corinth to develop. They probably tended to see the church as an arena for demonstrating their own talents and prowess, almost a stage on which to perform. The temptation remains with us today, but Paul is reminding us of our essential calling to be servants of one another. This is where we come to a slightly confusing difference between spiritual gifts and natural talents. A charismatic gift is when someone who has experienced the grace of God gives expression to that truth by using the gift so that the Church might be built up. Spiritual gifts and talents are both given by God for his glory. Talents, however, are natural abilities. God gives these talents to both Christians and unbelievers. Gifts are expressions of grace inspired by the Spirit that build up the Church. God gives these gifts to Christians for the worship, witness and work of the Church. A Christian may have a talent such as administration that is not directed specifically to building up the body of Christ. As such it doesn’t qualify in the Pauline sense as a charismatic gift. On the other hand a Christian may be without a natural talent such as teaching but is enabled by the Spirit to teach on one or more occasions and thus builds up the body of Christ. From a New Testament point of view this would be considered as a charismatic gift. Natural talents are for serving God in his kingdom of the world. Spiritual gifts are for serving God by building Christ’s Church. It’s important to understand that neither is superior to the other. Talents and gifts are given simply for different tasks. Both are for the glory of God.
There is a danger, however, that we can end up feeling like something of a second class citizen when it comes to the Church. You may hear from myself or any other preacher standing in this pulpit, that you need to be more involved in church activities. Yet the needs of your family and the demands of your business or job make involvement with the Church rather secondary. As a result you may feel inferior to those who are immersed in all the activities and who lay claim to a variety of gifts. But you should realise that you are doing God’s work in the world as God’s servant with his God-given talents just as much as others are doing God’s work in the Church with their God-given gifts. Each of us has to find out how God wishes us to use our talents – and to what extent we should be working for his glory in the world and/or in the Church. Sugar Ray Leonard, the boxer, once said, “I consider myself blessed. I consider you blessed. We’ve all been blessed with God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beatin’ people up.”
Thirdly, there are varieties of working or activities, ie. God’s energy going to work within Christians and spilling out into the life of the community. The operation of the Holy Spirit is not a theory and can’t simply be reduced to a matter for theoretical debate. The Spirit produces results, varied results which can be noticed. Changed lives, transformed relationships, effective testimony, released talents, even increasing congregations! The work of the Spirit is unpredictable and we will be constantly surprised as he distributes his gifts amongst the people of God for the worship, witness and work of the Church.
If you take the time to read the whole of the letter to the Corinthians, which being the good, almost licensed Reader that I am, I recommend that you do; you’ll find that the church in Corinth was clearly abusing the gifts that it had been given. How then are we to safeguard ourselves from those same abuses? The answer is that we walk a tightrope. There is a continuing tension between a caution that quenches the Spirit and an uncritical openness that allows in all sorts of weird stuff, some good, some bad and some just a confusing mixture of the two. Our guiding principle should be whether or not it is for the common good and the building up of the Church, not the personal whims of an individual. The Christian Church should work like an orchestra. Sadly we often appear as a band of soloists. Often the Church’s lack of credibility as the community of the Holy Spirit is due in part to our failure to manifest our distinctive gifts in the life of our church. The rich variety of the Christian community is thus hidden, and its corporate life appears to the outsider as dull and conformist, instead of diverse and colourful.
So, how do we know whether we have been or are in receipt of a gift of the Holy Spirit? How do we discern whether God the Holy Spirit is at work within us building up his Church? Well, I think the key question must be: Is the Church being built up through me? And for the answer to that question we can’t trust our own judgment but must rather trust that of the Church herself and her leaders. We can’t assess ourselves purely from our own perspective. We need to test our calling. We should be encouraged to ask ourselves: In what ways has God used me and how does he work through me for the common good and the building up of the Church?
As you go home this morning heading for your Sunday lunches, I’d like you to remember this. The gifts of the Spirit are servant gifts. They are given to us, the Church, by the Spirit as we witness, worship and work as a community of servants.
Lord Jesus Christ, when you went to the Father you promised your friends they would not be deserted but have the Holy Spirit in your place. Help us admit that we need him; give us the sense to recognise him; and make us more ready to rely on him; so that we live our lives in his continual company. Amen.
- Tough Issues of Christianity: Spiritual Gifts (ptl2010.com)