28 September 2014

Gifted for the Common Good (Or, On Being Charismatic)

Exodus 4:1-17 & 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 28th September 2014

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.

“To each,” Paul wrote.  To each member of the church in Corinth.  To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit.

            These are the familiar words we use in worship whenever we ordain and install elders and deacons or trustees. They’re beautiful words, poetic, and full of affirmation.  The beauty of the sentiment, however, masks the reason Paul felt compelled to pen these words in Ephesus and send them 180 miles across the Aegean Sea to the new church in Corinth.  Here in chapter 12, Paul is addressing just one of several divisive issues tearing apart the Corinthian church.   And the concern in these verses is not really an issue, per se, but divisive people, a group of people who think they’re better than the others because they claim to possess certain spiritual gifts.  Paul calls them the pneumatikoi, the spiritualists, the spirituals, these so-called spiritual elite who think they’re better Christians because they possess certain knowledge or wisdom or skills. 

It’s easy to see how this attitude would be divisive in any church.  It’s the kind of false-superiority and arrogance practiced by some Christians that devastates a faith community, an attitude that rips the body of Christ apart, limb by limb by limb.  It’s the kind of thing that becomes a stumbling block to preaching the gospel to the world, because the world, looking at the church from the outside, sometimes has difficulty actually seeing Christ in the body—because it’s no longer a body, it’s been torn apart!—they can’t see love, they see something else.

            Paul, the consummate pastor-theologian, approaching the problems in Corinth through the lens of his life in Christ, addressing the community in love and through love, responds to everyone.  He doesn’t shame the one segment of the congregation that’s theologically immature and therefore misbehaving, he speaks to the whole church.  So, writing to the whole church, he reminds them, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  To each.  Not to some. To each.  Not just the super-spiritual elite. Not just the leaders, the pastors, the preachers, the elders, the deacons, the trustees (as it were).  To each.

The Holy Spirit of God is at work in every believer, every member of the church, every part of the body of Christ.  And what the Spirit is doing in and through each individual is necessary for the health, vitality, and mission of the entire body.  Each has been gifted by the Holy Spirit.

            In fact, Paul makes this remarkable claim and says that everyone in the church is a charismatic!  Charismatic.  Presbyterian charismatics!  Talk about an oxymoron. The thought of a Presbyterian charismatic might even make you laugh—but why?  It’s true that we don’t usually associate one with the other.  Why not?  Maybe the Presbyterian Church suffers because we don’t.  Indeed the entire Church suffers when Christians forget that to follow Christ means that we are charismatics—all Christians, not just some.  Why am I saying this?  Because Paul does.  That’s the word he uses.  That’s the Greek word he used, which most Bibles translate simply as “gifts.”  “Gifts” doesn’t do justice to the text.  Once again English fails to render the theological nuances of the New Testament. 

            Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of charismatov.”  Charismatov, meaning, “gifts.”  A charisma is a gift.  In charisma we hear the word charis, which is Greek for “grace.” To each is given a charism, a gift of grace.  This means that a Christian, by definition, is charismatic, and that a church, full of people graced by the Spirit, is a charismatic community, blessed by the Spirit in a variety of ways to be, together, a blessing for the world.   There is one Lord of the church, one Spirit, one common source for all its gifts, and all the gifts are given to us to serve one common purpose or aim—to proclaim the good news of God in Christ to the world, to extend God’s kingdom reign of justice and peace wherever we live in the world, to share, both individually and together, the love and grace of Christ. 

            And the way the church gets to do this marvelous work is varied.  Three times Paul uses the word “varieties.”   There’s supposed to be variety and difference in the church because the Spirit is working through each of us in different ways.  Different gifts.  Different ways of serving.  Different kinds of actions inspired by the Spirit.  Paul gives several examples—and the list is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely suggestive.  Some are gifted with speech and speaking wisdom; some are gifted with knowledge, possessing a sharp mind. Some have more faith than others.  Some are gifted with the agency of healing—a healing word, a healing touch, a healing presence.  Some can work miracles. Some can preach.  Some are gifted with discernment.  Some can speak in tongues, have esoteric religious experiences and speak in strange “holy” tongues.  The list is long.  But it’s significant to note that chapter twelve of First Corinthians, exploring the subject of gifts, pours over into chapter thirteen, the famous “love” chapter, which is too often read on its own, unfortunately.  The two chapters are best read together.  For love is the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit.  Love is the only gift that really matters.  And when love rules our lives, when we exercise this gift of God, our understanding of all of the other gifts and all the people who possess them, will come into clear focus.  “Strive for the greater gifts.  And I will show you a still more excellent way,” Paul says (1 Cor 12:31) .  “And the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).

            There are all kinds of ways the Spirit is active in the lives of God’s people. All kinds of ways the Spirit is loving us, trying to love us.  Each gift is given to serve the common good of the Church.  In fact, amazingly, Paul is lifting up and celebrating and emphasizing the importance of diversity.  There’s a fascinating article by Katherine Phillips in the recent Scientific American magazine that identifies the importance of diversity.  It’s essential for the health of a community. Diversity actually enhances our ability to be creative.[1]  This should not come as a surprise to us. The Holy Spirit creates diversity; the Spirit celebrates and fosters diversity.  Uniformity is never a sign of the Spirit’s presence.  Unity, yes; uniformity, no.  There’s a unity in God, but not uniformity.  There’s a difference.  Richard Hays, a Pauline scholar at Duke Divinity School (we’re using his commentary in our current study of 1 Corinthians on Thursday mornings), puts it beautifully, “The creative imagination of God is so many-faceted that God’s unitary power necessarily finds its expression in an explosion of variegated forms.”[2]  Out of one, many. The many is an expression of the one.  E pluribus unum.   And when we as Christ’s people live this way in community we will be blessed for it and we will become more of a blessing to the world beyond our doors.

* * * * *

            You and I are gifted.  We are gifted people. I don’t say this to boast or to puff us up.  I’m just telling the truth.  We have gifts, you and me.  My gifts are not yours.  Your gifts are not mine.  But all of our gifts come from a common source and lead to a common end.

            One of the most important elements of the Christian life, I believe, is discovering or discerning one’s gifts.  If Paul is correct, and I believe he is, then we’re each gifted with charismata.  To have never discovered and used your gifts is, in the end, to have wasted your life.  The Spirit is continually gifting us.  It’s always Christmas.  And the gifts are changing. In one season of our lives one set of gifts might have been used more than others, a new season of life calls for new gifts.  Sometimes our gifts are obvious to us, other times they’re not.  Sometimes they’re obvious to everyone but us, so we need others in community show us what we can’t see on our own, to show us that we possess gifts we never noticed before.  Sometimes there are gifts that lie dormant for a long time in our lives, but then the Spirit activates them and something new starts to stir in us and we wonder where those thoughts or feelings are coming from.  And sometimes, probably more often than we care to admit, there are gifts that we know we have, but we suppress them or ignore them, we deny them, like Moses before God in Exodus 34. We push our gifts down or lock them away in a dark corner of our hearts and try to forget they’re there.  But we know they’re there.  We know we locked those gifts away.  Maybe we’ve thrown away the key or think we have.  But, don’t worry; the Spirit is very good at helping us discover what we’ve lost. The Spirit will find the key.

            What are your gifts? Where do you sense the Spirit’s love? Where is the Spirit loving you, trying to love you?  Are you using your gifts? Are you sharing what you have with the common good?  Maybe you’re already in that zone, using your gifts with a strong sense of vocation or calling, making a positive difference in the world, through your marriage, through your children, through deep friendships, in your work or, maybe, you’re taking up new work, different work in retirement.  Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner famously defined vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”[3]  Where does your deep gladness meet the deep needs of the world?  That place is your calling, your vocation.

            What if you haven’t found that meeting place?  Maybe you’re still searching for it.  Or, what if the meeting place has moved?  Perhaps you’re sensing that the Spirit is stirring something new in you, activating something new within your spirit.  Perhaps there’s a gift you know you possess, but for whatever reason you doubted it, you denied it, you locked it away.  Perhaps you’re afraid to acknowledge it, because if you acknowledge it then you have to be faithful to it, then you have to do something about it.  The poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) wrote, “You owe it to the world to get on with what you’re good at.”  You owe it to the common good to use your gifts, to honor the Spirit who loves you.  One way you and I bless the world is by paying attention to the way the Spirit is continually gifting us. 

But how do we discover our gifts?  That’s complicated.  One way we discern our gifts is through the church, in community.  Last Sunday I shared how I became a minister.  I didn’t wake up one day and say to the church, “I’m called to preach.”  That call was tested.  The Session and later the presbytery had to confirm the call.  We discover our call in community.

We discover our gifts through a process of discernment.  Discernment, itself, is also a gift.  As Quakers and people such as Parker Palmer like to say, we have to listen to our lives.[4]  If we’re quiet and silent long enough our lives will speak, so let your lives speak! 

We discern by being attentive to what’s occurring within us and around us.  Pay attention to feelings and thoughts. Where’s the energy?  What’s giving you life?  What’s sucking the life out of you?  That, probably, is not what you’re being called toward.  What’s giving you joy?  What’s drawing you, calling out to you, pulling you in, what’s trying to love you?  This isn’t easy. It requires time and patience and lots of love.  It sometimes requires another ear that can listen to what we’re experiencing.  My ears are yours; Dorothy’s ears are yours, if you need another pair of ears.  We are here for one another.  

In adult education in three weeks, October 12, we’ll help you discern what your spiritual gifts might be.  And after worship on October 12, we will host our very first Ministry Fair at CPC.  All the committees and boards and groups of the church will have displays that speak to their unique ministry within the church.  This will be a great time for you to learn more about the work of the church, perhaps discern where the Spirit is leading you, where the Spirit is calling you to use your gifts, to discover your gifts, to get involved in the life of the church. 

            Right now it’s an exciting time for folks in this congregation who are following God’s call—some for the very first time—discovering gifts, discovering what the Spirit is doing in their lives, all because of the ministry of this church.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  To each.

            When Kristen Koblish learned what the sermon would be about today, she told me that when she was going through some of her mother’s papers after she died she came across a handwritten note.  It was a note her mother wrote to herself and it read: “When I die, I hope I’m all used up so I can say to God that I’ve used everything you gave me….”

            That’s my hope too. And I know, deep within your heart of hearts—even if it scares you—that’s your hope too. 





[1] Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Scientific American (September 16, 2014). 
[2] Richard Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 210. Emphasis mine.
[3] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 119.
[4] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).