1 Corinthians 12:3-13
I have a funny story to tell. Somehow, as I was laying out my sermon plans, when I got to Pentecost, I decided to go with the lectionary reading from 1 Corinthians 12. But, for some reason I put down 1 Corinthians 13 instead. Then, when I sat down to do worship planning, I used 1 Corinthians 13 as the guide. I also began contemplating how this message of love fit with Pentecost. It didn’t dawn on me until Tuesday morning that I had the wrong text. When I read through the lectionary selection, I thought it was odd that the lectionary would omit the first two verses. Now, the creators of the lectionary have their reasons for omitting verses of a passage, but what is it about speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels that would be controversial. So, I turned to a lectionary commentary to see why these verses had been omitted. To my surprise, I discovered that I had the wrong text. But, now everything made sense, including the title of the sermon. That’s how we got to 1 Corinthians 12 this morning, instead of 1 Corinthians 13. But, we’re still going to sing “They’ll know we are Christians by our Love” as our closing hymn!
Last Sunday we heard the story of Jesus’ ascension and the commission he gave to the disciples. Jesus told the disciples that they would be his witnesses, starting in Jerusalem and moving to the ends of the earth. However, they would have to wait until the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:1-11). Their time of waiting ended a few days later, as pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost. While they were in prayer, the Spirit blew through the house where Jesus’ followers were staying, and the disciples began to proclaim the gospel in languages they didn’t understand. However, the pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora did understand the words. They asked: “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:1-12).
On that day, after Peter got up to preach, a newly born church began its Spirit-empowered and Spirit-led mission of witness to the world. This is the same Spirit about whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 12. This is the Spirit of God who empowers the followers of Jesus to declare him Lord. It is this same Spirit who “allots to each individually [gifts] just as the Spirit chooses” [1 Cor. 12:11].
Although our text begins in verse 3, I think it would be helpful to hear verse one. Paul writes: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” Paul wrote these words, because the church in Corinth was a mess. A lot of the problems were caused by the cultural influences on this church, which lived in a very socially-stratified world. Because they didn’t understand the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit, they allowed their culture’s social hierarchies to influence the way they viewed the work of the Spirit. For some reason, they gave special attention to the gift of tongues. So, they connected social status with spiritual gifts. What we have here is Paul’s response. He tells the Corinthians that even though there are a variety of gifts, there is only one Spirit, and “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12: 4, 7).
That phrase, common good, is a very important one. That’s because Paul wanted to unify this church, where everyone was focused on their own spiritual agendas. They focused on themselves, not on the body. But, as Paul pointed out, the body has many parts, but they have to work together if the body is going to be healthy. So, what Paul is doing here is diagnosing a spiritual disease and providing a spiritual cure. Paul wanted them, and us, to see ourselves not as isolated, self-sufficient, individuals, but as interdependent members of a body, who use their Spirit-endowed gifts to accomplish the mission of God. Or, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson put it: “The Spirit allots gifts not to maintain social hierarchy but to create a community of witness” [Preaching the Letters, p. 67].
My interest in the Holy Spirit goes back to my high school days. That was when I joined a Pentecostal church that taught me a lot about the Spirit. Unfortunately, they tended to emphasize a small number of gifts, with a focus on speaking tongues. I soon learned that this gift was the initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That meant, or at least that’s how I saw things, that if I was going to be truly spiritual, I would need this gift. So, I prayed and I tarried, but nothing happened. Finally, just before I headed off to college, a traveling preacher was in town leading a revival of sorts. On the last evening, after he spoke about the Spirit, he invited people to come forward to receive the baptism of the Spirit. I went forward, and after a bit of effort, began speaking in tongues. What I remember about that evening is that instead of feeling a sense of spiritual elation, I felt relief. Now I could get on with my life in the Spirit.
Despite my frustrations at the time, I was intrigued about the message of the Spirit and the gifts, which, as Martin Luther reminds us in the hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, are ours. What I discovered over time was that there are a multitude of gifts, and that all of them are important. Not everyone has the same gifts, and no one has all the gifts. I also learned that the Spirit of God, wanted to knit us together, with our gifts and callings in tow, so we can pursue the common good of creation. I like that message. It makes a lot of sense to me. That’s why I wrote my book on spiritual gifts. I wanted to help others understand the gifts of the Spirit, so that together we can contribute to the common good.
This is the message that I discovered many years ago: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12 NIV). The message of Pentecost is this: with the coming of the Spirit, we become one body, in all its diversity.
The original motto of the United States fits here: “E Pluribus Unum.” Out of the many, one. This congregation inhabits the most diverse city in Michigan. More than eighty different languages are spoken at home in Troy. Those of us who participate regularly in the Troy-area Interfaith Group have experienced this diversity of background. If you come Wednesday evening to the Iftar Dinner, you’ll get to experience just a small part of this diversity by sharing a meal with our Muslim friends. Just as this diversity enriches our community, so the diversity of gifts enriches the church and its ministries.
That’s where 1 Corinthians 13 comes into play. After contemplating this passage, I couldn’t let it go. After all, Paul placed this hymn right in the middle of his discussion of spiritual things. According to the hymn of love, the gifts of God have no purpose or benefit outside of love. If we do not love one another, we can’t pursue the common good. Indeed, if we’re not living in the love of God, then these gifts become nothing more than a “noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” I’m guessing that’s not a good thing!!
But, love is a good thing. The question is, what is love? The best definition of love I’ve come across is provided by theologian Tom Oord. Tom writes that: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.” [The Nature of Love, p. 17]. I think that’s a fairly good definition of the common good. This is the work of the Spirit in our midst. While I do believe that the Spirit is unfettered, and can’t be controlled, I have also learned from Tom that God’s love is not coercive. Instead, the “relational God of love collaborates with creatures.” [The Uncontrolling Love of God, p. 147]. So, while the Spirit is the giver of gifts, it is in our power to use them for the common good—or not! We decide whether we’ll be part of the body or not.
On the day of his ascension, Jesus told the disciples to wait for the Spirit. Then, when the Spirit came, they would be empowered to proclaim the good news of Jesus and his realm. By waiting, they put themselves in a position to collaborate with God in this work. This morning as we gather in this very room, let us open ourselves up to the Spirit. I pray that on this Pentecost Sunday, we would give the Spirit room to work in us and through us, so that we might pursue in the Spirit the common good that is the realm of God.
Greco, 1541?-1614. Descent of the Holy Spirit, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48043 [retrieved June 3, 2017]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 4, 2017