Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Many Gifts” 1 Cor. 12:4-13
“Doesn’t it sound just like angel voices?” Selena shouted above the sound of the praise band. The opening song had been going on for about fifteen minutes when I noticed that the language emerging from the mouths of those who worshipped around me bore little resemblance to the lyrics projected on the screen at the front of the church. I wasn’t sure that “angel voices” would be my first choice to describe what I was hearing. A few minutes later, a woman a couple of rows in front of me slumped to the floor in an ecstasy of joy and was gently carted away by the ushers. No one seemed concerned, so I just kept singing. When the music finally faded amid cries of “Thank you, Jesus” and “Alleluia,” I sat down, questioning my choice to worship with my Pentecostal friend.
I don’t remember a word of the sermon preached that morning, but I do remember the Prayers of the People. Pastor Mike, who did double duty as preacher and bass player in the worship band, cast an appraising eye over the congregation and asked if anyone needed prayer. I instinctively avoided all eye contact and tried to make myself as small as possible, but a moment later I sensed someone looming over me. “Sister, the Lord wants us to pray for you.” How do you say “no” to that? Pastor Mike and Selena shepherded me to the front of the storefront church where I was quickly surrounded by a bevy of prayer partners who laid their hands on me and began to speak in other languages. My silent prayers began with something like, “Lord, let this be over soon.”
I can’t say how long they prayed for me, but at some point, I began to feel less anxious and maybe even a little happy. In fact, it was as if a little fountain of joy began to bubble inside me, a giddiness that welled up with giggles and perhaps a few tears. With their work done, my prayer partners moved on to their next victim while I hurried back to my folding chair. All that joy should have come with a warning label, “Do not operate heavy machinery while under the influence” because I got hopelessly lost on the way home, driving the streets of the city with a smile on my face and not a care in the world.
Paul’s church in Corinth was experiencing a surge of Pentecostal gifts. The Holy Spirit, first poured out upon the disciples at Pentecost, was at work among the Corinthians. Indeed, behind the words of today’s epistle reading was a dispute about spiritual gifts. Some worshipers had been exhibiting gifts for ecstatic language and prophetic utterance that they believed entitled them to a special place of privilege in the congregation. The division over spiritual gifts must have been significant, because Chloe’s people had written Paul a letter about it and sent a delegation to Paul in Ephesus, hoping that he would resolve their dispute and heal their divide.
Paul responded to the crisis in his Corinthian flock by affirming the work of the Holy Spirit there. He named the spiritual gifts that he had seen in abundance: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, ecstatic language, and the interpretation of those ecstatic prayers. Paul acknowledged that the Spirit of Jesus was still at work in the faithful people of Corinth in many gifts, all necessary, all valuable for the health of the church, the body of Christ.
Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit is at work in all people, activating gifts in each of us. There is no room for hierarchy or privilege in the Spirit’s work. The Greek word for gifts, charismata, is derived from charis, which means grace. So, spiritual gifts are a way that God’s grace continues to reach out to the world. God’s grace abounds when faithful people bless their neighbors with their God-given abilities. Paul also wrote that, although our Spiritual gifts are individually given, they are meant to be beneficial to all, to serve the “common good.” When that happens, a remarkable community is forged. It’s a place where every manmade divide is overcome. All those false and artificial dichotomies of male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile, rich/poor, Pentecostal/Presbyterian, legal/illegal, black/white are transcended. I like to think that Paul’s inspired epistle bridged the Corinthian divides and healed the church.
We can affirm that the Spirit is still at work in the church today. In teaching young people about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I have a favorite exercise that I like to share. I give each youth a piece of 8 ½’ x 11” paper and ask them to write their names in the middle. Next, we place our papers on a couple of long tables, and I parcel out big, bright magic markers. Then, I invite the kids to write on one another’s papers the spiritual gifts that they notice in one another. At first, we stand around, looking uncomfortable. But then someone will feel brave enough to record a spiritual gift, like kindness. Soon someone else follows suit, writing things like great sense of humor or hard working or super smart. Before we know it, we are rushing around the tables in a beautiful tumble of noticing and naming, eager to share what we see is special and God-given about our friends. Afterwards, as we collect our papers, we read what everyone had to say and we feel affirmed, sensing that God is at work in us in ways that are a blessing to all.
Jesus continues to send the Spirit to equip us for his purpose. It might alarm us to imagine the Spirit resting like tongues of fire among us, inspiring us to sing in angel voices, or causing us to swoon in a spiritual ecstasy, or propelling us to the front of the sanctuary for the laying on of hands. But the whole point of Pentecost is that each of us is uniquely gifted, not for our personal glory but for the common good. When we embody the gifts of the Spirit, we become Jesus for the world around us and his ministry continues to unfold in ways that bring healing, blessing, and miracles of new life. It takes all of us, committed to using our gifts to the best of our ability, to truly embody the fullness of Christ for our neighbors.
In his letters to Rome and Ephesus, Paul would expand his catalog of the gifts of the Spirit to include ministry, teaching, preaching, generosity, leadership, compassion, evangelism, pastoring, and training. For this congregation, we might have to expand Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts further to include some of the special qualities that we have here in abundance, abilities that are a blessing to all like music, helping, service, prayer, gardening, creativity, good cooking, handiness, financial oversight, and warm hospitality. What are the particular gifts that the Spirit has given to you, gifts that Jesus would have you use to bless your neighbors? Write those on your heart and resolve to go forth and look for ways to share those gifts.
And perhaps this morning we could learn a lesson from our youth. We could dare to affirm the spiritual gifts of one another. Take a look at your neighbors in the pews this morning. What are their gifts? How have they been a blessing? Take a moment to notice and to silently name. I won’t be handing out sheets of paper and bright markers to record those gifts, but later today or this week, let those people know the gifts you perceive. Perhaps you will visit with them in Coffee Hour, or pick up the phone and give them a call, dash off a text message or send them a note. Let’s be sure to do that.
At the start of this message, I was last sighted driving the streets of Medford, Oregon with a smile on my face and not a care in the world. My joy hangover faded as the week wore on. The following Saturday evening, when Selena called, eager to take me back to her storefront Pentecostal church, I declined the invitation. I had a fresh understanding of the power and diversity of the Holy Spirit’s work, but I was hopelessly Presbyterian. No amount of angel voices or the laying on of hands could change that. Come Sunday morning, it sure felt good to settle back into my usual pew and to appreciate the prolific, if more subtle, gifts of the Spirit that abounded among my Presbyterian friends and blessed us all. Amen.
Brian Peterson. “Commentary on 1 Cor. 12:3-13” in Preaching This Week, May 31, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Matt Skinner. “Commentary on 1 Cor. 12:3-13” in Preaching This Week, May 11, 2008. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Mary Hinkle Shore. “Commentary on 1 Cor. 12:3-13” in Preaching This Week, June 4, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
1 Cor. 12:4-13
4 Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, 5 and there are varieties of services but the same Lord, 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of powerful deeds, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.