Back to series

Good morning, everyone. Please go with me, if you will, to the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 12.

We’re continuing a series this morning I’m calling, simply, “gifted,” talking about spiritual gifts within the body of the church. Gifts are one of the major ways we we love each other. So, my hope in this series, what I’m wanting you to take away, is an understanding of what love looks like in Christianity.

I talked about this last week—it’s no coincidence in the Bible that teachings on spiritual gifts and teachings on loving one another as members of the body of Christ are paired. The passage we’re about to read this morning, for instance, really spans about three chapters. We’re going to read one of them, and return later to this passage. Chapters twelve and fourteen dive deeply into the practicality of using spiritual gifts within the community of believers, and right in between these two sections, you find what is probably one of the most widely known passages of the Bible expounding the virtues of loving one another.

Last week we looked at the building of the tabernacle in the days of Moses, and how the Spirit of God filled the craftsmen with the gifts and abilities to do the work. The Spirit is still doing the same thing, and for the same reasons today. So often when we talk about spiritual gifts, we’re focused on what we are able to do in the power of the Spirit we lose sight of what the Spirit is wanting to do in us. Since the garden and the fall, through the days of Moses and the kings, in the incarnation of Christ and the Pentecost of his Spirit, the Lord is wanting to dwell with us, to fill us with his abundant life, just as in creation the Spirit of God filled the earth with abounding life.

This week we’re going to begin to look at giftedness in the context of the Church and begin to explore, specifically, what it looks like to be “good stewards of God’s varied grace.” Let’s read it, 1 Corinthians 12, starting in v. 1 [1 Cor 12:1-31]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

It’s important to understand the context of what Paul is addressing, and to understand his audience. Overall, Corinth is a bit of a mess, and I say that as a New Orleanian. Corinth was an incredibly wealthy port city, a Roman city, the ruling class. There was a temple to Aphrodite in Corinth which employed upwards of 1000 prostitutes at the time, making Corinth both a popular and a little bit icky tourist destination. I feel like we can understand this in the French Quarter. Many of the folks in the church had come from this background and found it difficult to leave it behind, causing all kinds of sexual entanglements and triangles within the church, making relationships messy, and I’ll say it “complicated” the idea of spiritual services rendered.

Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half preaching and teaching the whole time he was there, and even though everyone there was wealthy, they paid him nothing. He fell into poverty. He even had churches in Macedonia, which was an impoverished region, sending money to him in Corinth to plant the church there all while the Corinthians themselves did next to nothing to support the church or Paul’s work among them. Imagine a church planter in the suburbs of Nashville coming to New Orleans to fundraise. It just doesn’t make sense. They struggled to see what Paul was doing for them, what he was giving them, as something of value.

In a passage leading up to what we read just now, Paul is using the word gift over and over again to describe the financial contributions coming from other churches to support his work in Corinth, and he says you’ve given me no gift and it’s caused me harm, which I think helps us understand what he’s trying to say by the time he gets to chapter twelve. He’s trying to communicate to them the value of what he gave them over the year and a half he was with them. He’s saying, I gave you a gift—not of money or material, but a gift all the same; a spiritual gift. And he’s encouraging them to give the same to each other.

This may be subtle, but hopefully you can understand when I say, he’s not inaugurating a new category of gift, but rather trying to give honor to the things we give each other that aren’t things at all. In other words, he’s trying to say that some of the best gifts you can give each other are of the spiritual sort. My friends have a plaque on the wall in their house that says, “The best things in life aren’t things.”

This may surprise you if you grew up in church, but the word form we translate as “spiritual gifts,” in the Bible, the word is really only used that way three times. The word gift is all over the place, as well as the word spirit, but the kind of usage we see here where we would translate it “spiritual gift” is used only three times, two of which occur in this larger section in 1 Corinthians. The only other time Paul uses the phrase, he tells the Roman church that he longs to see them in order that he might give some spiritual gift to strengthen them, which all of this goes back to something we were talking about last week.

We tend to have separate categories in our minds for gifts and spiritual gifts. Those categories aren’t so separate in Paul’s mind and in the early church. We’ve all been given so much. Even if you can’t contribute much to the financial health of the church, you can contribute to the spiritual health of the church, and that’s incredibly worthwhile, too. I’ve heard other pastors say, time, talents, and treasures. The point is to realize what you have, and begin to use it intentionally and helpfully within your community.

My first real point this morning is that spiritual gifts have more to do with your role in a given local body than they have to do with your personality. I grew up in churches thinking about spiritual gifts a lot like a personality trait, or a talent. It’s something you had within you somehow, but you didn’t always know it, and if you weren’t careful you could squander the gift or quench it. You could take a test to understand it better, and that could help you find a meaningful place of service in your church.

Now, hear me, I think some of those things actually can be very helpful tools for self-reflection and encouragement, but they can also be a bit misleading. One thing I love about the spiritual gifts inventories is the insistence that everyone has something to give. That’s true. We need to find our roles in the body of Christ, find our lanes, and run in them. But taking a test like a personality test to determine your spiritual gifting suggests a few things that really aren’t biblical and from what I’ve seen can derail the community of your church in many ways. Personalities don’t really change, unfortunately for myself and many others in our church. Take the enneagram, for example. I’m either an eight or a one, what’s called a reformer. It basically means I’m perfectionistic, which at its worst turns into being hyper critical all the time. Now, I can work to be a healthy reformer, but outside of a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, I’ll never be a nine. Nines are called peacemakers. They go with the flow, they don’t cause waves. I am a wave.

If spiritual gifts were like personalities, then your role in whatever local church you’re in would never really change. You would never develop into a new role. Paul’s encouragement at the end of this passage to eagerly desire the greater gifts, then, wouldn’t make sense. If you desire something, it means you don’t already have it, so him telling everyone to desire the greater gifts would essentially, then, mean he’s encouraging everyone eagerly to seek to change something they can’t affect at all.

Take my own church life for example. At my last church, I taught a whole lot, but I would preach in the gatherings only rarely. According to scripture, those are two separate gifts. Before that, I served constantly. I would show up early on Sundays to clean the whole church. Before that, I set up and tore down sound equipment for service—I did that for years because we didn’t have a building, and I never preached, but I did get to take part in some miraculous things, which again in our passage is listed as a separate spiritual gift.

I’m not trying to say I have all the spiritual gifts. Opposite, really. I’m trying to do less in this church every day. What I’m saying is, your gifts change according to the needs of the people around you and according to your maturity oftentimes as a Christian. As a pastor, I’ve had a lot of people, young people especially, approach me and tell me they’re gifted in teaching or preaching, or prophecy, and then oftentimes they get offended if I don’t immediately place them in positions where they can exercise those gifts. If I ask them to serve, instead, and they’ll leave the church and find a place where they’re able to do whatever it is they’re demanding to do. I’ve known new Christians, who without any real knowledge of the word will begin to speak what they will call prophecies into people’s lives because they say God gave them the words.

Hopefully you can see what I mean. The spiritual gifts you’re able to give the congregation, empowered by the Holy Spirit, will change as you change, and according to the needs of the congregation you’re a part of, just as your material gifts to people you love will change with your role and ability. Gifts always change in a relationship, as the people in the relationship change. I don’t give my eight-year-old son the same gifts I did when he was two, nor do I give this congregation the gifts I gave to my last congregation. Why would God give me the same things he gave me ten years ago, and why would I give you what I was giving my church ten years ago? The needs are different, and I’m different. The Spirit has variously empowered me to fulfill the various roles into which God’s called me. So He does with each of us.

May second point this morning is that spiritual gifts are given by the Spirit and for the congregation. Spiritual gifts don’t belong to you, and if they are coming through you they usually aren’t for you, but for the people in your community. Spiritual gifts don’t belong to you, which means you can’t control them. Some gifts you can develop, like knowledge or teaching, and those gifts, especially, call for the humility of knowing, as you develop, you’re dependent on everyone who came before you who wrote those books you’re reading, and on the Spirit who has called you toward the development of those gifts. They also call for the humility of using those gifts for the building up of the body rather than the building up or your reputation.

Other gifts are either entirely or at least somewhat out of your control. Miracles, for example. Jesus tells some of the religious leaders of his day, only a twisted and crooked generation asks for miracles as though they deserve them, or as though God has to prove his power through signs. It’s common on television and in YouTube videos, even here in our neighborhood, to claim certain people have a special ability to perform miracles. No human being has that power, though. God alone does.

I would tell you, everyone who has the Spirit of God with them, every believer, has the ability to perform miracles, but no believer has the ability to control when and where God is going to work miraculously. Practically speaking then, I would encourage you, as Paul does here, to eagerly desire miracles in your life, and pray for them regularly in faith that God is able to do far more than we can imagine, but not to become mired in expectation and disappointment, thinking either God owes you a miracle for your great faith or that he can’t work through you because of your lack of faith. “Our God is in the heavens. He does what he wills.”

A lot of times when I’ve seen people trying to own a spiritual gift, telling people they have abilities of miraculous works and prophetic speech, usually they’re saying these things to try to silence dissent. No one wants to disagree with a prophet, and very few people would want to be on the wrong side of a miracle worker, and people have claimed these gifts time and time again to win arguments and win positions of influence within churches and religious groups. Phil told me a story this week about one pastor who stood up in an elders meeting and told everyone to obey him unquestioningly because he alone was the mouthpiece of God. Yikes. In truth, the Spirit doesn’t give us these gifts to lord it over each other. The spirit gives us spiritual gifts in order to serve and love one another in honor of our Lord, Jesus.

You’ll be able to recognize the person with discernment in your congregation, the one who speaks prophetic words, because she will be the one speaking in love, lifting others up to serve alongside her, encouraging curiosity and debate, turning people toward the scriptures to eagerly desire, themselves, the greater gifts of the spirit. You’ll recognize the person trying to use the spirit to grab at power by their attempts to silence dissent, asking people to receive truth only from their mouth, only from their teaching, and putting other leaders in the church down so no one is able to challenge their authority.

You don’t own the gifts—no one does, and no one has all of the gifts. One person does not a church make. Sometimes you meet people who are so uniquely talented, the temptation is to load them down with all of the work of the church, and especially in church planting and small church work, the temptation is to let one person or a handful of people do the work of the church—but to allow that is really to spiritually impoverish the body of Christ. Spiritual people will recognize the Spirit working in and through the other people around them, and want to bring out the giftedness in other people.

There’s much more we could and should say about this passage, but I already feel like there’s too much in this sermon—I’m sorry to be so teachy today. One of the joys of pastoring a local congregation is, I have time. We’ll come back to this passage next week and answer some of the questions that remain. We need to define some of the gifts he mentions, things like prophecy and speaking in tongues. And for those of us not coming from a charismatic background, we need to learn to long for the charismatic gifts, as Paul instructs us here, and learn their use within and without the congregation. That’s something with which chapter fourteen can be especially helpful. We also need to make sure, as a church, we’re honoring those who are serving in ways which naturally are less honored, and humbling those who serve in ways which attract honor.

But for this morning, it’s enough to see and really understand the main point of this passage. At it’s center, this passage is about loving one another. Hopefully, only one day post-Christmastide we haven’t forgotten already, gifts are meant to be shared with people you love. The main point of the passage is, we’re one body, and when one of us hurts, all of us do. When one of us experiences loss, we’re all made the less. No one is an island. We’re all connected, and we need each other.

The main point of the passage is that love is patient and kind. It doesn’t envy or boast. It rejoices with the truth; it bears all things, hopes all things, and if you don’t have that in your church. If you forget how to serve each other whether or not you agree with each other. If you don’t have love in your family, if you forget that the things you’re given aren’t meant for you alone. If you don’t have love you have nothing.

You can speak in tongues and prophecy, make money, take great vacations, get the job, the house, build the reputation, and if you forget to love the people close to you everything else you did wasn’t worth anything. So often in our conversations about spiritual gifts we get so wrapped up in what we might be able to do that we forget what God is trying to do in us. He wants to come and dwell with us, richly, wholly. That’s the point. This is a big part of how he’s doing it.

When all of these gifts cease, love remains.

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