Back to series
Good morning, everyone, and welcome to phase two. If you’re not keeping up with local news, good for you, you’re probably far happier than I am, but what you don’t know is that New Orleans has approved 50% occupancy for churches starting today, which is what we decided as a church to wait for to consider resuming in-person services. After our Sunday small group tonight, I’m planning to post our plans to reopen on this page.
It’s hard to believe it’s been fourteen weeks since we’ve moved services online. I typed “fourteen weeks” into google just trying to figure out what else takes fourteen weeks. Pregnancy. Everything was babies. Did you know this—at fourteen weeks, your baby is the size of an orange, has hair, and can smile. That’s how long we’ve been doing this—hairy, smiling orange long.
But again, welcome to phase two, and the beautiful prospect of seeing everyone again. Church, I have missed you. I have missed worshipping together more than I thought possible, and God has shown me in this time, especially with our neighbors we haven’t seen, how much I’ve come to love the people who are a part of this church, and I’m grateful to the Holy Spirit for that work in my life.
We’ve been in a summer series on the Holy Spirit since Pentecost, two weeks ago, talking about what it means that God is with us—it’s one of the major themes of the Bible, whether or not God is with his people, and now, in the Spirit, God is here with us, with his church, even today, even in New Orleans, as we leave our churches and go out into our everyday lives, he is with us. And last week we talked about discernment, the gift of the Spirit where are miraculously able to know things about God, not that we’ve fathomed him, not that we don’t get it wrong, but we can know and love him truly, just like we know and love each other.
This week, we’re looking at 1 Corinthians 12 and 13—it’s a longer passage, but man, it’s one we need to take the time to read and consider, because it’s all about spiritual gifts. We’ve already talked about discernment as a spiritual gift, but in this passage, the apostle Paul looks at how the Spirit empowers every Christian to serve and strengthen the people around her.
Go with me, 1 Corinthians 12, starting in v.4. Paul writes, [1 Corinthians 12:4-13:9]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God, I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
I want to start by getting a clear picture of what we’re talking about, here. Spiritual gifts are ways the Holy Spirit unveils himself and his work to the church. V.7 in our passage says this: “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” To each, meaning spiritual gifts aren’t only for super-holy Christians, but for each and every believer. Even the new believers, or the ones who don’t know that much about the Bible. Even the ones who feel like they don’t belong. And I want us to pay close attention to this biblical definition here in v.7: a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Spiritual gifts are manifestations of the Spirit for the common good. They are the Holy Spirit working in and through you for the good of the people around you, which brings me to the first point from our text: It’s not about you. Spiritual gifts are manifestations of the Spirit for the good of the church; they aren’t about you.
There are two common conceptions of spiritual gifts which are confused in some ways that can become damaging to a church: One, we’ve confused spiritual gifts with remarkable talents or abilities, and two, we’ve confused spiritual gifts with the strengths and weaknesses of our own personalities.
We’ll start with the first confused conception: spiritual gifts as remarkable abilities. Yes, God has given us our talents and abilities as well, they are gifts—you can be a gifted pianist or a gifted teacher—but the problem comes when we attribute remarkable abilities and talents to the power of the Holy Spirit working in a person. We need to fight the urge to see a very talented person and think, “Wow, this guy is filled with the Spirit.” This is actually specifically taught against several places throughout the Bible, because the practice of conflating remarkable abilities with the Holy Spirit allows gifted teachers, skilled communicators, gifted Christian musicians or politicians, to come into the church and lead people away from sound teaching and practice because people are so impressed by their talent. It’s because we assumed their talent in teaching, etc. equated to being led by the Spirit. We’ve confused spiritual gifts with talents and abilities.
Two, the other damaging way we’ve confused spiritual gifts is—again—we’ve confused the strengths and weaknesses of our own personalities with spiritual gifting. If you grew up in the church, you may have taken a spiritual gifts assessment, telling you this or that is your spiritual gifting, and the assessment is basically a baptized Myers Brigs or Enneagram. I’m not worried about the assessments—those kinds of tests can be fun and a good, insightful conversation starters—but the idea behind pairing personality tests with spiritual gifts is damaging, because it leads people to think we kind of own a spiritual gift that we can discover outside of our service of the body, and the other gifts are completely out of our reach—all of which are opposed to Paul’s teaching here. We think we have one or two spiritual gifts we can keep it in our back pocket to pull out when we need it; and that the Holy Spirit works in us by doing what we would naturally do anyways. It makes the Spirit seem superfluous to our work in the church, since we are able to pull our spiritual gift out of our pocket whenever we need it, and it makes his gifting all about us, who we are, our identity—rather than teaching that it’s not about us, that the Spirit is able to change us, that our identity is founded upon his work, and that we will only see him move when we are oriented toward life together with the whole body. That’s what’s damaging.
So when Paul speaks in our passage about spiritual gifts, he’s not talking about people’s talents or their personalities—he’s not a CEO trying to figure out the best dynamic for his team’s efficiency and effectiveness—he’s talking about the work of the Holy Spirit to unify and empower his church. All of these things he lists: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues—these are all things Paul has seen the Holy Spirit do in and among his church. He’s not talking about you and what you’re good at.
I’m going to tell you a common story. This happens in every church, but especially in small churches like ours: a guy joins the church. Let’s call him Jim. Immediately you can tell, this dude is talented. He knows the Bible well and speaks well, but before he’s really even a part of the life of the church, Jim sets a meeting with the pastor. He tells the pastor that the Holy Spirit has led him to be in a teaching role at the church—usually leading a small group. Jim has long known that he is spiritually gifted for teaching, and he’s desiring to use his Spiritual gift.
Here’s my response to Jim—find a place to serve, and serve humbly. Let the people around you tell you the ways in which the Spirit is working in and through you in this specific body, because until you understand what God is doing in and through this particular body, you can’t possibly know how the Spirit will gift you to serve them. We don’t own gifts, they aren’t merely your talents and abilities. Because spiritual gifts are works of the Spirit for the welfare of the church, not your work in the church. It’s not about you.
Yes, some people are given one spiritual gift for the majority of their life, but most often not. Your spiritual gifting is most likely to be in response to the changing needs of the church. Why would Paul say in v.31 to desire the greater gifts if the gifting of the Spirit doesn’t change, if his readers wouldn’t be able to obtain the higher gifts? And yes, sometimes the Spirit gifts talented people according to their talents, but most of the time not, because God delights to show himself in our weakness. Spiritual gifts are more related to the leading of the Spirit into a particular service than they are related to your talents or personality. You don’t need to discover what your gifts are, you need to be led by the Spirit in service to see how he will work to meet the needs of his church through you. It’s not about you; it’s to the glory of God.
Because spiritual gifts are not about you, the Spirit will often gift you in ways that don’t really fit your personality and which benefit the church instead of you. In my life, this has certainly been true. The first ministry position I held was to coordinate the assimilation ministry for a church, meaning greeting people and helping to get them plugged into the church. And you may think, oh, he would be great at that, but you only might be thinking that because you didn’t know me at age 22.
I was deeply introverted, kind of rude, and coming out of a very difficult year. I didn’t speak to people in college, and I had deep trouble getting to know people and making friends—typically I wasn’t well liked if I ever did let my guard down. Just thinking about speaking with someone I didn’t know fills me with anxiety. And here I was, talking to my pastor, him saying the Holy Spirit may be directing me to lead the greeting team.
My personality is wrong for this, I told him. I don’t have social skills. Hospitality is not my spiritual gift. So I was basically the opposite of Jim—I had the same misunderstandings about spiritual gifts, but instead of thinking my personality and talent could carry me, I felt I would almost certainly fail. I had no thought about the Spirit perhaps doing his work through me, work I would not be able to do without him.
But the Spirit did work in and through me during that time. To my shock and horror, I had people calling me to thank me for making them feel welcomed at the church, that it felt like they had come home. Let me be clear—I did not discover a hidden talent. I am still painfully anxious and feel very shy in social situations. I have better social skills now, but I still have all of these same struggles. It’s just that the Spirit has chosen to manifest himself in me to serve the people around me. It has very little to do with me. If you think I’m boasting right now about a time I did a cool thing for a church, you’re not listening to what I’m saying.
If you want to live a life of giftedness in the Spirit, if you’re asking, “what are my spiritual gifts?” That’s the wrong question, because you’re asking about yourself, and it’s not about you. Ask instead, what are the needs of the people around me? What does my church need? What do my neighbors need? And then begin to pray for the Spirit to work in their lives. Pair works with your prayers and begin to try to meet their needs. Then, when God does amazing things and you’re a part of it, when the Spirit manifests himself in you for the common good, then you’ll know how he is gifting you. God is generous. He gives gifts to each of his children, gifts to serve the family and the body of Christ.
And if you are moved by the needs of the people around you into an area of service or ministry where you are unexperienced and unsure of yourself, don’t assume you’re not going to be able to do it, because it’s “not your gifting.” Follow the Spirit in his leading, knowing that the areas of ministry or service you are more confident about don’t have as much to do with you as you thought they did.
It’s not about you. Look to see the needs of your community, pray for the Holy Spirit to work, and participate in what he is already doing in and through your congregation.
Second, the second point from the text today is this: Every Christian is of equal value to the Church. Every Christian is of equal value to the church. Again, in v. 21 Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
Christian, I don’t care if you came to believe in Christ thirty minutes ago or thirty years ago, if you are in Christ, you are member of the body of Christ. It doesn’t matter if your gift, your role in serving the needs of the congregation, is small and kind of hidden. You are a part of the body. And is there any part of your body that wouldn’t cause you enormous pain and grief to cut off? So it is with the body of Christ.
Let’s say you’re watching this on the internet, and you’re part of what one pastor calls “the walking wounded.” The disaffected. You got burned. Maybe you were a part of a church before, and one of the church members, or the pastor, hurt you deeply. And suddenly you realized that even the most mature believers, the people you were so impressed with at first, are still just sinful people.
I see your empty seat in our church, and I grieve for it. You may think, you’re not important to the church, that we don’t miss you. But we’re not fine without you. Please come back. I’m sorry that the church hurt you. We are so sinful and in need of restoration. Your absence from the church is like losing a limb. Yeah, maybe we’ll survive, and we can still live a beautiful life here without you, but it’s not without pain and hardship.
Every Christian is of equal value to the church. We need each other, church. And I love this passage, because Paul admits the hierarchy of honor that everyone in a church kind of naturally feels, and he encourages people to desire and give honor to the greater gifts—apostles, prophets, teachers. But then he tells those teachers, don’t think you’re able to get by without the rest of the body. We can talk all day about the brain and its importance, but that brain loses all importance and vitality if it loses its body. So it is if prophets and teachers attempt to lead when no one is following them.
When I say everyone is of equal value to the church, I know people roll their eyes. Right. They don’t let me up on stage, or ask me to teach the small group. And Paul acknowledges that—in kind of a funny way, I don’t know if you noticed this—he basically says, some parts of your body you uncover, like your face, and some parts you don’t show to people so as not to offend them (I’ll leave it to your imagination what parts of his body he may have in mind). But just because some parts aren’t seen doesn’t mean they don’t matter to the body, or that they are of lesser value. It’s just that the purpose of that part of the body is not to be shown to everyone or heard from.
One thing I’ve noticed in my time at the Vieux is that servants are highly honored and valued, which is beautiful. Usually servants are overlooked. But don’t value that spiritual gift in the body to the point that you devalue other gifts. For example the gifts of administrating and helping Paul mentions in v.28. The one who stays home with the child so that the other can go serve on Friday is of equal value to the body.
The one who lives in the adorable house, and has adorable problems, who goes to work in a car that he bought himself, and earns the money which will pay our water bill is still operating as a part of the body and is equal in value to the one who is here talking, praying with our neighbors whose problems seem impossible. If we lose sight of the value of the whole body, if we devalue those partners who are not as urban, not as gritty, we’ve lost a lot.
Which brings me to the last point from our text today, coming out of chapter 13: Whatever your gifts, without love your efforts aren’t worth anything. Whatever your gifts, without love your efforts aren’t worth anything. I’m looking at chapter 13, which we read at weddings, which is always at least a little bit funny to me, knowing that this is basically a long, beautiful insult to anyone who would attempt to do the work of the Spirit on their own ability.
Let’s say ten years from now, this church is humming. You know, there’s people out in the streets to worship with us on Sunday, Meg’s next book is broadly anticipated; they’re making a documentary about Phil’s ministry, and it’s rated R; Jess owns KIPP; AJ is a stunt biker in space; and we’re all at the top of our fields, our talent and ability is on display for the world to see. If, in that moment, we stop having time for each other and time for the Lord, if when people walk off the street into our church, we turn them away to make room for our admirers, if we aren’t making disciples, if we’ve stopped giving generously to the church and the people around us, if we look down on others because they didn’t achieve what we’ve achieved, if we stop standing and working against injustice—in short, if we abandon love, we have nothing.
Because the thing about love in Christianity: it’s not a feeling, and it’s not even an action. Love in our faith is a person. God is love. His Spirit is the love binding us together. So if we abandon love, we’re abandoning the very person of God. And a church without God has nothing of value in the kingdom economy.
I was talking about this fictional church member earlier, Jim, who comes into the church with all kinds of talent and ability. But he sees it as a waste to just be a part of the church body, to suffer and rejoice together with those members of the body who suffer and rejoice. He may have faith to move mountains, but if he doesn’t want to wash dishes so Mike can have a clean plate; or go sit on the porch with Momma Rose for a little while and talk about the way things are; or watch AJ or Elma for a while; or call Robyn to talk through a tough week; he doesn’t have anything of value to our church. I would take one person who genuinely loves and serves the people around her over fifty bright, talented people who don’t have love. Because God is love. Without him, we have nothing of value.
All of these things, all of our talents, all of the things we may or may not manage to accomplish in life or in the church—they’re all passing away, and so they are brief. Only love remains, because love never ends. If we have the Holy Spirit working among us, if we have love, we need little else.
If you are hearing this today and know that you are missing something from your life, that you are without the Holy Spirit, or that you have been operating on your own strength to do the work of the church rather than calling on the Spirit, know that “your soul will be restless until it finds it’s rest in God.” I hope you will call me and let me pray with you, that you will gather with us as a church again as we reopen the building, and come be a part of the community of the church again. Love lives here. Pray with me.