A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor of First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga. on March 14, 2010.
1 Corinthians 12:27-31
Our relationship to God and response to God cannot be relegated to special activities or special moments. Our relationship and response to God are going on all the time, whether we want them to or not.
— From To Walk Together Again by Richard M. Gula
We have an expression, and I am not even sure people in the broader society know where it comes from. If an individual has a certain talent or ability that seems unusual, we say they have a gift. Sometimes people who comment on sports, or people in other settings who talk about how someone has a gift, don’t realize that the concept is actually biblical. We think of a gift as something that has been bestowed upon us that we did not earn or that we did not make.
As a teenager, we had some unspoken definitions of what it meant to say that someone had a gift. It was a different day and we thought of things differently. Typically, if a male was thought of as having a gift, it almost always meant that he was athletic. It almost always meant that he could run with the football, shoot a basketball, or hit a baseball. Somebody would say, “Oh, he is so gifted.” That meant he was going to put you to shame if you played against him in a sport.
To say that a girl had a gift almost always seemed to mean that the girl could sing. She would be somebody who could get up and give a solo. Those were the days of Sunday night church and she would be somebody who would get up and sing on Sunday night. If she had a special gift, she might get to sing on Sunday morning.
There was a common factor. There was something that almost always made you say that somebody had a gift. That was that you could see what they did. Whatever we felt like was a unique ability or unique talent, in some way, got you up in public. People could see you perform athletically or they could hear you sing. People we referred to as having gifts almost always got a fair degree of attention. Those of us who felt like we had no gifts were always envious because we could see that the gifted people, the people with the special gift, got noticed and it always seemed to help in that ever important task of being popular. If somebody had a gift, they were noticed.
Sometimes we have trouble remembering from time to time where to look up things in Paul’s Letters. The important thing to remember about Paul’s Letters is that they were almost always addressed to churches that were having some kind of problem or issue. They needed help sorting things out.
If you look through the New Testament, you will notice that there is First Corinthians and Second Corinthians. They are two of the longest Letters of Paul along with Romans. That is a real hint that the Church in Corinth had lots of things for Paul to address. They had lots of problems. One of the problems that they had was what we refer to as gifts, spiritual gifts, gifts of the spirit. There is the awareness, as a Christian, that if the presence of the Living God, which we would describe as the Holy Spirit, is upon your life that it will show itself in some way. Through your particular talents, my particular abilities, we would say, “That is our spiritual gift.”
At the Church in Corinth, there were some pretty potent gifts. There were some gifts that would get you noticed in a heartbeat. There were gifts that were very pronounced and other people wanted those gifts because they could see it.
If you read early in the 12th chapter of First Corinthians, it talks about healing, miracles, and people who can prophesy. Of course, the great big one was speaking in tongues. Let me just say this to you. Speaking in tongues is not common to the experience of many people in this congregation. If you not familiar with it and have never seen it, a person senses the spirit upon their life and speaks in a way that is typically not understandable by anybody else around. There might be a person who has the gift of interpretation who can explain what is being said. But for the person who speaks in tongues, it is a meaningful experience in believing that God is saying something through them. To try to imitate it does a disservice. It almost sounds like we would be making fun of it, and I would not want to do that.
The key is that it was very public. In Corinth or even today, if you speak in tongues, stand up in church and do this unintelligible talk, people notice. Corinth was a socially, status-conscious place. It was a Roman colony, and within the colony, there was the social stratum. There were the people who were a little bit important and there were the people who were more important. In the church, they carried this out. It got to be that the people who could speak in tongues were way above the other people. They believed that everybody else should speak in tongues, too.
To help you understand the experience, let me ask you this: Have you ever, as a Christian, had another Christian that you felt was looking down on you? This is a sad thing for us to admit. This other Christian perhaps was a part of another Bible study, went to a different church, knew more about the Bible, prayed more often than you did, and when they talked to you, you always felt like they were up here and you were down here. They were the first class Christian and you were the second class Christian, and they were looking down on you. That is what is going on at Corinth and why Paul must address the problem.
There was a division in the church in this sense, by some people, that their gifts were not important. The only gift that really mattered was the gift of speaking in tongues.
I want to read for you 1 Corinthians 12 from the Contemporary English Version. I think this version is easier to understand.
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same spirit. There are different ways to serve the same Lord, and we can each do different things. Yet the same God works in all of us and helps us in everything we do. This spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others. Some of us can speak with wisdom, while other people can speak with knowledge, but these gifts come from the same spirit. To others, the spirit has given great faith or the power to heal the sick or the power to do mighty miracles. Some of us are prophets and some of us recognize when God’s spirit is present. Others can speak different kinds of languages and still others can tell what these languages mean. But it is the spirit who does all this and decides which gifts to give each of us.”
One spirit, many gifts. What Paul says is that the spirit has done this so why should any of us boast? Why should I brag because I have received a gift? What have I done to make that something worth boasting about? He also says that it is not for personal glory, like when I was a teenager and I thought, “I would like a gift because that would bring attention to me.” No, a gift is about serving God. A gift is about giving some ability to serve God and he says there are a lot of them, and everybody’s gift has value.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul even mentions that some people help, some people have the gift of administration. I don’t remember as a teenager or ever in my adult life wishing for the gift of administration. Do you? Usually, we want something more flamboyant, something that can be seen and noted. Have any of us ever prayed, “Lord, give me the gift of helping others,” but that is one of the gifts. I would really rather be a miracle worker and heal people, right? Not really, but that is where our minds go most of the time.
This is one of the Sundays when we think about the heritage of our church. Today, we think about people with the gifts that you never notice, the people who are behind the scenes, the people we don’t pay attention to who don’t get up in public. These people are a great part of this congregation’s heritage. They are a great part of the work we do and how we extend the ministry and the mission of this church in doing all the things that God has called upon us to do.
Actually, the idea for this came about when I was up in the TV booth. I saw a TV camera from the 1960’s. Do you remember those big cameras? The cameras we have now look like a home movie camera compared to those older cameras. I thought about all the people who had worked in the booth, all the people who worked behind the camera that we never notice, the people that we never see. My mind went to work on the kinds of things that people use their gifts to do that are virtually invisible to the congregation.
Do you realize that on the fourth Tuesday of every month there is a group of people who prepare meals and distribute food? Probably nobody ever sees them boil the hot dogs. Nobody ever sees them put the bags together. But on the fourth Tuesday evening of every month, there are hundreds of people who get fed in Rome.
On the fourth week of the week, unless you are one of them, you don’t see the people who go to the Community Kitchen and serve food. You don’t see the people from this congregation who sit in the office of Good Neighbor Ministries and hear some of the saddest stories you could ever want to hear about people who are desperate to keep on the heat for their children or elderly parents and try to make some determination about how that person might get help in Christ’s name.
You don’t see the people who tutor an individual in reading or help someone learn English so they can function in this society.
You do see the pretty flowers here today, but what you won’t see is the volunteer who comes in on Monday, breaks downs Sunday’s flowers, and makes a thing of beauty to take to people who are in the hospital or nursing home. Hopefully, the flowers will somehow minister the presence of worship that they missed through the presence of the flowers that they, perhaps, have seen on television and also to minister the presence of God through the beauty of these flowers.
During this economic downturn, we have been very fortunate as a congregation because some people have the gift of generosity. Nobody ever sees the person with the gift of generosity sit down and write their check. Nobody sees the people who are gifted with the gift of administration who work on the Finance Committee and other places like that. This committee has put together the most incredible plan that has enabled us to weather this economic crisis when many other organizations have not done as well.
There are people who help someone into the church when it is raining, and the people who are taking care of babies so parents can worship in this sanctuary. All we do is look around and think, “I wonder where so and so is. They must not be here today.” If they are not taking care of your child, you have no idea that right now they are telling some six month old that Jesus loves them, changing the diaper of a nine month old, or playing with a two year old. It is a gift. All of these things are gifts. How could we have ever come 175 years without the people who have been given the gifts of God to be in places where no credit is wanted, no credit is desired, and nobody every sees them but they just do the work?
If you have children, who teaches your children in Sunday school? If you grew up in this church, who taught you in Sunday school? Some of the kids that are in Extended Session right now may grow up to be vitally involved in church as a lay leader. They may grow up to be a minister of some kind. We may think it is because of a church camp or retreat that they went on, and we will never know that it was because somebody held them and they grew to love church by the way they were treated when they were two years old. These are all gifts, and thank goodness, they are not all flamboyant. Thank goodness they are not all visible and not all public, but they are all gifts.
Listen to what Paul says. “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same spirit. There are varieties of services but the same Lord. There are varieties of activities but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the demonstration of the spirit for the common good. To one is given through the spirit the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge, according to the same spirit to another. . . .” It just goes on and on.
Then, of course, we have the passage for today. “God has so arranged the body of Christ to give honor to the inferior members that there may be no dissention within the body and that the members may have care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer with it. If one is honored, all are honored together. Now, you are the body of Christ, individual members of it, and God has appointed in the church apostles, prophets, teachers, those with deeds of power and gifts of healing and helping and administration and various kinds of tongues.”
It takes everybody. It takes the gifts that God has given each one of us—the gifts we can readily see and the gifts we cannot see. One spirit, many gifts. A great heritage. A great heritage of using what God has given us for the service of the kingdom.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.