Sermon - 3rd February 2019
Scripture - 1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-11, 14-18
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Recent sermons here have looked at accounts in the Bible which go beyond our expectations of the natural world: we have looked at healing and the feeding of many. Today, we continue this theme, as we look at spiritual gifts. In doing so, we revisit the question of God acting in ways that could be considered to be supernatural.
This question of whether God acts supernaturally today has been debated for centuries: the two sides of the theological debate are known as Cessationism and Continuationism. Cessationists believe that the supernatural happenings ceased at the end of the Biblical Age. Continuationists believe that acts of supernatural power continue to this day. The Reformed tradition, of which our church is a part, took the side of Cessationism in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646; however, writing in the century before this, key Reformers Luther, Calvin and Melanchthon all wrote about personal experiences involving spiritual gifts such as prophecy and healing. From a Cessationist point of view, they maintain that all we need to know about God is revealed in the Bible.
As with any theological argument, there are inherent dangers coming down firmly on one side or another. The Cessationists run the risk of limiting God, putting God’s acts of power into a closed box labelled “The Past”. For the Continuationists, looking in the present for miraculous happenings – type “miracle healing” or “speaking in tongues” into Youtube and you will see what I mean – and without firmly building Faith upon the rock which is the Bible, we run the risk of faith based on emotional experience which leaves us empty and doubtful when these miracles do not happen to us.
As with many things: balance and an open-mind is a good way forward.
And this is not too distant from what was going on in the church in Corinth, as we heard in our reading. Paul visited Corinth during his second missionary journey and founded the church there in years 52-54 CE, some 20 years since Jesus’ time on earth. He revisited the church during his third journey about 3 years later.
Corinth was an important city in the Roman Empire: they made it their provincial capital in Greece, with many influential and powerful people. It was also wealthy, with many merchants passing through. For these reasons, having a church there was key to spreading the Gospel.
The Bible contains two letters from Paul to the Church in Corinth. The first one, which contains our reading today, is mainly about misunderstandings about the faith and disputes between various groups in the church.
One of the disputes is about spiritual gifts. It is not the same question – Cessationism versus Continuationism; it is different – the people there were squabbling about some spiritual gifts being more important than others, and those people having more important spiritual gifts being more important as a result!
In our reading, we hear that Paul is having none of this human nonsense of a hierarchy of people relating to spiritual gifts. We read, not just once, but three times, every time from a slightly different perspectives, that the reason for spiritual gifts is to serve God.
When we read the Bible as a whole, and, in particular, the New Testament, it is clear that as Christians, each and every one of us is blessed by the Holy Spirit. One way of describing this blessing is “spiritual gifts”.
Have you ever received a really special present? Have you ever put that present aside, waiting for a special moment to use it, only to find that when you did come to use it, you couldn’t! Maybe the special chocolates were now out of date and spoiled? Or the special item of clothing didn’t fit? As Christians, Paul teaches that each of us has received spiritual gifts, and that we are to use them, not keep them aside for a later time.
Another way in which Paul warns us is not to treat spiritual gifts like a trophy cabinet, showing how successful or blessed we claim to be. The spiritual gifts which God gives us are tools: they are meant to be used for the work of God in our everyday lives.
So, what are the spiritual gifts? As with many things in the Bible, lists of things tend to occur more than once, in different books of the Bible, and have slightly differing contents. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, preaching, discernment, speaking in languages not learnt and interpretation. In others of Paul’s letters these differ (like this list in Romans 12:4-8), and if we read across the Bible as a whole and look at the ways in which God has particularly gifted individuals, we can see a far longer list!
When we look down at a list like this and thinking about our own church, names might come to mind which seem to fit in certain gifts. You may even recognise yourself.
The shortcoming in the church in Corinth was to rank these gifts into a status list of importance, and it is here that Paul uses one of the most well-known of his teachings: we are all one body with many equal parts: “For the body itself is not made up of only one part, but of many parts. If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I don't belong to the body,” that would not keep it from being a part of the body.” (1Co 12:14)
Paul goes on to repeat his simile, mentioning the eye and the ear. Without the eye, we could not see; without the ear we could not hear. We can’t all be all eyes, or all hands or all feet. “God put every different part in the body just as he wanted it to be.” (1Co 12:18)
You might not be the person to write the sermon, but you are the person who warmly welcomes every new person and makes them feel affirmed. You might not be someone who writes the prayers, but you are the person who works in the background to make sure everything is in the right place, or someone who takes on the tasks of clearing away or hoovering the carpet. You might not be someone who sings in the choir, but you do take the time to respond to folk on social media and support them with your messages and prayers.
If we had had the whole of 1 Corinthians 12 as our reading, you would have heard Paul reinforce this message of diversity and inclusion of our abilities over and over. In our context, I believe we can extend the metaphor to talk about how our diversity as LGBT+ people and our abilities and gifts are affirmed in the church.
Our church with its two congregations does face challenges. We rejoice at the increasing numbers coming to this afternoon Metropolitan Congregation, but the morning congregation who bears most of the responsibility for the upkeep of the building is now much older: we need to learn to share the shouldering of that practical responsibility. Similarly, we would like to train and include more folk in the various service roles.
The heart of the matter is that we are here to do Christ’s work, together and equally. The Spanish nun, Theresa of Avila, alive in the 16th century, and so a contemporary of the Protestant Reformers, Luther and Calvin, wrote this prayer of reflection:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.