Sermon - 17th November 2019
Using our gifts
In one of his most lovely hymns, Charles Wesley wrote these words:
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work, and speak, and think for thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up thy gift in me.
(O thou who camest from above)
If we believe that this church has been raised up by God for a purpose which God has in mind, we can also be certain that God has equipped the people of this church with all the gifts they need to fulfil that purpose.
God does not set people up to fail. Somewhere, among those of us here, and those yet to come, are all the gifts we need to achieve our mission. Our task is to discover those gifts, nurture them, and put them into service.
But we need to recognise that sometimes the mixture of all our gifts needs to be stirred a little more before it is ready for its purpose. Or perhaps sometimes the mixture is fully prepared but we lack the confidence to apply the necessary heat to finish off the process.
Gifts are tricky things; people can respond very differently to being stirred up. Saint Paul had serious problems with one of his churches on this very matter.
The church in Corinth had got itself really stirred up and had sidetracked itself into a huge mess about status and pecking order.
Paul had founded the church here in around 50 AD after a highly unsuccessful visit to Athens. He earned his living in Corinth as a tentmaker, lodging with two Jews who had been expelled from Rome, Aquila and his wife Priscilla.
On the arrival of Paul’s helpers, Timothy and Silas, they taught both Jews and Greeks, firstly in the synagogue and then in a private house. As a result, a large church developed in Corinth, mostly from the poor and slave classes.
Corinth was an important and prosperous city and was the capital of the Roman Province which covered southern Greece. It was a city of great commerce, wealth, renowned for its culture. But it was also a city of great squalor and vice and notorious for its immorality.
It lay on the great trade route between Rome and the East and so was a very mixed and diverse community. Its multi-cultural character brought about the development of a variety of cults from places like Egypt Phoenicia.
The chief shrine in the city was the Temple of Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love. And the priestesses of Aphrodite at Corinth, who included a form of prostitution in their services, are said to have numbered at least one thousand.
Against this backdrop, Paul had spent around 18 months in the city, sowing the seeds of the gospel of Jesus among a community of Jews and Greeks, and then he left them in the care of a locally-appointed leader, Apollos, while Paul continued his missionary journey back to Ephesus.
Not surprisingly, the local culture of Corinth started to affect some of the principles of the Corinthian church. Some of Paul’s original teaching began to be diluted and reinterpreted; and so Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians – (we think) on four occasions – to try to pull them back to the principles of the faith on which he had originally founded the church.
At one stage in this series of letters, Paul received news that the Corinthian Church was splitting into factions and a letter arrived asking for Paul’s ruling on a variety of points concerning the ordering of worship and relationships with the pagan society within Corinth.
Paul’s reply is what our bibles call the First Letter to the Corinthians. And in chapter 14 – as we heard today – Paul tried to sort out a local argument about which spiritual gift is the best gift to have – which gift confers the highest status.
It seems that, to the Corinthians, the supernatural character of the gift of speaking in tongues signified to them that this was the most impressive gift with which to be blest. It was the clearest sign of possession by the Holy Spirit and so offered great social prestige.
When he deals with this subject, Paul does not in any way devalue the authentic gift of tongues, but he challenges the Corinthians to ask themselves how a private conversation with God, in a private language, contributes to the building up of the church. And he contrasts the gift of tongues with the gift of prophecy where the very purpose of the gift is to communicate an experience of God to the community.
He uses strong words when writing to what had become a stubborn and corrupted community, and he revisits the matter again and again, using lots of different examples. But he firmly tells the Corinthians that sounds without meanings which can be understood by everyone, contribute nothing to the church community, no matter how dramatic, supernatural or exotic the gift may appear to be.
For Paul, anything within worship which is private or exclusive or which emphasises personal status instead of equality and inclusion, is a likely cause of disputes and conflict.
For a healthy church, much seems to depend on how we discern, nurture and direct our gifts towards love for one another which is founded on equality and inclusion. So the question for us today seems to be around how we focus the gifts we bring to our community of faith.
We learn from Paul that the hallmark of an authentic spiritual gift, properly nurtured and applied, is that it builds up the church; in other words, it works alongside and in partnership with what we believe God is doing to raise up this church and to achieve God’s purpose for us. The old saying, ‘God first, others second, self last’ is still a good benchmark for what each of us does in the church’s name.
Perhaps these days, the biblical names used for spiritual gifts are not very accessible to us. We may not always recognise the gifts we bring to our ministries in terms of the names used in Scripture. We don’t always have a clear picture of what prophecy, or mercy, or miracles, or discernment of spirits, might equate to in today’s culture.
Yet there are ways of digging beneath the surface of the language and discovering how God uniquely equips each one of us to grow in discipleship and, in so doing, to build up our church.
We do this whenever:
- we meet together, welcome new arrivals, and share fellowship and hospitality;
- when we study together to learn, to share, to encourage, and to allow ourselves to be drawn further into the Good News of Jesus;
- when we gather together to plan for the future, to share ideas and visions, to prophesy, to speak the truth as we see it, to challenge, to administer, to lead;
- when we come together to heal, to show faith, to show mercy, to pray for miracles.
We already achieve these outcomes through the gifts God plants in each one of us. We already have active ministries in these areas. But God is still stirring up other gifts, there will be other ministries to develop, other disciples to welcome into God’s church.
The hallmark of an authentic spiritual gift, properly nurtured and applied, is that it builds up the church; it works alongside and in partnership with what we believe God is doing to raise up this church and to achieve God’s purpose for us.
People who come to this church to reinforce what they already know, and what they already believe, and what they already like, will probably feel uncomfortable here because they will be surrounded by people who are on a journey of exploration into the mystery of God: a journey of change and spiritual growth which never ends.
We come here to be renewed and revived, not to be reinforced. In the words of St Richard of Chichester:
“O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly, day by day.”
God will continue to stir up the mixture of our lives; our challenge is to look at what God has already stirred in us, and discern whether more stirring is needed, or whether perhaps it’s time to apply some holy fire to fix the process in place.
Only by addressing this very personal question will we respond to our mission:
- to discover and use our gifts,
- to follow Jesus,
- as transformed disciples,
- building up the church which God has raised here among us.