Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Variety of Gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Ashley and I got back from our honeymoon earlier this week, and I’ve gotta tell you, it’s a little surreal to have to come down from on top of that cloud and plant your feet back in the real world. I just want to reiterate how glad we were that so many of you blessed us with your presence on our special day. We loved having our families, our friends, and members of both congregations gathered together in the same room, worshipping God, singing God’s praise, and surrounding us with love. That was a great gift to us.

And speaking of gifts, oh my goodness! There were so many wedding gifts! I wish someone would have prepared me for that! I’ve done a lot of weddings, I’ve been to a lot of weddings, I even went a little nutzo with the price gun thingy at Macy’s when we were setting up our registry, but I wish someone would have prepared me for the sheer number of gifts that would show up!

By the time the wedding day was over, the dining room at Ashley’s house, which had become our unofficial gift depository, was unpassable – there were gifts stacked all across the floor, in every corner, under the buffet, on the table, under the table, even in the chairs.

I’ve never seen so many gifts in one place before, and I’ve never prepared to write so many thank-you notes, either. The good news is that I hear we have a year to complete those notes and still be under Emily Post’s umbrella of acceptability. And, I also know that each of those gifts is simply someone saying “I love you, and here’s a little something for your new life together.”

Similarly, in today’s scripture reading, we find the apostle Paul writing to the Church at Corinth about spiritual gifts – gifts which are entrusted to individuals but manifested for the common good of the whole church. They belong, collectively, to the whole church to build them up in their life together and draw them together in the unity which God intends for those who are followers of Jesus. These spiritual gifts are God’s way of saying, to the whole Christian community, “I love you, and here’s a little something for your new life together.” May we pray.

The Christians in Corinth were given to divisions, quarrelling, and fighting. I know it’s hard to imagine followers of Jesus, members of the body of Christ, church people behaving in this way, but they were. Some people’s insecurities led them to snipe at others within the church, to bully them, to gossip about them, to spread negativity and dissension rather than work together toward unity. Some people arrogantly bragged about their own accomplishments and belittled the contributions of others. Some were jealous of the position of others within the church, and took pot shots at them. The only way some people could feel good about themselves was to put others down as often and as publicly as they could. Have you ever in your wildest dreams imagined that church people could be capable of such divisive evil toward one another?

There is something within human nature that always wants to divide into in-groups and out-groups; every generation struggles with this us-vs.-them mindset. Something within us always wants to divide people based on friend and foe. We use those divisions to place honorific labels upon those we perceive as “with us,” and pejorative labels upon those we perceive as “against us.” This division, fracturing, and labeling is the impulse of the evils we humans are capable of committing toward one another. And so we destroy and tear down, because we are bent and broken, which leads to deeper division, fracture, and fighting.

But friends, God proposes something better. God’s desire for us is to break free from the destructive patterns that are fueled by divisions, quarrelling, and fighting. You can sum up God’s entire interaction with humanity in one word: reconciliation. In dealing with humanity, all that God has ever done, is doing, and ever will do is directed solely and unilaterally at reconciliation with God and reconciliation with each other. Or, if you want to put it another way, God is constantly training us in the ways of love of God and love of neighbor.

For people of Christian faith, we celebrate Jesus as both the best example of God’s love and reconciliation, and the most excellent pathway to God’s love and reconciliation. God’s entire work of reconciliation is already accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and when our lives are placed securely in Jesus, we find ourselves transformed to become more like Jesus. In Jesus, God is reconciling all things to God’s self, both things on earth, and things in heaven (Colossians 1:20). And those things – people, in our case – who are reconciled to God, find themselves unified with each other.

The goal of the entire Christian existence is unity – unity with God, and unity with each other. Again, it’s love of God and love of neighbor. The goal for Christians is unity – it’s the thing for which Jesus prayed on the night before he died, when he prayed for us, for all his followers, for all who would call upon him as Lord, Jesus prayed, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:23).

Now, what Jesus knew, what Paul knew, what you and I know is that’s easier said than done, which is why God in the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are a wonderful thing! They are given to us by God, and enacted through us by the Holy Spirit for one purpose: the manifestation of the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). Again, going back to that unity and reconciliation God desires, you see how it all ties together. There are a variety of gifts, services, and activities, but there is one Spirit, one Lord, one God.

On your way in today, several of you were handed something – would you come up to the front now with the thing you were handed? What these folks may have guessed is that they were each handed a puzzle piece. Now, on its own, a puzzle piece isn’t all that interesting, and it doesn’t look like much. Do you know what you have to do with a puzzle piece for it to mean anything? When we surrender the individuality of each piece and put them together, something greater and more beautiful emerges. (Put puzzle together and display it).

Likewise, spiritual gifts are like puzzle pieces. When we put them together, God works through them and something beautiful emerges. We surrender the individuality of each one and place them together in community, and only when they are freely given through individuals to the entire community, the Spirit works in them and through them for the manifestation of the common good. Spiritual gifts are entrusted to individuals, but they are given to the entire Church. Everything we have is a gift from God, and God calls us to use what we have been entrusted with for the common good. Particularly within the church, everything we have, everything we do, everything we say, every attitude we harbor is intended to be directed toward building up the body of Christ, toward making reconciliation between us, God and each other a reality, toward achieving the unity God desires for this, God’s church.

When I was growing up, one closet in our family room was the game closet. My parents had filled the closet with metal shelves, and upon those shelves were every board game and puzzle imaginable. As games and puzzles were removed and put back in, from time to time, one or more of those boxes would fall. We would pick up the pieces as best we could, but you know that some of them fell in the back of the closet never to be seen again. How disappointing it was to pull out a favorite puzzle, work hours on putting it together, only to realize that it would never be complete because a few pieces were missing.

Paul looked at the church in Corinth, and he saw a picture with missing pieces. You see, there were some who thought so much of themselves and so little of others that they told them to just keep their piece of the puzzle out. There were others who were embarrassed by how relatively little they had, so they never brought their puzzle piece out. There were those who misunderstood the whole thing, and rather than bringing their piece to be added to the others, clutched it tightly and wouldn’t let go. There were others who, even though they had a piece of the puzzle, refused to bring it and share it. There will still others – mean, hateful, awful people – who after some had brought their piece, when they thought no one was looking they snatched it up, tore it to shreds and threw it away. Whatever the reason, the result was all the still the same – missing pieces, an incomplete picture, a fractured community, unrealized potential, a broken body of Christ.

In the church at Corinth, Paul saw Christians whose jealousy, arrogance, and mean-spiritedness were destroying the church. And God, speaking through his servant in this letter says, “Knock it off! Don’t you see what you’re doing to the body of Christ? If you’re going to call yourself a Christian, then act like it! And if you want to keep acting this way, do all of us a favor and stop claiming to be a Christian! For the love of God, literally, stop tearing the church apart! Don’t you realize that you’re all in this together?”

The last two weeks have had me in and out of airports, and I continue to be amazed at how self-centeredness and self-importance make it impossible to board an aircraft. You know how this works – as soon as boarding for the flight is announced, a whole bunch of people pop up and go wait, technically not in the line, but so close to the line that you can’t really tell they’re not in it. They are waiting for their turn to board, for zone 4, which is stamped on their ticket, to be called, but only after zones 1, 2, and 3 are called. Of course, the people in those three zones can’t get on the aircraft because the people in zone 4 are standing in the way.

It makes me wonder if they realize that, for all their shoving and pushing to be first, we’re still all on the same plane and we’re still all going to get there at the same time, and that if they would just cooperate and show the slightest bit of concern for others, they would actually get to wherever it is they’re in such a rush to get to just a little earlier. Like it or not, to get on a plane means that you’re in it together.

In the same way, being part of the church means that we’re in this together. You can assert your own importance at the cost of someone else’s or make yourself feel better by making someone else feel worse, but all you’re doing is making a miserable ride for everyone.

Now, if you’re one of those people whose ride is being made miserable, just remember this – regardless of what some mean or small-minded person does or says, you still have a seat on the plane. Jesus has already purchased your ticket, Jesus died for you, too, and nobody can take that away.

Paul knew that we would be faced with a constant choice, that we would live our lives at the intersection between two competing claims. We in the church can either engage in the behaviors and attitudes and actions that would tear apart the body of Christ, or we can do the things that build it up. That means you have a choice today. Are you going to build up the body of Christ? Or are you going to tear it down? Are you going to do things that destroy the church’s unity? Things that grieve the Holy Spirit? Things that mock Jesus? Things that blaspheme the body of Christ?

And if you gossip about somebody else in the church or snipe at them, that’s what you’re doing. If you bully them or marginalize them, that’s what you’re doing. If you make yourself feel big by making someone else feel small, that’s what you’re doing. If you are spreading negativity and dissension, that’s what you’re doing. If you’re withholding the gifts God has entrusted to you – whatever they are – that’s what you’re doing.

You’re welcome to do those things – that’s your choice – just do it without fooling yourself and with your eyes wide open about what you’re actually doing.

Now, maybe you’re saying, “Pastor, I don’t do any of those things,” and if so, good for you and the world could use more people like you. Even so, I can’t let you off the hook today, either. Because if you witness a member of the body of Christ doing something that tears down rather than builds up but don’t do anything about it, then the result is still the same.

And here’s the thing: I can’t let myself off the hook either. Leaving on our honeymoon, a woman boarded two rows behind us who only spoke Spanish. The flight attendant was trying to communicate some instructions to her, and he called out, “Does anyone know Spanish?” Now, I know a bit of Spanish, enough to get by pretty well, as a matter-of-fact, but I thought, “How much can I really help? I have so little to offer . . .”

I cringed as the flight attendant just spoke louder to the woman and put an “o” at the end of all his English words, and then, out of his own insecurity, publicly belittled the woman in front of the other passengers for not understanding his jibberish, making her feel about an inch tall. I was so embarrassed for her, and embarrassed for myself, because I probably could have done something to save her from that pain, and yet I did nothing. I just looked at Ashley, shook my head, and said, “I could have done something there.”

So you know what? Next time I’m in a similar situation, I have no choice but to speak up, to offer the meager Spanish I do know, even if it means I embarrass myself with my limited vocabulary and incorrect sentence construction. However, better to cause some minor discomfort for myself if it means saving someone else. After all, that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Jesus went through to offer reconciliation to us.

You have a choice today. Are you going to tear down, or are you going to build up? Either way, everyone still has a seat because Jesus has personally paid for everyone’s ticket. So either way, the plane will still leave and everyone’s going to be on it. Does our journey reflect the unity of God’s kingdom, or have we tried to bring along our baggage filled with divisions, quarrels, and fighting?

If so, you don’t need to bring all that on this flight. Trust in the gifts God has given and bring those with you – it’s really all you’ll need.

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