1 Corinthians 12-14
This is my sixth sermon from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. We’re taking it in huge chunks, in order to make sense of the argument of his letter; so, once again, forgive me if I don’t read this section, which is three whole chapters. Just follow along with me, please, in your Bibles.
I mentioned last week that the early Church’s worship service had two, and sometimes three parts: there was the Liturgy of the Word (Scripture, hymns, and preaching); the Liturgy of the Table (thanksgiving and communion); and, in many places, a Liturgy of the Spirit, where people prophesied and prayed in unknown tongues and did other kinds of prayer ministry, as the Holy Spirit directed. This Liturgy of the Spirit was both amazing and attractive; it certainly got a lot of attention from unbelievers, such as the Gentiles among the Corinthians. Witnessing this, participating in it, they wondered how this came to be, and what they could expect for themselves. And also, what the boundaries were: I mean, how do you evaluate what you’re hearing and seeing? How do you judge those who claim to be speaking by the Spirit’s power?
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit (12:1-3).Paul says the grace of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon his people in different ways, and this is so that Christians can do the work God wants them to accomplish.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one (12:4-6).And every Christian is gifted. No one is left out. What does that mean?
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (12:7-11).Well, okay, so we’re all gifted. But is a spiritual gift something spooky or flashy or otherwise miraculous? Or is it something you’re already good at? How will I know my gifts?
Let me tell you the story of Cædmon. Cædmon lived way back in the 7th Century in the kingdom of Northumbria. It was the early days following the conversion of the English. Cædmon was an illiterate cowherd who worked for the abbey at Whitby under the leadership of the abbess, St. Hilda.
They used to hand around a harp in the evenings, and one person after another - monk or nun or guest – would take it up in turn and tell a story or chant a poem. Once when they did that, Cædmon was abashed, because there was no poetry in him. So he fled out the barn where he slept among the cows. That night, an angel came to Cædmon in a dream and commanded him to sing. "What shall I sing?" he asked. "Sing of the wonders of the creation," he was told.
In the morning, Cædmon awoke with a poem all finished on the creation of heaven and earth. He went to share it with the abbess, and everyone was amazed at his gift. The abbess tested him, and found that his gift wasn’t a one-off; he kept writing more and more hymns, though he apparently never learned to read and write. He became the first great English hymnodist.
Only that first poem survives. It's known as Cædmon's Hymn, and it is the earliest Christian hymn in English which we possess. It’s written in the Old English alliterative meter, with its clashing stresses and repeated initial sounds. Dan R. wanted me to preach in Old English last week, so if you'll indulge me, I will recite Cædemon’s Hymn for you. (Dan, this one's for you!)
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices WeardThat's what English sounded like 1500 years ago. In Modern English, that would run something like,
Meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc
weorc Wuldor-Fæder swa he wundra gehwæs
ece Drihten or onstealde
He ærest sceop ielda bearnum
heofon to hrofe halig Scyppend
ða middangeard moncynnes Weard
ece Drihten æfter teode
firum foldan Frea ælmihtig.
Now must we praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian, the Measurer’s might and his mind-plans, the work of the Glory-Father, as he, eternal Lord, the beginning of wonders established, each one. He first created for men’s sons heaven as a roof (holy Creator) then middle-earth (mankind’s Guardian); the eternal Lord afterwards made for men the earth (Master almighty)!Now the point of this is: there were lots of scops (Old English poets) who could do what Cædmon did, but Cædmon did it without training; indeed, without even basic literacy. So, some spiritual gifts are miraculously bestowed, and others are natural gifts that come to their fullest expression only when they have been given to God, to glorify him.
And I would say, the whole church has all the gifts of the Spirit. Every Sunday, when we pray for the sick, we all together exercise the gift of healing, even if no one is present in whom that gift has a special expression. But what about tongues? Well, if you could sit on a satellite out in space and gather in all the sound of all the congregations around the world today, then you would hear God being praised in every tongue under the heavens; so the whole Church has the gift of tongues, even if no one here is engaging in ecstatic utterances. But since each one has at least one gift, and in using that gift, we contribute to the whole body, Paul uses the metaphor of the body here.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body (12:14-20).Everyone has something to contribute to the work of the Church, and that means that no one is fundamentally more important than another. All are necessary: something the fractious Corinthians needed to hear.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts (12:27-31a).This is how the Holy Spirit manifests himself in the life of the believer and in the life of the Church - by giving these gifts. But none of these gifts are as important as this one, ultimate gift. Paul says, "And I will show you a still more excellent way" than these individual gifts.
And then he launches into 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter.” This is often used at weddings, which is kind of misleading, because the type of love spoken of here is not natural, romantic love. That kind of love, wonderful as it is, cannot do what has to be done. Look at what Paul says in this chapter.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (13:4-7).Now replace the word "love" with “people.” People are patient and kind, people do not envy, do not boast; people are not rude or self-seeking or angry. Really? Does that sound like the people you know? Now, some people may be that way most of the time, and probably all of us can be that some of the time, but none of us can keep it up very long. In fact, if you were to “fact-check” those statements, you’d have to say that they’re mostly false.
The ability to love like this comes only from God, for it is his nature: God is Love. So now replace the word "love" with “Christ.” Christ is patient and kind, Christ does not envy, does not boast; Christ is not rude or self-seeking or angry. Well, yeah. That sounds right.
Now, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to make us like this – to make us like Christ - and only he can. This is what we call “holiness.” Which doesn't mean hyper-religiosity, but simply the empowerment of God to enable us to love as he loves. It is the greatest work of the Holy Spirit, and the ultimate goal of the Christian. This is what heaven is like. The Holy Spirit is making us fit for the company of heaven, where this kind of courtesy is natural to all who belong there; which is why Paul says, "Love never ends." Prophecies will end, knowledge will end, tongues will end; but faith, love, and hope are eternal – “and the greatest of these is love.”
Well, from these heights, Paul gets back to the fractiousness of the Corinthians again. That Liturgy of the Spirit – that free, unordered time of hearing and responding to God - is breaking down under the egotism and immaturity of the Corinthians, which leads to disorder. Some want to speak in tongues, others want to question the prophets as if they were visiting a fortune-teller, and some people just like to hear themselves talk. So in Chapter 14, Paul has to tell people to take turns and not interrupt each other. This is also where he issues that infamous line about women keeping silence in the church.
Now, keep in mind, there were lots of women in leadership of that church, so it can’t be all the women, all the time he’s referring to. I suspect that Paul had certain very specific examples in mind, but was refraining from naming names here in order to spare some feelings. If that is so, then when his letter was read out in the church in Corinth, I imagine there were some people (who were mostly women, for what it’s worth) who would recognize themselves. And if they didn’t, I’ll bet everyone else would recognize whom Paul was talking about!
Well, the Liturgy of the Spirit keeps returning in various forms from time to time in the life of the Church, and it is always in danger from the egotism and immaturity of those who are attracted to it. Sometimes, it breaks down because of those who mistake the sound of their own voice for the sound of God’s voice. And sometimes, it’s not just blather that crowds out the holy wisdom being shared; sometimes, it’s egotism that peeps through and leads to abuse.
A young friend of mine who attended a charismatic church used to attend youth mission conferences sponsored by her church, and there she found a number of leaders – some not much older than herself - who would take people aside and say, “I want to ‘speak into your life.’” Meaning that God was telling them to tell this young person something or other. Sounds wonderful, but sometimes what was being said was just nonsense, or worse, for more people imagine themselves to be wise or inspired than actually are. And this can lead to all kinds of problems. But even among those who are not trying to blather or puff themselves up, remaining open to the Spirit’s direction is hard. And so, even those communities most devoted to following the Spirit’s lead usually end up routinizing the Spirit’s prompting, and liberty becomes liturgy, as we do again what worked before.
Years ago, when I was in seminary, one of my classmates had been invited to attend a meeting of the Full Gospel Businessmen's Association. They were excited to have a seminary student in attendance, and several made the point to him, "You'll like our meetings. We don't follow any fixed order, we just follow the Holy Spirit." Then someone said, "Hey, let's sing a song to start our meeting!" "Well, what song should we sing?" someone else asked. And the reply came, "Let's sing the one we always sing first!"
Here’s the plain truth: only those who are striving with all their might to reach for the gift of love – which is the transformation of the whole life and personality by the power of the Holy Spirit – can keep up with the full liberty of the Spirit. Everyone else either falls back into comfortable repetition – patterns, routines, liturgies – or else strains to speak for God when God hasn’t spoken to them – with unsatisfactory or destructive results. Nevertheless, this is how the Spirit manifests himself in your life and in our church: by making holiness attractive, then empowering us to pursue it.
"Oh, but I couldn’t live that way," you say. "Not all the time." Well, put it this way: God has a design for your life; but if you prefer a different design – just because it’s yours – then that always comes with a loss of power. And not just for you; the whole church feels it when the people in the church are just trying to grab the spiritual goodies they’ve heard about instead of challenging themselves to try to become like Christ.
Every United Methodist minister is required at his or her ordination to answer a series of pointed questions, which sometimes makes the candidates squirm. One of those questions is this: Are you going on to perfection? – meaning, perfection in love? holiness?
Most of my generation of ministers were in our 20s when we were asked that question, and we hardly knew what to say. It seemed a remote kind of goal, at best. I remember someone telling me of a time once in some Annual Conference when one candidate simply froze up, and didn’t know what to say when the question was put to him: Are you going on to perfection? An awkward silence fell. Finally, the kindly old bishop prompted the young man: "Well, son, if you’re not going on to perfection, then what are you going on to?"
Going on to perfection means going on to the fulfillment of God’s design for your life, his way. Which means that if you’ve got a different idea you like better, well, then you and he have some talking to do. And maybe you think that you'd have to give up an awful lot to do what God wants. But holiness – perfection in love – is not bondage; it’s not a cramping of one’s style or personality. To be filled with God and enabled to do what God designed you for is freedom. It is power. And it is joy.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.