About two thousand years ago, the Christian community that had formed in Corinth was a diverse group. There were Greeks and Jews, slaves and free people, men and women, rich and poor. Their only unifying tie was that they all confessed Jesus as Lord. And like any good church, they were of a divided mind. We learn from their correspondence with Paul, that they are particularly divided about what spiritual gifts are to be the most highly valued. The running argument is that the gift of ecstatic speech is the most important, and those displaying that gift should be given higher importance in the community.[i] Unable to settle this argument among themselves, they turn to Paul.
Unfortunately for those arguing for singling out the gifted, Paul proclaims a different reality – everyone is gifted. Simply by proclaiming Jesus as Lord, each person is given a gift. The gifts may be different, and there will be a diversity of gifts. This diversity of gifts is necessary for the community, making the community richer and helping the community to see the fullness of God.
Paul’s explanation sounds lovely. Everyone is special and everyone has gifts. But truthfully, in the depths of our hearts, we do not really agree with Paul. We have lived in a cutthroat, competitive world too long to know that not all gifts are really valued equally – not even in the Church. Sure, some people are gifted teachers, or seem especially spiritual – but what we really need are people skilled in finances. Or maybe we really value people who are wise or people who are good with technology. Whatever the thing is that we value, the point is that we rank gifts. And although we might not want to admit the fact, as modern Americans, we tend to roll our eyes at Paul, seeing his explanation on gifts as cute, but not really helpful if a church is going to succeed.
When I was in college I went to a multicultural church in a small city. The church was primarily African-American and African, but several Anglos from the community and from the local college joined the dynamic parish. As the parish grew, we often had conversations about what our diversity meant and how we would negotiate each others’ differences. But one day, the pastor had an idea that he charged ahead with before really getting buy-in from the church. He invited two local group homes to bring their residents to church on Sundays. The residents had mental and physical disabilities, and many of them were in wheelchairs. Some were more verbal than others, but many of those who were verbal could not form clear words. You could tell right away that the church members were uncomfortable. We did not know how to handle the outbursts or the behavior of the group home members. Luckily, the pastor was much more generous than we were. He noticed that the outbursts were not random. In fact, sometimes a yell sounded a lot like an “Amen!” And so in the church’s customary call-and-response format, the pastor engaged the group home members just like he did the rest of the church members.
That church learned relatively quickly what Paul was trying to teach the members of the church in Corinth. Whereas the church in Corinth sees its own diversity and wants to begin ranking gifts, Paul is trying to explain that their diversity is their gift. Every person in that community is needed to make the community whole. The full range of gifts means that the community is richer and can live out the community’s call more fully. Without the interpreter of tongues, the speaker of tongues is useless. The healers heal the community. The miracle workers help the community see God. The prophets help send the people out beyond the community. Only together can they live into the fullness of faith. Each person is indeed gifted – but not for the sake of personal pride. The gift’s purpose is to edify the entire community.[ii]
Furthermore, what Paul is also trying to explain is the gifts are not just for the person, or for the community. The diversity of gifts tells them something about God. The diversity of gifts gives the community a glimpse into the diversity of God.[iii] Only when all those diverse gifts are being enfleshed does the community in Corinth begin to get a glimpse into the fullness of God. Paul knows that understanding God fully is impossible – we are made in God’s image, but we are not God. Only through the diversity of their diverse Corinth church, and through the diversity of their gifts, do they begin to see a glimpse of the diversity of God.
At that church in college, we had been pretty proud of ourselves. We were a diverse parish in a community with a rough history of racial discrimination. But those group home members made us realize we were still not living into the fullness of the body of Christ. Without those group home members pushing us out of our comfort zone, we were keeping our identity within our own parameters, not God’s parameters. Truthfully, the presence of the group home members made us wonder who else we were excluding. We did not need long to look around our community and figure out who we had been excluding. The apartment complex next to the church was clearly inhabited by many Hispanics, a group not present in our community. Only once the group home members opened our eyes were we able to see how much we had been limiting God and how much richer we could be if we opened our doors to our neighbors. One could argue that our group home members had the spiritual gift of prophesy.
So why is Paul’s letter so important to St. Margaret’s? This past Wednesday, about eight St. Margaret’s parishioners went over to Plainview Reformed Church to make sandwiches for the INN. Most of us had been there before, and we fell into a quick rhythm. Some of us were good at scooping – which is a delicate skill because if you use too much, we cannot make enough sandwiches. Some of us were good at spreading – an important skill if you do not want to tear the bread. Others were good baggers. Now bagging a sandwich may sound simple to you, but as the activity leaders kept reminding us, a sandwich bag that is messy on the inside or out sends the message that the sandwiches were made without much thought – or even without much love. Even the youngest children who put stickers on the sandwich bags had an important role. Without the sticker, the sandwich is just another sandwich. With the sticker, the bag says that someone made this sandwich, and personalized the sandwich just for you – because you are special and worthy. As that interfaith community gathered, with people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and abilities, we were a lot like that community in Corinth.
What Paul’s letter and our sandwich-making this week show us is that only when we all engage in ministry are we fully living into the life of faith. Only when all our skills are being used are we even able to see a glimpse of the fullness of God. Our invitations this week are several. First, Paul invites us to discern our spiritual gifts. Now, because you work in construction, you might have been roped into serving on the Buildings and Grounds Committee. Or because you have young children, you might have been recruited to teach Sunday School. But sometimes, what we do professionally does not translate to a spiritual gift. Our best teachers, our wisest decision-makers, our most spiritual people of prayer might not do those things professionally or obviously. Today Paul invites each of us to ponder whether we are using our spiritual gifts for the betterment of this community. Second, Paul invites us to consider how each person here might help us to better see a glimpse of God. That means that after church or during coffee hour, we might need to sit with someone we do not normally sit with and have a meaningful conversation. And yes, you can have a meaningful conversation with a three-year old or a sixteen-year old. Finally, Paul invites us to consider who is not here, helping us know God more deeply. I have heard time and again how much we want to grow as a community. For many of us, that desire is more out of a sense of preservation – we need to grow to continue to be a church here in Plainview. But I wonder if we might instead begin to think of our growth as necessary for us to more fully see God. We may know all sorts of people in our everyday lives who do not fit the St. Margaret’s mold. Those are the people we need to invite to Church. That neighbor you got to know when we all lost electricity during the Hurricane. That woman with the purple hair who cuts your hair at the salon. The waiter at your favorite restaurant who you have come to know. Until we invite those people, we will not experience the fullness of God’s gifts for us. The invitations from Paul today abound. I look forward to hearing how your homework goes! Amen.
[i] Karen Stokes, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 254.
[ii] Lee C. Barrett, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 256.
[iii] Troy Miller, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 257.