Have you ever felt like a real mess? As in, it’s only January 15, and all those resolutions…they’re already toast? Today we hear just a fragment of a story about Jesus’ earliest followers. And we hear it through a letter written by the self-described Apostle, Paul. If you’ve ever felt like a real mess, you might like this story.
Scripture can be found here...
Because, that Paul? He was a mess. Paul started his career by hunting down Jesus-followers. When we first meet him in the Acts of the Apostles, he is actually standing guard over the cloaks of an angry mob that is stoning a man to death, just for following Jesus. And, evidently, Paul approves of this. What a mess. Later, on his way to bring charges against some more Jesus-followers, Paul has a powerful experience of the man himself—Jesus—and then Paul becomes a Jesus-follower. And Paul went around the whole Roman Empire, planting churches and writing letters to them.
Take Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. The portion we are reading today is the very opening, and, in my opinion, it contains some of the most lovely and consoling words in the New Testament.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
~ 1 Corinthians 1:4-7
Paul begins his letter by saying two incredibly encouraging things to the church at Corinth. First, he says, I give thanks to God for you, because I see God’s grace in you. Second, he says, that grace means: you have every spiritual gift you need.
Imagine. Imagine someone saying that to you. You have every spiritual gift you need.
Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians with those beautiful and consoling words, and you know what? That church was a mess. Paul had planted the church—he’d traveled to Corinth, stood on street corners to preach, and, eventually, gathered a group of people together, baptized them, knowing that all of whom were as blown away by the Jesus story as he was. (You have to admit, it is an amazing story. Son of God. Crucified and risen.)
But the minute Paul left on another journey, to plant more churches, things started to fall apart for that little congregation. More to the point, relationships fell apart, as Paul painfully describes in the rest of this letter. Here are just a few of the problems they were having:
* They were engaged in contests to see who was top dog. As just one example, they had rival groups, based on who baptized them. For the record, it makes absolutely no difference who baptizes you. But that didn’t seem to matter to them. As one scripture scholar put it, they were “caught in games of weighing and measuring self-importance.”[i]
* They were suing each other. In court. Instead of talking with one another, or seeking reconciliation. You can tell that Paul finds this simply humiliating—and pretty clear evidence that the members of the church haven’t done the work of letting their faith transform them. They’re doing pretty much what everyone else in their society does.
* They were also dividing themselves, based on class and wealth. This was an era in which the Lord’s Supper took place following a regular meal at someone’s home. The more wealthy people would arrive first, eat and drink to their heart’s content, and eat up all the food and get drunk by the time the day laborers arrived—the poorer people. And those people would get nothing.
And that’s not even everything. But you get my point. The church was a mess. That same scholar calls them a “flawed and fractious group,” (Though, to be fair, she says that about modern-day Christians and churches, too.)
And yet, Paul can begin his letter by writing, in all sincerity: I give thanks for you. I see God’s grace in you. You have every spiritual gift you need.
Which I take to mean: By God’s grace, you have every spiritual gift you need to fix this mess. You are not a lost cause. This can get better.
But here’s the thing. No one person has “every spiritual gift.” Well, maybe Jesus does. But not the Corinthians, and not us. And since no one person has every spiritual gift, we must have access to all those gifts in one way, and one way only: through relationship.
There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Common English Bible
(If this sounds familiar, it is because you heard it last week, when we ordained and installed deacons and ruling elders. It turns out, the gifts of the Spirit aren’t just for them. As Paul outlines in chapter 12, they’re for all of us. They’re for you.)
A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. (1 Cor. 12:7)
(You see, it’s all about relationships. We only live into our potential by joining together, joining our gifts, joining forces.)
And Paul goes on. Some get wisdom. (From the Spirit.) Some get knowledge. (From the Spirit.) Some get faith, and healing, and even the ability to perform miracles. (Guess where these gifts come from? Yes. The Spirit. All of them.) Some are truth-telling prophets. Some are really good at sorting out motivations, which Paul calls, the discernment of spirits. Some get the gift that actually was the center of another controversy among the Corinthians: speaking in tongues, ecstatic speech (yes! From the Spirit.) And some can listen to that ecstatic heavenly speech, and tell the rest of us what it means.
All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what (s)he wants to each person. (1 Cor. 12:11)
So, hear me now. God’s grace is in you. That grace means that you have every spiritual gift you need. Together. As a group. No one of you… no one anywhere… has every spiritual gift. But you, together, do have every spiritual gift. And I know that because Paul tells us explicitly, when he says that this letter is “To the church of God that is in Corinth… together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” That last part is about us.
You all… we… have been given these gifts. They are gifts from God, from the Holy Spirit. So, even if, from time to time (or a lot of the time) we feel like a mess, individually or corporately, we are already in possession of the gifts that we need to begin to move through that mess, and maybe to clean it up, and then move on to the mess that is the world, and clean that up, too.
We might not know where to start, though. In 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a very good idea of which part of the world’s mess he was called to tackle. Together with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he organized a campaign to draw the nation’s and the world’s attention to the dreadful treatment African American people were receiving all over this country. The campaign was focused on a place where the harsh laws were particularly ugly: Birmingham, Alabama. Many, many people wanted to use their gifts to help. They came from all over the country, young and old, black and white. But King had requirements for his workers. He required that they root themselves and ground themselves in one philosophy, sprung from none other than Jesus himself. So, in order to sign up, everyone had to sign on to ten practices, called the Ten Commitments:
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation not victory.
3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.
6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. Follow the directions of the movement and the captains of a demonstration.[ii]
I’ve shared these with you before. It feels like a good time to share them again. They are a reminder that all the willingness and giftedness in the world isn’t enough. We all require direction and discipline.
You have the grace of God within you and among you. You have been given every spiritual gift. Sometimes this is hard for us to imagine. But there is so much good news here.
It is not all up to you alone. Good news! We share our spiritual gifts with others who will share theirs with us. Good news! And no matter how much a mess we might feel, whether from time to time or every single day, together, we have the resources we need to tackle, not only our little corner of God’s world, but other little corners, too. We join with others, similarly rooted and grounded in the love and direction of Jesus, and we recognize that we truly have something to offer—to one another, to our neighborhood, to our nation, to the world.
You have been given every spiritual gift. We have. Together. And Jesus is just dying to show us how to use them.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Mary Hinkle Shore, “Preaching 1 Corinthians Through Epiphany,” at Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4794.
[ii] Martin Luther King Jr., as quoted in Marjorie Thompson, SoulFeast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 148.