1 Corinthians 12:1-11 Common English Bible
12 Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. 2 You know that when you were Gentiles you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak. 3 So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5 and there are different ministries and the same Lord; 6 and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. 8 A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, 9 faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10 performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. 11 All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.
This is one of those passages that is very familiar to most of us. The Spirit of God blesses each of us with different gifts. One is not better than the others, just different. They all come from the same God, who chooses what gift to give each person. We shouldn’t think we are all that because we can speak in tongues, or translate what the tongue speakers are saying, or heal others by the laying on of hands. . . yadayadayada. I don’t know about you, but for the longest time I didn’t even believe some of these gifts were real. I mean, speaking in tongues? Really? And then I met someone who actually did speak in tongues while a bunch of us were laying hands on another who seemed to be troubled by an evil spirit . . . maybe I should explain that before I go any further.
In the summer of 1999 I was invited to attend the Disciples African American Clergywomen’s Retreat. They had arranged for a couple of massage therapists to come along so that each of us could spend 30 minutes in blissful relaxation. After a couple of days, however, one of them was reporting a troubling in her soul and a fearful feeling when she tried to sleep. It turned out that she hadn’t realized just how much of the negative energy all those clergywomen were releasing through massage was entering into her, and since she didn’t do anything to release it her sleep was disturbed. That’s how I understood it. Many of my clergy sisters were more direct in saying that an evil spirit had entered into her and needed to be cast out. A group of us gathered around her and laid hands on her while some prayed aloud, rebuking the evil spirit. Meanwhile, one of the sisters was walking around us uttering sibilant sounds. I had no idea what she was saying, but I knew it was good and powerful. I could feel warmth and light entering me from above and going back out through my hands. I could feel the darkness leaving the young women. When we finished I was exhausted as if I had run a race. Yet all I had done was stand there with my hands on the young woman’s shoulder. Later a few of the women went up to the room and chased the evil out of there as well.
Mind you, all of this was totally foreign to me. My faith, up to that point, had been more intellectual than spiritual. I mean, I believed that with God anything was possible. But the whole idea of speaking in tongues, casting out demons and suchlike was way outside my experience and understanding. I hadn’t really believed that such things had a place in church. After all, we are educated people. We aren’t superstitious the way those new Christians in Corinth were. Luckily I went on that Africa American Clergywomen’s retreat and experienced faith differently. Luckily I went on that retreat and became more open minded.
My understanding of this passage is that these gifts are pretty much one to a customer, and that we don’t get to judge others on which ones they possess. I once met a Pentecostal evangelist who told me I couldn’t possibly be a pastor because I didn’t possess all of these gifts in equal measure. She was particularly concerned that I didn’t speak in tongues. Sadly, that’s not something I’ve ever done sober, and I’m pretty sure anything I might have said while drunk wouldn’t have been considered very spiritual.
You know, I’m really glad that I’m not Paul. I’m really glad I’m not the guy who had to deal with all the fussing and feuding in the early church. His two letters to the church in Corinth address all kinds of issues, but when we come right down to it most of those issues had to do with this group thinking they were superior to that group, and him having to straighten them out. “Stop dividing yourselves into groups!” he kept saying. We tend to think of the early Church as a movement among the lower status folks - fishermen and slaves, women and tax collectors. Corinth was different. It was a Greek city, but it was much more Roman, more egalitarian, in the way the social order worked. For instance, in Corinth freed slaves could hold elected office and amass wealth, which was the rule in Rome but not in the rest of Greece. Likewise, in Corinth the members of the church came all social classes. There were wealthy folks worshipping next to the slaves who scrubbed their floors. Jews and pagans not just worshipping together, but eating together! Men and women sharing a room for worship and sitting at the same table. We would like to believe that people in the early church would be all loving and embracing each other and singing Kum ba ya together.
But no. They fought over every little thing. The rich folks brought lots of food and drink to the Lord’s day worship and wouldn’t share with the poor. They fought over whether it was ok to eat meat sold in the markets that had been sacrificed to some of the other gods worshipped in the city. The Jews and the Greeks didn't agree on whether it was necessary to adhere to the Law. They argued over whether married couples should be celibate. The well educated wouldn’t listen to those who had the wisdom of age and experience. The ones who could perform miracles lorded it over those who could “only” heal or speak in tongues.
Paul had to deal with all of that. These two letters deal with those issues and more. Much of what Paul has to say is “Quit fighting with each other!” When it came to the question of spiritual gifts he said, “Don’t be ignorant! You don’t seem to understand what these gifts are and where they come from. Everything that comes from the Spirit glorifies the Christ!” The reverse, of course, is “nothing that doesn’t glorify Christ can possibly come from the Spirit.”
Tomorrow is the day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Banks and post offices will be closed, as well as many schools and businesses around the country. There will be parades in many cities and celebrations in many churches. People will quote his most famous speeches and sermons. Scholarships will be awarded in his name. We will remember him as a peace loving man who lived in violent times, who rejected violence as a method to achieve freedom for his people . . . and maybe the fact that I just said “his” people instead of “all” people is as close as anything else to proof that his dream is still far from reality. Nevertheless, his dream was to bring all of us together. His dream was to end fear and hatred, to live together in the Beloved Community where Christ-like justice, compassion and mercy would be the rule not the exception.
Tomorrow we will also hear news of groups and individuals who preach fear and hatred, who are doing everything in their power to separate us and make us fight with each other - over race, ethnicity, gender, gender identify, sexual orientation, religious tradition, socio-economic class, immigration status, physical ability, mental capacity… anything that might make us look or feel different, one from another. We will hear about people who are doing their best to make us be suspicious of one another, to tear us apart as a nation instead of bringing us together. One has gone so far afield that the church he claimed membership in found it necessary to state publicly he is not a member of their denomination.
Paul told the Christians in Corinth, Don't be ignorant! "No one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit.” It isn’t like people claiming to be Christians were running around the churches saying Jesus is cursed. It is rather that he found it necessary to make the point that everything coming from the Spirit glorifies the Christ. Evil acts and evil words, behaviors and speeches that do not glorify God and Jesus are not the work of the Spirit - they can’t be. When we argue, when we get ugly with or about each other, we are not in the Spirit. But when we are doing the good - using our knowledge, our wisdom, our gifts of healing, teaching, praying, and even speaking in tongues - then we are in the Spirit. Then we are living as the body of Christ.
Paul’s focus throughout these letters was bringing all the different faces of the church together. His point, his response to every point of contention was, “Just get along! None of this stuff is important! What is important is unity in the name of Christ. What is important is that each of you is uniquely qualified to serve Christ in your own way. It doesn’t matter what you eat, or what you wear, or where you sit, and whether you can read, or who your parents are. It only matters that you use the gifts the Spirit of God has given you in the service of God. It only matters that you do your best to love one another. It only matters that every word you speak, every action you perform, glorifies the Christ.”
Dr. King dreamed of the Beloved Community, a place where all different kinds of people live together in peace and harmony, working together for the common good, each individual a living blessing to every other individual. Dr. King dreamed of a world where oppression had ceased to exist, where war had ended, where the model for every person’s life was the Christ. Dr. King dreamed of a world where Paul’s hopes for the church were taken to heart by all . . . Don’t be ignorant. Live as Jesus lived. And accept one another, as Jesus accepted you.