January 16, 2022
“Gifts” – Rev. Brent Gundlah

         As I spent the week considering what I was going to say today about our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, one thought kept running through my mind, which was this: It would be so much easier to talk about what Jesus did at that wedding in Cana instead.

         Don’t get me wrong — that text is no picnic either; there’s a lot going on in it that isn’t easy to explain. But the basic idea of Jesus arriving at a party and providing the thirsty guests with something to drink at a practical level, and of Jesus showing that he came here to give — and to do so abundantly — at a theological one is kind of, well… nice. And someone turning water into wine is pretty cool; it isn’t something that happens every day.

         Sure, Jesus is a little snotty to his Mom, be let’s honest: who among us hasn’t been at some point in our lives? Sorry, Mom. Other than that, though, there’s not much for readers to take issue with in that passage.

         But Paul’s letter is a whole different story.

         Paul is writing to the early church in Corinth, which was a good-sized Roman city located in what is modern-day Greece. At the time Paul was putting pen to paper (which was only about twenty years after Jesus died), Corinth was cosmopolitan, as well as being ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, and the congregation that Paul is addressing here reflected these characteristics of its city.

         By all accounts, this church community consisted of Jews and Gentiles (but mostly Gentiles), rich and poor (but mostly not rich), educated and uneducated (mostly uneducated), blue collar and white collar (though I’m not sure clothes even had collars back then), native Corinthians and people originally from elsewhere. And when you get a group of people as diverse as that together, you’re bound to have disagreements.

         I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Paul’s letters are almost always addressed to churches experiencing conflicts and growing pains — and this one is no exception. Near the beginning of the letter, after buttering up the Corinthians a bit, Paul cuts to the chase when he says to them:

         “Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

         Which, of course, means that the Corinthians were not in agreement, that there were divisions among them, and that they were far from being united in mind and purpose. Honestly, the Corinthians were kind of a mess. From Paul’s point of view, they had strayed far from the gospel that he preached; they were acting in ways were not in-line with what it meant to belong to Christ. And, frankly, Paul wasn’t wrong about any of this.

         The Corinthians fought about all sorts of things, and the one up for discussion today is spiritual gifts. Paul clearly thinks this is an important topic because he talks about it for the next three chapters of this letter.

         So, what are these spiritual gifts? Speaking in wisdom, knowledge or faith; healing; working of miracles; prophesying; discerning spirits; speaking in and interpreting tongues — aptitudes and abilities that all seem to have mattered in the life of the early church.

         The problem was that some Corinthians felt their gifts mattered more than everyone else’s did; they believed that they were better people, or more important to the community, or more worthy of God’s favor. And Paul isn’t having any of it.

         He points out the obvious when he states that there are varieties of gifts to be found among them, but takes things an important step further when he declares that the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God is the source of them all.

         For all his wordiness — and Paul can definitely run on a bit sometimes — the basic point he’s trying to make here appears in verse seven: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” In other words, God gives everyone a gift to share, and everyone’s gift matters. The whole idea sounds really nice; and if Paul didn’t use fifteen hundred words to say what could be said in fifteen, people might actually embroider what he said on throw pillows or something.

         But some of the Corinthians didn’t think this was so nice. And the people who could speak in and interpret tongues were likely the most angry. You see, from all that we know about what was going on in the church in Corinth, these folks really believed that their gifts mattered most of all, and they weren’t shy about making that belief known. So when Paul presented his readers with an indicative list of spiritual gifts, and put all the stuff about speaking in tongues at the very bottom of that list, everyone knew exactly what he was trying to say.

         While this would gone over really big with those people in the community who didn’t feel particularly appreciated, it didn’t go over all that well with those who actually believed they were better than everyone else. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it? You wouldn’t think that the idea of all people having value, of all people being worthy in God’s eyes, would be controversial, but it was (and, frankly, still is).

         As a result, Paul’s relationship with this church was really difficult at times. If the rest of Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians is to be believed, those who felt threatened by Paul did and said some pretty awful things to him that left him feeling wounded and betrayed. And yet, Paul relentlessly held up a mirror in front of their faces and forced them to see who they really were, because that’s what prophets do.

         But we tend to see Paul through a much different lens these days. In his time, he made a lot of people really mad with all his talk about our equality in God’s eyes. Over the years, though, Paul’s sharp edges have been dulled a bit; he’s been sanitized for our protection. Many people now think of Paul only as that guy who said that we’re saved by God’s grace alone — which is a really convenient thing to think because it lets us off the hook for all of the horrible things we do. We tend to hear that part of what Paul has to say, because it’s what we want to hear, and we disregard the rest.

         Paul wants us to know that God’s grace is not reserved for the few, it is not a discrete quantity to be hoarded by those who think they have it and want to hold on to it; it’s not a way of separating the haves from the have-nots. God’s grace is infinite, it is a gift given to everyone — in some way, shape or form — for the benefit of everyone.

         One would not think that this would be a controversial idea, and yet we humans make it one. We try to assert ourselves as being the privileged recipients of God’s gifts even though that’s not how God’s gifts actually work. We treat the people who remind us of this basic truth like criminals and outcasts in their place and time, and then sanctify them at some later date when it’s easier for us to do so.

         Jesus was fine when he was making water into wine and healing people and casting out demons, but when he started flipping over tables in the temple and speaking truth to power about the inequities in the world, people nailed him to a cross. Then we said he was God incarnate.

         Paul was alright when he talked about things like Jesus and grace, but when he made clear that God’s grace was for everyone everywhere, they ran him out of town and eventually beheaded him. Then we made him a saint.

         Doctor King was okay when he was preaching to his church in Atlanta, but when he started talking about racial and economic equality, when he began gathering people to march against injustice, when he came out in opposition to the war in Vietnam, he was vilified and shot. Then we built him a statue in Washington and gave ourselves a day off in his honor.

         May we always remember the gifts that such prophets were given, and that they chose to share them with us — even when it wasn’t in their own best interest to do so;

         may we always remember their willingness to comfort us when we needed to be comforted us, and to afflict us when we needed to be afflicted;

         may we always remember the courage they showed as they stood in the breach between our pettiness and selfishness, on the one hand, and God’s love and grace, on the other, in order to remind us of the common good God is calling us toward.