Sunday, June 12, 2011

Spiritual Variety

Spiritual Variety

A Communion Meditation

© 2011 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

June 12, 2011

I Corinthians 12:1-13

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.

Diversity is meant to be a given in the church. It has been since the beginning. In fact, diversity is in the very nature of God, whom we have come to know in our own faltering human thinking as three-in-one, one God, three persons: Creator, Spirit and Savior. Diversity exists right within the Holy Trinity. In our reading from Paul’s letter we have the earliest reference to the Trinity in the New Testament. We believe in one God, yet we see the manifestation of God in widely diverging ways. Within the person of God there is diversity. Since this is so, why would diversity not then be a hallmark of God’s church?

When we ordain and install new officers in the church, when a new pastor is called forward to be ordained to serve the church of Jesus Christ, these, or words like them, are the opening phrases of the service of ordination:

There are different gifts,

But it is the same Spirit who gives them.

There are different ways of serving God,

But it is the same Lord who is served...

Each one is given a gift by the Spirit,

To use it for the common good...

In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, with the help of the community, all members were and are encouraged to discover the gifts we have received and use them for the upbuilding of the church of Christ and for service in the world.

So, clearly, diversity marks the nature of God and God’s provision of gifts and abilities to the church.

Paradoxically, unity is also a characteristic of God and is meant to be a mark of the church in the world. I remember reading these words somewhere:

“You think because you understand one you must understand two,

because one and one makes two. But you must also understand and.”1

There is truth in the assertion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you piled all the unassembled pieces that make up an automobile into a heap on the ground, then put another set of those same exact pieces next to the pile, only this set as an assembled car, who could deny that the whole car is greater than the sum of its parts? The church is more than its individual members, sitting in our homes leading our separate lives. There is something essential about the nature of God that God’s diversity is at work only when it is at work in unity. We think because we understand one we must understand two, because one and one makes two. But we must also understand and. What is it about being the church together that makes us more than a sum of disparate individuals?

By the 14th chapter of First Corinthians, Paul is arguing that the gifts the Spirit gives are useful only if the church, rather than the individual, benefits. To ask, for instance, as we take part in a commitment program for the church, gathering together our treasure for the common good, “Yes, but what’s in it for me?” is to inquire by means of a non sequitur. “What’s in it for me” is, in the end, irrelevant to the Christian enterprise except inasmuch as what is “in it” for everyone, may include me.

Believers differ from each other, but each has been given a gift by the Spirit, the very first of which is the ability to confess that Jesus is Lord. These gifts are not granted for individual use or control, but so that the whole body may prosper. For someone to say they can worship God on a mountaintop is to miss the entire point. Worship isn’t about us and our private experiences of God. It is about the community into which God has placed us and the contribution of our own gifts which we can give the community.

Now, sometimes people look at Paul’s list of gifts and think quietly, “Well, I certainly can’t do any of that.” He mentions such gifts as the “utterance of wisdom,” “the utterance of knowledge,” and “gifts of healing,” and the “working of miracles,” “prophecy,” “discernment of spirits,” “tongues...” Let’s see, was it Tuesday or Wednesday last week that I was uttering knowledge and discerning spirits...?

I’m not putting those things down, and the fact is, Paul was pointing to activities that were prevalent in the Corinthian church. We have our own gifts and fascinations. Everyone has a gift to share. Perhaps it’s compassion, or, yes, knowledge, or a strong arm, or a good idea — the church can always use a good idea! Gifts don’t have to be dramatic or esoteric to be gifts. And one that is under-appreciated in most congregations I’m familiar with is the gift of financial giving. I know that the annual stewardship conversation of our congregation is half year or so away. But it never hurts to offer a reminder about it near the half-year point! Every year there are households in our church and most other churches which pledge or give nothing. Likewise, every year there are households that pledge and give generously. Paul praised those who gave liberally in Corinth. Still, maybe it’s not everyone’s gift to give liberally, but it’s important just to join in, just to be a part of it: diverse, but also unified in Christ’s body.

One old pastor said once that if being a Christian has not had an impact on our lifestyles, then it is possible we are believers but not yet disciples.

Today, Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the diversity of our gifts before God in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ good gift of himself to the church. And we might think about ways we can respond to Jesus’ amazing gift of himself to the church, by seeking means by which we may also give of ourselves. Today is a day to be thankful for the untiring work of the Spirit among us, continually celebrating our diversity and making us one.

Thanks be to God.

copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, Pastor


[1] Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, by Margaret J. Wheatley, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1994) p. 9.