5/15/16 – Two Ditches of Spiritual Gifts – 1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Posted on May 31, 2016 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Pastor Daniel’s sermon for May 15, 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
I think it was when I was in third grade and was sporting a pretty sweet mullet that only Lachlan Bramschreiber could compete with that I won the coveted “I Make A Difference” award at Longfellow Elementary. Ok, well, ‘coveted’ might not be entirely accurate. For all I know, everyone got that award at one time or another – after all I am part of the millennial generation and we love getting awards.
Anyway, for me, this was pretty big. In one minute I was a normal 3rd grade kid, just one in the crowd, someone who probably didn’t really matter. And then, in the next minute, I put on the black t-shirt that said “I make a difference” in neon green letters and I knew I was somebody.
And, of course, it went straight to my head. Fellow classmates of mine would stop what they were doing and take notice as I walked down the hall wearing that shirt. “You see that guy?” they’d whisper. “He makes a difference!” Or at least that’s how I imagined it would be.
But, of course, it wasn’t that way. I amassed no power. No one stopped to notice. No one whispered. Ok, well maybe they whispered, but they probably were saying “How many days in a row is he going to wear that shirt?!” How quickly you can go from feeling like you’re just one in the crowd, to making a difference and wanting everyone to know it, and then back to just another … nobody?
There are two ditches, I believe, which go alongside the narrow road we walk in life. Two ditches we are always at risk of falling into. In one, we believe we have nothing to offer, that we aren’t gifted in some way, that we don’t make a difference. In the other ditch, we believe all the gifts and skills and luck we have in life are for us, for our own sake, and everyone else should take note. It’s so easy to jump from one ditch to the other, and so hard to walk the path between them.
When Paul talks about walking that narrow path, he talks about spiritual gifts. Which, admittedly, is a phrase we don’t use much in everyday life. Even defining spiritual gifts is a messy task. So, for today, let’s make a deal: let’s just talk about any talents, skills, passions, resources, or gifts we have, and that ought to cover those that might or might not be overtly ‘spiritual,’ whatever that means. OK?
Now for Paul and the Christians in Corinth, the question of what to do with spiritual gifts was really key because it was splitting the church. It was causing factions and arguments and the whole thing was at risk of falling apart. Now I’d say that what was happening was that these Corinthians were falling into these two ditches.
The first ditch is all too familiar. Everyone falls into it at one time or another in life. This feeling you get that you just don’t matter. In a world of over 7 billion people, it’s hard to imagine things would be much different if I didn’t exist.
This hits when you go through a rough time at work and realize you’ve done so much and gotten so little out of it. It hits when you see that person next door who is such a brilliant artist, or experienced gardener, or kind neighbor, or successful businessman, or fill-in-the-blank, and you think “Huh, I can’t do that at all.” It hits when you’re applying for a job or a college and you have to list talents, skills, or accomplishments and you just stare at the blinking cursor on your computer screen. I just don’t really have anything to offer, you think. I can try and I can try, but it in the end it won’t add up to much more than a hill of beans.
At the heart of this ditch is a word that I have a real love-hate relationship with: enough. Sometimes, we just don’t think we’re good enough, smart enough, gifted enough to matter. And the result, so often, is despair. It may be that dark, do-nothing depression sort of despair. Or it may be that quiet despair that gets us all when we’re just getting by without any real sense as to why, and without ever even stopping to ask.
Now this was not actually the ditch the Christians in Corinth fell into naturally. They didn’t doubt their abilities. In fact, if anything, maybe they were more known to push each other into this ditch. You know, not so much convinced that I don’t matter, but more that you don’t matter. I am talented, skilled, gifted – I have been given great important spiritual abilities by God, which means you must therefor be, by comparison, less. You can just imagine the black t-shirts with neon green lettering they wore.
And this quickly leads us to the second ditch. Here, we recognize the fact of our giftedness, but not the purpose of it. We see our gifts as for our own sake. To earn our own wealth. To amass our own power. Or even just to deliver ourselves from the sort of suffering that affects so many in this world. You know, we see it all as for us.
Of course, when you say it like that, it sounds like a bad thing. So arrogant, so selfish, so mean-spirited. We’re not like that, are we? Well, let’s not pretend this ditch is reserved for those mythic hedge-fund managers or political dictators we like to blame everything on. We too must walk right along side this ditch, with culture tugging at our pant legs from below. How many will hear at some point in their childhood, perhaps right when they’re graduating from high school: “You know, you’ve got a lot of potential. Use it right, and you might get ahead in life.”
Get ahead in life?! Ahead of whom? When our potential, our strengths, our giftedness from God is used to get ahead of something or someone, then maybe we’re using whatever it is we feel God has given us for our own sake, which might not be the point of the gift.
If in the first ditch we are told we aren’t enough, in the second ditch we are told there isn’t enough. Enough money, enough power, enough food, enough friends. So you’d better get what you can, because scarcity is the name of the game. And the result is isolation. When you turn your neighbor into your competitor or enemy, it’s hard to still be neighbors.
In Corinth, this ditch was, how do you say it, yuge. Everyone wanted their gift to be considered the best gift. Wisdom, compassion, healing, speaking in tongues. Everyone thought theirs was the best. And everyone thought they could use what God had given them to beat the rest to the top of the mole hill, not realizing it was a race to the bottom of a ditch.
Two ditches. Each so easy to fall into. And Paul is calling these Corinthian Christians – calling us! – to walk the narrow path between them.
And here’s the path, it’s in verse 7: To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Paul wants us to know that God has indeed given us gifts, the Spirit is indeed working in and through us. And he wants us to know that the purpose of our skills and talents and passions and networks of relationships and wealth. The purpose of all that we have and all that are, is to benefit one another. The common good.
But how do we do that? I mean don’t get me wrong, Paul’s calling us to the narrow path is right on. It’s magnificent. It’s a challenge to the way our world wants us to be. But, it’s not entirely new, is it? Not to us. We’ve heard the story of God telling Abraham that he’s been blessed in order to be a blessing. We’ve heard JFK encourage us to “ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country.” We’ve been encouraged to use our careers to make the world better, to give away at least a little bit of our money, and to put in a few service hours every now and then – even if it’s only to boost our resumes and college apps.
And yet, despite the beauty of Paul calling us to the narrow path, and despite the abundance of this fundamentally counter-cultural, counter-self-interest message, we still struggle. We struggle to believe we really could make a difference. And we struggle to use all we’ve been given to make a difference, or even try. So, why? Why do we find it so hard to stay out of the ditch?
Well, I don’t know. Maybe the fear that we aren’t good enough is burned into our psyche. And maybe so is the fear that our world is ultimately a place of scarcity, and so we need to fight to get ours, fight to get ahead. Maybe.
But maybe another fear is the nagging sense that we are alone in this world, that God has abandoned us. After all, if that’s true, then it’s hard to imagine that we’ve been gifted, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And, if we’re alone, it’s hard to see what we have as for the sake of others. If we’re abandoned by God, then it can all feel pretty meaningless. Maybe the narrow path is hard because we’re told and deep down we fear that we’re all alone in a dog-eat-dog world.
And if that fear is the case, and I think it is, then maybe the first step on the narrow path is a step of faith. Faith that God has not, in fact, abandoned us. Faith that the world isn’t meaningless. Faith that God wants us to be bound together. Faith that there is such a thing as the common good, and that God is working through us so that we might bolster that thing. In the face of so much fear the leads us to thoughts of not being enough and thoughts of not having enough; fear which leads us to despair and hoarding. In the face of such fear, faith pulls us out of the ditch by reminding us that God has not left us. Faith that God is working through us and is binding us together.
And here’s the thing about that faith: even it is a gift. In fact, Paul sort of raises it up as the one gift that is given to all of us here. It’s almost like God recognized the winds blowing us into the ditch, and so provided faith as a way out. It may not always be a lot of faith, smaller even than that proverbial mustard seed. It may be shaky and uncertain. But this gift of faith, no matter how small, is enough for us to look into ourselves and see something worth offering. And, it’s enough for us to look at our neighbor and have our hearts burn a little.
Truth is: there are many ways to walk that narrow path. Many ways to use the gifts you’ve been given for the sake of others. But first, we need to find our way out of the ditch. And I believe that faith, this gift of faith, can do that for us. Through faith in a God who does not leave us but instead works through us, we might come to know that maybe, just maybe, I can make difference. Amen.