“Where are you in your walk with the Lord?” “How has God been guiding you?” “Have sensitive are you to the leading of the Spirit?” Throughout my life as a Christian, I’ve been asked those questions, or something like that. Sometimes they really bug me. (Well, a little bit more than “sometimes.”) I often have trouble coming up with a coherent and honest answer. But I need those questions.
Those questions probably aren’t meant to be answered too quickly. Those questions need meditation and reflection and prayer. But then, we have to act on them.
An extension of those questions might be, “How are you using your spiritual gifts?” Spiritual gifts? I’m not sure I have any. Our Book of Order, drawing inspiration from St. Paul, says, “the Holy Spirit has graced each member with particular gifts for strengthening the body of Christ for mission” (W-2.5002).
Spiritual gifts aren’t for us alone; they are primarily for increasing life to the body of Christ.
They enhance communion; they enhance fellowship; they enhance sharing. God “has called [us] to be partners with…Jesus Christ” (v. 9, NJB). All those terms are different meanings of the Greek word κοινωνια (koinōnia).
So after all of that, we can say that we have been gifted to be partners. We have spiritual gifts, and they are meant for koinōnia. But hold that thought; we’ll get back to it!
The epistle lesson is the introduction to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. We see he’s joined by Sosthenes, who he calls “our brother” (v. 1). We’re not sure who he is. Maybe the apostle is dictating his letter to him.
It looks like Paul’s laying out what he wants to accomplish in the letter. He tells the church in Corinth how he sees them (he’s thankful for them)—and even better, how they could be. He encourages them, warts and all. Immediately after the introduction, he dives into it. In verse 10, he appeals to them “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.”
The first thing he mentions are divisions. This doesn’t mean to think the same thoughts. It doesn’t mean to have the same opinions. We have brains. We aren’t supposed to shut them off in service to some totalitarian ideal. In biblical terminology, we aren’t supposed to serve idols.
Paul’s argument is with divisiveness, to use a term familiar to us. That is, the thriving on division. Divisiveness is not the same as division, which simply happens because we have those brains I just mentioned. Divisiveness is, to be honest, a sinful refusal to look beyond differences. It’s the refusal to acknowledge, “I don’t have to agree with you to love you.”
The divisiveness that encourages division is, sadly, no stranger to us.
Last month, the TV show Face the Nation had an interview with comedian Stephen Colbert. He’s the host of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (Just in case you hadn’t figured that out!) John Dickerson spoke with him in reflection on 2016.
Dickerson asked him, “What was the good news in 2016?” Colbert hesitated a moment, and then mentioned their Thanksgiving dinner. Then he altered the question a bit. He said just before saying grace, he asked himself what he was thankful for. He spoke of family and friends and dear ones who have passed away.
Then Colbert spoke of people he does not agree with. He said “they make me think about what I do. They question my beliefs. And an unquestioned belief is almost vestigial. It doesn’t motivate you in any way. It doesn’t serve you in any way if you don’t question it, because a belief is a filter. You have to run things through it, you know, so you know how you see the world. It’s a lens; it’s not a prop.”
He speaks of the tendency to engage in divisiveness. He says “divisiveness is a vice. But like a lot of vices, super seductive. And so you indulge in it until it bites you, and then you go oh, darn—oh, darn, the wages of sin is death. And it makes you question having indulged in the vice. And I think that political divisiveness is a vice; picking sides is a vice rather than picking ideas.”
He speaks specifically of political divisiveness, but it can apply to anything. And Paul wants all of us to be aware of that.
We can see that sentiment in verse 2 when he addresses the Corinthians, those called to be saints, “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Another translation says, “along with all who invoke the name of our Lord Jesus Christ wherever they may be—their Lord as well as ours” (REB). Wherever they may be. Whoever they may be. We have the same Lord.
A few moments ago, I said that we have been gifted to be partners. But these aren’t partners in the sense of, “Hey buddy! Hey pal! Hey amigo!” Or if you’re addressing a woman, “Hey amiga!”
There’s an almost sinister force at work in creating divisions. That’s what Stephen Colbert was hinting at. And for partnership in the sense of koinōnia to exist and to flourish, spiritual giftedness is needed.
Paul tells the Corinthian church “in every way you have been enriched in [Christ]…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (vv. 5, 7). As a church, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift. It might not seem like it; we might look around and say, “Woe is us! What can we do?” Sometimes we might not even want to hear about that multitude of gifts, but the Spirit is here, waiting for us to ask.
Again, here’s a case in which Paul is giving a preview of his plan. He talks about spiritual gifts in chapters 12 to 14.
The apostle begins this long passage by going to the doctor’s office. He performs a physical examination of the body. I mean the body of Christ and the gifts of each part which function for the benefit of all. It’s what keep us healthy. He concludes with what we might call the charismatic gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying.
By the way, our Book of Order says in a section called “Expressing Prayer” (W-5.4002), “One may pray in tongues as a personal and private discipline.” So we at least acknowledge the personal and private part!
Those two sections bracket chapter 13, which speaks of the greatest gift, love. He doesn’t mean something gooey or romantic or warm and fuzzy. This isn’t the sole domain of wedding services! Read through that chapter; he covers all of life. All spiritual gifts converge in love. It never ends; it has absolutely no limit. We never grasp the entirety of love in this life.
Paul doesn’t talk about spiritual gifts in a vacuum. He links them to waiting for “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He speaks about being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 7-8). He’s drawing on references in the Old Testament to the “day of the Lord,” which is both warning and blessing.
The prophet Amos chastises the people for their hypocrisy in worship. They pay special attention in making sure the worship service is done properly, but they fail to use that diligence in seeking justice. They love lies, but hate the truth. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!” Amos says, “Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light” (5:18). They have chosen darkness, and that’s what they’ll get. I think that qualifies as a warning!
The book of Isaiah is another place where we see the day of the Lord. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” says the prophet, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (61:1-2).
In the midst of all that blessing, “the day of vengeance of our God” seems quite out of place. Something to bear in mind is that God’s vengeance, God’s justice, is not the way we usually think of those words. God’s vision is about restoration; our vision is about retribution. Aside from that, the word for “vengeance,” נקם (naqam), can also mean “deliverance.” So there’s the blessing!
Getting back to Paul, he says spiritual gifts are to be exercised with a view toward the coming of the Lord, that is the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the perspective the church has as its orientation. Jesus is magnetic north on our compass.
Our scripture reading ends, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9). We are called into koinōnia with Christ. As I said earlier, that word also means “partnership” or “communion.” That’s a deep partnership, not a shallow one in which we never get past small talk. What does it mean to have that deep partnership, true communion, with the Lord?
Well, look around. Loving God also means loving our neighbor. The way we treat each other, the way we treat all of creation—plants, animals, the earth itself—is how we treat the Lord.
If we use our giftedness to be partners, then we will respect each other. We will honor each other. In Romans 12, Paul says to “outdo one another in showing honor” (v. 10). Now that’s setting a really high bar! We are to compete with each other in showing love.
And revisiting Stephen Colbert’s comments, that means showing love, even when we strongly disagree. In the book of Proverbs we read, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (27:17). In other words, let’s get out of our bubbles. Don’t simply listen to people who tell us what we want to hear. We actually can learn from, and love, people who are different!
Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. The official holiday is tomorrow. If there is someone who loved people who were different, people with whom he passionately disagreed, it would be hard to find a better example than King. He demonstrated the giftedness of partnering.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he speaks to his critics who are concerned about “outsiders coming in.” He writes, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Unfortunately, it is also true that King was more puzzled and disappointed by white moderates than outright segregationists. Of those who would claim to be in fellowship with him, he said too many “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
We don’t have stained glass windows, so that can’t be us!
He later says, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise?… But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity.”
I think that’s always a danger. And I certainly don’t exclude myself from this. We can claim to be open, welcoming, affirming. Admittedly, it’s easy to welcome those with whom we agree. We can either explicitly or implicitly reject and be divisive. But what pain we cause each other! And what pain we cause our Lord. When we reject and divide, we deny God’s faithfulness, and we reject our calling into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Still, God is faithful. As we open ourselves to God and to the gifts that are in store, to our amazement we make discoveries. What once seemed unlikely, or even impossible, now begins to happen. We find that we are loved, and that enables us to extend love. We find that we are forgiven, and that enables us to extend forgiveness. We find that God actually likes us, and that enables us to…… Well, maybe I’m jumping the gun on saying that we can like everyone!
But we find ourselves making progress in our call to be partners in Christ. Thanks be to God.