Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

Through the week, I celebrated a birthday. One of the great things about birthdays is presents - those closest to you give you gifts to show their love and affection. I can’t show you what I got, as it was an iTunes voucher and some money! But more important than the presents and cards, was the people they came from.

In our passage this morning, Paul is beginning a new section in his letter to the Corinthians. You might like to have it open as we think about it. As we’ve seen, he has already discussed marriage (7:1), food offered to idols (8:1), and now he comes to spiritual gifts.

I don’t know what that means to you - maybe it’s something you’ve never thought of before, or maybe it’s something you’ve heard a lot about. This morning we’ll begin to look at what Paul says about spiritual gifts, although the whole section goes on until the end of chapter 14.

Sometimes when we think about spiritual gifts, we immediately jump to ourselves, and what gifts we have. This was certainly the case in the church in Corinth. If you’ve been with us through our series you’ll have seen that the Corinthian Christians were full of pride - think of how they divided into groups behind ‘their’ leader, or even from last week, how they were putting themselves first in how they ate the fellowship meal of the Lord’s Supper.

What this meant when it came to spiritual gifts in Corinth was that some were wanting to have and use the more ‘showy’ gifts - the stand out from the crowd, loud and upfront gifts that people would notice. In our passage, and in the whole section, we’ll find tongues being referred to. This is the ability to speak in other languages, unknown to the speaker. Some had this gift in Corinth, and so others were wanting it too - it was something special!

But rather than focussing on the recipients, or even on the gifts themselves, our passage this morning calls us to focus on the one who gives the spiritual gifts. We’ll see three things about God. First, God is the speaking God. Second, God is the one God. And third, God is the giving God. Or if you want a summary, Our God is one, who both speaks and gives for his glory.

As Paul begins to address the issue of spiritual gifts, he reminds the believers that they’re not exactly newcomers to spiritual things. Previously, they were pagans, with demonic spirits being very present in such religions. And yet, at the very heart of their paganism, were ‘mute idols’ - things worshipped which could not speak.

In contrast, though, we find that God is a speaking God - who enables his people to speak as well. In particular, we find that ‘no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.’ Now obviously, anyone could say those three words together, but what Paul means is that no one can truly say them, unless they are a believer. To declare Jesus is Lord in Corinth was to say ‘Caesar is not Lord’. It was to stand for Jesus, naming him Lord over every part of your life - which is a dangerous thing to do! None of us can do it by ourselves - we need the Holy Spirit to enable us and help us to say Jesus is Lord, both every day and for the rest of our days.

Mute idols look so promising, yet they can’t deliver any promises. In which camp are you - with the mute idols, or saying Jesus is Lord? Jesus is King over all I am and all I have - can you say this today?

God is the speaking God. He also helps us to speak out, to declare our faith. But more than that, God is the one God. Let’s read verses 4-6. I want you to look out for the two key words which appear in each verse.

‘Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.’

What were the two words? Varieties, and the same. Do you see what Paul is saying here? There is one God, yet he loves variety! It’s not that there is just one spiritual gift that is available, there are many! It’s not that there is just one type of service that is available, there are many! It’s not that there is just one type of activity (working with God’s energy), there are many!

Do you remember Henry Ford’s words when the Model T was first launched? You can have any colour, so long as it’s black. There was no diversity, or variety there! But God doesn’t work on a mass production line - he shapes us and makes us individually - no two of us are the same!

If you were following closely during the reading, you might have spotted a clue to why this variety is available. It actually goes to the heart of God’s nature and being. Look again at those verses - what are the same’s? Varieties ... but the same Spirit; varieties ... but the same Lord; varieties ... but the same God. Paul shows that God is, in his very nature, variety in unity - three ‘persons’ in the one God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as the three are totally united in purpose and love, so God showers his gifts on his people.

Which brings us to our third point. God is the speaking God. God is one God. And now, God is the giving God. Scan your eye down through verses 8 to 10. Paul outlines a list of some of the spiritual gifts that God has given to the congregation in Corinth. Again, we see the variety - utterance of wisdom, utterance of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, kinds of tongues, and their interpretation.

It might be useful to highlight some of these to explain what’s going on. Faith here is not the saving faith that all of us need (not just some) - rather it is a special gift of faith to step out for God, and to encourage others to come along - for example, in a building project, or in beginning a new venture. Gifts of healing and miracles relate to people, relationships or situations where conflict occurs and healing is needed, bringing people together. When we think of prophecy, it’s normally fore-telling - speaking about the future. But here it’s more usually forth-telling - proclaiming God’s word.

If you look later at Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:7-11, and 1 Peter 4:7-11, you’ll see some similar and some other spiritual gifts. And where do they come from?

Verse 11 gives us the clear answer. ‘All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.’ Each one has some spiritual gift, received from the Holy Spirit, who gives us these gifts.

And why are we given these gifts? Look back at verse 7. ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’

The Corinthians wanted to have the showy gifts like tongues to put themselves forward, to steal the limelight. Did you notice that in the list of gifts, tongues came down at the bottom? Rather than being something to boost the individual believer, spiritual gifts are given to build up other believers - for the common good. So if the Spirit has enabled you to sing or play a musical instrument, you don’t do it to put yourself up at the front, but to encourage and build up others. Or through hospitality, or welcoming people, or by spending hours in prayer, or teaching - working with God’s power for the common good of giving glory to God and helping other believers grow.

This was something the Corinthians still had to learn - next week we’ll see how Paul develops this theme as he describes the church as the body of Christ and what this means for the use of spiritual gifts.

As I said at the start, it was my birthday through the week. I was away at a conference, and some of the other guys remembered it, and organised a cake for lunchtime. Out it came, and I had to blow out the candles - it was nearly a fire risk! Now, I could have tried to eat it all by myself, and got very sick in the process. But that’s not what you do - it was a gift to me, but it was really for everyone who was there. What was given to me benefited everyone. God’s gifts to the individual are for the whole body.

Maybe this talk of spiritual gifts has sparked your interest. What is it that God has given you to contribute to the body? How are you encouraging those around you? These are useful questions to be asking.

But if you know what your gifts are, if you know how God has blessed you, then are you using your gifts? Are you using them to promote yourself, to make a show of yourself? Or are you using the things God has given you for the common good, to help and support others?

Let’s thank God now for his gifts, and ask him to help us use them for his glory.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's, Dundonald on Sunday 3rd May 2009.

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