Sunday, June 8, 2014
Sermon: Ordinary Pentecost
1 Corinthians 12:1-13
James Sledge June 8, 2014, Pentecost
This may come as a shock to some of you, but church congregations are not always kind, loving, supportive communities where everyone gets along. While there is much kindness, love, and support found in congregations, there is also conflict, fighting, and even downright nastiness. Again, my apologies if I just shattered your image of the Church.
Churches find an amazing variety of things that provoke disagreement and division. Some we import straight from the surrounding culture, dividing along lines of wealth, race, political leaning, age, and so on. But we also divide over churchy things: doctrine, worship style, who can be leaders, and so on.
The Apostle Paul deals with most all these in his little congregation at Corinth. At times these Corinthian Christians sound remarkably modern: individualistic, relativistic, divided between haves and have nots, and intensively competitive with one another. Of course we don’t actually hear from them, having only Paul’s side of the conversation. He’s apparently received a letter from some of the folks there along with some first-hand reports, and Paul is not at all happy with what he’s read and heard.
So Paul writes to the Corinthians, and the moment he concludes with introductory niceties, he brings up the topic of division in the congregation. And almost the entire letter features Paul exhorting, explaining, cajoling, correcting, and flat out blasting these folks as he tries to set them straight.
Now the Corinthians’ problems are a bit different from those afflicting many present day churches. Their problem isn’t declining membership or loss of influence in the culture. They are growing, but Christianity is new and never had any cultural influence. Being new, this congregation is an exciting, exuberant place. Most everyone is a new believer who has been caught up in the Jesus movement, and there is a palpable sense of spiritual energy.
You’ve probably seen those bumper stickers that say, “My child is an honor student at _____ school.” And maybe you’ve also seen the ones that say, “My kid can beat up your honor student.” Being gifted or impressive, it seems, can be one more source of division.
I don’t know if this still happens but long ago at UNC football games, cheerleaders used to parade all the way around the track with a banner that read, “Don’t you wish you could have gotten into Carolina.”
Sometimes such things are light hearted and good natured, but often they are not. And one group looks down on another from their supposed superiority. Lots of things can make one feel superior: Intelligence, athletic prowess, musical or other artistic talent, physical beauty. And all these “gifts” can be used to make others feel inferior.
The fears and anxieties that develop around these assorted ways of feeling superior or inferior seem to have gotten worse in American culture in recent few decades. The pressure to get into the best schools sometimes reaches all the way down to getting a toddler into an elite preschool. The pressure to perform, to excel academically or athletically, to be beautiful enough or thin enough, or to display some marketable talent is tremendous. Sometimes people get the message that if they don’t measure up in one of these areas, they are somehow less valued, of less worth, even worthless.
The Apostle Paul thinks something of this sort is going on in Corinth, except there the measures are about spiritual giftedness. Their newfound faith in Christ was clearly one of the most important things in their lives, and they celebrated evidence that the Spirit was at work in them. But they started to compare themselves with one another and see certain spiritual gifts as more impressive than others. Some were clearly spiritually superior to others, and some showed so little evidence of spiritual giftedness that the superior folks wondered whether these people had the Spirit at all. And in the little Corinthian congregation, some people mattered and some really didn’t. Some were valued and some were not.
I don’t really understand why, but for some reason speaking in tongues was the crème de la crème of spiritual gifts. It was like these folks had gotten a perfect score on the SAT while also being captain of the soccer team. And it wouldn’t surprise me if many of these exceptionally spiritually gifted Corinthians came from the wealthier members. They would have had the time and money for spiritual enrichment activities and such.
But Paul will have none of it. He tells the superior folks that they are mere infants, not even ready for solid spiritual food. And in the part of the letter we heard today, he says that they clearly do not understand how the Spirit works. They’ve been using certain gifts as measures of the Spirit’s presence, but Paul says, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” He’s not referring simply to saying the words, but to living with Jesus as one’s Lord, as one’s God. If anyone does this, says Paul, she has the Spirit. Never mind whether she speaks in tongues or displays some other gift the Corinthians think desirable.
And Paul goes further. The various gifts are distributed by the Spirit as the Spirit sees fit. No one should feel superior for having a particular gift. It’s simply their assigned piece in the larger puzzle, their role in the body. And while Paul is talking strictly about spiritual gifts, I think we can extend his thinking to other gifts and talents from music to art to athletics to math aptitude and so on. None of us choose our particular talent or gift. In some sense they were assigned to us. And if we follow Paul’s logic, this great diversity of gifts and talents helps build the larger whole, and no one’s gift is more important than another’s.
Of course we know the world doesn’t work like that. It values some gifts and dismisses others. But those who are “in Christ” are part of something new and different, an alternative community where all are embraced, and all are valued. When Paul lists an assortment of gifts, he does an interesting thing. He puts speaking in tongues at the bottom, inverting the list the Corinthians have. And as Paul continues in the verses beyond our reading today, he lapses into poetry in a soaring hymn for the greatest gift, love.
We’ve all heard it at weddings. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. In other words, love doesn’t act at all like the Corinthians are acting, which is why Paul can say they are still spiritual infants.
Some years ago, I witnessed a remarkable event during a congregation’s worship. A youth who had grown up in that church, who came from a difficult family situation, and who, quite frankly, did not really fit into any of the supposedly superior groups at school, stood up during the prayers of the people and bared his soul.
It was a little awkward, like it might be if someone shared very personal and private things during our prayers of the people today. The congregation wasn’t expecting it, and it certainly wasn’t expecting him to come out as gay during worship.
This was no Covenant Network congregation like ours. It was a mixed bag politically, but probably with more conservatives than liberals. I looked around, trying to read people’s reactions. I could see a few stunned faces, but I couldn’t really get a sense of the congregation. But that changed when worship ended.
Immediately after worship, this young man was surrounded by other youth, by adults his parents’ age, and by a number of grandmotherly types. They embraced him, put hands on his shoulders, and expressed support for him. And some very conservative members of that congregation were in the midst of that circle of love that enfolded him.
There were no tongues of fire. There were no heavenly doves. There was nothing very remarkable looking about that circle of people. They were, by most measures, pretty ordinary. But it sure looked like Pentecost to me.