Over Memorial Day weekend last year, we built Jackson and Carter a treehouse.
Jackson has been asking for one for years. When he first asked, I knew we were moving from Cartersville and so it didn’t make sense to build one at our home there. But he didn’t forget. Even before we had finalized the purchase of our cabin in North Carolina, Jackson was asking for a treehouse.
And so we built one. My father in law and I put it up in two days with strong assists from Jackson who put in many screws himself. It was a gift of epic proportions: a labor of love for Jackson from Henry and I who were exhausted and totally sore afterwards.
That’s what fathers, and grandfathers, do, labor in love for their children, giving them gifts just because we love them. Those gifts come, or should come, with no expectation of return. We just give because we love. And we love our children, and grandchildren, simply for being who they are.
If we do this for our children, how much more so does our Heavenly Father provide gifts for his children? We know the answer to that question: God has gifted us greatly.
And one of the ways we see and talk about those gifts are as spiritual gifts, given to us out of God’s love through the activation of the Holy Spirit. God gives us wonderful and amazing gifts out of God’s love for us to use for the common good.
But what are those gifts? Are they supernatural only? How do we know how we are spiritually gifted?
Those are the same questions the members of the church in Corinth are asking of Paul.
So, let’s hear Paul’s answer in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
Speaking in tongues.
That’s the controversy driving Paul’s response here. The people in Corinth wonder if they’re all supposed to speak in tongues to show that they’re actually saved.
In the temples around them, they see pagan worshippers who do the same. Those who are truly spiritual among those pagan worshippers can speak in never-before-heard languages or can understand what a speaker of tongues is saying, offering interpretation.
And of course the church in Corinth knows about the speaking of tongues on the day of Pentecost. That’s today, Pentecost Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with us, always. Jesus ascended back to heaven, saying the Spirit would come and empower the disciples to do ministry. And that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit does on the day of Pentecost and every day from that moment on.
The Holy Spirit comes in power, to activate the gifts of the people to serve God and love each other. That’s what Paul tells the church in Corinth as he writes them this letter. They, and we still today, have the power of God within us, motivating us and calling us to action; giving and empowering the gifts God has given us to use for God’s glory.
And on that Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit activated the people to hear and respond to the gospel message. Through the empowerment of the same Spirit, the disciples are able to offer their gifts to the world: Peter through preaching, Paul through traveling, others through healing and prophesying, and yes, some in speaking in tongues.
Their gifts are what we might first think of when we hear the phrase spiritual gifts. For such supernatural experiences are what we expect. The Holy Spirit is afterall a supernatural being, so it would make sense that we would receive supernatural powers when the Holy Spirit comes upon us at baptism.
In fact, quite often the expectation in Christian circles is we all are supposed to have such supernatural gifts; things like speaking in tongues, healing with the laying on of hands, prophesying, and the like.
The Corinthian church has the same expectation. There are church members among them who have supernatural gifts and others, many others, who believe themselves to be saved but show no supernatural gift. The speakers of tongues accuse the non-speakers of not really being saved. This offends the non-speakers and a huge division erupts in the church in Corinth, threatening to undo their witness.
It’s funny how some controversies never die. Churches today have the same disputes. The reason the Pentecostals broke away from us Methodists is because of a difference on just this fact. Whether or not you can speak in tongues continues to divide churches and serve as a point of controversy. Just as it was in Corinth as this baby church experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in their midst.
We, like the church in Corinth, know of examples of folks who are gifted in supernatural ways. We hear stories of spectacular spiritual events through one or a handful of gifted people. We have relationship with people who seem to be gifted with supernatural gifts.
So what about those of us run of the mill folks, who have no supernatural or spectacular spiritual gifts? Have we yet to discover what those are? Do we need to become more spiritual to tap into them? Are we too sinful to realize them? Or, maybe, are we not really saved but think we are?
Those are all the kinds of questions the church in Corinth is asking. And they’re the kind of questions people have asked ever since.
Which is too bad because Paul answers the question definitively in verse 7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Spiritual gifts do not have to be supernatural or spectacular.
Spiritual gifts are the Spirit’s activation of what God has given us for the common good.
When we were knit together by God in our mother’s womb, we were gifted, waiting for the Holy Spirit to activate that gift for use in the body of Christ for the common good; in other words, to build up the Kingdom of God.
And when we put our natural gifts to use for the body of Christ, it’s spectacular.
Sometimes, these gifts are supernatural but, very often, they are normal things like administration, listening, encouragement, intellectual prowess, or financial skill. Normal things, and yet we all know that when someone gifted in one of these non-supernatural ways uses them to great effect, the result is spectacular.
That’s the activation of the Holy Spirit, putting our gifts to use, no matter how spectacular or normal they are, for the common good; the building up of the Kingdom of God.
We all have gifts. We probably know ourselves well enough to know what we’re naturally good at. Paul’s question to the church in Corinth and to us today is this: are you putting those gifts you have to work for Jesus Christ? Are your gifts serving the common good?
That’s what Paul wants the people in Corinth to ask. Not whether or not they’re supernaturally gifted. Not whether or not they’re supposed to be supernaturally gifted. And certainly not if you must have supernatural gifts to be saved. Yes, he gives a list of some gifts, but it wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list.
What is meant to be exhaustive is his analogy of the church to the human body. In the final two verses we read, he goes on to say that every body part is essential to the functioning of the body. In the ancient world, the metaphor of the body was often used to reinforce that some people were more important than others, like visionary leaders as eyes being more important than lowly servants who were the pinky toe.
But Paul uses this common metaphor to turn that message on his head. Paul uses the body metaphor here to say that everyone is of equal importance, no matter the role they play. In other words, he says the pinky toe is just as important as the eyes and any other part. If you’ve ever broken a toe, you know it’s essential to your body!
No one’s spiritual gifts are more important than someone else’s. The gifts that are more noticeable and receive more praise are not more important than those that go unnoticed and receive little praise.
In God’s economy, everyone is equal. In God’s design of our selfhood, everyone is equal in their differences. In God’s implanting of gifts to each of us, we are all equally endowed.
Some are gifted in ways that show out more than others, like gifts that put people front and center through speaking or leading. Others are gifted in ways that go unnoticed: the behind-the-scenes servant or the financial guru or the encourager.
It’s human nature to put those folks who get noticed on a pedestal and think their gifts are more valuable than ours. But that’s not how God sees it. The hidden gifts are just as valuable as those that are seen.
We are all gifted. And the call on our lives is to put those gifts to use for the common good; to build up the Kingdom of God.
Too often, we have misread this chapter to think that we must all be supernaturally gifted. Paul’s point is the opposite: our gifts have supernatural impact. And that impact is spectacular for those around us if we are giving of our gifts for the common good.
What Paul wants the church in Corinth to hear, and what God wants us to hear today, is this: everyone is gifted, everyone’s gifts are of vital importance to the Kingdom, for we are the body of Christ. None of us are the full body; not even Jesus Christ is the full body. He is the head, we, the church, are the rest. Whatever we are, however we are gifted, we are to embody that gift, put it to use, for the common good; to do our part to build the Kingdom of God.
And that goes for any age, for at every stage of life, we have something to contribute; a gift of ourselves to give into the world: from babies who inspire our hearts and children whose confidence and unlimited visions inspire us to see what’s possible, to the elderly among us who encourage and inspire with their service and love for our church family and community, and everyone in between. God has gifted us that no matter our age, our station, our reach, nor our influence. We are all able to live out our giftedness for the common good.
So the question is not what spiritual gift you have. The question is not how you’re supposed to be living a spectacular, supernatural, existence. And certainly a lack of a supernatural gift does not mean you are not saved.
This morning consider: how are you gifted? And then, are you putting the gifts God has given you to service for the church and the common good?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.