1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Epiphany +5A – February 9, 2020
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Week 4 Theme: Joys and Burdens
Scripture Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:12-26; Luke 22:24-30
Week 4 – Joys and Burdens (PowerPoint Slides)
Week 2 Theme: Shaped by Word and Sacrament
Scripture Texts: 1 Corinthians 11:23-29; Luke 22:17-20
Exodus 45:3-11, 15
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Nehemiah 8:1:3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
1 Corinthians 12:1-13
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. +
Over the last eight months, if I’ve had one goal during our second year of this narrative lectionary journey, it has been this: to make it plain that the story of Scripture is our story, a story which continues to speak into our modern-day lives and which makes a difference in those lives. God only knows whether or not I’ve been successful at doing that, but as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost this weekend and mark the end of this year’s trip through the broad sweep of Scripture, it’s important that we all take this conviction seriously, because it’s not just mine, it’s at the heart of what we believe about why Scripture still matters.
The story that we hear in part today is perhaps one of those that’s most difficult for us to translate into our own context. Pentecost’s vivid imagery and amazing claims about the Spirit’s power in our midst are almost incredible, and when we take those images as our litmus test for when the Spirit is on the move, it’s easy for us to imagine that the Spirit stopped working powerful deeds a long time ago. Even stepping out of Acts and reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12 – our second appointed reading for today – doesn’t make things much better on that front.
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore 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.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to 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.
11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12For 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. 13For 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. (1 Corinthians 12:1-13, NRSV)
I suspect that very few of us gathered here today have seen people speaking in tongues in worship, or witnessed anything like the kind of prophetic speech that Paul describes in his letter to the church at Corinth. It’s all too common, I think, for us to discount the work that the Spirit is still up to all around us, because we imagine that this work is limited to the chosen few who have “higher gifts” that are clear to see. We even have a word in English to describe people that just seem to have “it”, that quality that makes them into leaders that others want to follow or places them on a different level than the rest of us: charisma.
It’s unfortunate that this word has come to be used so exclusively, because the apostle Paul certainly didn’t use it that way. This whole chapter from 1 Corinthians is about charisma, and Paul goes out of his way over and over again to make the point that charisma isn’t a special quality that is given only to a few, but a quality of people who are living in the world on this side of the resurrection. In its most limited sense, all Christians – all of us – are people who have been gifted with different kinds of charisma, graces that help us to carry out the work that God has given us to do in the world. In its most expansive sense, there is at least some charisma at work in everyone, because – as Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions attest – faith itself is a gift of the Spirit that we receive through no work or merit of our own. When in our prayer at the table during the communion liturgy we thank God for the Spirit poured out on all nations, this is what we’re talking about – we believe and confess that the Spirit is on the loose throughout creation, creating and sustaining faith, strengthening and encouraging us to be Christ’s people in the world, endowing us with the gifts that make our work and witness to God possible.
What kind of gifts are we talking about? What charisma are present in this assembly? How much time do you all have today? There are gifts too many to number just in this room, because each and every one of you is a charismatic Christian, with unique skills and abilities and talents that you use in unique ways each and every day. From the youngest disciples whose infectious laughter and joy brighten our spirits and give us hope for a future that is better than our present, to those of you who are most experienced at following Jesus who bring your gifts of wisdom and knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of prayerful and faithful service, all of us are gifted by the Spirit with charisma that build up the body of Christ and infuse our community and our world with God’s grace and love. Think about the things you love to do, the things you are the best at doing, the things that bring you the most joy or fulfillment. Think about how each of those things can be avenues for extending the grace and love of God to others, whether they are regular church attenders or never darken the doors of any house of worship. Think about the skills honed over decades of work or the talents that seem to come to you as naturally as breathing, and think about how you can use those skills and talents to show others what God is up to in your life or in the world. Better yet, ask your friends or your family to help you discern what your gifts might be. It can be a strange conversation to start, I know, but it’s often the case that other people will see gifts in you that you can’t identify in yourself.
Let me give you an example: I know that I wouldn’t be standing in this pulpit today if Barbara Klimkowski and Joan Herbon, two members of my home congregation in Southfield, Michigan, hadn’t spent years telling me they thought I had the gifts for ordained ministry. I wouldn’t have been available for this call five years ago if a group of lay and ordained people from my home synod hadn’t spent the previous five years watching and praying and questioning and pushing and guiding me to explore what God was calling me to do. I wouldn’t be here in southeast Nebraska if countless friends and colleagues hadn’t encouraged me over months and years, or if congregations in York, Pennsylvania, and Cumberland, Maryland, hadn’t given me the chance to try on the role of pastor among them for a year each. The point is this: don’t be afraid to talk to others about your charisma, because there is something scary and exhilarating and beautiful about figuring this stuff out together, and the Spirit can work through those other people to reveal things that might be hidden.
If you only hear one thing from today’s service, let it be this: Pentecost is not a one-time event, but an on-going movement in the world. The Spirit’s breath is still blowing, still calling and inviting and directing and drawing us ever closer to God and to one another as we use all the different charisma that we’ve been given in service to God and our neighbors. You have charisma that no one else can claim, and when you get out there and let the Spirit work through you, God is capable of doing things that you might never imagine are possible. So let’s get going, my charismatic Lutheran friends, because we’ve got work to do, and the Spirit is on the loose and ready to make it happen. Thanks be to God for these gracious gifts, and for the opportunity to use them for God’s glory! Amen!
1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
On a day when we have so much going on in worship, we’re fortunate that our appointed reading is all about the basics. After fourteen chapters of dissecting the problems going on with the church at Corinth – problems, that as we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks, are certainly not foreign to our experience as Christians in the twenty-first century – Paul is ready to do a bit of review, and to remind the Corinthians (and us) of what’s really important. In good Lutheran Christian fashion – Paul was a Lutheran, right? – we are being taken back to the ground of our faith, the good news about Jesus that establishes our relationship with God and forms the foundation of our community.
That good news, of course, is that God became one of us in Jesus, who gave his life for us and for the salvation of the whole world, and who rose again to conquer sin and death. It’s the same good news we’ve been talking about throughout this Easter season, the gospel message that permeates the life of the Christian community in all kinds of ways. Just look at how the apostle talks about the gospel message: it’s good news that he first received from someone else, it’s good news that the Corinthians received and staked their lives on, and it’s good news that continues to save them. That’s just as true of us, of course, as it was for those first-century Christians. This gospel message about Jesus touches our past, our present, and our future. It’s good news with a history, a continuing significance, and a future that is still unfolding around us. That’s an especially important thing for us to remember on a day when we celebrate with Alexis, Helen, Josey, Macy, and Perry, who have completed confirmation instruction and are preparing to publically affirm their faith in Jesus Christ, and when we bless Maggy as she prepares to embark on a new adventure this summer and fall after her graduation.
Both confirmation and graduation have a lot in common. They represent the culmination of a period of preparation; they are meaningful milestones in themselves; they set those who participate in them on a new path with new possibilities. All three of those things need to be held in balance, or it’s easy to miss something of the significance of the events we’re celebrating today. If you get caught up in the struggle to reach the goal, you lose the joy of the journey that brings you to that goal and the future that awaits on the other side. If you get caught up in the moment and forget where you’ve been or where you’re going, your celebration will lack the perspective you need to appreciate it fully. If you lose sight of what you’ve accomplished, you might lose heart when you face your next challenge. It’s difficult to hold our past, our present, and our future together, but when we’re able to do it, it makes moments like this that much deeper and more fulfilling.
The same, I think, is true of the life of faith that Paul describes in First Corinthians. As Christians, we are part of a community that has a past, a present, and a future, and we are called to live as people who understand the significance of what God has done for us, what God is doing among us now, and what God is promising to do in the future. That’s why Paul talks about the good news as something that we received, something that we stand in today, and something that continues to grant us the gift of salvation. All of these aspects of our life together are important, because they keep us from becoming trapped in our past, overwhelmed by our present, or frightened of our future. I’ve talked about all of these dangers before. When we idealize our past, we measure everything against a false picture that may never have existed, and set ourselves up to experience disappointment and failure when our present doesn’t match up with our expectations. When we succumb to the tyranny of now, we imagine that we are going through uniquely challenging circumstances and we wonder if we’ll ever be capable of making it through those challenges. When we look to the future with dread, we keep ourselves from moving forward because we’re afraid that we’ll encounter difficulties that might be too much for us.
Scripture presents us with a picture of life with God that is wider and deeper than our past, our present, or our future alone can contain. Remembering the saving love of God in our past – especially as that love comes to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – gives us confidence as we face a troubled world and an uncertain path forward. Knowing the presence of God – especially by the gift of the promised Holy Spirit – reminds of God’s faithfulness in the past and strengthens us to step forward in faith. Living with hope in God’s promised future – a future which has already begun in Jesus and which will be brought to fulfillment in God’s time – gives meaning to our present and helps make sense of where we’ve been together.
All of this is good news, brothers and sisters! Wherever you’ve been, wherever you are today, and wherever you might be going, Scripture proclaims that God has been there, is there now, and will be there ahead of you. The story of our lives – as individuals and as a community – is the story of God’s never-failing love, a love that unites us with Christ, binds us together as one, and beckons us to reach out to a broken and beautiful world in the name of Jesus. That is true of all of us, whatever our age, whatever our calling, whatever our station in life, whatever our background, and whatever our future might look like at the moment. Today, dear friends, I invite you to ponder anew how God’s presence has transformed your yesterday, your today, and your tomorrow, so that we might all be strengthened for the work that God is calling us to do. To our confirmands and our graduate – congratulations! Remember where you’ve been. Remember who you are. Remember who has promised to be with you as you step into the future that God is preparing for you. We thank God for all of you, and we look forward to seeing how God will continue to use you and your gifts to bring blessing to our world. Amen!
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
In a 1983 hit song, Tina Turner once asked “What’s love got to do with it?” That was a provocative question thirty-plus years ago, and the song’s answer, as it turns out, was provocative in its own right; essentially, the lyrics said, love doesn’t have much of anything to do with anything – at least, nothing to do with the romantic relationship that was the subject of the song. We can look down our noses at this kind of cynical view of love, but the reality is that a brief glance around our society reveals that, in many places, the question “what’s love got to do with it” is still largely being answered with what might best be described as a resounding “meh”.
As depressing as that thought might be, it’s perhaps even more depressing to realize that this isn’t a new phenomenon. There’s a reason, after all, that the apostle Paul felt the need to write an entire chapter about love and its importance in the life of the Christian community, and that reason is that the church in the Greek city of Corinth seems to have looked an awful lot like many groups of people we might observe in modern society. Unlike the Thessalonian church, which as we saw a couple of weeks ago, was lauded for their work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in Christ, the Corinthians were given to rivalry and dissension and, frankly, a level of “one-upmanship” that might make some of our current presidential candidates blush. The Corinthians, you see, were a gifted lot. Their community had been blessed with a number of spiritual gifts – among which Paul names speaking in tongues (a kind of ecstatic or mystical speech that was said to communicate divine truth), the interpretation of tongues (the ability to understand that mystical speech for the benefit of others), prophecy, and knowledge. The problem was that those gifts were not being used to build up the rest of the community; they were, instead, becoming causes of disunity. Because some gifts were regarded more highly, those who possessed them were regarded as more important than others, and it appears that the “highly gifted” ones were more than willing to agree that they were special.
That’s where this passage comes in. The way the Corinthian church had been living together was a travesty, and Paul aimed to show them where they had gone astray by showing them “a still more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31b) That “more excellent way,” of course, is the way of love – not the emotional, sentimental, shallow kind of love that Tina Turner may have been criticizing, but a deep and abiding love that is both difficult and costly. It’s a love that finds expression – or, perhaps more accurately, embodiment – in the person of Jesus Christ. In contrast to those Corinthians Christians, Jesus used his many spiritual gifts in ways that brought life and healing to others and led to his own suffering and death. In his obedience to God’s will for him and for the whole creation, Christ showed us what true love looks like, and made love the measure of our lives as his disciples in an unloving world. Paul enjoins that kind of love on the church at Corinth, directly challenging the way that they chose to live together, and inviting them to trade their childish behavior for a more mature approach to life in community.
As I mentioned earlier, the problems that faced the Corinthians are also problems that face us today. Though the conduct of those presently running for higher office would probably give us more than enough fodder for conversation, to focus on them would be too easy, and it would ignore all the ways that this kind of behavior plays out closer to home. You and I know how often we fall short of the example Christ set and Paul describes. We are all too frequently impatient and mean, envious and boastful and arrogant and rude. We want what’s coming to us, we keep score and hold grudges, and we reward cunning (or, at the very least, look the other way when injustice holds sway). Far too many of us regard love as something that’s nice when it doesn’t cost us anything but is surely too naïve to form the basis of our relationships with our neighbors or our fellow citizens or people who live across the world from us. That’s not true across the board, of course; each of us has certain relationships in which we have experienced all too deeply the cost of love, the heartbreak and sadness that comes from wanting the best for others and seeing them fail to attain it by either choice or circumstance; the pain of choosing to love people who don’t deserve it because we know that they need it; the sting of being hurt by the people who are supposed to protect us; the ache of grieving loved ones who are no longer with us. Love is hard, but it is also the highway that Christ has trod before us and which we are called to walk as his disciples. The challenge, then, is to fight the urge to close ourselves off from our brothers and sisters in the faith, or from our neighbors, or from anyone who has been created in the image of God. That we are called to live with love for all, even as we struggle with the imperfect knowledge that Paul readily acknowledges, makes that challenge even greater.
That’s where Jesus comes back into the picture. If all this sounds impossible, that’s because it is. We will never be capable of this kind of love on our own. The gift that accompanies the challenge is that we don’t have to live this way alone. We, too, have been blessed with the means of grace that make living in love possible. In the practice of regularly acknowledging our faults before God and one another, we find the freedom to live as broken people who are renewed by the forgiveness of our merciful Father. In Holy Communion, the meal that Christ sets before us at the table of grace, we are refreshed and restored to wholeness. In the fellowship we share as brothers and sisters in Christ, we find consolation and encouragement. Finally, in the waters of Holy Baptism, we are joined to the crucified and risen life of Jesus, and filled with the Spirit who inspires us to live lives of faith, hope, and love for the sake of the world.
Paul’s word to the Corinthians is also a word to us, brothers and sisters. In a society that asks, “what’s love got to do with it,” may our words and deeds make our answer clear to everyone we encounter: Love is everything, the “still more excellent way” that leads us to abundant life now and eternal life in the age to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.