1 Corinthians 12:1-13 and John 2:1-11
© Stacey Steck
Last Sunday, I mentioned how Presbyterians probably drink more alcohol than Baptists, or at least more than the Baptists say they drink. But I’m pretty sure we don’t drink as much as the Episcopalians, and I don’t mean because they still use real wine during Communion. I used to work at an Episcopal Church, Calvary in Pittsburgh, and on my very first day, I went to the office supply cabinet to stock up on pens and staples and such things, and lo and behold when I opened the door, what did I find in there? A box of all kinds of distilled spirits – liquor, by another name – and an especially large quantity of sherry, reserved for the very popular Tuesday evening Women’s Circle. Maybe that’s what the Women of the Church need around here, eh? And then I remembered that old saying, “Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth.” Now, perhaps the Episcopalians got their inspiration from this morning’s passage from First Corinthians, in which the Apostle Paul boldly declares, “and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” In the beginning, it must have been just wine he was talking about, but you know, since alcohol is just alcohol, any kind will do to be in keeping with the Apostle’s great insight, and so these days, they can enjoy varieties of spirits, including sherry.
Of course, it was not the distillation of alcoholic spirits Paul was talking about but the distribution of the Holy Spirit, especially the way that Holy Spirit distributed spiritual gifts on the believers. Spiritual gifts are those God-given, and Spirit-activated abilities that transcend mere talent or skill and venture into divine and mysterious territory. I’m not talking about those kind of adrenaline-induced feats of strength where in times of stress, people can lift heavy objects that have fallen on their loved ones. I’m talking more about those sixth-sense kind of abilities that aren’t on the regular list of human characteristics, but that come when God blesses us with them in baptism. It’s not a long list, but it’s an important and diverse list, and Paul takes up a good part of this book of First Corinthians trying to correct the erroneous Corinthian thinking that God’s Spirit had been reduced to, boiled down, distilled, so to speak, to only the gift of speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is, of course, a spiritual gift, but only one in the list of spiritual gifts, yet it seems that some in the Corinthian church were trying to make it the most important one. So, very cleverly, Paul addresses their issue by placing tongues last among all the gifts he lists. Later on, he will go into great detail about the proper place of speaking in tongues, but for our purposes this morning, what is important is to note is, that, to use Paul’s own words, “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 activates all of them in everyone.” Did you hear that? Three things are given by the Spirit. Many gifts. Many services. Many activities. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’d ever really noticed the services and the activities tucked in there. I think all these years, I’ve been stuck on the more glamorous parts – the spiritual gifts – like the Corinthians were in their fixation on speaking in tongues, and I’ve overlooked what might just be more important in the long run – the way we are called to serve, and the things God gives us to do.
Those two other manifestations of the Spirit, what Paul calls services and activities, are just as powerful, and just as important as the gifts themselves. The root of the word for services is diakonia, from which we get the word deacon, and which means, literally, ministry. And there are so many ways to do ministry, both formal and informal, because ministry simply means service, and we can serve others in countless ways. And the root of the word for activities is energeo, which is the root of our English word energy, so the varieties of activities that come from the same God are the ways God call us to use our energies, those ways we expend or exert ourselves physically, or mentally, or spiritually. So, there are gifts, there is ministry, and there is energy, and God has given to each one of us some of each of that holy trinity. I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I’ve heard people say that they are sure that God hasn’t given them any spiritual gifts, and I’ve tried to talk them out of it, because God gives each of us at least the gift of faith. But even if that weren’t the case, even if God hadn’t given everyone at least one spiritual gift, God has still given us energy and ministry, and from where I stand, I don’t care how great the gift is, if there’s no energy behind it, and there’s no one to make it happen, that gift isn’t going to be going very far.
Be all that as it may, there is something even more important than this, and it may well be the measure of whether what God really gives each of us is true and authentic, and that something is found is Paul’s statement that “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” None of the gifts, none of the wisdom, the knowledge, the faith, the healing, the working of miracles, the discernment of spirits, or even the tongues, and none of the energy, no matter how it’s expended, and none of the ministry, no matter how it is exercised, none of these matter in the least, if their purpose is not for the common good, for the benefit of everyone, and not just the receiver of the gift, or the energy, or the ministry. If these don’t bear fruit that feeds someone else, they’re not from God. If these don’t make someone else’s life better, bring hope to a despairing person, change an unjust system, keep a child from harm, if these ways of living out faith in Jesus Christ don’t contribute to the common good, they are no good, and we are as good as drunk. If we use the gift of faith so that people will laud our piety, we’re drinking the wrong spirits. If we use the gifts of the working of miracles to become famous, we’re drinking the wrong spirits. If we use our wisdom or knowledge to pad our resumes and don’t give anything back to our families or communities, we’re drinking the wrong spirits. If we think the gift of tongues is the most important gift, and that everyone else’s gift is inferior, we’re drinking the wrong spirits. But if we use our gifts for the common good, if our ministries are for the sake of others, if our energies are directed toward building God’s kingdom, then we’ll know we’ve all been drinking of the one true Spirit.
Tomorrow is the national holiday we call Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day to remember someone from our own Christian tradition who used his gifts, ministries, and energy for the common good. King didn’t use the term “common good” very often, but he sure talked a lot about what he called the Beloved Community, “a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. King…who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.
“For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
“Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
“Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.
“As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, ‘the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men [and women].’ ” (1
To me, King’s expression of the Beloved Community is the very essence of the common good the Apostle Paul was describing, the culmination and the purpose of the gifts of God. It’s a reminder of the fact that in God’s eyes, if not our own, that “the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, [and] so it is with Christ. For 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.” But none of that happens by magic. It doesn’t happen unless we all use our gifts, all our energy, and all of our ministry in its service. May we take tomorrow’s occasion of Dr. King’s birthday to reflect on the gifts we have received and how we will use them, to recommit to the ministries to which we are called and in which we participate, and to redouble the energies that make possible all our efforts on behalf of the common good. Amen.