My parents were here for Christmas. They showed up at our house on Christmas Eve, came to our service at the Barn, and then the next morning, of course, we opened all the presents. Emma and Eliza were pumped because they know that Mimi and Poppy give the best presents.
One of the gifts for Eliza from Mimi and Poppy this year was a giant inflatable rainbow unicorn that you can ride on.
It was a big hit on Christmas morning. I tried it out, too, and I can verify that it is a lot of fun. It’s continued to be a big hit since.
But it’s not my mom’s first rodeo. She knows the plight of one desirable gift with more than one kid in a household. When Eliza opened it, my mom saw Emma’s eyes grow big as she coveted her sister’s unicorn. And so the unicorn was barely even out of the packaging on Christmas morning when my mom leaned over to me and whispered, “If it causes any trouble and they have a hard time sharing, I’ve got another one in my trunk ready to go.”
She’s smart. She knows what she’s doing.
Luckily, knock on wood, we didn’t need that second unicorn. You can call it a Christmas miracle. I know I do, because I don’t know that I could have handled two giant inflatable stuffed rainbow unicorns under one roof. But I did have mad respect for my mom’s forethought there.
Because what my mom knows — which is what the Apostle Paul has discovered in today’s reading — is that sometimes we have a hard time with the gifts that we’ve been given.
But first, I want to remind you that we’re in the season of Epiphany; we marked it two weeks ago when we talked about the wise men and how they went home by another way.
But like Christmas, Epiphany is also more than a day. It’s a whole season. And if you remember, the word, epiphany, literally means “manifest” or “revelation” or “a new understanding.” It’s not just another word for an a-ha moment. It’s about pondering and bringing our attention to the ways that God is made known or made manifest to us. In other words, in the season of Epiphany, we think together about how God’s presence is revealed in our very midst — often in somewhat unexpected and surprising ways, giving us a new understandingof the divine and how we might live and move in the world because of it. That’s Epiphany.
And in this season, for the next few weeks, we’re going to linger with a few chapters from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. These passages are part of the lectionary, or the calendar of scripture passages appointed for churches to hear and proclaim and chew on from week to week. I’ll share more about the lectionary soon, but what you need to know is that when we use the lectionary, it means that we didn’t pick these scripture passages; they were given to us, handed to us, as part of the lectionary. To receive as gift.
So as we looked ahead at this week and the weeks to come and were praying about where God might be leading us and what we needed to hear, 1 Corinthians just seemed right. It felt like Paul wasn’t just writing to an ancient community of people in modern-day Greece nearly 2,000 years ago, but also had some good words for us. So we’re going to hang out here for a little while over the next few weeks.
A little context for us as we settle in: Corinth was a major commercial hub in Greece — part of the Roman empire. It was a prosperous place, central to ports, and convenient for trade routes. And it was also home to a fledgling Christian community, too. The church there had been established by the Apostle Paul, one of the most prolific missionaries ever and a major figure of the New Testament. And the Corinthian church was made up not only of Jewish converts but also of Gentiles — those who were not Jewish.
And as you might imagine and can certainly understand, anytime you bring different groups of people together to create something new, there’s bound to be some tension. There was a lot of it there. There were disagreements about theological practices and what was okay to do and what wasn’t okay. There were moral arguments along with a lot of ego and piety, too.
Paul catches wind of all of this dissension and division and struggle — both having been tipped off but also because he had started to receive some questions from a few Corinthians themselves. And so, in response, he fires off this letter seeking to offer clarity, calm everybody down a little, remind them who and whose they are, find unity and mutuality amidst their diversity, and help them find a faithful way forward.
One scholar put it this way. He said, essentially, that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians demonstrates that they were at a moment of crisis and testing. He wrote, “Will they heed Paul’s words… or will their community disintegrate before the forces of pride, rivalry, and… self-indulgence?”
Division and forces of pride, rivalry, and self-indulgence. Yeah, I don’t know anything about that. Can’t relate at all. Definitely none of that here. We don’t have any issues with division, pride, rivalry, or self-indulgence. Not us.
Obviously, we do. And this is why I think it’s good to linger here for a few weeks. Glean some wisdom as we seek a faithful way forward amidst the division, pride, rivalry, and self-indulgence that plagues our world.
We’re thrown right into the mess in the passage with a controversy over spiritual gifts. And we’re back to the (metaphorical) giant inflatable rainbow unicorn. You know that phrase, “This is why we can’t have nice things?” That’s what’s going on here.
Because these early followers of Jesus in Corinth are doing the thing —breaking bread together and praying. They’re worshipping, and the church is growing. And as they follow Jesus, they begin to realize that they’ve also received spiritual gifts. And by that, we don’t necessarily mean gifts that are purely spiritual in nature, but we mean gifts that are given by the Holy Spirit — the presence of God. Paul lists some examples here: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues. Some of these might be familiar to us and others, foreign. But spiritual gifts are certainly not limited to these gifts.
Maybe you’re good with numbers. Maybe you can connect really well with people. Maybe you have the gift of hospitality or working with children. Maybe you are a gifted teacher or an effective communicator or a beautiful writer. Maybe you can sing or play piano or have the ability to take complex ideas and make them easily understood. Maybe you are good with your hands or you’re passionate about social justice. It might be something else entirely. Those are all spiritual gifts. We all have them. You have them.
But what’s happened in Corinth is that human nature has gotten the best of them. They take their gifts, skills, and abilities and begin to rank them. They start to bicker over which gifts are most important. Which are more impressive. They start to claim higher status based on what gift they have — as if to say, “Well maybe you can utter wisdom, but I can speak in tongues, and that clearly means that I’m holier than you are. That Jesus loves me more.” They start boasting in their gifts, turning them into idols — as if they had anything to do with it.
And this is why we can’t have nice things. As my mom will tell you, sometimes we have a hard time with the gifts that we’ve been given.
We might know something about this, too. Perhaps we use our gifts solely for personal gain as we seek to corner the market or pit groups of people against each other. Maybe we compare our gifts with others and it makes us feel better about ourselves and get a leg up — in our own minds if nowhere else. Maybe we rank them, claiming that some are more important than others. Or maybe we believe the lie that we’re self-made — that these gifts aren’t gifts at all but are solely the result of our skill and hard work.
And so to the church in Corinth and to us, Paul offers two very important correctives in response.
First, Paul stresses equality among the gifts rooted in the Holy Spirit. In other words, no gift is more important than another. All have equal merit because they all originate from and are activated by the Holy Spirit — the presence and power of God working in us. This is what he’s getting at when he says, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
In other words, Paul is saying, “Every gift is vital. Every gift matters. Every gift is equal because every gift comes from God.” And with God as the giver, there can be no hierarchies or divisions. That’s now how this God operates.
And what’s more, because every gift comes from God, none of these gifts can be boasted about — because you didn’t have anything to do with it on your own. Paul reminds them that it’s the work of God within them. God is the originator, the catalyst, the inspiration, the one who gives you your passion, your skill, your quick wit or the ability to do math in your head or how you get an A on that test every time even when you didn’t study. That’s God; not you.
So that’s the first thing: That every gift is equal because every gift comes from God.
The second corrective Paul offers is that the gifts God has given them aren’t for their own personal gain. Instead, they’re for the common good. He invites the church in Corinth to look beyond themselves and toward the whole. That’s what their gifts are for.
Because they seem to have forgotten that what God is about is creating new communities — communities of resurrection and justice and healing and peace. Communities where all have belonging, where every belly is full, and every person has a safe place to rest their heads. Where hatred and bigotry are snuffed out for good and each and every person not only has sacred worth but knows it and feels it, too.
So Paul is imploring this community to keep their eye on the ball as if to say, “Y’all, we got work to do.” This is what your gifts are for. This is what you’re called to. Don’t waste those gifts; use them where they’re needed — for the common good.”
I’ve seen it so much recently. We’re still counting, but it’s looking like the most recent Diaper Dump for Baby Jesus will have brought in well over 13,000 diapers for families in need in Chatham County. That’s amazing. So to those of you who organized and collected and donated, this is you.
And I saw it yesterday, as a handful of us gathered at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church to move furniture onto a POD that will, this week, be taken to a new home for an Afghan refugee family. We saw a number of gifts on display for the common good.
And I see it when you cook a meal or pray for someone or read Scripture or offer music here on Sundays or check in on a friend or help out your neighbor or when you call out racist rhetoric or advocate for the poor or support legislation that champions equality and justice. When you donate money or offer your accounting prowess to a nonprofit or your legal work pro bono. You’re using your gifts for the common good — for what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would call “Beloved Community.”
And in and through those gifts, especially in this season of Epiphany, the love of God is made manifest and revealed in and through you.
When you offer your gifts for the common good, toward Beloved Community, Jesus shines through you. That’s the epiphany.
Thanks be to God. Amen.