Paul is making a point here, and it’s not so much a point about Jesus, but about the church, and it’s clear that the church is not a building, or a place, but people...
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore 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.
Now 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. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to 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. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
The Quilt and the Tapestry
I really, really like quilts. Our neighbors—when I was growing up—were Carl and Hazel Cly, and Carl’s parents, Harry and Carrie Cly. Carl worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, manning the signal at one of the crossings in Greenfield, back when there were men who turned the signals on and off when a train approached. Harry was an old German, and he smoked big nasty cigars, then chewed the tobacco when the stogie got too short to hold. Hazel and Carrie made quilts together and, after Carrie died, Hazel kept up the tradition. For our wedding, we received a quilt from Hazel; others have come our way and there are a couple of old ones that serve as Christmas tree skirts every year.
I have talked from time-to-time about the church I served before I came to Union Chapel, Brazil Union. There were many wonderful people there, and two older couples who, I believe, lived the love of Jesus as powerfully as anyone I’ve ever known. We shouldn’t ever compare churches, and I won’t, except to say that I am beyond thrilled, even after four-and-a-half years, to be your pastor here at Union Chapel. But one of the traditions at Brazil Union—a tradition that began while we were there and, in my mind, at least, came from Donna’s suggestion, is an annual quilt show. It’s an amazing thing, beautiful quilts hung everywhere in the sanctuary, draped over the pews and the pulpit, even more on display in the hallway and in the fellowship hall. Both within the congregation and outside, there are many quilters and others who collect quilts to display at events like this. Apparently, some people will pay to attend and will even buy sandwiches and coffee and pie while they are visiting. Who knew?
Anyway, I loved the quilt show and the voice it gave to the women in the church; when the time came to go—when Donna and I got to come here, to Union Chapel—some of the women assembled a quilt for us. The quilt is made up of blocks that were given to all of the members and families of the church so that they could embroider or write their favorite Bible verses and then be returned and assembled for us to remember. It was a very kind, very thoughtful, very creative gift from the congregation. I love quilts.
All-in-all, though, I prefer a tapestry.
Let’s pray together, and then we’ll talk about spiritual gifts for a while.
God, pour out Your Holy Spirit on us this morning. Give us gifts of the Spirit and gifts of discernment so that we might know not only what is true and what is not, but also how these gifts—Holy gifts—might work together in us and through us for You—for the building of Your people and for the building of Your church and for the building of Your Kingdom. Make us wise; make us, also, one. Show us, through all that we may see or hear or feel, through all that we might say or do, through all that we are able to discern, Your will for our lives and, through us, for Your church. Make us not only welcoming, but invitational; let us, and each of us, see the richness of this church of Your dreams and enthuse us to share what is in our grasp with everyone that we may meet. And remind us, no matter what we see or hear or feel this morning, no matter what is said or done and no matter what we are gifted to discern and what remains mysterious to us—remind us that the glory of this time and of these words is Yours, alone. Amen.
I want to ask you a question. It’s a serious question. It’s also a hard question—not difficult, but might feel like you’ve been hit with a brick. It’s a challenging question—a gut check. Maybe it’s too intense for the start of a sermon—maybe it ought to wait to the end so you don’t fall too deep into your own thoughts, get caught up in the swirlings of your own mind, just simply drift away because drifting away is just so very much easier than answering this question with integrity and authenticity. I want to ask you a question: what do you believe?
What do you believe? Let’s make an agreement—right now—to be honest. Honest with each other, honest with ourselves—honest with ourselves and honest with God. Let us be like the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” What do you believe?
The Scripture today—Paul is writing to the Corinthian church—this Scripture is difficult; it challenges me in a way that I don’t like to be challenged. The message is mystical and mysterious and weird—to me. My rational way of looking at things causes me to skim and scan and skip over the words here. I was a pagan. I was a pagan. Now, by the intervention of someone or something else, I am changed, different, better. Given gifts for which I have not asked and which I have not merited; in the midst of it all of this confusion, there is a Spirit—a Spirit—at work in me, changing my priorities, changing my abilities, changing my heart. This Scripture might just as well say that I am driving down the road in my Hyundai and, suddenly, it has become a Maserati, six-speed on the floor, and I don’t need to have my hands on the wheel, nor to shift gears as I watch the clutch go up and down and feel the gears shift without my involvement—except that it is really me and I am flying down the highway at incredible speed and have no sense of how to stop. A Spirit. At work, on and in me. A Spirit.
What do you believe?
There’s another reading for this week, one that we aren’t using today, but that tells the story of Jesus at a wedding in Cana. Jesus—a young man, accompanying his mother, Mary, to the wedding. He hasn’t come out yet; He has hardly acknowledged, to Himself, the power and authority He possesses. His mother doesn’t know; He hasn’t shared the truth with her. But the wine runs out and the host family—her friends—will be embarrassed and humiliated, and so she forces His hand. Do what He says, she tells the servants. He can’t deny His mother; He can’t withhold the truth that she has tried to set free. The water is changed, and so is He—and, so, are we.
Paul, the Apostle, wrote this letter to a church he had helped start in a city called Corinth, in south-central Greece. There were problems, rivalries, power grabs, the beginning of an “in-crowd” and its counterpart. Now, just to remind us that these folks were human, just like us, consider this: this letter was written only about twenty years after Jesus was crucified and then arose from the dead. Can you imagine--only twenty years later, these folks—practically a brand-new church full of believers and followers and would-be disciples who had known of Jesus’ love for only three or four years—these folks were already about the business of separating themselves, segregating their ranks, some claiming to be superior in the church to the others. Can you imagine? Of course, you can, once you put aside the notion that people then weren’t like people now.
Paul’s letter is pretty direct and, although this passage doesn’t reflect it, the letter resulted in a lot of hard feelings between Paul and the Corinthians. But that’s not the point of this passage or this message.
If you were a piece of thread, what color do you suppose you might be? Would you be all one color, or might you, from end-to-end, bear multiple colors, or various shades? Are you red, or blue, or yellow? Let’s get away from the loaded colors to the others. Are you blue-green, orange-orange, purple, violet, lavender, rose? Maybe you’re brown or black or white. What would be the source of your coloring, if you were a piece of thread?
You probably see where I’m going with this metaphor, but let me be explicit. Paul is making a point here, and it’s not so much a point about Jesus, but about the church, and it’s clear that the church is not a
The people in the church at Corinth understood a part of this, but only a part. They understood, all too well, that not everybody was the same. They understood that there was giftedness among them. Some were wiser than others, just plain smarter, more intelligent, or more knowledgeable. In addition, though, some would break out into ecstatic speaking, making exotic sounds during worship and some—usually they and a few of the others—would claim that they understood what that speech—what those sounds—meant. And, for some reason I’ll never understand, these people—the speakers and alleged understands of gibberish—thought they were better than everybody else. Certainly better than the one who lit the fire or cleaned up after they’d all been together, better than the ones who couldn’t read or who stuttered when they spoke even though, ironically, what the stutterer or stammerer said probably made more sense.
Context is important when we read Paul’s writings; these were letters from one person to another, or to a group, sharing thoughts just as we might do, today, by email or text or, God help us, social media.
Paul hears of a church in trouble—one of his. So he writes. Stop what you’re doing. Don’t hold yourselves apart. Don’t think of ourselves as being separate, but be one.
I imagine a quilt when I think about it. Blocks of different types, colors, textures—perhaps even shapes—sewn together but still, even after years and years, standing apart. Which block stands out, grabs your attention, outshines the others? Which do you like best; which one is the least? Yes, they may be necessary, each one, for the integrity of the quilt, and there’s nothing—absolutely nothing—wrong with being a quilt block. After all, the quilt may be beautiful and it supplies warmth when warmth is needed. When you’re cold, you don’t really care that one quilt square is more glorious than the others, or that a beautiful square occupies the center and is surrounded by colorless supporting pieces. A quilt is good at being a quilt.
What if, though, there were threads? Dozens and hundreds and thousands and millions of threads, all different colors, different lengths, some tougher or stronger and others more vulnerable, some older and others younger, but they were each valued, each treasured, each seen not so much for itself as for what it does for the others as the threads are woven together, tied off, braided, in some places, so that the tapestry forms a glorious picture or simply a blend of color that amazes in its intensity.
Paul is telling the church to be a tapestry, and not a quilt or, worse, a bunch of individual pieces of fabric. Yes, the red may be beautiful, but mix it with the blue and the magenta and see something incredible. Combine the orange and the purple and be surprised. Even plain old white and plain old black make up a pretty cool picture when they are blended as God means for them to be. Having different gifts—being different colors—is not the basis for pride or gloating, nor for separation.
So Paul tells them—and we get to read His writing, this many years later—that all of the gifts have come from the same Spirit, which does not promote individualism or elitism, but works for the benefit of the entire community.
Next, Paul says that, while some gifts—like speaking in tongues or understanding gibberish—may be more popular, there is no hierarchy among either the gifts or those who have received them. Third—hear this, please—there are a variety of services that can be and must be performed, and all of those services—unlocking the elevator, greeting the newcomer, preaching the sermon, singing the hymn, saying the prayer, writing the checks—all are a part of the essential ministry.
Fourth, Paul tells them that all of the activities of the congregation that are pleasing to God—in accord with God’s will—have been activated by God, and must be tested against a true discernment of God’s will. Similarly, Paul tells the church that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit do not work separately, or have individual plans and desires, or hold different domains, but all work together and, so, all deeds in the church are to be carefully considered in light of the Spirit’s purpose, God’s guidance and the work of Jesus’ ministry.
Paul adds that the Spirit acts as the Spirit acts, and
But--perhaps most importantly, then and now—Paul make sit abundantly clear that the gifts that have been bestowed by the Spirit—wisdom, intelligence, patience, speaking in tongues or understanding, preaching, showing hospitality, healing, keeping the books, cooking, sweeping, welcoming, listening—these gifts—
What color is your thread? Is it multicolored? Does it stand out, or would you see it mirrored in the threads that surround you here at Union Chapel? In baptism, the Holy Spirit comes upon us and fits us with gifts and graces, talents and tools, willingness and work ethic that weren’t a part of our original equipment package. We become threads of many colors—colors chosen by the Spirit, made vibrant and beautiful and strong through the will of God, that we may be the church to the community that surrounds us, caring, loving, inviting, encouraging, teaching, baptizing. Not you; not me. Not a person, but a collective, a body, a tapestry woven from our individual threads, made strong and warm and beautiful. Beautiful.
I’d like you to find out what color—what colors--your thread is. Soon. I invite you, encourage you, eagerly ask you to learn about your own spiritual gifts. Too often—I’ve done it—too often, we assume that the accountant would be the best treasurer, the nurse the best visitor, the teacher the best at helping the young ones learn about Jesus, the loud mouth the best preacher, the handyman the best at fixing what breaks. But we are wholly unjustified in doing that. The writings tell us, time and again from the days when Jesus walked until this very day, the stories of the hidden gifts, the unexpected abilities, the passion-driven desires to find a place in the backbone, the hand, the eyes or ears or the tender, sweet smile of the Body of Christ. The thing is, you may know some or part but probably not all of what the Spirit, in her own intention, has gifted you to do in God’s church.
So, here’s what I’m asking. Homework again. But, would you please, please, please spend a half hour this week taking a spiritual gifts inventory for your church? Look at page 5 of your worship packet. I’ve got a website—it’s in the worship packet, but we also have slips printed to fit in your pocket or wallet or purse to make it easy—I’m asking, on behalf of Union Chapel—on behalf of you—that you do this. Don’t think it trivial, a fool’s errand—after all, I know myself, right—no you may not, and doing it this way will allow us all to talk the same language—non-gibberish—and to find new ways to be one, to be God’s church, to truly be the Body of Christ to this broken, weary world. Would you take the inventory, please? And then, if you’re willing, share it. Print off the results. Bring them in and give them to someone in the office, put them in the offering plate or, best of all, give me a call and we’ll sit down over a cup of tea and talk them over. It will make my heart glad and, not to be heady or anything, I believe it will make glad the heart of our God. What could be better than that? Amen, and amen.