“It’s Not a Competition” – Sermon for January 17, 2016

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Image-1“It’s Not a Competition”

A Sermon on 1st Corinthians 12:1-11 for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C; preached January 17, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister


It’s a bit of an odd thing, to read someone else’s mail. I say it’s an odd thing, of course, in part because of our sense that reading someone else’s mail is (most of the time) one of those things we’re not supposed to do. If you are reading clandestinely, without the knowledge of either sender or receiver, the heart-accelerating feeling of trepidation at the thought of getting caught, and the chest-gnawing guilt over crossing the barriers of both trust and social taboo… these are often deterrent enough for most of us from doing it too often, if ever at all.

But aside from questions of impropriety, there’s another thing that makes reading someone else’s mail a bit odd. Really, it’s actually the same thing we encounter when we’re sitting in a room with someone else while they talk on the phone. Quite simply, you’re only getting one side of the story. Browsing through the mail on my dining room table, if you came across a past due notice from my utility company, the only thing you know with certainty is that they did not receive my payment. Not that I never sent it. You simply can’t know that from that solitary piece of mail. If I’m overhearing you arguing with your mom on the telephone, I only know for sure what you choose to say in response to whatever she’s said. Now, I quite probably can make some reasonable assumptions about what it is she has said to you, based on what you’re saying in response—and the more I know about you or her or the situation, the more accurate those assumptions are likely to be—but still, there’s a limit to what I can know with certainty.

Still, in as much as reading someone else’s mail can be a bit of an odd experience, we as Christians have included a whole set of letters—twenty-one of them, in total—as part of our holy scriptures, as a substantial portion of what we call the New Testament in the Bible. And in those churches that determine their scripture readings for worship by following the lectionary (like we do), and that use the whole compliment of appointed readings each week (which we actually don’t, most of the time), there’s a portion from one of these letters, these ‘epistles’, read as part of worship every Sunday.

Now, many of these letters were, in fact, written to whole church communities, whole congregations that probably had the letter spoken aloud to the whole gathering, groups that might have passed the letter around from person to person or place to place. And, obviously, somewhere along the line these letters got passed out into more general circulation, around among Christians more widely, and around down through the centuries as part of our holy scriptures. So, we probably don’t need to feel very treacherous or taboo about the fact that we’re reading these letters, that we’re reading someone else’s mail.

But nevertheless, reading someone else’s mail is still what we’re doing, and as is always the case when you do that, we have to remember that we only have this one side of the communication, this one view into what’s going on. Some of the details, some of the rest of the story, will have to be assumed or imagined or filled in from other things we know.

This week, and for the next two following, we’re taking a peek into some mail that the apostle Paul sent to the church he founded a few years earlier in the city of Corinth. And while we can’t be certain about the congregation’s side of the story, Paul sure does have a few things to say about what he’s heard is going on there. If what Paul has to say in response to them has any relationship at all to what was really going on, then these parishioners at the First Church of Christ in Corinth were a pretty dysfunctional lot when they got together. Basically, in one form or another, it all comes down to them being divided and infighting among one another. “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people,” Paul says near the beginning of the letter, “that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’”[1] They all claim different allegiances, different factions, different standards.

The disagreement and dysfunction these Corinthians live out, it includes power plays, disagreements about sexual ethics, divisive differences about worship practices. It also gets played out in the way they treat one another when they come together for their weekly celebration of Holy Communion. “When you come together,” Paul says to them, “it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”[2] As best as we’re able to piece together from only hearing Paul’s end of the conversation, it seems that at least one of the dividing lines in the community fell out along class lines, between the richer and the poorer, the upper and lower class members of the congregation—a division mirroring one in the city and wider society around them.

Arrogance and posturing have come to the fore with what Paul begins addressing in the passage we’ve heard today. “I do not want you to be uninformed,” he says, which is actually dripping with irony and sarcasm, because in fact part of the problem is that these Corinthians—or at least certain ones of them—think themselves especially endowed with knowledge about spiritual things. You can get a sense of the sarcasm if you imagine someone today writing, in the same vein, ‘Now concerning savvy leadership, Mr. Trump, I do not want you to be uninformed.’[3]

Paul was not known, as it turns out, for his abilities to avoid offending his audience. But the arrogance and posturing by some in the congregation at Corinth, it was an offence to the gospel, to the good news of what God has done and is doing in the person and work of Jesus Christ. What appears to be going on, as much as we can put together from what Paul wrote to them, is that certain members of the church are displaying particular spiritual gifts that they are then claiming as proof of their superiority over other members of the church. Speaking in tongues seems to be chief among the gifts by which people are trying to tout themselves, although claiming to have gifts of special knowledge may have also been a boast.

In the face of such boasting and jockeying for position, Paul’s message is pretty clear: it’s not a competition. “There are varieties of gifts,” he says, “but the same Spirit … varieties of services, but the same Lord … varieties of activities, but … the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”[4] The truth, you see, for the Corinthians and for us is that all of us are given gifts by which we manifest God’s Holy Spirit in some way, not just some. And one way of manifesting, of showing forth, God’s Spirit is not better than some other way. It’s not a competition. And not only is it not a competition, but (as one scholar has put it) “the Christian life and Christian ministry are not the personal property of an exclusive class of spiritual superheroes.”[5]

I think for the most part we—Christians today in general, and us here in this congregation more specifically—I think we think we know this. We know at some level, at least an intellectual one, that each and every one of us is a gift of God and has gifts of the Spirit, and that one way of being gifted isn’t objectively better or more special than another. Different gifts may make one better equipped for a particular job or role within our life together, but it doesn’t make him or her ‘better’ or more special or more ‘Christian’.

We know this at some level, and yet perhaps all of us need reminding of it from time to time. Sometimes we need reminding of it so that, as Paul wrote in another one of his letters, this one to the Romans… so that we “not … think of [our]sel[ves] more highly than [we] ought to think,”[6] remembering and honoring the divine image and the gifting of the Spirit we see in others around us, in all the ways that image and those gifts may differ from our own.

The German pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote in his guide to life together in Christian community,

God did not make others as I would have made them. God did not give them to me so that I could dominate and control them, but so that I might find the Creator by means of them. … God does not want me to mold others into the image that seems good to me, that is, into my own image. Instead, in their freedom from me[,] God made other people in God’s own image. I can never know in advance how God’s image should appear in others. That image always takes on a completely new and unique form whose origin is found solely in God’s free and sovereign act of creation. To me that form may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every person in the image of God’s Son, the Crucified, and this image, likewise, certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it.[7]

But even as much as sometimes we need the reminder to not “think of [our]sel[ves] more highly than [we] ought,” we also sometimes need to remember not to think of ourselves more lowly than we ought, either. Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians might have been a caution to the ones who thought themselves extra-special because they spoke in tongues. But it was also an encouragement to others in the community, to the ones that had different gifts, to the ones who didn’t appear at first glance to have some spectacular ability. “To each is given the manifestiation of the Spirit,” Paul says.[8] There are varieties of activities, and it’s the same God who “activates all of them in everyone.”[9]

You know, sometimes I think we get caught imagining that the Holy Spirit is a bit like “the force” in the Star Wars universe, and that being “spiritual” or having “spirituality” is like being a Jedi.[10] In the Star Wars universe, the “force” is something that is “wielded and manipulated by skilled initiates for their won missions and quests.”[11] And the “force”—and working with the force—is really only available to a select few, the trained and specially gifted Jedi. But God’s Holy Spirit “freely flows, high surging where it will.”[12] The Spirit pours out gifts on all believers. The Holy Spirit has given you gifts, my friends. Yes, you! In each and every one of us, in some way, the Spirit is at work with gifts meant to contribute to the mission of the body of Christ.

That contribution to the mission of the body of Christ, that’s ultimately the true test of the Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts to each one of us. The gifts of the Spirit are given for the “common good,” Paul says. “A genuine spiritual gift is not given to individuals for their own private spiritual delectation,” one scholar reminds us; “Genuine spirituality is not the cultivation of emotional highs, mystical thrills, or an exclusively individual serenity… Those who truly are in the Spirit will speak and act in ways congruent with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”[13]

Jesus came that we and all the world might have life, and have it abundantly. The gift of the Spirit working among us is always about giving us—you and me, you and me as individuals, you and me and all of us together as church—giving us the ability to make manifest the truth of Jesus’ reign, and the abundant life that such a reign makes possible. Such spirituality is not a competition, at least not between us or among us. But it is ultimately about victory, our victory over the dominion of death and the bondage of sin and the powers of evil, our victory of new life in Christ, by the power of the Spirit and to the glory of God.

Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] 1st Corinthians 1:11-12, NRSV.

[2] 1st Corinthians 11:20-21, NRSV.

[3] I do not intend this illustration to be particularly about Mr. Trump’s politics, or even his leadership, but rather simply a reflection of the fact that he certainly does think himself quite knowledgeable about ‘savvy leadership’, and so sending a letter to him in which the writer says that they do not want Mr. Trump to be ‘uninformed’ about such a thing would prove more than ironic.

[4] 1st Corinthians 12:4-7, NRSV.

[5] Lee C. Barrett, theological commentary on 1st Corinthians 12:1-11, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 256.

[6] Romans 12:3, NRSV.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, ed. Gerhard Ludwig Müller & Albrecht Schönherr, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch & James H. Burtness, trans. ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr., vol. 5 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 95.

[8] 1st Corinthians 12:7, NRSV.

[9] 1st Corinthians 12:6, NRSV.

[10] Thanks for this illustration to Preben Vang, 1 Corinthians, Teach the Text Commentary Series, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 164-165.

[11] Preben Vang, ibid., 165.

[12] A quote from the traditional hymn “The God of Abraham Praise”, Moses Maimonides, vers. attrib. Daniel ben Judah, trans. Max Landsberg and Newton Mann; alt. as appears in The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1995), #24.

[13] Barrett, ibid., 256 & 258.


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