Gifted and Giving

Primary reading – 1 Corinthians 12:4-31  Disclaimber: Some material recycled from previous sermons on this passage. 

Right smack in the middle of the Babylonian invasion, the leaders remain convinced that God was on their side. Jeremiah had been saying otherwise, calling on the king and the people to repent, to stop worshipping other gods.

This is when God tells Jeremiah to buy a field.

It sounded a little strange, but Jeremiah saw what God is up to. This was a promise for the future, a reminder of the promised land. It was also a reminder that the people had broken the covenant they made coming out of Egypt. Through Jeremiah’s purchase, God is telling the people that while there will be consequences, there is also hope.

Everyone in Israel has provoked God to anger and they’re all guilty, from the kings and priests to the rest of the populace.That is why God is allowing them fall into the hands of the Babylonians and suffer war, famine, and disease.  The Babylonians are still going to capture Jerusalem, and burn it down, It’s all been set in motion.  

But…. God will bring the people back because God has everlasting love for them despite their flaws.

This is the word from God to Jeremiah (32:36-41):

Now therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, “It is being given into the hand of the king of Babylon by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence”: See, I am going to gather them from all the lands to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety.

They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.

I was talking about this passage with a colleague the other day. He had been reading through Jeremiah, and it was that last verse caught his attention.

I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.

When we think about how much God cares for us, how much God loves us, we tend to think about that in human terms.  At least I do.  

I think about the love of the person who has loved me most deeply and unconditionally and multiply it exponentially. Like Uncle Cup to the 1000th power. That’s a lot of love for this little heart and mind to contemplate.    

But this verse takes that understanding of the greatness of God’s loving care for me- for us –  to a whole new level. Not only will God do good for us, God is saying he will do so “…with all my heart and soul.”

Just how much care and love  and good is that?
As much as a heart and soul can pour out.
But not just any heart.
Not just any soul.

We’re talking about all the love and care and goodness in the heart and soul of the One who spoke the whole of creation into being.

I don’t even have words for how big that is… how long or wide or high that would be.. . So much love. So much more than we can calculate or even imagine!

Yet that is how committed God is to you.
To me.
To us!

We see the greatest expression of God’s love in Jesus. And as Paul wrote to the Roman believers, there is nothing that can separate us from that love.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39, NIV)

As reformed Christians in the Presbyterian tradition, we understand that our salvation and righteousness flow from the Triune God. We cling to the truth that God loved the world enough to send Jesus, God’s only son into the world, not to condemn but to save.  Not to destroy,  but to offer everlasting life. A key component to our knowing, confessing and remaining in Christ, experiencing that love that cannot let us go is in the God’s gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The power that was present in the beginning when the Word spoke and the Spirit hovered…
The power that breathed life into people-shaped chunks of clay..
The power that raised Jesus from the dead…
That is the power of the Spirit of God that is within us.
AND the power animating the heart and soul of the God who seeks our well-being, who loves and cares for us.

We believe that power is what opens our eyes and hearts to know God, to receive and believe the offer of grace that covers our sins and frees us from all that binds us, and makes our souls inseparable from God’s.

We believe that power is what allows us to see and love others with the eyes and heart of Christ.

We believe that power is what makes it possible for people, naturally inclined to squabble and grab for power, to set aside our differences and become the Body of Christ.

Like many of the passages that make reference to the Body of Christ, the 12th chapter of the first letter to Corinth does so in the context of Spiritual gifts. And he reminds the church in Corinth why these gifts are given…To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.

This verse speaks to part what is causing problems in the church… a sense of balance between the benefits for one and for the benefit of all.  In this community, comparisons had become competitions, which naturally led to jealousy and self-promotion.

This focus on self, the fascination with the success of one rather than the good of the whole, this is something many Americans struggle with, as well. Partly because so much of our cultural mythos is built around rugged individualism.

We celebrate the pioneer families who created a life in the western prairies, and here in the Florida swamps, days away from their nearest neighbor.  

Or the brilliant shy kid who goes from building computers in the garage to running a software company valued in the billions.   

And of course the star athlete who comes to a losing franchise and propels them to the championship.  

Stories like these are told and retold to inspire others- after all, if these plucky men and women can overcome obstacles to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, SO CAN YOU!

I’m not sure that’s not a bad thing. It is important to develop self-confidence along with the skills one needs to make it through a difficult day, or week, or year.  The problem is that narrative we hold up as the model to strive for doesn’t tell the whole story…

We leave out the detail that these models of self-sufficiency are the rare exception, not the rule. That even these rare, extraordinary people had mentors, guides and supporters along the way.

Then there’s the fact that very few people survive when they choose to face life completely alone. This is particularly true in the Christian life – we were not created to go it alone.  

God created Adam and considered him good.  God also created Eve – not as an afterthought, but because it was not good for Adam to be alone.  

Both of them (and each of us) were made in God’s image: God the creator, God the son, God and the Holy Spirit. Three distinct persons in one unified whole, always in connection, never in isolation.  

We are made in the image of the triune God, which means we are made to be in families.
We are made to be in neighborhoods and congregations.
We were made to be in community – in communion- with one another and with God.

So it makes sense that,  when Paul speaks of the gifts that are given through the Spirit, he reminds us that they come together to meet the needs of the community… to build up the whole Body for the reconciling work that we are called to do together in this world.

The only person capable of bringing the entirety of the gospel into the world is the one person who IS the Good News – Jesus the Christ.

When we read Acts (the sequel to Luke’s gospel)- we see how the church grew from a handful of frightened believers into a movement of thousands of Christ-followers, and we can see how many different people God used to accomplish the work of birthing the church.  

Some preached, some healed people, some traveled to tell others about God’s mercy, others stayed to care for the widows and orphans. Some sold their material goods to assure that everyone had enough. And others figured out how to make that distribution happen.  

They attempted to live as Christ taught and sometimes they suffered as a result. But even as Peter and Paul became leaders of the early church, neither could lay claim to having all of the spiritual gifts. And they could never had done it all on their own.  They were dependent on one another. They were dependent on women and men who were each empowered and each had a role to play.

That’s good news for us.  

Because not one of us has to take responsibility for the work of the whole church. Not any more than you would expect your finger to stand you up and move you across the room. Or for your knees to type up an email.  Or for your heels to untangle the ringlets in your granddaughter’s hair.

Nor is this congregation expected to tell the entire population of North America about Jesus’ great love for each of them.  Or to feed all the homeless in New York City.  Or to lay hands on every child who receives cancer treatment at St. Jude’s hospital.

Except that we are.  

Because the church is responsible. The big C church.  The church universal.  You and I and all the rest who have been dunked or sprinkled or splashed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were baptized into The Body of Christ and through him have access to God in the Holy Spirit, and so we have a part to play.

Paul said it this way to the Corinthians…  For 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. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized… and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

All so that we can be about the work that Jesus started while he walked the Earth: healing, freeing, reconciling, feeding, loving. We are called to offer love to those who are hurting in this broken world, and it’s easy to think of that as a call primarily to those who are “un-churched” or “de-churched” or others who are not “us”.

But I want to point back to something Paul says to our sisters and brothers in Corinth: When one part suffers, the whole body suffers.

When one part is made to feel ashamed of the work it is doing.
When some parts are held up as more important, leaving the others to doubt their contribution.
When one part is left to figure everything out on its own, the whole body suffers.

When one part suffers, we all suffer.

Paul has been painting a portrait of the Corinthians.  An accurate portrait, warts and all, so that they can see the truth about their body. Rather than allowing the gifts from the Spirit to build up the body, they were tearing one another down. There are wounds left unhealed, untreated.  And they are self-inflicted wounds.

Now, when we read any of Paul’s letters, it’s important to bear in mind the context, the time and place in which they were written, even as we trust the Word of God to speak into the life of the church today. This portrait of a body wounded by striving and infighting and broken relationships isn’t pretty.  But it’s real. And while it isn’t quite like holding up a mirror, we can see our struggles in theirs.

Whether we are talking about individuals arguing or gossiping, or groups of people seeking or withholding power from others, we can see the walking wounded – that result. Men and women with battle scars who make up congregations and whole denominations. Women and men with battle scars who have left congregations and denominations, or walked away from faith altogether. There wounds that are in need of healing–even among us.  

As we discern what God is calling First Pres to do in the coming months and years, we may find ourselves looking beyond these walls to see how we might be part of reconciling parts of the larger body – among Presbyterians or even beyond.  Perhaps after we’ve learned to tend to our own wounded, to care for our own members.

I don’t know.  

But I know that when my back goes out, or I bruise my heel, the stress of that pain can turn into a major headache.Paul is right – when one part suffers, the whole body suffers. And I have seen the truth of the saying that  church wounds are the worst wounds, in no small part because we expect better from those who claim love and grace as their currency. We expect a sanctuary to be a sanctuary from the way life works in the rest of the world.

And I have seen the truth in the saying the hurt people are likely to hurt people.

When one part is hurting, the whole body hurts. When the whole body hurts, it is at risk of hurting itself, and of hurting others

To be a body that heals, rather that wounds, that frees, rather than oppresses, we must look within to see where our own wounds are, to see who among us is hurting and make use of the gifts the Spirit sends to build up one another and the body.

This way of being the Body of Christ is messy, difficult and sometimes risky. It requires dependence on one another, vulnerability with one another, and an ever deeper dependence on God.

But when one part is healed, when one part is restored or set free when one part is honored, then the whole body rejoices with it!

We have been given the gift of community, even as we are given the means by which to make it into a strong and beautiful body.
We have the gift of God’s everlasting love and care.
We have been given so much. It’s time to give it away, as lavishly and abundantly as we have received.


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