The Church’s Gifts
1 Corinthians 12 – 13
Any Science Fiction fans here today? I am. One of my favorites is The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by British author J.R.R. Tolkien. A lot of people don’t realize that Tolkien was a devout Christian who wanted his books to awaken people to the biblical struggle between good and evil. Tolkien also humbly believed that all his creativity was a “supreme gift” which came straight from God. While he was working as a university professor, he had an interesting experience, which he claimed was the beginning of The Hobbit and then eventually The Lord of the Rings. He says:
I was doing the dull work of correcting exam papers when I came upon a blank page someone had turned in – a boon to all exam makers. I turned it over and wrote on the back, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” [that sentence would become the first line for The Hobbit]. I’d never even heard of a hobbit or used the word before.
Later on he would also say, “I have long ceased to invent [my stories]. I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.” And in a personal letter he described his writing process: “The Other Power [God] then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent …’”[i] If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, even if you’ve only seen the movies, you know what an incredible gift Tolkien had. Inventing a whole new world in the clutches of a battle between good and evil. Unique languages. Different kinds of beings. Back stories. Histories. Legends of old. All for this imaginary world called “Middle Earth,” kind of like our world, but not really. What an imagination. What incredible character development and story-telling. It really is amazing, when you think about it. The guy invented several completely new languages that had to hold together and be consistent throughout the trilogy, and then he wrote songs and poems and stories in them. What an incredible gifted man.
But the truth is, we’re all gifted in some ways. Not all in the way Tolkien was, but we’re all uniquely gifted. God gives gifts, talents, and abilities to us to use in our lives as a part of the body of Christ. We were born with some of those gifts and abilities. Some people call those natural abilities. Things you’ve always been good at. Some people have more of a bent toward numbers. Others, like me, are much more gifted with words than with numbers. I sometimes need Becky to do some math for me, and she always helps the kids with their math homework. I’m useless there. But I know when and when NOT to use an apostrophe. Apostrophes where they don’t belong drive me nuts! Some of you couldn’t recognize one used improperly to save your lives. Some of us are more analytical, others are more intuitive. Some are musical. Others are better working with their hands. I love a quiet day in my book-filled office with my computer and a cup of coffee. For someone who works for the DNR, that kind of day would be unbearable.
Other gifts are special, gifts given by God, through the Holy Spirit, to his people, to those who follow Christ. And those special gifts from God might be yours to use for his glory for a season of life, or for your whole life. That’s up to God. Some people draw a line between our natural gifts, those things we’d be good at whether we followed Christ or not, and our spiritual gifts that come because we follow Christ and are a part of his church. Others don’t really draw a line between them because they all come from God. They’re all gifts.
Your unique set of gifts, combined with your complex and unique personality, and your unique life experiences, have shaped who you are today, and your experiences today will be added to the pot to shape who you continue to become, day after day, every day of your life. Some gifts are dramatic and easily visible. We celebrate them and are drawn to people who have them. People we admire. Other gifts operate more in the background, quietly, with little or no fanfare. But those gifts are just as critical, just as important to the life of the church as the more visible, celebrated gifts. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 12:1-3.
To understand this passage, we have to realize that Paul is answering a question here. The Corinthian Christians had sent a letter to Paul in which they asked him several questions. One of those questions was about spiritual gifts. What they wanted to know was, “How do we know whether someone is operating out of a spiritual gift, or if it’s counterfeit. Either intentionally fake or the person thinks they’re using a gift from God but it really isn’t from God. If someone is praying in tongues, or giving a prophecy, or says they are gifted by God to pray for people to be healed, how do we know if it’s really from God or not?”
Paul answers their question in the first 3 verses. Sounds like a simplistic answer, and in some ways it is. But what he’s really getting at is, “Who is being glorified when this person uses their gift?” Is it them, or is it Christ? How do we know if it’s the Holy Spirit, or another spirit? How do we know if this is from God, or from someone, or somewhere, else? The Holy Spirit ALWAYS glorifies Christ. In John 16:13-14, Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit when he says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Paul acknowledges that before the Corinthian Christians followed Christ, they worshipped false gods, false idols, and had very real spiritual experiences sometimes when they worshipped those false gods. He calls them mute gods and says that these mute gods led them astray, “however you were led” (V. 2). Something was happening, but it wasn’t from God. It was counterfeit. Demonic. It led them astray. The Holy Spirit always glorifies Christ. It isn’t about the human vessel and his or her abilities. It isn’t a counterfeit religious experience born in the human mind or from a demonic influence. The Holy Spirit ALWAYS points to and glorifies Christ.
Now, look at Vv. 4-7. Some people today say, “Well, it’s only a spiritual gift if it’s miraculous in some way.” Healing. Prophecy. A word of knowledge, which is knowing something you would really have no way of knowing. Stuff like that. And they look down on other gifts that are just as spiritual but more normalized in our human experience. Things like service and hospitality and administration. They put God in this box that says “If it isn’t supernatural, it isn’t spiritual.” And that isn’t true. A larger percentage of spiritual gifts seem more natural than supernatural. Other people, though, want to say, “Well, the supernatural gifts happened back then, in the days of the apostles. But they’ve stopped. God doesn’t work that way anymore.” They put God in this other box, a natural box, and say that the supernatural stuff is either made up or psychological or something. God doesn’t work that way anymore. And that isn’t true either. We cannot limit God just to supernatural gifts like healing OR just to more natural gifts like serving behind the scenes. God gives both, and BOTH are spiritual.
But your giftedness, whatever it is, is a gift from God and its part of what makes you, well, YOU right now. And he’s given you that gift, whether it’s faith or wisdom or teaching or administration or serving behind the scene, and one of the ways you walk in relationship with God is to USE the gifts God has given you. God didn’t give it to you for you to put on a shelf and admire. He gave it to you so that you would be a vital part of the body of Christ. Look at Vv. 8-11.
There are two things we need to see here. The first is the necessity of humility, and not pride or jealousy, regarding your giftedness. As human beings we love to worship celebrities, great athletes, great musicians, great actors and actresses, and great leaders. We all know who the actors in the movie are. No one stays for the credits to see all of the makeup artists and character generator operators and videographers and film editors who took individual scenes and turned them into a movie that tells a story. We know who the quarterback and the receivers are, but no one knows the names of the offensive linemen who create the pocket in which he can throw the ball downfield. We do the same thing in the church. We celebrate gifted, dynamic speakers and talented musicians. But we ignore the quiet servants getting things done behind the scenes. We ignore Randy, who is back there doing about 50 things right now – recording the service, mixing the sound, setting the lighting, making sure everything that happens up here AND everything those of you watching on-line see and hear looks and sounds right. We ignore Angela and Janet, who make sure our bills are paid and money is properly allocated so that we have things like electricity and wi-fi and heat and warm running water. My name goes on all of the e-newsletters that go out, but its Ruth who creates them and sends them out. She’s the one who hunts down what’s happening now and what’s on the horizon that you need to be aware of. She’s the one who creates the images you see on screen and in the newsletters and on our social media. Chances are, if you see a Christ Church post on Facebook or Instagram, she’s the one who put it there, not me.
The people up here on the platform and leading Bible studies and outreach ministries might be the mouth and the eyes and the hands and feet and arms and legs, but someone has to be the kidneys and the liver and the backbone and the core muscles, or the body can’t do what it’s supposed to do. Look down at Vv. 22-24. We might celebrate the work of the hands and feet and mouth, but the human body can exist and even thrive without hands and feet, can’t it? And people who cannot speak have created wonderous works of art. But you know what your body can’t live without? A working liver and kidneys. If those shut down the body will quickly die. Attack the pancreas and the body will quickly die. Without strong core muscles the arms and legs don’t have a strong anchor from which to move.
We have a tendency to celebrate the work of the visible parts, but it’s the work of the less visible, or invisible, parts that keeps the body alive and healthy. And that’s exactly what Paul is getting at. In your body, some cells become biceps muscles, and others become part of the liver. But no one celebrates a healthy pair of kidneys until they aren’t functioning properly and we’re hooked up to dialysis several days a week. Then we see exactly how critical to health and life those parts are. The same is true in the body of Christ. We celebrate the speakers and the singers and the leaders. But the critical parts, the parts vital to life and health, are usually quietly doing their life-giving work behind the scenes – visiting the sick, sending out birthday cards, fixing things that are broken, setting up and cleaning up. God has created us to work together in an interdependent way, counting on one another and working together to accomplish his plan for us. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is our mission. Christ is the head and our source of life. But only together, with each part valued and contributing are we a healthy body.
And that leads us to the second thing we need to see here. God has created us AND GIFTED US uniquely. There is great diversity in our personalities, in our life experiences, in our physical make-ups, and in our giftedness. Look at Vv. 12-31. God has created us to need, and to depend on each other in order to accomplish his purpose in our lives through us in our community. We talk a lot about a PERSONAL relationship with Christ – YOUR relationship with Christ. But the truth is Christianity is fundamentally a corporate, not an individual, endeavor. When YOU place YOUR faith in Christ, YOU become a part of WE. YOU become a part of a family. A body. And YOU have a role to play that glorifies Christ that can only be done when you are a part of a larger team. It isn’t about what YOU can accomplish. It isn’t even about what God can do through YOU. It is about what God wants to do through US. Together as a body.
EVERYONE has a gift. EVERYONE here this morning, and EVERYONE watching on-line has a gift. And NO ONE has every gift. God doesn’t work that way. It isn’t in his nature. Just as in his essence, in his nature, God is both three AND one, so we as the body of Christ are BOTH many and diverse and yet ONE BODY.
So what holds this body together? We’re one IN CHRIST, right? We’re held together by Christ, by OUR relationship with him. But what is the mechanism? Look at the very last sentence in chapter 12. And then Paul launches right into chapter 13. What is 1 Corinthians 13? It’s the great love chapter, right? We read it at weddings and big anniversary celebrations, and we should. It IS, after all, about love. But what is the context of this love that is patient and kind, never envious or boastful or arrogant or rude or selfish or irritable or resentful? Chapter 12 is all about the various gifts present in the body of Christ, and chapter 14 focuses in tightly on two of those gifts, prophecy and tongues. The theme is the same in chapters 12 and 14. And what comes between them? Chapter 13. Does Paul suddenly change topics here from the body of Christ and gifts to love, and then back to the body of Christ and gifts? Does he suddenly switch from gifts to marriage and then back? NO! Of course not! Our love for one another IN THE BODY OF CHRIST, is the way that we are held together as one body in Christ.
Now let’s read 1 Corinthians 13 with that in mind. Reads a little differently, doesn’t it? Brings new images and thoughts to mind than the ones we normally get when we read this at a wedding. This is how we are to operate IN THE BODY OF CHRIST first, and from there in our families, in our marriages, in our neighborhoods. But it starts here. If we can’t love HERE, how are we going to really love anywhere else? Love is the context within which we are to exercise the gifts God has given to each one of us. Not pride, or jealousy, but love. But it’s okay to ask God to give you certain gifts. Look again at V. 31. God determines who is gifted in what ways and how much and it is God who determines how the parts work together, but we can pray, asking God to gift us in specific ways, so long as our prayer is done with an attitude of “Thy will be done.” God can choose to say, “No.” And we still need to work on and harness and develop our gifts. Gifted teachers still need to work to become better teachers. Gifted administrators still need to sharpen their gifts. Gifted musicians still need to practice and grow as musicians. Gifted craftsmen and women still need to develop their gifts. We grow into the gifts God has given us.
In the aftermath of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, author and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada was invited to be part of a Christian counseling team that helped victims. Joni is a quadriplegic. She writes:
Upon arrival, I had to go to the American Red Cross center to be cleared and credentialed. And I will never forget wheeling into that low, flat, red brick building. There were people setting up chairs and tables, stacking forms, and putting out doughnuts and coffee. And across the large room was a tall, officious-looking woman in a white lab coat.
When she saw me wheel through the door, she quickly turned around with her clipboard, put down her glasses, and said, “Oh my, are we glad to see you here!”
That sparked my curiosity, and I said, “Why?”
She responded, “When people walk up to you in your wheelchair and see you handle your personal crisis with that smile of yours, it speaks volumes to them. It assures them that they can handle their crisis too. We need people like you in here. Please, help us go out and find more individuals like you who can assist us.”
Immediately, I got this picture in my mind. Wouldn’t it be great, on any given Sunday morning, to see people with white canes, wheelchairs, or walkers come through the doors of our sanctuaries? And wouldn’t it be something if we all turned around in our seats in our congregations and exclaimed, “Oh, my, are we glad to see you here! We need people like you here in our church?” Wouldn’t that be something?[ii] Even if you think you aren’t gifted, or aren’t gifted enough, or in the right way, I want you to leave here knowing this truth this morning: YOU. ARE. GIFTED. You have something to offer. God has made you a part of this body for a reason. Let us pray.
[i] Bradley J. Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (ISI Books, 2009), p. 26
[ii] Joni Eareckson Tada, “Receiving God’s Grace,” Veritas (July, 2003);