For the Common Good
For the Common Good
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 & St. Luke 19:41-47
Our lessons last Sunday called us to be stewards of grace. The prodigal son reminds us that it is only by grace that we come to the Father—humbly, confessing our sins, and trusting in the grace offered to us by Jesus as the cross. And the prodigal son’s older brother reminds us never to take that grace for granted. He was living under his father’s grace too, but it had become so commonplace for him that he’d forgotten. He started to think that he had earned his position and that he had earned his father’s love, and because he forgot about grace, he hated, despised, and resented his repentant brother. Today the lessons remind us that we’re stewards not only of God’s grace, but that because we are in his grace, we are also stewards of his gifts. In our baptism we have put on Jesus Christ; we have his Holy Spirit living in us; we’re equipped with his gifts; and we have a mission—we have a covenant—to live out.
Let me read the instructions that are given to the newly baptised at the end of the baptismal service in the Prayer Book:
“And as for you, who have now by Baptism put on Christ, it is your part and duty also, being made the child of God and of the light, by faith in Jesus Christ, to walk answerably to your Christian calling, and as becometh the children of light; remembering always that Baptism representeth unto us our profession; which is, to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him; that as he died, and rose again for us; so should we, who are baptized, die from sin, and rise again unto righteousness; continually mortifying all our evil and corrupt affections, and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living.”
As Christians we’re called to a new profession—a new way of life. And yet the Scriptures remind us over and over again not to take that life for granted—not to forget it. Every one of us was once the prodigal son, but Jesus reminds us—every one of us—not to forget God’s grace and not to become the older brother. But there’s more to the Christian life than just remembering that we are sinners who have come to God based on the righteousness of Jesus. Our baptismal vows remind us that we have a job to do—a new profession and a new way of life.
It often strikes me how, when people see my clerical collar, they automatically assume that I’m a professional “holy man”. But brothers and sisters, just because I earn a living as a full-time minister of the Gospel doesn’t mean that I’m holier than thou. It doesn’t mean that my mission and my calling are different than yours. Because the fact is that every one of us is called by Jesus to be holy. Again, we’re called to make a life of following “the example of our Saviour Christ.” We’re called to “die from sin, and rise again unto righteousness; continually mortifying all our evil and corrupt affections and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living.” And so we need to be looking at our lives and asking ourselves whether or not the people around us see Jesus in some way when they look at us.
Today’s Epistle from 1 Corinthians 12 is a reminder to us when it comes to our new profession. The Holy Spirit gives us tools to work with—tools that we use to fulfil our mission of honouring our Father and showing the love, mercy, and grace of Jesus to the world. In the Corinthian church there were some people who were abusing and misunderstanding the gifts—the tools—they had been given. Look at 1 Corinthians 12:1-7:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
The First thing St. Paul makes very clear is that we’re all in this together; we’re all working toward a common goal. It always amazed me when I had a secular job how a group of people who all had the same goal—or at least, were supposed to have the same goal—could end up rivals. When I fixed computers for a living I worked in a shop with several other technicians and there was always at least one guy who seemed to have it in for the rest of us. He was usually the same one who seemed to think that everybody else was dead-set on making sure he didn’t succeed or he questioned whether or not the rest were on the same team. Usually the underlying problem is that that guy’s goal wasn’t to fix computers, make the customer’s happy, and make our company successful; he wasn’t a team player and his real goals were strictly selfish ones.
We’ve all been in situations like that and so, right or wrong, we expect that to happen in the world. Sadly it happens in the Church too. In the Church at Corinth some were teamed up to support Paul and others Apollos. Some of the people were using their gifts not to build up the church, but to build up themselves. And so Paul reminds the Corinthians, as they work and minister together, that as Christians we’ve all got the same goal. Jesus is our Lord. In fact, if we want to know who’s on our team—who’s with us—all we have to do is look for the people who claim Jesus as their Lord, because no one can or will ever make Jesus their Lord unless the Holy Spirit is living in them.
In Corinth there were all sorts of problems, but one of the biggest seems to have been that some of the Christians there were in it for themselves. They started to rank God’s gifts in a hierarchy and some of them were claiming that because they had one or another particular gift they were more important and they were more spiritual than the others. We can’t say exactly what gifts they singled out, but it was very much like those today who claim that speaking in tongues is the evidence of the Holy Spirit living in a Christian and who teach that if you don’t have that particular gift, then you’re missing the Spirit.
This is why Paul steps us back a bit and shows us the first gift that we’re all called to be stewards of. He tells them—and us—that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” To acknowledge Jesus as Lord is what it means to be a Christian. That’s the most fundamental truth of Christianity: Jesus is Lord. It’s our most basic creed. And it’s the ultimate and bottom-line evidence of saving faith: You’ve submitted to the lordship of Jesus—you follow him. Jesus said, “If you love me, obey my commandments.” “Follow me.” That’s how we got the name “Christian”. It literally means “Christ follower.” It was originally pinned on Christians as a derogatory term but those First Century believers took it as a badge of honour. But that we follow Jesus at all is the first and most important gift of the Holy Spirit. We’ve all been given other spiritual gifts, but those gifts aren’t what make us “spiritual”. What makes us “spiritual” is the gift of the Spirit that has turned our hearts to Jesus in the first place. Even if that were the only gift we had, we’d still be spiritually rich beyond all measure.
Faith in Jesus is the universal gift of the Church. It’s what allows the Church to exist and what binds us together. But the Church has more work to do than just to believe. And so God the Holy Spirit gives us all specific gifts as individuals. In Corinth—and still today—people had forgotten that these gifts all come from the same source and for common ministry. We have “varieties of gifts”—different endowments. We have “varieties of service”—different tasks. We have “varieties of activities”—different ways of fulfilling our mission. But even though we’re all equipped differently, there is one Spirit who is the source of all grace, and one Lord whom we serve, and one God who fulfils himself in all sorts of different ways. We need to remember that we’re all on the same team and every one of us is a valuable member of it.
In the second half of the lesson Paul elaborates on the various types of gifts that the Spirit gives to his Church:
For 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 ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Corinthians 12:8-11)
Some of the gifts that the Spirit gives are of the head. Paul gives the example of utterances of wisdom and knowledge. Some people are called and gifted to be theologians and philosophers. Some people are called and gifted to serve the Church as thinkers, as academics, and as intellectuals. I’m not sure what it is about the age in which we live, but it seems that especially in today’s Church the people with gifts of the head are viewed with suspicion. They aren’t practical enough. Because there have been so many divisions in the Church, a lot of people don’t trust or don’t like the idea of “doctrine” anymore. It divides us instead of bringing us together, some people say. And so they’d rather not talk about theology or about doctrine or about anything that might raise our differences and separate us. But the fact is that we need the gifts of the head. These are the people that met in council in the Early Church and dealt with our doctrine, who dealt with the heresies that plagued the Church and that threatened to lead her away from Jesus, and who hammered out the Creeds that we use to affirm our faith when we gather each week. These are the people that educate us and that keep us from falling into error. These are the people who apply the Scriptures to the situations we face in our fast-changing world and teach us Godly ethics—how to live as faithful Christians, how to be salt and how to be light in the darkness. Think about it: If we are the body of Christ, what happens if you cut out the brain? The body dies.
But the brain isn’t the whole body, it’s just one part. And so Paul describes gifts of the heart too. These are the people who are caring and compassionate. They’re the people who wear their faith on their sleeves. A lot of the time they can be the exact opposite of the intellectuals. They might have no interest in the academic or in doctrine. When I was in university I used to be part of a group of guys who would get together each month to discuss theology. We’d often read a well-known or historical theological text and then discuss it. That was how we grew our knowledge and our faith. But there was a guy in my church who looked down his nose at us. He was always telling us how we were wasting our time and getting distracted from the real mission of the Church. He used to tell us that the Christian only needs one book: the Bible. He lived by that principle. He refused to read any book having to with the faith other than the Bible itself. All he wanted to do was to be an evangelist and tell others about Jesus and in his mind reading other books was just a waste of his time that might lead him away from the Bible. At the time, we intellectuals I’m sad to say, looked down our own noses at him too. But the fact is that the Church needs both. You can’t cut the brain out of the body, but you can’t cut the heart out either.
And then Paul reminds us that there are people who have been given gifts of the hands and feet. These are the people who are always there to do the work. They don’t need miracles to get things done—they’ve just been given the faith to get their hands dirty and to move mountains even if they have to do it one shovelful at a time. They’re the ones who look at the intellectuals and say, “How about less thinking and more working!” They look at the people with gifts of the heart and say, “We’ve prayed enough, now lets get to it!” They’re the ones doing the sacred work of actually taking Jesus to the world in practical ways.
Every one of us has gifts he or she has been given, as Pauls says, “for the common good.” We need to reverence every gift. We need to see the value in every gift. The gifts of the head give understanding and wisdom to keep the other gifts of heart and hands in bounds. The gifts of the heart give compassion to the head and the hands. And the gifts of the hands take the head and heart to the world where they can be seen. We’re all parts of the same body and because of that my gifts belong to you just as much as they belong to me and your gifts belong to me just as much as they belong to you. For that reason, if you sit on your gifts and don’t use them, you’re short-changing everyone here—cheating your brothers and sisters. That’s a dangerous thing to do.
Before I close, I want to look at our Gospel. The Gospel lesson today serves as a warning not to squander what the Holy Spirit has given us. God is gracious, but he also keeps strict accounts. In our lesson from St. Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus on his final trip to Jerusalem. Looking out over the valley from the Mount of Olives Jesus could see the city spread out before him. Everyone else saw the grandeur of the great city with its great walls and spires and with the temple crowning the top of the hill. And yet Jesus saw something different. While everyone else was thinking how majestic the city looked, Jesus saw through the veneer to the heart. He could see that God’s people had squandered what they had been given.
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44)
Jesus wasn’t deceived by the marble and the gold or by the religiosity of the people living in Jerusalem. He saw right through the material prosperity and the veneer of religion. He saw through the peaceful view to the confusion that was really there underneath it all. Jerusalem—the city whose name means “Peace”—had no real peace inside her walls. God had called these people to himself and for a thousand years they had repeatedly turned away from him. He had called them to holiness, but they were satisfied with superficial religion and with outward acts of piety. Finally, God had sent his Messiah to usher in his kingdom and his people had rejected him. This was Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem because this time he was going to his own death. And Jesus knew that the Father is a holy judge who holds his people accountable—that’s why Jesus was sent, so that his righteousness could be accounted to humble sinners that they—that we—might not stand condemned before a holy God.
Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and wept because God’s people had squandered the gifts they had been given. At the heart of the city was the temple itself, the place where God met with his people through the mediation of the priests. We often think Jesus was upset with the commerce going on in the temple court. That may have been part of it. The vendors may have been ripping people off. But the real problem Jesus had, the real reason he wept was that the priests and religious leaders and, for that matter, most of Israel, has squandered the gifts the Lord had given for ministry—the blessing he gave Israel to share with the nations. The priests and leaders of the temple has sold out to a compromising political agenda. There they were in the place that should have proclaimed that Israel’s God is Lord and instead they were submitting to Caesar’s false lordship. Others in Israel rejected Caesar, but they had their own false and violent ideas about the Lord’s agenda. The corruption of the temple showed the real state of the people and their nation. And so Jesus here acts out a prophecy. The days of the temple are over. Luke says:
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” And he was teaching daily in the temple. (Luke 19:45-47a)
There are ways in which today’s Church isn’t any better than Jerusalem and her temple were when Jesus wept over them. There are preachers and other people out there fleecing God’s people for their own personal profit. There are preachers and teachers out there pandering to modern-day caesars and selling out to ungodly political agendas. There are many churches covered in a thin veneer of piety and holiness that are really dead inside. And yet it’s easy to point fingers and not examine ourselves. God has made us rich with his Spirit. He’s given us time and talent and treasure. He’s enriched us with the wisdom and knowledge of his Word. He’s poured his love into our hearts and given us the experience of his amazing grace. We may not turn his house into a den of robbers. But how often do we rob him by keeping our gifts to ourselves? How often do we rob him by keeping the knowledge he’s given us through the Scripture to ourselves? How often do we rob him by keeping his love to ourselves instead of sharing it with the world around us? How often do we rob him by ignoring his mission or paying it only lip service, while we use the gifts he has given us for our own personal benefit and pleasure. Brothers and sisters, God has saved us by his grace, he has equipped us with his Spirit, now he calls us to use those gifts to give him glory and to take his message of saving grace to a world in need.
Please pray with me: Thank you Holy Spirit for the gifts you have given. Thank you for the first gift of faith and of a renewed mind and a regenerated heart. Thank you for the gifts you have given to each of us to build up the Body of Christ: gifts of head and heart and hands. Teach us now to use our gifts, not for our own gain, but to build up and to serve one another that the whole world might on day know that Jesus is Lord. We ask this through him. Amen.