“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed … 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.”
The words of Paul to the Corinthians, 1st letter, 12th chapter – the 12th of 16 in fact!
This is the first time we’ve looked at Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthians for a good while, and you might find it odd that we do so today by jumping such a long way in to such a long letter! I frankly find it odd that Paul wrote such long letters!
I don’t know about you, but when I write a letter to somebody, it’s rarely more than half a page long, and I’m talking about email. I imagine that when you are writing on papyrus or (more likely) on clay tablets, that you’d try to keep your letters even shorter. This didn’t seem to be an issue for St Paul.
I imagine the guy who has to sign for the letter at Corinth. Someone from the postal service rocks up and says, ‘I’ve got a letter for you from a … Saint Paul’. The guy at the church says, ‘yeah, this is the place. Is that it under your arm?’ The guys says, ‘yeah, but there’s another 12 tablets of it in the chariot! Can you give me a hand?’
Evidently Paul felt he had a lot to say to the Corinthians, and why wouldn’t he, for Corinth was a rather unique sort of place.
Once one of the richest ports and largest cities in all of Greece, and leader of the Achaian league, Corinth resisted the Roman takeover until in 146 BC consul Lucius Mumius levelled the entire city. After completely destroying the city, Mumius ordered the execution of every surviving adult male in Corinth and then sold all the women and children into slavery. So ended the Corinthian rebellion.
The city then remained uninhabited for 102 years, until Julius Caesar decided to repopulate it with Italian, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian and Judean freed slaves.
This means that by the time St Paul reached Corinth, it was a young city – only around 100 years old. One thinks of the parallel with Israel, where few families there have been resident there for more than a generation or so, and where many people are no doubt conscious of the fact that they are living on land that not long ago belonged to another family and perhaps in a house that they did not build.
In the case of Israel of course, many of the previous owners of those houses are still around, and are wearing the keys to their houses around their necks, still hoping to return. In the case of Corinth, the residents of Paul’s time need not to have had any such concerns. The original residents were never going to be seen again.
The other thing that was remarkable about Corinth was the temple of Aphrodite. Apparently the cult of Aphrodite had grown so strong in Corinth by St Paul’s time that the temple owned more than 1000 slaves – both men and women – used as temple prostitutes.
The women of the temple, in particular, had such a reputation in the ancient world that the sailors had a saying: “not for every man, the trip to Corinth!” This meant that, religiously speaking, the church had some pretty stiff competition.
I don’t know whether the church in Corinth every developed a marketing strategy, outlining the many advantages to being a member of the church of Corinth, but it would have been a tough task. On the one hand, you had 1000 beautiful women were waiting for you at Aphrodite‘s temple. On the other, the church was offering … some terrific morning teas!
Maybe they did have people like our Fay making her amazing apple slice, and that might have tempted a few across, but for the most part I envisage that it would have been pretty tough going to convince the boys that the real place to be on the weekend was not the temple but the church!
In the light of this, I do think that the fact that there was a church at Corinth at all is a marvellous testimony to the power of God. For indeed, Paul had founded a thriving church at Corinth! Even so, it was evidently made up of some pretty extreme sorts of characters, as we would expect, and the church was evidently not without its problems – again, no surprises.
I think that this is the background against which we need to understand Paul’s assertion that, “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.“
Evidently not everybody in the fellowship at Corinth was Mother Theresa, and the question, ‘are you sure that guy’s has the Spirit of God?’, may well have been asked pretty regularly.
I remember when I was working at the church in Kings Cross (which is about as close to Corinth as Sydney gets), there were some pretty odd people who would turn up to worship there. I still remember one character – a young, mentally disabled, male prostitute, who was kneeling at the communion rail with us, and showing a great deal of enthusiasm as he anticipated getting his hands on the cup.
When it came his turn, our rector put his hand on the head and prayed for the boy but didn’t give him the cup, at which point the lad jumped up and lurched forward, screaming, “f***ing give it to me, you c***!” I still remember myself and the other catechist prying this guy off the communion rail and carrying him outside the church building, screaming obscenities. The good people of Kings Cross took all that in their stride of course, as we were used to unusual people at church.
We’ve had our own share of unique people here in Dulwich Hill too of course. I won’t mention any names, but some of you will still remember one brother who was probably still a little bit intoxicated when he started walking down the aisle on his hands during the greeting of peace. We took that in our stride of course too.
At any rate, I suspect that our unusual characters would have paled into insignificance alongside some of the parishioners of that church in Corinth. It’s not that Paul was constantly singling people out, but his hard words against incest in the church, and his constant plea to keep the fellowship on a spiritual level, is an indication that there must have been some pretty colourful characters there.
As I say, it’s against that background, I think, that we need to hear Paul’s exhortation that “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.“ You can see some of the more together parishioners saying, ‘Paul, I really don’t think young Ruprecht was sent here by the Spirit of God!’And St Paul says, ‘Does he say that Jesus is Lord? Sorry mate, he’s got the Spirit. He‘s a brother!’
That doesn’t you trust your daughter with him, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be any number of problems you might have to work through with him, but if he confesses Jesus as Lord, he’s got as much right to be in church as you have!
This is fundamental, I think, to Paul’s understanding of the church – that there is a radical equality in the church, that there is no rich, no poor, no black, no white, no male, no female, no Jew, no Greek, no ordinary disciples of Jesus and super disciples, because we are all one before Christ and before God the Father.
No one person has any more privileged a church membership than any other member of the fellowship, and consistent with that is Paul’s other key point in this passage – namely, that every member of the fellowship has a significant role to play in serving the needs of the group.
“For 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. 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.’ (vss. 4-12)
Now I’m not going to get too caught up in the particularities of what Paul is spelling out here today. Let me simply summarize Paul in this way.
- Everybody in the church has a gift – ie. has something to offer.
- All those gifts are needed for the work of the fellowship as a whole
- All those gifts are from God.
I think this is, quite frankly, where the Protestant reformers got it dead right.
Whereas the church, traditionally, made a distinction between the religious and the laity in the church – giving the impression that priests and nuns were of a higher spiritual order than the rest of us – the reformers insisted on the equality of all believers – that everyone in the church was called to ministry and that all ministries in the church were important.
Indeed, not many of you would know the intricacies of our own Anglican tradition, but let me tell you that the reason this morning I am wearing a surplice and not a chasuble is because the English reformers who established this particular dress code were trying to assert the equality of all believers. The surplice that I’m wearing was traditionally a choir robe. Hence the reformers were attempting to put the priest back into the choir, along with the rest of the body of believers.
The significance of these sorts of things is lost nowadays, of course, and frankly, I think that our Diocese would do well to lighten up on the dress restrictions, where the historic significance of our current code is all but lost on our congregations. Even so, the idea is a good one, and is very much echoed by St Paul today:
- All the members of the church are ministers
- Everybody has a gift to offer
- All those gifts are significant!
It’s not always obvious of course what everybody’s contribution is supposed to be. The biggest problem for most churches, I suspect, is that not everybody is making their contribution. The opposite can also be a problem – that some characters can be too keen to exercise their gifts, and not always with sufficient discretion.
I heard of one man, who was somewhat of a rough diamond, constantly pleading with the priest that he should be given some area of responsibility in the church so that he could more actively serve his Lord. In desperation, the pastor eventually gave him a list of ten names, saying, “These are members of the church who seldom attend Sunday worship; some are prominent business leaders in our city. Contact them any way you can and try to get them to be more faithful. Use the church stationery if you want. See if you can get them back in church.” The guy accepted the challenge with enthusiasm.
About three weeks later, a letter arrived from a well-known local physician, whose name was on the list. In the envelope was a cheque for $1000 and a note:
“Dear Father, Please find enclosed is a cheque to make up for my missed Sunday offerings. I’m sorry for missing worship so often, but be assured I will do my best to be present more regularly in the future. P.S. Would you kindly tell your secretary that there is only one ‘t’ in ‘dirty’ and no ‘c’ in skunk.”
Bottom line: we are all called into the service of Christ, and if we are to move forward as a church it will be because we all contribute our gifts to the needs of the fellowship as a whole.
- Everyone has something to offer.
- All contributions are significant.
- Every gift comes from the same God.
Let me close with a word from the ever-quotable Winston Churchill,
During World War II, England needed to increase its production of coal. Churchill called together labor leaders to enlist their support. At the end of his presentation he asked them to picture in their minds a parade which he knew would be held in Picadilly Circus after the war. “First,” he said,“would come the sailors who had kept the vital sea lanes open. Then would come the soldiers who had come home from Dunkirk and then gone on to defeat Rommel in Africa. Then would come the pilots who had driven the Luftwaffe from the sky.”
“Last of all,” he said, “would come a long line of sweat-stained, soot-streaked men in miner’s caps. Someone would cry from the crowd, ‘And where were you during the critical days of our struggle?’ And from ten thousand throats would come the answer, “We were deep in the earth with our faces to the coal.'”
Not many of us are called to play very glamorous roles in the church. For many of us, we’ve just got to put our ‘faces to the coal’ and keep chipping away as best we can. But everyone has a contribution to make. Every contribution is significant. Every gift is given by God, and everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord shares in that same Spirit that makes us one.
First Preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.