Friday, August 10, 2012

1 Corinthians 12:1 - 11 On Spiritual Gifts

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
            A while ago I read a long book about the last 500 years in western countries. The author claims that we live now in a time of decadence. Our society lacks direction and this floundering around affects the daily lives of millions of people, for many folks struggle with boredom, routine, frustration, and repetition. It’s not God’s intention, however, for people he made in his image, redeemed in Christ, and whom he loves with an intensity that we can’t imagine to lead mediocre lives.  His will is that people live fruitfully, abundantly, and joyfully in faith. The church provides God’s remedy for the problems that the scholar I read believes afflict many people now. The church doesn’t offer a temporary cure or one that changes with the fashions. Jesus’ death clears a pathway between us and God. He comes to us with friendship and forgiveness and life. He gives direction. He blesses his people with active, meaningful days. He uses us to build up his kingdom, as Paul wrote in this morning’s epistle reading, to which we’ll return in a moment.      
            By our knowledge of God and the times, we Christians say that the troubles that afflict our neighbors and sometimes even ourselves, such as frustration, boredom, and lack of direction have a spiritual cause that is resolved through faith in Christ. You probably remember that just before he performed the miracle of the loaves and the fish, Jesus looked on a large crowd and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. The same applies today. Folks without a shepherd stumble into all kinds of frustrations. We find relief through faith in Christ and our appreciation of the fact that he works through his church and by the Holy Spirit.
            Paul tells us how the Spirit proceeds. He blesses God’s people with a variety of gifts that serve the common good. We’ll mention some of them now – the ability to speak wisdom and knowledge, faith, healing, and prophesy. These spiritual gifts aren’t the same thing as talents, though the use of them may involve talents, and each  person has one or more gift. Our Saviour surely has a good share of gifted people. 
            We’ll use a made-up example. Suppose someone who has persistently declined invitations to attend Sunday worship finally admits to us that he’s bored with his work and that his relationships don’t bring him any joy. He feels as if he’s on a treadmill repeating the same actions day after day so that they no longer have any meaning for him. He asks for help. We reached into the store of wisdom God has blessed us with and tell him that while he may find work that suits him better he probably won’t be able to change radically the external circumstances of his life, since most people contend with the same limitations, but with the help of God he can find new ways of thinking. We tell him about Jesus’ love for him and the new dimension he brought to life on earth with his life, death, and resurrection. We assure him that as time goes by, the Lord will turn liabilities into blessings, and burdens will become joys as he learns that he is walking in the footsteps of the Savior. Wisdom like that is a great blessing, so somebody said that the ability to spread the gospel is the highest gift from God.
            The knowledge that Paul mentions is related to wisdom, but it has a different emphasis. It has to do with the good news of Jesus, of course, but it involves explanations and teachings and the application of gospel truths to daily life. Let’s take another imaginary example, a member of Our Saviour who has decided that that the balance of the Lutheran way doesn’t help him cope with the frustrations and tedium that now characterize his life. He’s made up his mind to join a cult that promises its members a direct, personal encounter with God. He says that this will give him a lift. We remind him that the Cross is the center point of the Christian faith, by means of which Christ redeemed the world and calls all people to repentance and faith. Anything that detracts from salvation by way of the cross distorts the faith. What’s more, God does not promise to come to us directly. He uses the Bible and the sacraments to communicate his good news to us. If he reads his Bible faithfully and comes to worship regularly, our friend will discover that the Christian faith as Lutherans practice it is the best way to contend with the conditions of life. The church uses this kind of knowledge – and we have a lot of it – to build up the body of Christ.
            Paul also mentions faith as a spiritual gift. He doesn’t mean in this case the saving faith that brings us life with God now and the expectation of happiness in heaven. He means the faith to endure in hope, to overcome boredom, say, and the God-given ability to rise above ourselves when times get tough. I bet the folks of Our Saviour have this kind of faith in abundance – steadiness when youngsters are ill, coolness in crisis, the ability to endure discomfort, and cheerfulness in stormy weather. This kind of faith includes the belief that troubles will end and that difficulties will turn out well. This practical faith, a gift from God, benefits ourselves and makes a powerful witness to others. Who knows what questions our neighbors ask in the privacy of their hearts?  Where does their ability to keep on going come from? How can I get it for myself? We have the answers should anyone ask us. Everything good comes because of our tie with Christ.
            I suspect you noticed that Paul included healing as a gift of the Spirit for the building up of the church. Many miraculous healings took place in the days of Paul and the other Apostles. Some are recorded in the New Testament. These cases of healing are very selective and they took place at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. Cures that seem to be miracles take place in the world today and maybe you know of a case or two, and we thank God for them. we praise him for the skills he gives to physicians and other health care workers. We also thank him for the freedom to approach him with our prayers for the sick, which benefit the ailing and comfort those who offer them. Even though out situations are very different from the apostles, we take part in the work of healing. Our prayers and our visits to the sick help to build up his kingdom, as God intends.
            We mention prophesy last of all. For Christians, prophesy doesn’t mean simply telling the future. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of prophesy in the Bible. One is to receive and pass on to others direct messages from God. The apostles were prophets in this sense of the word – Jesus spoke to them directly. Another kind of prophesy is the ability to talk about the saving will of God to others. We are prophets in this sense of the word. We may tell erring neighbors that a certain way of behaving will get them into trouble, but they have time to repent and turn to God’s Word for guidance and find better ways. We also prophesy that no matter how frustrating and tedious life can be, God is stronger than all life’s negatives put together and he’ll continue to work through his Word and the church to pull us out of the swamp of boredom and repetition onto the joyous, lively path that leads to him.
            So God addresses the spiritual illnesses of our time and any time by building up his church with spiritual gifts – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophesy and others that Paul mentions. God blesses us with a strong spiritual framework that enables us overcome in our own lives the decadence of the world around us. Our Saviour’s people have what our neighbors need and God wants them to have. He provides opportunities for her people to bring them into Our Saviour’s gifted community.
            We thank our Lord, then, for giving us a picture of the world today and how the church fits into it. He teaches us about his cure for spiritual ailments and equips us to take part in the solution. It’s important work, so we never need to ask if Jesus has anything for us to do. He wants us to use our spiritual gifts in faith and confidence. In our Savior’s name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your heart s and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN.                              

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