Do you think of yourself as gifted?
Do you think of yourself as spiritual?
As soon as you start thinking about those questions, I am pretty sure that you will quickly discover that you are being influenced by the way we tend to think today. We are all shaped by the language we inherit and the context in which we live.
Take that word gifted. It has been used in education for a long time now to refer to those who have special or exceptional talent in particular areas. In Maths, Arts or music, for example. Which probably immediately excludes most of us.
And the word spiritual. It now tends to be used to designate certain emotional responses to the world, such as wonder or delight, or to mental or psychological practices, such as meditation and mindfulness – often in a way to make a distinction with religious activities, such as praying, going to church, attending a Mosque, or singing songs which articulate religious beliefs and ideas.
So when we turn to biblical passages, like the one from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this morning, we might find it hard to get our heads around what exactly is meant. The translation might muddy the waters too.
In the biblical translation that we use, St Paul begins: ‘Now concerning spiritual gifts’ – a phrase that seemingly combines the two words or ideas that we have been thinking about, and well describes what he goes on to discuss. But the word so translated has a more nebulous meaning – ‘spiritual things’ – which could have equally been expressed as ‘spiritual stuff’. And what he says next is crucial, although possibly a bit confusing to us, at first view. He says that, when it comes to spiritual stuff it means putting behind you the worship of idols – the hallmarks of the pagan world – and instead being someone inspired by the Spirit of God to say Jesus is Lord.
He then makes a move which reveals where his insights about what constitutes a gift and what might be spiritual differ from some of our ways of thinking. The first point to make is that the people in Corinth seem to have had a similar elitist attitude to spiritual gifts as we sometimes have in education. And he addresses the matter over the next few chapters. The people in the community who had the power of prophetic utterance – or speaking in tongues, as it is sometimes called today – or performing miraculous healings had begun to see themselves as the most important people, the most special ones whose gift was the greatest of them all.
In this chapter St Paul begins to dismantle that idea. He does not say that such abilities are unimportant, but begins a process of dethroning them. He says there are many gifts that the Holy Spirit brings, and all are equally important.
Although he doesn’t quite say that!
We must always remember that St Paul tailored his advice according to the nature of the church community he was writing too. He picks out the spiritual practices in Corinth which had the most kudos and insisted none is better than the other. But in the next chapter of the letter, he concludes with a phrase most of you are very familiar with, advising that there are three fundamental qualities that underpin all spiritual gifts.
‘And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’
As many of you who have been listening to me over the years will be well aware, I think St Paul is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. He would certainly struggle in the modern world of social media where crystal clear expression and utter consistency are often demanded. He famously wrote that he would be all things to all people – not because he was a prevaricator, but because his motivation was to communicate the implications of what saying Jesus is Lord leads to. He had personally experienced an incredibly powerful conversion. As he describes it himself, and so does St Luke in the book of Acts, he didn’t just have a mystical/spiritual encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus; he had a moral awakening. He had been full of hatred and fear, but that had been dispelled by Christ’s forgiveness and love. When he is described as losing his sight, I wonder whether that means, once he lost the clarity of how he had seen the world up until then, he found himself groping in the dark, as he learnt to see his way in the world again. He found faith, he began to hope again, and he realised that at the bottom of everything was love.
When I read about St Paul, and what he wrote, I see someone wrestling with that profound personal transformation, and trying to draw on it, to help people in the brand new churches find their way too. So he acknowledges the dramatic spiritual experiences that people can have, but is also aware that people are not all the same.
We are in the season of Epiphany, which is a time to reflect on the implications of God coming into our world, out of love, to heal and change us, to set us on our feet again after we have fallen – like St Paul on that dusty road.
Last week, we heard about the Magi; this week, about Jesus’s first great sign at the wedding feast at Cana. But this reading from St Paul reminds us that, through the Holy Spirit, God is with us and within us – in ways which don’t have to be spectacular. Not the sort of things that might go to our heads. In his letter to the Corinthians he encourages us to live lives rooted in faith, hope and love – and my, do we and our world need these qualities? But a few years earlier he had put things differently, when he wrote to the church in Galatia, where people were a bit caught up in arguments about what religious ritual practices were most important. There he drew on the idea we know from the Lord’s Prayer – that God’s ways and ours don’t match, which is why we pray for God’s kingdom to come. To say ‘Jesus is Lord!’ means to be open to and to foster what he there calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self- mastery.
And you could not have a less elitist list of spiritual gifts than those.