Are You Using Your Gifts?
1 Corinthians 12: 1-12
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 18th January 2004
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
As many of you know, I don’t like using the word “spiritual.” I could probably go on for hours explaining why I feel so strongly about this (but you can be thankful that I won’t). I’m nervous whenever talk about spiritual things is divorced from the rest of life, from what we might call material things. It is generally assumed that “spirit” is better than “matter” because we think God prefers it that way. We say that God is “spirit,” after all. But from a Christian perspective – and that’s the perspective from which I speak – spirit and matter must be held together in a creative tension, because spirit took on flesh (matter) in Jesus Christ (John 1) and this is the way God prefers it. In fact, we know from scripture that this is the way God has always preferred it. To be human means to be an enfleshed spirit or enspirited flesh. But being human never means merely flesh or spirit. Both are essential.
Some folks think that following Christ entails the growth of the spirit divorced from the limitations of flesh and matter. But going down such a road will take you far from Christ. Others like the word “spiritual” because it doesn’t have to be associated with any religious tradition. Lots of folks I know, close friends of mine, prefer to describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” For many that seek after spiritual growth apart from any religious tradition or theological framework, it looks as if their journey is little more than self-development or ego-focused. “Spirit” has become synonymous with the self and often has very little to do with God – at least not the God of Jesus Christ.
Jesus never called his disciples saying, “Come, follow me and I will make you spiritual.” And Paul never described the Christian life as an invitation into the world of spirituality. These are not Christian categories or terms (at least not originally). Jesus called us to be disciples – students. Paul called people into transformed lives – spirit and body together – which would thereby transform the world. Being “spiritual” has a hollow, ghost-like sound to it. It has come to be an empty word. It can be anything you want it to be. This is why I’m leery of it.
But this isn’t anything new, friends. Paul faced it in the first century, especially here in the Corinthian church. Paul, being the preeminent pastor that he was, was very concerned by those in Corinth who believed the Christian life was characterized as a spiritual hierarchy. There were people in this church whom Paul calls the pneumatikoi, the “spiritualizers” or “the spiritual ones” who were leading the rest of the community astray and producing considerable conflict. These folks had a gross misunderstanding of what it means to follow Christ. Still heavily influenced by the pagan cults in Greece culture, these believers assume that when the Holy Spirit moved in your life you were given special gifts that, depending on the nature of the gifts, placed you on an imagined spiritual ladder or hierarchy. Certain gifts, they believed, made you better than others and so there were pernicious competition and tests over who had the best gifts. For them, following Christ meant becoming more and more spiritual, which meant a life divorced from action and service. Their worship services looked more like pagan cultic services, worship that was highly emotional (very un-Presbyterian) and orgiastic, culminating in a whirling dervish of ecstasy. They wanted the religious experience, the emotional high, which were signs for them that they were someone spiritually gifted.
But they got it all wrong. They’re still following “dumb idols,” as Paul put it.
When the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, moves in a person’s life, this is what happens: You worship Christ and say, “Jesus is Lord.” And do you know how you know the Holy Spirit is working in your life? Do you know the true test of whether or not your so-called gift is of God? God’s gifts are given to people for the common good. There are “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of workings, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12: 4-8)” The gift benefits everyone. They’re not yours alone.
Then Paul gives some examples: some can speak with wisdom, others speak with knowledge, some have extra faith, others have the gifts of healing, the working of miracles, some have the gift of preaching, others have the gift of discernment, some speak in tongues (a rare language of praise and adoration) and others have the ability to interpretation this heavenly language. But these aren’t all of the gifts; they are only a small sample. The point is that when the Spirit moves in our lives we are endowed with certain gifts. Every follower of Christ has at least one gift. The gift you receive is not for yourself alone, but for the sake of the common good. God gives gifts for the improvement of our world, for the building up of the church.
What is your gift? What are your gifts? As we grow to become mature Christians, it is incumbent upon us to pray for discernment that we might know our particular gift or gifts. A mature Christian is continually exploring his/her gifts in order to use them for the common good, for the building up of the church, for building up society. Catonsville Presbyterian Church is a gifted congregation. There is so much skill, ability, talent, and a wealth of experience in this church. Now that we have the new church database software, we’re going to have an even better sense of this. No more hiding your light under a bushel! We’ll be able to take a gift inventory of the congregation, which will allow us to be even more effective in our ministry. Yes, CPC is a gifted congregation. But we are gifted not because we are somehow special, or because by chance the folks who find themselves here are especially gifted. We are gifted by virtue of the fact that we are children of God – because we are baptized, we therefore have gifts. Some you know about, others you are discovering and others still you have yet to discover. Everyone is gifted by the Spirit with a special skill, talent, ability, experience that God seeks to use for the sake of the world. Part of the Christian life is figuring out what they are. Do you know what your gifts are? Are you using them?
Sometimes we know what our gifts are, but for some reason refuse to really use them. We hold back. Not sure we’re good enough, perfect enough. Sometimes we think we’ll be criticized or judged so it’s better to hide our light under a bushel. Sometimes we’re convinced that we possess particular gifts, when everyone else around us knows we’re deluded. When a gift is “forced, inorganic, unreal,” Parker Palmer writes, we inflict a considerable about of pain upon others and ourselves. In fact, it can be quite destructive. This is why discernment is important.
How do you know your gifts? Do you know the special way God has blessed your life? Some here can say, “God has blessed me with the gift of music,” so you seek to use your talent for the glory of God. Others can say, “God has blessed me with the ability to cook,” so you cook for God’s glory. Some here know they have the gift of hospitality, so they try to create environments that make people feel welcomed. That’s a gift of the Spirit. Some here are blessed with the ability to teach, and you teach and give your life for the common good. Others have a knack for computers and technology and scientific exploration. That too is a gift from God, it makes you who you are. Then use it for the glory of God. There are plenty of engineers in this congregation. This, too, is a gift. Use it for the common good. You get the point. Gifts are those things that bring you to life! This is a good rule for discerning your gifts – do they give you life or do they suck the life out of you?
The best gifts are organic, part of whom we are and they flow naturally from within us. When we use our gifts naturally, when we give them away and share them, we find ourselves fulfilled, we feel alive, and everyone benefits. I think of the composer J. S. Bach (1685-1750). Now, this was a man who was fully aware of his musical gifts (he knew he was gifted) and he pressed these gifts into the service of God. At the beginning of every composition (both religious and secular), at the top of each manuscript he wrote S. D. G., standing for Soli Deo gloria. “To God alone be the glory.” Look how everyone is still benefiting from his work; even today we’re amazed by his output. This is what God wants for all our lives – whatever our gift or gifts might be, to use them for God’s glory, which means to use them for the common good.
But how do you know your gifts? I still haven’t answered this. I think there are two ways: First, is to listen to God. Prayer is essential. And second, listen to God speaking through God’s people. In many ways, our gifts can only be discerned in community. We need other people to mirror back to us what we can’t see for ourselves.
Last week we ordained and installed new elders and deacons. They were called to service through the voice of this congregation. Presbyterians believe the congregation identifies gifts for leadership in people and calls them into service. Sometimes it takes other people to see gifts in us that we’ve never recognized before. This is what the call of God does in our lives. Sometimes the Spirit moves and God calls out from within us gifts you never knew you had. Remember Moses and David? God is always doing this. God loves to do this!
Years ago, there was a woman in my congregation in Mendham, New Jersey who was called to be a deacon. Jane said yes, but didn’t know what she was getting herself into (It’s uncanny the way church nominating committees often fail to give a full job description to nominees; maybe it’s supposed to be this way, otherwise they might say no.). In that church each deacon was assigned one shut-in – an elderly person at home or in a nursing home. The deacons were encouraged to visit the homebound regularly and develop a relationship with them. This woman had a tough time with this. She didn’t like being around older folks. It was making her uncomfortable. But she knew that God had called her for a reason. Slowly, she realized the reason for her anxiety was due to the tense, painful relationship she had with her grandmother. Being a deacon allowed her to go back and face her past, it allowed her to work through the unresolved issues with her grandmother and in time she loved being with the older members of the church. In fact, she discovered a gift that had lain dormant in her for years. But it took God working through the community to call it out from within her and everyone benefited from it. This is how God works.
Part of our job as a church community is to identify the gifts we see in one another. Churches are often reluctant to do this (it’s far easy to critique or judge or criticize). We only do this when we’re identifying gifts for ministry in a person. This happened in my own life. And it happened in Dan Wooten’s life. Your words to Dan Wooten helped his discern his own gifts for ministry. But gifts for ministry are not the only ones God is asking His people to use. Our job is to identify and celebrate all the gifts within this family of God. This is what families do. They celebrate their gifts.
I’m going to encourage us to live this way – if you see gifts, skills, talents, abilities in people which you admire and for which you’re grateful, tell them. If there are people – young and old alike – who need encouragement, a vote of confidence, a word of affirmation, then share it. Tell them. If you have been blessed by the witness, the faith, the love, the concern, and the care of someone in this congregation, then tell them and thank them for it. If you have seen God working in their lives, then let them know. Maybe, just maybe, someone will do the same for you and you’ll discover a gift you never thought you had, a gift that can be used for the common good and the glory of God.
Cf. the quotation from the morning worship bulletin: “When the gift I give to the other is integral to my own nature, when it comes from a place of organic reality within me, it will renew itself – and me – even as I give it away. Only when I give something that does not grow within me do I deplete myself and harm the other as well, for only harm can come from a gift that is forced, inorganic, unreal.” Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), pp. 49-50.