I Corinthians and Spiritual Gifts

Much has been written about spiritual gifts and especially about how to discover your spiritual gift. I Corinthians does not seem interested in much of this literature. At least not the inventories and how to utilize your spiritual gift for church growth. I Corinthians suggests a more active way to discover one’s gift. The letter seems to ask, “what are you doing now? Does your activity strengthen the church?” If so, then this is your spiritual gift. “Does your activity divide?” Then it is not.

I Corinthians has little interest in whether you sing well or read well or if you are crafty. I Corinthians is interested in who receives the glory and whether your activity strengthens the church. Another thing that I Corinthians highlights is that people are gifts as well. Look around the congregation on any given Sunday – you are surrounded by gifts.

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I Corinthians and Body Parts

In the midst of a serious discussion, I Corinthians offers a bit of humor. While talking about the members of the body, the body parts begin to talk. The foot starts it off by saying, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body.” And then the ear, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body.” And then the eye to the hand, “I have no need of you.” And then the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” While the content of the discussion is important, it should also be pointed out that not only are the body parts talking, they are talking to one another. Perhaps this is noteworthy in a letter addressed to a church where members are struggling to get along.

I Corinthians and Holiness

The Corinthian Church is addressed early in the letter as “holy ones.” Because of this I expect to find a different group of people than those I read about. Instead, the further I read, the more I begin to think that designation was a mistake.

These people are jealous, full of strife, they boast in their own wisdom. There is immorality among them and they are arrogant. They are covetous, idolaters, drunks, swindlers, fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, revilers. Just saying, these do not sound like saints to me. Yet I Corinthians never revokes the statement that these are “holy ones.”

I Corinthians does go on to say “such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in Christ Jesus.” I Corinthians is a reminder that holiness is not an individual project. To be called “those who have been sanctified” is to acknowledge that holiness is the work of God and that we become holy together.

I Corinthians and Unity

Part of the congregational dilemma for the Corinthian Church includes the desire to belong to the Body of Christ vs. the lure to continue habits that bring status to local citizens. The results were a divided church where some members boast and take advantage of one another. I Corinthians is an attempt to address that dilemma.

Therefore, to preach I Corinthians is an attempt to strengthen unity in the Body. Awareness of this dilemma will shed light on subjects that are addressed in the letter. For example, the discussion about the Lord’s Supper is an instance where I Corinthians calls for unity. The discussion about many gifts and one body is another call to avoid division and promote unity. The love chapter is a call to behave in a way that encourages unity. The discussion of how to use one’s gifts in the body is intended to build the body. This is a repeated theme.

At the same time there are behaviors that are discouraged because they encourage division. Arguing about favorite preachers, seeking personal gain, boasting about knowledge, participating in the sinful behaviors found throughout the empire – these create factions and divide the body. Even the correction offered about the resurrection could be seen as an appeal to unity.

To preach I Corinthians then is to remind us we are not alone. I Corinthians tells us we are strongest when we behave in ways that strengthen the body. We are strongest when we realize we are not the body as individuals. We are strongest when we utilize our gifts in ways that promote unity. We are strongest when we grant significance to those who are considered insignificant. We are strongest when we admit we need believers who gather down the street and around the world.

Tangled Up with Others

Nearly everyone in society is interested in the individual. People want to sell me something to ease my pain, remove my fears, make me beautiful, make me feel better. Even Christianity is full of voices that encourage an individualistic focus. Quite frankly, I wonder if they and I are reading the same bible. The bible is clear that personal change is only a fraction of the full reality of the Gospel.

Yet, we all have heard many sermons treating the text like a manual to resolve problems or remove challenges or a guide for self-help. Such preaching not only disrespects the text but minimizes the human dilemma. This temptation should prompt us to wonder if we believe the text or have faith in the plan of God.

We would do well instead to highlight what is happening in the text and help listeners understand how each of our individual stories intersect with the stories of others. Instead of trying to remove challenges we should embrace them as opportunities to walk together through the struggle. Instead of accepting society’s desire to isolate us from one another by convincing us we can be stronger selves, we recognize individuals as being part of something bigger. Preaching should shed light on how individuals live as participants in community.

Since each of us see things through our own eyes, it is not always evident that our lives intersect with the lives of others or how they fit into the activity of God. Since these things aren’t always obvious to us, it is the duty of preaching to bring us into this territory. Preaching reveals there is more to the activity of God than strengthening the lives of individuals. Preaching pulls everyone into the place where self becomes tangled up in the lives of others and the activity of God.

Romans and Preaching

People arrived in Rome for a variety of reasons; commercial purposes, immigration, and some involuntarily as slaves. Some early Christians among them, they resided in areas where other foreigners were concentrated, including Jews. Jews and Christians would have had some things in common as they assembled in the synagogue and celebrated the feasts. However, the words and actions of the Christians likely sparked tension as things like observing the law and the inclusion of the Gentiles would have created some controversy. Eventually, this escalated to the point where Claudius evicted all Jews in AD 49.

The letter to the Romans is written with this knowledge in mind. Also, the knowledge that after Claudius had died the Jews who had been banished were permitted to return. Upon their return, it appears that all Jews were at a disadvantage in Rome and that Jewish Christians were at a disadvantage in the church. Paul writes the church at Rome in order to present a Christian perspective about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, inside and outside of the church.

A young emperor Nero was not yet antagonistic toward Christians at the time of writing. Still it was important to discuss how the church should live in this environment. While we do not find a theology of how to respond to the state, Romans does describe the state as a servant. Government is a gift from God to minister justice and peace. The church should not take justice in its own hands and should live as civil civilians.

There are some things about this relationship that remain blurry, other things become quite clear. Romans does not give the state divine permission to do as it pleases. The state does not mirror the will of God. There is no indication that the state rules now and the Lord will take over that role in the afterlife. Jesus is not, as Brian Zahnd said in a recent conference, “the secretary of after-life affairs.” He is Lord now. Jesus could not endorse the politics of Rome any more than He can endorse politics in America. He already brings His own politics. This would have been a significant downer for an emperor who promoted his own divinity and the emperor cult. He would not have been pleased to hear that he was servant to a God he did not know. Christians then, could not worship Nero but they could pay taxes.

Paul the letter writer desires to deal with questions that concern the people of God. Namely, how to live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. At a risk of oversimplification, the letter deals with the status of Gentiles who are not Christian (chapter 1). It deals with the condition of the Jews, then the condition of Christians (2-8). Discussion then focuses on non-Christian Jews (9-11). The letter concludes with a sermonic application of how all Christians should learn to live together in the non-Christian world (12-15).

Romans 12-15 works as a sermon from a distance that emphasizes that Christians live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. That is why we find there a sampling of gifts that are relevant to the Roman situation in the late 50’s. That is why we find Paul bringing up the theme of holiness or sanctification. When Paul talks about this subject he is not talking about ritual or theology. He is talking about behavior. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” The emphasis is not on the language one knows or uses but the behavior one exhibits. For Paul, as Romans makes clear, this is the behavior that must be demonstrated in the world.

Paul’s letters, including Romans, are theology in progress. Paul is not repeating doctrine that has already been articulated. As Ben Witherington suggests, he is theologizing as he writes. And his aim is always to shape the behavior of his churches. Theology is not theory for Paul, but a tool for creating community. The same could be said for preaching, then and now. Preaching is a tool to shape behavior and create community in a non-Christian world.

Read the Psalms for Life

In Read the Bible for Life, Donald Guthrie and David Howard hold a conversation that may be helpful for us when reading the Psalms. The following quote serves as an introduction to their discussion. “These are human words praising God, or lamenting some event or situation, or even questioning God in a reverent way. So the psalms draw us in because we recognize in them our own experiences and feelings, and they, in a sense, express for us those feelings about God or to God.”

We do not want to forget, as with other parts of the bible, that the Psalms were also “crafted in specific cultural contexts.” Most of the psalms were written “for a corporate context, to be quoted or sung in large group settings.” In fact, they refer to these psalms as hymns. The titles will sometimes include lines like “for the choirmaster, with stringed instruments.” These are psalms “that praise God for who He is and how He has revealed Himself in the world, and they are done in a corporate setting.” In contrast, some psalms are more individual, “where David or someone is speaking in the first person.” These they label as “thanksgiving psalms.”

The conversation turns from psalms of thanksgiving to psalms of lament. “Laments are the psalms where David or the other psalmists are pouring out their hearts to God, being honest about the fact that life, at times, stinks!” These psalms become important for us and are able to “open up new avenues of approaching God in times of great stress and sadness in our lives.” This may, in fact be the genius of the psalms. “They are balanced, encouraging us to be honest about how hard life can be but also encouraging us to hope in God.” The psalmist knows struggle. We know struggle. The psalms of lament give voice to our struggles.

The conversation then turns to the imprecatory psalms. It is important to put these in context with a core promise that God has made with His people. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” So in these psalms the psalmist is saying “God, I am your person. Your enemies are persecuting me, but I believe your promises. Do something!” So in some ways these psalms become “a confession that God will be faithful to His promises, faithful to His people, and faithful to His own agenda.” (For the record, these are sung at the top of one’s voice without need of a choirmaster. Instead of strings, a sword appears to be the instrument of choice).

The psalmists put feelings into words. This makes poetry an appropriate means of expression. And important for us to remember “if we are going to read the psalms well.” He describes similar situations as a kind of “newspaper account” in narrative but exaggerated metaphor in the psalms. It is not unusual for psalms to use graphic language or exaggeration to express feeling.

Other psalms are labeled as royal/messianic psalms. These do not primarily express emotion, instead they let us in on what God has planned for the world. A “big, cosmic-sized picture of God in control and bringing all things to His desired end is an important aspect of the worldview represented by the psalms.” These psalms emphasize “God’s appointed king as His coworker in ruling God’s people.” These become for us “songs of worship, celebrating what God has accomplished in Christ.” Let us sing.