Gifts for the Common Good
The church at Corinth was a beautiful mess. In Paul’s first letter to this church, he addresses factionalism, lawsuits between believers, sexual sin, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and misunderstandings about spiritual gifts. In this week’s lection, the Apostle making the point that gifts from the Holy Spirit should never be divisive in the church. “We were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (v.13) And all the varieties of gifts, services and activities flow from the same Spirit. How could the work of the Spirit produce anything but unity in the church?
And yet . . . in Corinth and right down to the present day, some of the ways the church has understood and practiced the gifts of the Spirit have created controversy, division, and an unbiblical infatuation with the supernatural. The preacher who engages with this passage may be tempted to try to settle controversies or “set the record straight” on spiritual gifts. But that would be to miss the central point of Paul’s words, which is not about the ways the gifts work, but about the unity that the gift Giver wants to bring to the church.
In the Wesleyan-Arminian stream of faith, we are not cessationists. We do not believe that the supernatural gifts ceased to operate at the close of the apostolic age. We are continuationists, affirming that the Spirit still performs signs and wonders that can be attributed only to the power of God. But I think most of us would consider ourselves “cautious continuationists,” remaining open and even expectant of the operation of the supernatural gifts but knowing that God is present with us by his Spirit even when we don’t witness the miraculous.
The church drinks from one well. We have no source of life other than the Spirit of God, poured out on the church at Pentecost. The Spirit’s presence among us manifests in various enablements and empowerments to serve one another in the church and to bear witness to Christ in the world. The gifts described in verses 8-10 are not an exhaustive list, but they do display the creative diversity of the Spirit’s workings among the followers of Jesus. It is because of this multiplicity of gifts, distributed generously among the believers that the church can be called the Body of Christ. “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.” (v. 12)
Everyone likes to receive gifts. On birthdays, at Christmas or wen receiving unexpected gifts, we might respond in surprise, “For me?!” But the gifts of the Spirit should not be understood that way. When the Holy Spirit stirs up gifts in the church, those “manifestations of the Spirit” are not for individuals, but for the entire body. As v. 7 states, they are given for “the common good.” If I have been given the gift of faith, for example, that gift is not for me—I’m just the blessed bearer of the gift. The gift is for the whole body (which, of course, includes me).
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, the character Lucy receives a precious gift from Father Christmas. It’s a small bottle of powerful medicinal potion that can heal wounds, illness, and rescue people from the brink of death. What an honor it is for Lucy to receive such a gift! But it’s not for her. Rather, she is the one trusted to carry the gift and administer it to others. This is the way each of us should view whatever gifts of the Spirit we have received.
When the manifestation of the Spirit is governed by love, the gifts will not become divisive or disruptive. In the very next chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul makes this point most eloquently. He says that even the most astonishing demonstrations of power, faith, and sacrifice count for nothing if not motivated and directed by love.
As we preach and teach from this passage, our challenge to the church should be to gather in unity at the well where we all drink from the same Spirit, receiving empowerment to serve one another in love. It’s a church without celebrities, without perfect people, a church where no one has it all together, but where all of us together have everything we need through the blessed Holy Spirit.