Wednesday, April 22, 2009

omega talk: being gifted


Who was the first tennis player in the bible?
Joseph. He served in Pharaoh's court.

My senior year of high school wasn’t what I’d call “academically rigorous,” though I did come incredibly close to failing what was hands down my hardest class – “chorus.” And by chorus I don’t mean choir class – at least at my high school, choir was only for people with talent. And by chorus I don’t mean singing class – singing class was for the people that didn’t make the choir. I mean chorus – a class designed for vocally challenged high school freshmen that my best friend and I took when we were seniors in high school. And on the surface, chorus class is easy – there are only two requirements: class attendance is one, and the other is performing at our school’s annual Christmas pageant.

I’m not going to lie – I was super-pumped about the pageant. I hadn’t performed at a Christmas pageant since I was six. But that excitement quickly waned when I learned my part. The song was “Little Drummer Boy,” and my part was to support the song’s rhythm by humming the following words over and over again – prum, prum, prum. I’m not going to sugar coat it – I was pissed. I was hoping for a better part. And of course my friend got the best part – he was supposed to sing a solo. And I say “supposed to” because when it came time for his big moment, I felt the Spirit and decided to improvise. Instead of humming “prum, prum, prum” I kicked up the speed and cranked up the volume and threw a little “rum pum-pum-pum” “rum pum-pum-pum” in the mix. The only problem was, I sang right into my best friend’s ear. And because I apparently messed up the harmony, he started to laugh – like hard. And literally within seconds the entire gymnasium erupted in laughter. Of the seven hundred people present, there were only two people not laughing that night. My teacher – which is why I almost failed. And me – I kept “prumming” along right into my friend’s ear.

Obviously, our song ended early and my friend stopped laughing and immediately proceeded to tell me that I ruined the song, the pageant, and his life – and so it made me do some thinking. And what I’ve come to see is that A – it wasn’t my fault. To this day I maintain that my performance was brilliant. And B – the real problem was that a “class distinction” existed in my mind. In other words, I thought I had a crappy part – that the part I was given to play was less important than my friend’s. That’s what I mean by a class distinction.

I had a friend in seminary that graduated from music school and he used to tell me about the “class distinctions” that were part of his college experience. The flutes and the oboes, he told me, looked down on the brass, but within the brass, the trumpets all thought that they were better than the trombones. And apparently the only form of animal life lower than the trombone is the triangle and the timpani. And he was being serious. Everyone seemed to think that their instrument was better, more important, than everyone else’s.

And in a nutshell, this is the problem Paul’s facing in Corinth. Within the Christian “chorus class” (so to speak) there are apparently some people that consider themselves superior to others, which Paul sees as a real problem. In our last Omega we talked about “being tested” – well, the Corinthians are on the verge of failing. There seem to be class distinctions between those who possess and practice different spiritual gifts. And so with that in mind, listen to what Paul tells the Corinthians.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. But they are all activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts.

And so the question is – what exactly is Paul saying? To keep our musical analogy, he’s saying that in the Body of Christ, there are different instruments, but that all require the same skill; that there are different musical styles, but that we’re all following the same conductor; that there are different tones and volumes of playing, but that we’re all following this one complex musical masterpiece, which of course is written by the same composer. In other words, the Corinthians are taking themselves and their gifts way too seriously. And what Paul wants them to do is to learn to take God seriously – to see what an awesome thing it is that God is even inviting them to play a part. In other words, what Paul wants the Corinthians to see is that a spiritual gift is just that – a gift. They’re not spiritual achievements. They’re not spiritual status symbols. They’re not spiritual indicators. They’re spiritual gifts.

And so in the time we have left, I’d like to address five important questions.

1. Who gets spiritual gifts?
2. Why are spiritual gifts given?
3. What are some examples of spiritual gifts?
4. Are some gifts better than others?
5. And if so, what’s the greatest gift?

To answer our first two questions, let me re-read a verse from tonight’s reading. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” For Paul, all of God’s people are given spiritual gifts. Let me say that again – all members of the Body of Christ are given spiritual gifts – there are no exceptions. And so notice, a spiritual gift isn’t the same thing as a talent. For example, Henry Nouwen, after having a crisis of faith, decided to spend the final years of his life working among the severely handicapped, and his primary assignment was to take care of Adam – a young man that couldn’t dress himself or go to the bathroom by himself. In fact, Adam could barely talk. And so needless to say, Adam had no talents. But Henry Nouwen’s faith was restored because day after day after day he saw the amazing gifts that God gave to Adam. He writes about how Adam had this uncanny capacity to bring joy to others. To be in Adam’s presence was to smile – it evoked prayer, it restored people’s faith. Now, in the eyes of the world, Adam was useless. It took a lot of time and money and man-power to take care of him. But in the eyes of God, Adam was given a big part to play. And so all people, without exception, are given spiritual gifts.

Which brings us to our second question -- why? Well like Paul says, for “the common good” – a Greek phrase that’s more accurately translated “to bring together.” And so on the one hand, spiritual gifts are given to bring God’s people together. But on the other hand, Paul says in chapter 14 – which we didn’t hear read – that spiritual gifts are given to build up the church. In other words, Paul taught that the church was in a process of growing into something, or perhaps to be more accurate, growing into Someone. For example, consider what Paul says in Ephesians: “the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some teachers, for the building up of the body of Christ, until all of us grow into the full stature of Christ.” And so the purpose of a spiritual gift is to build up, to bring together, to help each other grow. Once again, God used Adam’s gift of joy to restore Henry Nouwen’s faith. And God used Henry Nouwen’s gift of compassion to help Adam live, to help him experience love. Adam and Henry’s different gifts brought them together – and in the process the church was built up – it grew just a little closer to the full stature of Christ.

Moving to questions three and four, what are some examples of spiritual gifts and are some gifts better than others? The New Testament lists a bunch of spiritual gifts: prophecy, evangelism, teaching, administration, leadership, faith, service, knowledge, wisdom, exhortation, encouragement, ministering, giving, the gift of tongues, the gift of interpreting tongues, miracles, healings, mercy, and the gift of hospitality. Now obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list. Anything that God gives us to build up His church, and one another, is a spiritual gift. And so the question is – are some gifts better than others?

What I’ve learned from my twelfth grade Christmas pageant is that the answer is no. If the Spirit of God singles you out and calls you to exercise one gift and not the other – that gift is no better, and no worst, than whatever gift you didn’t receive. And that’s what Paul’s been trying to tell the Corinthians.

You see, historically speaking the Corinthians were obsessed with the gift of speaking in tongues. And the Christians who spoke in tongues looked down on the people that didn’t because they thought it made them more spiritual. And so the ones who spoke in tongues separated themselves from the ones that didn’t. Do you see the irony? The purpose of a spiritual gift is to bring the church together – and this one gift was tearing their church apart. The purpose of a spiritual gift is to build up – and this one gift threatened to tear their church down. And not one of the Corinthians seemed to get it. The Christians with the more “ordinary gifts” were pissed – instead of using their gifts to bless one another, they griped and moaned because they weren’t given a better part. And the Christians with the more “charismatic gifts” – well, they thought that they were in a different class altogether. I imagine Corinth was like my friend’s music school – the people speaking in tongues looked down on the prophets, but the prophets all thought they were better than the teachers. And apparently the only form of animal life lower than being a teacher in 1st century Corinth was being a servant or an administrator. And they were being serious. People seemed to think that their gift was better, more important, than everyone else’s. And the Corinthians were competitive – they just had to know what the greatest gift was – they just had to know what the most important gift was. And so Paul tells them.

And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we’ll see face to face. Now I know only in part, but then I’ll know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

I want you to imagine that you’re a musician and that you’ve just discovered a new symphony by Beethoven – Beethoven’s “tenth.” And what you’ve found is authentic – but the only problem is that it’s incomplete. There are places where the writing is faded and a few pages are missing here and there. And so you’re hoping that what’s missing will one day turn up, because until it does, you’ll never be able to play the full symphony.

In essence, what Paul’s trying to tell the Corinthians is that the Body of Christ is like that authentic manuscript – that the Body of Christ is like a masterpiece that God is at work putting together. And in the mind of the composer, the masterpiece already exists. The only problem is, we only know a part of it – it’s like we’re reading the music through a dimly lit mirror. And because of that, the players aren’t quite ready to perform it yet and the instruments haven’t properly been tuned. In other words, there are just some things that still need to be brought together. And so the question is, what do we do in the meantime?

We know what the Corinthians did. Do you remember what our very first talk was on? Divisions in the church – Paul heard a rumor from Chloe’s people that there was serious drama at Corinth. And Chloe’s people were right. But what Paul wants to do is to show them, in his own words, “a still more excellent way.”

And that still more excellent way – the summation of all spiritual gifts – is love. To quote Paul from his letter to the Colossians, “love binds everything together in perfect harmony.” The answer is love. And so on the surface, the Christian life is easy – there are only two requirements: love God and love people. But the truth is, the love God calls us to can be hard, hard work. It’s hard to take God seriously. And I think the reason love is hard is because we take ourselves way too seriously – we take our part way too seriously – but in the process, we forget what an awesome thing it is that God invites us to play a part in the first place.

But let us never forget, God does invite us to play a part. And for that reason he gives all of us spiritual gifts. No spiritual achievements, not spiritual status symbols, no spiritual indicators – spiritual gifts. We all have a part.

And so the question I leave us with is – what’s yours?

1 comment:

KAM said...

I have the gift of throwing.