Asbury First United
Text: 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13
We come to the threshold of a great, new moment in life this morning. On this day, a holy day, several of our middle school youth, guided by their middle-aged parents, will receive the grace of confirmation and become full and responsible members of Christ's holy church.
Middle. You remember the swimmer who assayed to cross the English Channel. Diving in from the white cliffs of Dover he swam with vigor until he was halfway across. He was so tired, though, that halfway across, he decided that he could not make it all the way so he turned around and swam home. A climber went half way up the mountain, and paused, medio-crites, halfway up the hill. When you're only halfway up you're neither up nor down. It is hard to live in the middle of life.
Middle school youth are often quite concerned about relationships, anxious about performance, overly attentive to their changing appearance, and honestly uncertain about the future. You notice, I am sure, that in all these things they resemble no one as much as another remarkable age cohort seated near to them, sometimes referred to as their parents.
I think that particularly the issue of appearance, or appearances, which will dog both groups all their days, is of particular importance this morning. Now I think it is good to dress well for church, and particularly for such a special occasion as this. In fact, I tend to wish that there were rather more than less attention, across our time and land, to the matter of courtesy, manners, and dress. However, the Scripture lesson this morning acclaims in startling fashion a distinctly different truth, which is, simply said, that what matters is not how you look but how you sound. In the life of the Spirit, that is, what counts is not your face but your voice.
To become a person is to find your voice.
You may, and rightly, wonder why St. Paul would start down this rickety path with the shouting Corinthians. Why would the apostle to the outsiders, Paul, who had gathered dock workers in ancient Corinth, a city like New Orleans in its love of the love of the flesh, to a singular observation: God made them and gave them life; soon they would be dead; in the meantime they were a sorry lot; and Jesus Christ was raised from the dead to give them new life, community, heaven, meaning, love, and, oh yes, spirit. To this they responded with the chaotic shouting and disrespect of a wayward middle school class, all tongue and no taste. They shouted! They groped! They misbehaved! They went overboard! If nothing else, that is, it seemed that there was plenty of volume in Corinth.
This morning we are in earshot of part of Paul's lesson for the Corinthians. In a word, he is heard to say, you are mistaken to focus on what you see. What matters is how you sound. What do those around you hear and overhear in your voice?
I heard an editor at Random House explain how he could move through thousands of manuscripts very quickly, and know which ones to publish. "Oh, I can tell in a paragraph or two. Did you ever listen to someone sing? You can tell in a line or two".
Paul is asking his new born church to exchange volume for value, to listen for the good gifts that God is giving, to feel the heart beat of life and love in various forms of speech that are the whole content of the spirit.
Paul gives, too, a concrete, historical measure of spirit. Our middle school youth and middle-aged parents have come of age in a time in which the word spirit and its cousins are as exuberantly pronounced as they are unintelligibly defined. By contrast, for the Paul of 1 Corinthians 12 spirit means speech that does good. All of the gifts of spirit, he says, can be known and measured by one simple test: what do they do for the common good?
Notice the space Paul creates. There are varieties of gifts. Not one bouquet, but a meadow full of bouquets. Diversities, multiplicities, all the many-sided manyness that his Greek culture decried as the enemy of the true and the good and the beautiful - the oneness of truth - this diversity Paul celebrates.
God is giving us gifts all the time, but our ears are so muffled that we miss their value, their resounding power. The gifts which make up spirit are many and different, but are the bequests of a single spirit, Lord and God (incidentally, one of the earliest Trinitarian references in scripture and history). These vocal gifts are to be distinguished from their contraries by a single test: do they build the common good?
You are coming of age within the spheres of influence of many and powerful identity forming forces. Family is one, surely. School and friends are another, it is true. Soon these will give way to college or employer, to nation, to vocation, to community. Everyone will want to bend your ear in a certain direction, and you will not be able to avoid making the hard choices, in all these directions, by which you will become an adult. You will appear in society. School ring, passport, name tag - all these visible signs will begin to define you as an adult. None of them makes you a person. You become a person by finding your voice.
So Paul directs the Corinthians to listen for the arrival of the gifts of the Spirit. You receive your measure of them too. Take the time, over the next 70 years, to hear them and know them and know your part in them.
To one is given the logos sophias, the word of wisdom. Some of you will become wise before your time. Our age disdains wisdom. We prefer willpower. It is willpower, or the will to power, that distinguishes our age, from the raucous willfulness of our music to the undisguised willfulness of our politics. We love things not because they are right and true but because they are ours. Look at the marauders of 9/11? Were they wise? No, but they were willful, and in that combination of audacious imagination and utter willfulness, they symbolize much of our era. But the gift of the spirit is wisdom, the quiet capacity to see life as a whole. Listen for a word of wisdom.
To one is given the logos gnoseus, the word of knowledge. Paul elsewhere questions knowledge, but not here. Some of you will gain and share knowledge. Paul himself knew a great deal. He knew the Hebrew Bible well enough to use it, and recite it as a part of his heart. He knew the tradition of Greek philosophy, the Sophists and the Epicureans and the teaching of Plato, well enough to recall them with ease. He knew the cities of the empire well enough to traverse them with grace. He even knew enough of the craft of leather working to make his living, city by city, as a tent-maker, the original worker priest. I have no doubt that he would encourage our increase in knowledge, in many directions. But the knowledge to which he gives expression here is of a different kind. He means the knowledge that touches and warms the heart, that makes the heart strangely warm, the knowing word. You will know it when you have heard it.
Someone will take you by the hand and whisper, "I love you". Someone will ask you, pointedly, whether you plan to make something of your life. Someone will, at the right time in the right way, tell you to your face that you are forgiven for what you did and you should stop beating yourself up over it. Someone will point out to you a different possibility, a new alternative. Someone will invite you to come to worship God in a church like this one, I mean a real church, a church with history, a church with depth, a church with texture, a church with body. More to the point, some of you will have that voice, that knowing voice, that telling voice, the voice of knowledge. Listen for a word of knowledge.
To another is given the gift of faith. Faith comes by hearing, we know, and hearing by the word of God. As a religion Christianity has yet to come to terms, far and wide it seems to me, with Paul's blunt assertion that faith is a gift, a form of speech and hearing that is offered to some individuals for the sake of the common good. Perhaps the word of faith, upon your tongue, is the gift of the spirit to you. Listen for a word of faith.
To others are given the gifts of healing and energymata dunameon - energetic power. Words of healing and force, fitly spoken, that make a difference for the good, for the common good. Paul strictly measures the spirit, and spiritual gifts, according to a simple rule: does this make for the common good? Our middle school youth and middle aged parents have come of age in an age, over the last twenty years, that has disregarded, in lesser or greater terms, the common good. Our public spaces lack advocates. Our public schools, excepting wealthy suburban schools, lack advocates. Our public welfare lacks advocates. Please do not mishear this: I am proud of our support for ministry with the poor in food and clothing and housing and so on. We do these things because we know as Christians that we grow in our discipleship as we do so. But step back a minute and look at the long horizon here. The fact that the poor of this country are being left to the care of the churches, the single most under funded set of institutions in the land, is a tragic measure of our lack of support for the common good. Open Door Mission shouldn't have to provide beds. That is a public responsibility. Habititat for Humanity shouldn't have to build houses. That is public responsibility. Asbury First shouldn't have to use its resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, raise the young. That is a public responsibility, and our public life, starting with our governmental institutions, are not addressing the common good. Somewhere we shifted from a war on poverty to a war on the poor. I have no doubt that somebody from this next generation will find voice to heal and power to change this country's fiscally selfish condition. A few flimsy church programs here and there can never take the place of a communal commitment to the common good. We need to find the courage again to recognize that all institutions, including governmental ones, waste money, to some degree, but that we still need a good deal, a new deal, a fair deal for the poor. Listen for a word of healing power.
To still others are given the gifts of prophecy, discernment, speaking and understanding. I ask that notice only that all of these, like their predecessors have to do with speech, with voice. You become a person by finding your voice.
Our middle school youth and middle aged parents are confirming and living their faith in a Methodist Church. All of the gifts of the spirit, speech in service of the common good, are given to make faith a personal matter. You become a person by finding your voice. This emphasis on personal faith, followed by public involvement, is at the heart of our tradition. It is our prayer that your hearts will be strangely warmed.
The phrase comes from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley lived nearly half his life before he truly found his voice. In May of 1738, on an evening in London, Mr. Wesley went very unwillingly to a worship service, in which the preacher read from Luther's commentary on Romans 8. After the service, Wesley recorded in his journal, he found that his heart was "strangely warmed" and he did trust in Christ for salvation and forgiveness and heaven.