I Cor. 14: 1Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. 2For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. 3But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. 6Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. 12So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.
Focus Statement: “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.”
Fourth of July content-free sermon: Questions to address: What is prophecy and why is it so important?
What is humility and why is it so important?
What do we do with that longing for belonging when it can divide us just as often as it unites us?
Someone I knew in college claimed to have seen Jesus, in a vision or a dream. So naturally we asked him, “What did he look like?” His answer: “He looked Middle Eastern.” Whatever that means.
But we don’t need to have dreams or visions to see the face of Jesus today. Ever since the Pentecost outpouring of Jesus’ Spirit, the Holy Spirit, Jesus appears to the world like the quilt on our altar. Notice all the connected pieces doing together what quilts do: providing covering and beauty. The pieces are different, but they each serve a common mission in their own unique way. And they do so by staying connected, and yet staying themselves, too. As long as the pieces don’t start fighting and tugging at each other and tearing at their threads and opening up holes between themselves. Then the quilt-like face of Jesus would be obscured in the world.
But that’s what seems to have been happening in the First Church of Corinth. The different pieces of the quilt were working against each other, with the differences in their spiritual gifts and qualities being used to tear the whole thing apart. Now the quilt pieces I have in mind were the different spiritual gifts the members brought to the Corinthian churches. In today’s passage, Paul talks about how the spiritual gifts of prophecy and speaking in other languages fit in together. They each have their place. But today’s passage reflects how one gift—the gift of tongues—was overshadowing the gift of prophecy, when it should have been the other way around.
Which raises my first question: What does Paul mean by prophecy? I’ll try to deal with the gift of speaking in tongues in next week’s message. But today, let’s stay on prophecy. Does Paul mean that people in the First Church of Corinth were suddenly getting seized by the Holy Spirit in such a way that they suddenly had a divine revelation about the future and couldn’t resist standing up to say, “Spain will win the World Soccer Cup over Netherlands, three to two?”
I doubt it. I was rooting for Ghana. Shows what kind of a prophet I am. But Paul himself gives us two definitions of prophecy. In the previous chapter, he says, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and knowledge, but have not love, I have nothing.” So prophecy must be something of a uniquely God-given insight into divine mysteries and knowledge. Like when I heard a priest speak about Zaccheus, the little man who wanted to see Jesus. When he kept saying, “To Jesus, there are no unknown, little people,” I was struck in my spirit by having the secrets of my heart exposed, and yet being given hope and relief. Because that was exactly how I had been feeling at the time: little and unkown. It was as though he had been reading my mail. But he hadn’t.
Paul gives us another angle on prophesy when he says, in today’s passage, “everyone who prophesies speaks to [people] for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” So not only is prophesy something God-given, its people-directed. Directed toward the strengthening, encouragement and comfort of their souls, but also toward the strengthening, encouragement and comfort of their relationships. So that their gifts, talents, perspectives and contributions work together harmoniously, and beautifully, like the pieces on our altar quilt today. In that sense, I hope that in this message there’s something prophetic for someone, and not pathetic.
But this gift of prophesy is not just for preachers and sermons. I’ll go out on a limb this morning and make this promise, based on the Bible and experience: that if we put ourselves out there to try and strengthen, encourage and comfort people, we will find ourselves having prophetic moments. Make enough phone calls or send enough cards or make enough visits to the sick, the shut-ins, those facing major life crises, and some day, someone will tell you, “My friend, something you said once made all the difference for me between a long, dark, lonely and sleepless night, and sleeping like a baby.” Or, “your expression of concern was all that stood between me and giving up the Christian life.” Or, “that challenging question you put to me straightened out my life.” Put yourself out there, in those places where the gift of prophesy is needed, and if you don’t hear such responses in this life, you’ll surely hear them in the next. You may not remember having said such divinely-inspired things, but others will, for the powerful effect they had on their lives.
So that’s my answer to the first question: What is prophesy? And why is it so important? Its God-given insight for our strengthening, comfort and encouragement. Its God’s gift for the building up of persons and relationships.
Next question: What is humility and why is it so important, especially to our task of displaying the quilt-like face of Jesus? Well first, let me say something about what humility is not. We Mennonites make a big thing about humility. Good for us. We should be proud of that. Woops. But we have too often understood humility to mean the rejection and suppression of ourselves and our gifts. Sometimes we did that in big ways, like when some churches said, “No musical instruments in church—the ability to play one only draws attention to oneself.” As you can see, we blew through that one without blinking. Or it came across in more subtle ways: “I’ll remember your concern in my prayers, brother. And by the way, wasn’t that the second time you’ve stood up and asked for prayer this year?” Again, if that’s pride, well, then we take pride in letting people ask for prayer as often as needed.
Paul doesn’t mention the word humility in this passage, but I hear it calling for our attention in the twist that he gives to the whole matter of how and when we use our gifts. He doesn’t say, “Don’t seek to have spiritual gifts, because that’s prideful.” Nor does he say, “If you have spiritual gifts, keep them private; don’t draw attention to yourself,” even though that’s exactly what the Corinthians seemed to have been doing: drawing attention to themselves. Instead, Paul simply says, “You are eager to have spiritual gifts.” He assumes that they’ll want to have spiritual gifts. He admits it. He even seems to commend it. And he re-directs that desire to be spiritually gifted when he says, so “try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” Not just gifts that build us up personally. Not just gifts that might build up our own reputation, our status, our power and our honor in the community, but gifts that build up the community itself. Whatever gifts we have, use them with the freedom that comes from forgetting about ourselves and focusing on the needs of others.
So Its not a question of whether we’ll want to have gifts and talents and put them to full use. I hope we do. Its a question of how and why we use them. Its not a question of if we seek to excel in something and stand out, but what we seek to excel at and stand out for. Humility is not the suppression of our gifts but the submission of our gifts to a greater good than our own status or power. Humility is not about denying our gifts, but about deploying our gifts for the benefit of our neighbors and our relationships with them. That’s what humility is about.
My third question was, and always is: what will we do with our longing for belonging, and this desire to excel, to count and to contribute something in this world? Something unique to ourselves and worthy of notice? Because we will do something. That’s how God made us, because that’s how God himself is: supremely endowed with all good gifts, and ever ready to bless us and to grace us with them. The youth who’s slouching around in an alley, wearing gang colors and smoking dope, might look to his teachers and his parents like someone who’s never going to contribute to society, never get ahead and never excel at anything. But he’s actually working quite hard, sacrificially even, at great risk to himself, to contribute, belong and excel. At least to contribute to the gang, and excel at gang-type behaviors.
The kingdom of God is like that young man’s gang, in that it gives him and us a place to belong and ways to excel. But God’s kingdom gives us good, eternal, healthy places to belong, and good, eternal and healthy ways to excel. As when Paul says, “try to excel in gifts that build up the church.”
And if that still sounds just a little prideful, then I would add that this desire to excel and to contribute in our own unique way can be, but only once we start making comparisons. Its only prideful when we feel the need to show that we are more gifted than someone else, or that our gifts are more important than those of someone else, and when we can’t celebrate someone else’s gifts and affirm them because we’re afraid they’ll overshadow our own. As was happening at First Church of Corinth. Like when the Amish family was returning home from a church gathering and the father turned to his family in the buggy and said, “You know, I think we were the plainest, most humble people there today.” Making comparisons is what turns gifts into grief.
But if we just have to make comparisons, then let’s make them between ourselves and Jesus, who holds all the spiritual gifts. If we need to make comparisons, let’s make them between ourselves and ourselves, between what we once were and what we now are; and between what we now are and what we could yet be. That should keep us humble, because that is humility.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., best expressed all this in his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.” He called it that because, he said, we’re all made by God with a desire to join life’s parade and to hear the cheers, to step proud, high and happy, and take our turn marching up front and waving the baton. To me, King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon has proven prophetic in every biblical sense of the word, including that of building up my person and strengthening my relationships. He gave it just a few months before his death, in 1968, preaching from that passage in Mark’s Gospel, when the two brother disciples, James and John, came to Jesus and said, “Grant us, Lord, to sit on your right hand and on your left, when you enter into your kingdom.” Through the gifts of today’s technology we’ll bring the voice of Dr. King to our sanctuary, for just a snippet of that sermon. See how Dr. King’s take on that James and John relates to our passage, especially the words, “try to excel in gifts that edify the church:”
“What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, ‘You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?’
“But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, ‘Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.’ But he reordered priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do. And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, ‘Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.’ This is what Jesus said to James and John. ‘You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.” (Amen)
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.
“And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.”