To hear certain people talking, you’d think that migration and multiculturalism were recent developments. Far from it. Take one example – first century Corinth. Who might you have found there? Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Sicilians, North Africans, Jews. Remember the list of people who witnessed Pentecost in Jerusalem? That kind of diversity would have been found in every major city around the Mediterranean. People have been migrating across these seas and settling in new places for millennia.
And who might you have found in the little Christian community of Corinth? Clearly, it would have reflected the city. Worshipping side by side were people of many origins, many races. There were women and men, slaves and free, poor and rich. Was it all plain sailing? Clearly not. There was trouble in the church.
Trouble, not so much because they were a diverse group, but because some thought they were better than others. Paul needed to remind them of what held them together, and explain what that meant for their common life.
Does the church in Corinth tell us something about ourselves? To me, what is striking is not so much the contrast as the similarity between us and them. Week by week, we gather, a diverse group of people – folk born in different places, who have done or do a variety of jobs, who have very different interests and life experiences, some young, some old, some well off, others not. Like the the Christians of Corinth, we are held together by a variety of things – by living in or near this town, by friendship, by a sense of belonging. But that’s not all, not even the main thing. Just like the Corinthians, we are bound together because all of us can say this: Jesus is Lord.
Sometimes we forget just how radical a thing to say that is. These three words are considered to be the first Christian confession of faith, uttered long before the Apostles’ Creed, which we use week by week, or any of the others were written. But this confession is not radical because it was the first. It is radical because of the context in which is was made.
And again, what is striking are the similarities with our context. Then as now, people faced many competing demands for loyalty: loyalty to the emperor, to the family, to the city, to a previous religious cult, to a local landowner. Those who said, “Jesus is Lord,” were, at the same time, saying that none of these other claimants on loyalty, not even the emperor, was their true Lord. Loyalty and fidelity to Christ was paramount, no matter the consequences.
We maybe face fewer obvious conflicts of loyalty, or perhaps we are just good at compartmentalising. Even so, we need to reclaim the power, the impact of these words, to own afresh the sense that, in every aspect of our lives, Jesus Christ is supreme, that there is no part of our lives which faith does not direct.
Paul argues that there was only one way in which people could make the confession – Jesus is Lord. That was through the work of the Holy Spirit within them. It is a clever argument. He was writing to a divided congregation, where there were people who thought they were better than others because they were more spiritual. They claimed to be gifted in particular ways. It seems fairly clear, reading between the lines, that speaking in tongues was something that those who did it felt made them particularly special.
But Paul’s argument goes like this. No spiritual gift comes from within. Every gift comes from God. No one earns a gift. No one deserves to receive one. No gift indicates that anyone is better, or holier, or more spiritual, or closer to God, than any other gift. The ability to confess that Jesus is Lord is, itself, a spiritual gift, one which draws us into unity with everyone else who can say the same. That is the first and most important gift.
Paul goes on. Everyone, he says, is gifted further. Everyone who confesses Jesus is Lord has received other spiritual gifts too. The gift might be to speak in tongues but, equally, it could be to be wise and give good advice, or to be knowledgeable and teach. It could be a gift of healing. Elsewhere, Paul lists other spiritual gifts – leading and helping, generosity, compassion, evangelism, administration, encouragement, service, mercy, hospitality, worship and prayer. No everyone can do everything. Not everyone has been given all these gifts but, within each congregation, you will find people with the gifts God knows are needed to do what he wants in that place.
From time to time, I ask people in the congregation to do something. I’m always delighted when someone says ‘yes’. Asking people to do things should never be random. It should always involve discernment of what gifts, all of them spiritual, God has given. Sometimes, we don’t know ourselves and it takes another person to see the gift in us. It is true beyond any doubt that God has given some spiritual gift to each of us. The work of discerning each other’s gifts belongs to us all.
All of this – the discernment of gifts, and the work and activities and service which are enabled through them – is brought about by God for a purpose. Each of us is given spiritual gifts to be used for the common good. As Paul says, there is no place in the church of individualism. Faith, and the gifts that come with it, are personal but never private, and are given to be shared, for the benefit of all.