An Assembly of Gifts
There was perhaps no greater moment of internal tension in my life as a student than when we found out that we assembly in the auditorium. On the one hand, we got out of whatever class we had at that time, and sometimes they were fun. On the other hand, sometimes the principal or vice principal just bored us with rules. Or some outsider came in a did a presentation on some uncomfortable subject I didn’t want to listen to. But either way, it was still a nice break from the normal routine of things, especially a few times a year when really cool things happened during that time.
Once a year, as an elementary school kid, a group of students from the middle school that our school fed into would come and perform a sneak peak of that year’s theatre production. And it was always really well done, and always left an impression on the whole school. We thought that these middle schoolers were soooo cool. And we would dream about being in the play when we got there.
Well eventually we went thereI Now our middle school and our school district in general was heavily invested in the arts. We were an older than typical middle school population — we spanned 7th-9th grade, and so by the time we reached the top of the school food chain there was some serious talent among us. Like for example, as an 8th grader I flew to California with the school’s Jazz Band to perform at an International Jazz convention. Seriously invested like I said.
My particular school was also known for having the best theatre productions each year, and acquiring the leading role basically propelled someone to the top of the social structure of the school. These productions and their leading lady or man were held in incredibly high regard both within the school and the community at large, netting sold out nights for the entire running of the show.
So it was really a special thing that once a year one of our assemblies was a special, school kids only showing of the play for the year. In my first year I got to see the entire production, not the stripped down elementary school tour version. And it was like my mind exploded. It was SO good. Now I wasn’t an actor, and the thought of speaking or singing in front of an auditorium full of people made my stomach turn… strangely ironic right?
But my second year, when I was an 8th grader I got the call to be a part of the production. Well I got the call to play in the pit band. This was an original production call Max Meyer, written by our 9th grade english teacher, and the music was scored by my band director. And so for a few months, nearly every day after school we gathered and piece by piece, song by song, we put on arguably the best production ever put on by a public middle school.
What I learned through that experience was that there was a lot more to putting on a play than having a really good leading gal. Don’t get me wrong, the girl who played Max Meyer was phenomenal. But behind her was a supporting cast. Behind them was a show choir director who choreographed the dances and taught the harmonies. Behind that was the band playing the music and the music director who scored and taught the music. That doesn’t even mention the sound and light producers in the back of the room, or the crew backstage that changed sets and got everyone into their proper spaces. Oh and of course, the man himself who wrote the whole script. These were all people who were incredibly talented in a number of different ways, and only a small handful were talented in a way that would allow them to play the leading role. But without them, she was just a girl talking and singing. But with all of these people with different talents behind her, she was part of an incredible, moving, production.
This was one of the most highly involved things I was ever part of, until I became a part of this glorious thing called the church. And the church, it turns out is not so much different. Behind every pastor, no matter how talented they are is an entire cast of incredibly gifted people who actually make this thing possible.
An Assembly of Gifts
An Assembly of Gifts
As we continue our series called salutations, where we examine some of the ways that Paul says hello to various churches, we are really digging into what Paul says about who we are. Who the church is and who we are called to become. And so today we’re going to move on from Rome, where we were last week, to Corinth. Now Corinth is a really fascinating case study and place and I wish that we had time to talk more about it. But in short Corinth (start showing pictures) was a super important place in the Roman Empire, particularly when it came to trade and economics. There was a lot happening, and it was a bit of a booming cultural center as people from all over travelled in and out. I actually went to the site of ancient Corinth back in 2018 so you can see in these pictures what it looks like today. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s actually a really well preserved site. These pictures don’t really matter to the sermon. I just think they are cool, and now you know that this is a real place, so you’re welcome.
This is a church that Paul planted, and we will kind of see a different tone and emphasis than we saw last week with his introduction to Romans. So lets check it out.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
So we’ve got our main players — Paul as to be expected, and then this guy named Sosthenes — is actually a guy who was a rabbi in Corinth when Paul originally went there. So Paul is kind of starting off like, “hey it’s me again, Paul. And everything I’m about to say — it’s got the backing of Sosthenes, a well respected former member of your community. This is pretty important because Corinth is a mess and Paul’s got a lot of issues to deal with amongst these people. But he goes on.
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I wanna just camp out here for a little bit, because verse 2 is super loaded. Paul’s language is again, like last week, kind of normal to us. But it’s almost too normal, like we aren’t really getting the full picture.
So first we’ve got to look at 2 words, which are actually the same work in the greek language, which is what Paul wrote in. Sanctified and saints. These words share the same root, and essentially means “holy ones.” Sanctified is “those who have been made holy” and saints means “holy ones.” It’s like 2 different ways of saying the same thing.
The important thing about this is that we often separate ourselves from the word saints, because we think of saints as like a special class of church people from the past. But to Paul, and to God, all Christians are saints. Paul’s letter is addressed to every Christian in Corinth. And this is important because it is an identity shaping statement to call them saints. He’s helping them to understand their standing with God. What he’s saying is you are holy. You are set apart, different from the rest of the world. These words would land in a special way for those Christians in Corinth who knew their Hebrew Bible, (aka the old testament).
Written in the book of the Leviticus, everyones favorite part of the Bible, we get these words that really shape the whole point of God giving the Israelites the extensive set of laws that they were called to follow:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
This is really important because Paul is calling everyone in the community in Corinth a part of God’s covenant community, Greeks and Jews alike. These are different groups of people, now united and set apart from the rest of the world through their faith in Christ. Just like Israel was set apart and called God’s treasured possession, now the Church also assumes this role. And the role comes with a purpose in this world.
Israel was meant to be a model of God’s ethical will for humanity, thrust into the center of the known world to stand as a beacon of light within the darkness of the ancient world. The Church’s purpose is the same. Then, and now as well.
So with that in mind, lets move on and see what else Paul has to say.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
So this is kind of the meat of what Paul is trying to impress upon the people in Corinth. Not only is their identity found in their sainthood, their being set apart for God, but they have been gifted by God. Our english bibles say “grace” but this word in greek is the same word as gifts. The connection between these two things is going to be important.
We typically talk a lot about grace, and what is foundational to understand is that grace is something that we do no earn. It’s something that is free.
So Paul is saying hey, God has given all of you a gift through Jesus Christ. Yes, Paul is definitely talking about the gift of salvation. But that’s not all that he’s talking about… We know this because he keeps writing.
Think about what you might stereotypically assign as being the epitome of Ancient Greek Culture, other than war. Probably philosophy right? The Greeks loved the art of rhetoric and the study of philosophy. AKA in speech and knowledge. What Paul is saying here is, hey, God has gifted you in your ability to speak and understand things in a new way. This is a gift, not something that is gained through human striving, just like the testimony or the work of Christ being strengthened among you is not something that you are responsible for.
This is actually going to be really important, because this giftedness that the Corinthian church experiences is actually the source of their problems, which Paul is going to address in the larger context of the letter. You see, although Paul is being very kind in his tone with them up until this point, we have got to understand that Paul’s letter to people of Corinth is not coming to them because they are like super good at being the church. Actually, they are pretty terrible at it.
Paul’s main emphasis in this letter is going to deal with healing the division that is growing between the people, mostly regarding their gifts. Like any good humans, they have used what God has given to them to sow seeds of conflict. We are grateful that this never happens in churches today right? ;) yeah that was supposed to come across as seething with sarcasm. The reality is that Corinth finds themselves in the midst of a time honored Church tradition… fighting.
By reminding the members of the church in Corinth of the source of their gifts, of their knowledge, their understanding, their ability to speak with elegance, their musical capabilities, their financial savvy, their community connections, etc etc, he is reminding them that their gifts are meant for a higher purpose. That purpose is for the strengthening of the community of God’s people. God’s set apart, holy people who have the purpose of modeling God’s ethic and will in the midst of a world filled with darkness. Remember that whole thing.
So that’s kind of the first major goal here of Paul’s opening statement, to center their focus on the source of their gifts, and his second goal here is to remind them of the end game in all of this.
He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Ok so you’re gifted now, for the purpose of Christ’s testimony in the world, to be a beacon of light in this world now, but also so that you might continue to be strengthened all the way until the very end of all things when Jesus returns. What Paul is driving at here is that being the church is not meant to be only focused on the present. We are meant to be focused on the future, whether or not that future includes us. He’s saying focus on using your gifts now in a way that strengthens the community for however long we are waiting for Christ’s ultimate revelation.
This is Us
This is Us
You know what I love about Paul’s letters is that they still speak to the condition of our churches today, 2000 years later. The human condition, regardless of all of the progress around us, remains the same. All around us churches are gripped in conflict. We live in the age of the Mega-Church, and more and more, the human failings of our institutions are being put on display. Typically these failings are the side effect of the human ego. The larger than life personalities that are often driving these conflicts and the deterioration of the Church’s public image and the name of Jesus in the world are leaders of the local church. Pastors who receive a moniker of fame on the internet, leaders within denominations who engage in or cover up abuse, musical groups who forget that their primary purpose is to bring glory and honor to God through worship.
These are just a few modern examples of the pervasiveness of this problem. And I think that a big part of this phenomena is that we have forgotten to right size people, and we have forgotten that the church is not dependent solely on what people perceive as those who play the leading role. Much like my experience with middle school theatre, the church relies on the giftings of every single person who calls themselves a member. Yes I get up here and preach, but this church did ministry before me, and it will do ministry after me. Before and after every staff member, every choir member, band member, and every committee member.
We are an assembly of gifts, who -- when working together for the kingdom of God — are capable of extraordinary things. And I’m proud of the ways that this church has embraced that for the past several seasons. I’m proud of the ways that we are on mission in our community. The ways that we feed our siblings and reach out into our world with acts of kindness. I’m proud of the ways that the committees and teams of this church work together to ensure that this church is and continues to be a vital and pervasive witness of Jesus in Fort Pierce.
Normally this would be where I could complain about all the messes. About the conflict within our community. But either you all are really good at hiding it, or you are really good at resolving it, because I haven’t sensed serious tension. And that’s a really good thing. It means that we are all really right sized, at least for now.
But, just in case you’re all just really good at hiding it, or in case there is conflict in your lives outside of the church that maybe you need some wisdom in navigating, I’m going to give you an unsolicited, unwanted, and possibly unwarranted challenge and piece of advice.
There’s a really incredible book floating around out there called The Anatomy of Peace. And what it basically describes is how to move from a heart at war to a heart at peace. And my practice for a number of years has been to take a moment, especially when I’m getting upset, and to ask myself where is my heart at war right now. And what would it take for me to have a heart at peace with this situation, institution, or person.
And a lot of times what it would take is for me to recognize the gifts of someone else, especially within the church . I need to try to see how they are using what God has given to them to insure that we are able to live into our identity as a community set apart and called to be witnesses of God’s will for this world. And I’ll tell you that being positive witness of God to this world comes from being at peace amongst ourselves. The world outside of the church is filled with conflict, and if our churches are filled with it as well then what do we really have to offer that is different.
We can be an assembly of gifted persons who squander them by acting like the rest of the world, or we can be an assembly of gifted persons who are an unstoppable force for the Gospel of Jesus in this world. It starts with recognizing that God is the giver of our gifts and by allowing the peace of Christ to govern our hearts. If we do these two things regularly we will become and remain the community that God has called us to be, a community of love that offers this world the peace that it desperately longs for.