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Sermon ~ The Spirit gives …

Content

1 Corinthian 12,1-11
Glengowrie Uniting Church
17 January 2016
(was cancelled last minute)

This morning, I would like to preach about our Epistle reading, Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth: The Spirit gives to each person what he wants!

1.

Many thanks again for inviting me again to preach to you. It is always a pleasure for me to lead you in your worship service. As I have told you before, your congregation has made me and Liz welcome time and again, and we really enjoy your sense of community and spirituality.

I don’t know you well enough to really come to a conclusion, but amongst you there is something that seems to be special. On the surface, it may be the singing before the beginning of the service, which you all enjoy so much. But for me as a stranger, I sense something underneath at which I can’t put my fingers but it seems to be there …

As a UCA congregation, your little community appears rather typical. Coming from Germany, where churches are organised according to their church district (parochial), I realise that congregations here in Australia are what we call in technical terms a “membership church”: As a Christian in my country, you are baptised into your wider church (kind of like the UCA) and then be confirmed. If you wish so, your city council registers you as an Evangelical or Catholic, and if you move in later years from one suburb or town to another, all goes well the council will notify the local church administration of your move (and no, we are not state churches, unlike Sweden or Norway). If the local congregation is alert enough, it will contact you and invite your for worship services and the many other community activities, and will offer you space for your commitment (for instance if you have some special gifts in music, or languages, or working with people of different age groups, or lay preaching for that matter).

Here in Australia people have to “opt in” to a local congregation themselves. I had to see “my minister”, Peter Trudinger at Scots Church, and was given a form which was approved by the church council. Having been a church worker in Germany, I offered Peter and the congregation my support. They invited me to greet people at the door on Sunday mornings, ring the church bell, and eventually I joined their communication committee. All of this has ceased now, basically because I have been travelling too much in the past few years, visit with Liz a Lutheran congregation alternately, and on top had other weekend commitments.

Congregations here, it seems to me, focus on their worship life as the heart of its existence. There may be more activities, given local circumstances, but they are secondary. For the Lutherans this is even more obvious: Forgiveness of sins, listen to the Word of God in the sermon, and receiving Holy Communion are the key foci.

Eventually I came to realise, there was not much space for me in either of these churches here to contribute to their life, other than preaching once in a while for you. Thus, as mentioned, I have always wondered why I think of you as a special community. I have no clear answer (and, of course, don’t know you well enough), but there is an underlying mood in your congregation which gives it the distinctive flavour, if I may say so. I’ll leave this question for you to ponder …

 

2.

Paul’s congregation in Corinth was quite different. He stayed there for about 18 months in the middle of the first century, probably between 50 and 52 AD. Corinth then was, again after having been destroyed in previous wars, a wealthy and thriving harbour city in the south of Greece with a large international population of Romans, Greeks and Jews. Paul did not intend to stay for long, but he felt commanded by the Lord to speak out strongly. Opposed by the local Jewish community, the local authorities supported the Apostle. Many locals thus joined the new religion, but mainly “normal” people of low social standing, authority or “wisdom” (1 Cor 1,26).

In his letter Paul argues with his readers in pretty harsh terms. He refers them back to their relationship with idols widely accepted in the Corinthian society. The wording let theologians to believe that Paul implied an ongoing exposure to the dominant public religious traditions, despite his audience having accepted Christ into their lives.

Unfortunately, Paul leaves us in the dark about these religious traditions in Corinth. Historians know of famous temples, for instance for Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, who in the wider world was synonymous with debaucher and immorality; or the Temple of Poseidon, ruler of the seas and symbol of the commercial importance of the city. Apollo’s temple served as a reminder of Corinth’s ancient splendour and was 700 years old by Paul’s time, but now in ruins. The museum at Corinth today holds hundreds of terra-cotta votive offerings presented to the Asklepios by pilgrims who sought a cure or who wanted to thank the god for healing they attributed to him.[1]  Additionally, enthusiastic speaking in tongues was not unusual even in these local traditions.

So, Paul did have something to argue with his church. And his overall judgement was that all these idols were — mute. Deaf. Silent. Statues. Dead.

 

And so he attacks his readers in full force (1 Corinthian 12:3 ISV):

(3) For this reason I want you to be aware
that no one who is speaking by God’s Spirit can say, “Jesus is cursed,”
and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

This is a really strong statement. And a paradox … a wordplay with which lot of theologians seem to grapple.

 

The first part of this statement sounds rather logic:
You, the reader, are speaking to God’s church as His Spirit has made you speak.[2] It seems, Paul simply revokes here the Jewish tradition of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, as we have heard for instance this morning in the OT reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

Of course, no one speaking in the spirit of God would “curse” Jesus — a totally absurd assumption.[3] However, given the background of the Corinthian congregation, there may have been heated debates between different factions of its membership. We all know this even today — and you in the UCA may remember well the battles around the blessing of same-sex couples a decade ago.

It may not mean much to you, but this phrase “Jesus is cursed” was of some interest to me:

The Greek term that has here been translated as “cursed” is highly loaded: “Anathema” has the meaning of expulsion, to be kicked out of community! That happens to you, you will be “fair game” to all who want to get rid of you, with no fear of punishment. Of course, Jesus had already been crucified many years ago, but the phrase may indicate the level of hatred between the different groups.

 

Set against this first part, Paul makes another powerful statement, however, which made me feel intimidated in the preparation of this sermon:

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (v3c)

I am a German, male, a Protestant Christian within a Lutheran tradition but with a wide Ecumenical experience — logic, words, theories, writings are what make me tick (and sometimes think and act). I am a rational person. I do have friends who speak and pray in “Tongues”. They make me wonder whether they know what they are wanting to say. Sometimes I feel scared, inadequate, and vulnerable: My faith does not seem to be that strong, or close to God, that I can speak “by the Holy Spirit”.

This is what I can imagine many of those listening to Paul’s letter being read out, may have though of themselves, secretly.

I am not a prophet either. If I was, I think nobody would be listening to me in the first place. I may have reasons, logical arguments, why I think that something may be going completely wrong or that we should take rather this than another approach of ideas. But I would never say intentionally that God speaks through me “by the Holy Spirit”.

Or does He?

 

3.

This ponderings bring us to the second part of our sermon text today.

 

By the way, I would like add one remark, again on the meaning of a phrase:

In the Greek New Testament the word for “Holy Spirit”, or God’s Spirit, is “Pneuma”. We Christians always confess Him, the Holy Spirit, when we express at the end of our Confession that we

believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

God’s Spirit here reminds us time and again of the “Breath of God”, or in Biblical Hebrew the “rua ha-qodesh” (rua elohim). It denotes the ancient spirit hovering over the waters in the beginning of creation; God giving life to Adam; it is the quiet winds over the sea or the thunder storm in the mountains; the dove that announce the blessings of Jesus Christ after his baptism. In short, it signifies God’s presence Himself.

 

For the second half of our sermon text, in Paul’s First Letter to the church of Corinth, we come to much more familiar grounds. After all this heavy headed stuff of Theological thought, the Apostle Paul is almost light hearted.

In good biblical fashion, he sees the multitude of human beings — all created by the One God and His Spirit. Almost enthusiastically, Paul praises the many different gifts given by God’s Spirit to the people of his church and for the common good of all people.

These church members may all have different competencies, as we would say today, but none of them is more important than the other — all these gifts have been granted and implanted by the Spirit of God and Him alone. It is an almost poetical piece, wrapped into the verbal cloth of an assurance:

“It is the same God who produces all the results”

  • to work for the common good, to each and everybody
  • the message of wisdom and speaking with knowledge (e.g. by teachers)
  • the power of faith (missionaries)
  • the touch of healing (doctors and nurses)
  • powers of miracles (faith healers)
  • prophecy (people with visions and foresight, prophets)
  • distinguishing between spirits (theologians)
  • command of languages and their interpretation (translators)

And just to not forget, Paul warns us again:

All the achievements are not of your own making, but

“one and the same Spirit produces all these results
and He gives what he wants to each person.”

 

The last line is almost amusing — and if I was a student a pretty good excuse:
I can try as I might, but without the Spirit of God granting me achievements for whatever I am striving for, there is little merit. It made me prepare this sermon.

 

4.

Finally, our text in the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, is placed between two other powerful sections. The previous chapter outlines the Lord’s Supper to which we are all invited. In following this invitation, we do this “in remembrance of Him”, the life and deeds of Jesus Christ.

The second half of Chapter 12 outlines in more detail the various roles in the Pauline church, all in the One Body of Christ. And Paul again reminds us that despite all our differences, in Christ WE ARE ONE BODY, regardless of our upbringing or cultural background (1 Cor 12:15-16 ISV):

(15) If the foot says, “Since I’m not a hand, I’m not part of the body,”
that does not make it any less a part of the body, does it?

(16) And if the ear says, “Since I’m not an eye, I’m not part of the body,”
that does not make it any less a part of the body, does it?

 

I may be wrong, but perhaps this is the secret of your little congregation here in Glengowrie. You seem to live what Paul has asked us to do, and you may have accepted that as One Body in Christ your gifts have been given to you by the Spirit of God.

As Paul has summarised this chapter of his letter (1 Cor 12:24-27 ISV):

(24) God has put the body together
and has given special honour to the parts that lack it,
(25) so that there might be no disharmony in the body,
but that its parts should have the same concern for each other.

(26) If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.
If one part is praised, every part rejoices with it.

(27) Now you are the Messiah’s body and individual parts of it.

Amen.

[1] David Padfield , Corinth, Greece In The New Testament < http://www.padfield.com/2005/corinth.html >

[2] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyn/sunday2cen.html (exegesis 12:3b): “by [the Spirit]” – in. Probably instrumental as NIV

[3] Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, [1831], at sacred-texts.com, on 1 Cor 12:3 <http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/kjv/co1012.htm#003>

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