Sunday, January 16, 2022

Sermon: “The Gifts of Miracle Workers”, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11/John 2:1-11 (January 16, 2022)


As some of you know, I collect nativity scenes. I used to pull them out at Thanksgiving and display them on my mantle at home through December, but that spot quickly proved insufficient for containing my growing collection (plus it seemed a waste to only enjoy them for one month out of the year). So, I brought them into my office and now they’re up year-round. While the collection is still relatively new, I’ve already got an impressive assortment: snow globes and ornaments and music boxes, some made out of wood or porcelain and others metal or plastic, some with traditional depictions of the holy family and others with beloved cartoon characters standing in for Mary and Joseph. 

My dad is probably the single largest contributor to my collection. For several years now, every Christmas package I’ve received from him has included some new iteration of this familiar scene. At first, he seemed to be striving for novelty: thanks to him, I’m the proud owner of a porcelain creche made to look like origami, a necklace with a manger silhouette, and a minimalist nativity, including simple blocks of wood with names stamped on them to represent each figure in the Christmas story.

But more recently, I’ve noticed a new pattern in this (by now) well-established tradition. A few years back, I received a nativity scene meant to be used as an Advent calendar: twenty-four tiny drawers containing twenty-four tiny figures to be added to the creche, one at a time, until Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, Dad explained, “I imagined you bringing it to your office and opening the drawers each day with the kids in your congregation.” Another time, I was gifted a manger full of Fisher-Price’s “Little People” (which is currently residing up at the front of the sanctuary). That year, Dad said, “I thought it would be really good for a children’s message or something.” Then this year, he sent a nativity populated by Charles Shultz’s Peanuts characters. There was no message accompanying this one, but I mean, come on…that’s the kind of gift just ASKING to be played with and shared!

All gifts are meant to delight the recipient. The giver hopes that their offering will bring joy both in the moment and every time it’s used. But some gifts are meant for more than personal pleasure. In some cases, the full enjoyment of a gift depends on the recipient sharing it with others. The giver certainly hopes that their present will be appreciated in and of itself, but the REAL joy comes with using the gift with or on behalf of others.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians raises many issues for the community to work on, but one of his largest concerns is with the church’s attitude towards spiritual gifts. They assume that their spiritual gifts were given solely for their own personal benefit, and a hierarchy is beginning to develop in the community based on whose gifts are “better”. The people gravely misunderstand the purpose of these gifts, and in doing so, are not only misusing them, but are committing idolatry, treating the “superior” gifts as “false gods that can’t even speak”.

Paul has no tolerance for this nonsense. The idea that God gives spiritual gifts to elevate some of us above others is ludicrous to him. God’s gifts are not the kind meant to bring joy just to the recipient. When Paul says, “a demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good,” he means that God gives us each spiritual gifts for the express purpose of sharing them with others. If we withhold these gifts from the community, we’re not honoring the Giver’s intention.

Paul didn’t come up with this stuff off the top of his head; this teaching comes directly from Jesus. Consider the wedding at Cana: in this very first act of his public ministry, Jesus offers a gift meant to be shared with others. Theologian Shannon Craigo-Snell explains, “Jesus clearly intends that the hosts to whom he has given wine will, in turn, give wine to the rest of the gathered community. How odd it would seem if the hosts shut the party down in order to save the fine wine for themselves! It would be stranger still, and profoundly ungrateful, if they were to take this gift as indication of their superiority over their neighbors.”[1] With this miracle, Jesus sets an important precedent: God’s gifts aren’t for separating people from one another, but for bringing us together.

But while this is a helpful illustration of how God intends us to use divine gifts, it doesn’t quite get to the core of Paul’s message. In contrast to human gifts, the gifts of the Spirit aren’t simply resources that we’re charged with disbursing equally to each person. They’re our unique talents and abilities, not gained through any personal effort, but given according to God’s grace. Unlike wine or clever nativity scenes, we can’t share these gifts by allowing others to use them; instead, Paul tells us, we share them by using them in service to one another.

Fortunately, though, the wedding at Cana has a sneaky second layer to it that helps us understand how this works. Pay close attention to what actually happens in this passage: Jesus makes no mysterious pronouncements, performs no enigmatic gestures; he doesn’t even touch the water himself. Instead, he directs the “diakonois” (the Greek word for “servant” from which we get the word “deacon”) to fill the jars with water and present their contents to the headwaiter. Yet, none of us would argue that the servants are the ones who turn the water into wine. Jesus is clearly the source of the miracle, but he accomplishes it through the actions of others. The servants aren’t the miracle-causers in this story, but by using the abilities that Jesus has given them in this moment, they become the miracle workers.

Jesus certainly could have turned the water into wine without any help, but he didn’t—he chose to work through the actions of others. In the same way, God could give us gifts meant only to amuse and delight us, but for whatever reason, God’s gifts are more often spiritual talents meant for us to use in the community. When we use them in this way, we become vehicles of God’s love—everyday miracle workers—which is a blessing and gift in and of itself. Shannon Craigo-Snell refers to this practice of using our spiritual gifts for the good of others as “Holy Regifting”[2]—and it’s through the “holy regifting” of our divinely given abilities that God has chosen to build the kin(g)dom of heaven here on earth.

In a moment, we will be lifting up those that God has called, through the voice this congregation, to the unique ministries of Ruling Elder and Deacon, celebrating their commitment to this “holy regifting.” We will name the gifts that God has given especially to them, and we will promise to pray for them, encourage them, respect their decisions, and follow their guidance to honor the divine source of these gifts. But even as we ordain them to ministry and install them in positions of leadership, we recognize that they aren’t tasked to carry this community alone.

The ordered ministries of deacons and ruling elders are only two of the many, many gifts that God gives us to share with one another. Paul reminds us that “A demonstration of the Spirit is given to EACH PERSON for the common good.” We are community FULL of miracle workers. As we vow to affirm and encourage the gifts in each of these new leaders, let us also use this occasion to recognize and celebrate our own unique gifts from God. Each one of them is a means through which Christ transforms the world.

You may think that the kin(g)dom of heaven would survive just fine without your gifts. But don’t second-guess the Lord: God doesn’t give gifts accidentally, and everything God does is for the good of all creation. Your gifts, whatever they may be, aren’t insignificant, or unusable, or unremarkable. On the contrary, they’re magnificent, because each one of them is a chance to share your joy in Christ with others. Each one of them is an opportunity to lay another brick in the foundation of God’s kin(g)dom. Each one is meant to be shared. Whether your gift is affirmed through ordination, through a miracle at a wedding, or simply through the indisputable knowledge that this is what God created you for, it is real, and it is needed. So don’t let it gather dust on a shelf somewhere. Bring it out and share it with the world as the Giver, your Creator, always intended. Give Christ the opportunity to work a miracle through YOU. Amen.


[1] Connections: A Lectionary commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 185.
[2] Ibid.

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