Sunday, October 23, 2011
Trinity 18 Sermon Notes
“I give thanks to God always for you”.+
There are two lessons from today's Epistle I wish to draw out, one specifically religious, the other more generally about how to communicate. Let us explore the latter first.
This is a very positive opening to this letter. The Apostle expresses his thankfulness for the Corinthians richness in spiritual gifts: “enriched in him in all speech and knowledge … not lacking in any spiritual gift”.
Yet he goes on to reprove them for their lack of spiritual maturity (1 Cor. 3:1) and fruit, especially the spiritual fruit of love (3:3, cp. 12:27 – 13:13). Despite his happiness at their speech and knowledge, he goes on to say this: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.".
Why does he begin a long string of rebukes with this affirmation? It is not because he is a flatterer, as the rest of the letter makes abundantly clear. It is not because his reproof is half-hearted, as also soon becomes obvious in the reading. It is because his motivation is one of love. That means he will rebuke their vice and plead with them to reform for their sake, not just to “get something off his chest” or to show that he is right, they are wrong, he is good, they are bad. So, he wants them to really listen, to be persuaded, to see his heart. Thus it is that he begins with an honest acknowledgement of the grace given to them, of their strengths. This honesty and generosity has more chance of reaching his listeners hearts than unrelieved criticism and anger, however justified. He says, in 1 Corinthians 4: " I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructers in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel." In other words, he appeals to them as already united to him in the common grace of Christ, as he has at the beginning of the Epistle.
We should do the same, when it comes time for us to criticise others, including our children in the flesh or spirit. If you foolishly wish your criticism to go unheeded or to exacerbate the situation, then, by all means, criticise for your own sake. Let anger have full sway. “Unload”. Prove them wrong and let them feel their inferiority. Eschew any kind words, especially any initially that might “undermine” your tirade.
But if, as it happens, you actually care for the person and want your fair criticism of them to bear good fruit, imitate St Paul. Seek and acknowledge the grace and goodness in them. Discipline your approach. Aim to turn the heart, and not just batter the ears or mind. Yes, one could trivialise this as “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”. But the sugar here is not just a superfluous mask for the unpleasant taste of the medicine, it is part of the medicine.
Now for the other lesson. St Paul compares the richness in spiritual gifts of knowledge and speech among the Corinthians to the confirmation of the testimony to Christ among them: "in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you". If we move ahead to chapter 2, we can see more clearly what he is referring to. "And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (2:1-4). The confirmation of the testimony he refers to is the abundance of spiritual gifts and power that surrounded his ministry of the gospel to them at the beginning. The word translated “demonstration" in chapter 2 and the word translated “confirmed” in chapter 1 are indeed derived from different Greek words (from the noun apodeixeis and verb bebaioo, respectively). But they both can have the connotation of proving something.
Therefore, St Paul, much as he may stress later the priority of love, here also teaches the importance of the spiritual gifts for confirming, i.e., strengthening. At the end of today's passage, the word translated “sustain”, referring to God sustaining us “to the end”, is from the same root Greek verb. So, the gifts are part of how God strengthens and sustains our faith, and our whole journey on earth towards Him.
That means that we have a sacred responsibility to seek and to know and to use our spiritual gifts, whether involving words spoken or actions done, whether palpably supernatural or not-so-obviously miraculous. For they are one of the means God uses to bring us to our final destination. Through them we strengthen and sustain one another. +