About three years ago, I found myself sitting at my mom’s kitchen table writing a reflection on John 2 and the wedding at Cana. It was an in-between time. Having just moved to the United States with my wife and two small kids, we were living in my mom’s extra rooms until we found our own place. It was truly the generosity and support of several communities that got us through that time. My folks, my in-laws, my wife’s childhood pastor and his wife all came together to help us get established. So this year I want to write on 1 Corinthians 12 and what it means to work together for the common good.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds an apparently profoundly gifted set of Christians that they still need to work together. It seems as if people who had different ministry foci and gifts—and were hoping for different results—forgot that they were all on the same team (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). Just as my family relied on not just one set of folks but was blessed by the different contributions of several generous relatives and friends, the Corinthian congregations had rich and diverse sources of blessings.
It won’t be surprising to anyone who has spent much time in a local congregation that only one type of gifting is insufficient for communal thriving. We need both knowledge of the context of the congregation’s past and present, but also wisdom for how to move forward with our neighbors (12:8). We need faithful elders to show us the way through difficult periods, and we also need folks to pray for the healing of friends and neighbors (12:9). We need people to perform works of power, and still others to distinguish between spirits of selfishness and self-aggrandizement on the one hand, and spirits of humble service and self-giving on the other hand (12:10). It’s the same Spirit who gifts all the congregations and assemblies of Jesus’ people with the community and gifts that are essential for ministry in every place we find ourselves.
We need all the gifts of all of God’s people to work together to truly be the church—in the fullest and best sense.
The notion that the Spirit’s gifts are given to the community for the community is central, not just to the writing in Corinthians but to the entire witness of Scripture. Hundreds of years earlier, the author of Isaiah knew of the importance of individual contribution toward communal action. For the sake of Zion and Jerusalem, the writer wouldn’t keep silent. The author’s words were needed, specifically because the holy community wasn’t living up to its potential.
The writer had the gift of leadership through words, which was needed to spur the community on to holy living. The prophet longed for the beloved community’s righteousness to shine forth brightly, and for its salvation to shine like a burning torch (Isaiah 62:1). With the holy people working together, their righteousness would become known and attractive to others outside of their community.
It’s important to note that it is not God’s righteousness or salvation in question here, but that of the community. Leaders called all the people to work together to shine forth their communal righteousness.
Like the other nations and rulers, God will also notice the righteousness of the holy community, living and working together to fulfill their purpose. God will bestow one of my favorite biblical names on the community: Hephzibah (“my delight is in her”—Isaiah 62:4). Make no mistake, God inspired the writer, who inspired the people, whose working together for righteousness would inspire the surrounding peoples. Of this, God takes notice. God does the work first, as always, and then looks for a harvest of righteousness as people respond, together, to God’s leading.
God’s people are blessed to be a blessing, especially when we work together. We need all the gifts of all of God’s people to work together to truly be the church—in the fullest and best sense. How might God be calling your congregation, synod and the ELCA to share our gifts to be a blessing to our larger communities?