SJF • Epiphany 2c • Tobias Haller BSGLast year my niece sent me a computer disk with scanned images from my mother’s collection of photographs. I remembered some of them, having looked through the box of loose photos many times while growing up. I’m grateful that before my mother’s death I was able to sit with her and ask, “Who is this” or “Who is that” to get the many relatives sorted out — and marvel at the way in which family resemblances can allow you to see your sister’s face in a faded sepia photograph of your great-grandmother as a child.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.
One of the pictures I remembered clearly was one my father took one Christian morning, and it showed the children coming down the stairs in our bathrobes and p-j’s: me, my younger brother, and two of my sisters — one more sister still too young to walk downstairs on her own, and another not yet born. My brother, who was about eight at the time, looks so cute in the picture — he is so excited he can hardly contain himself. His eyes are wide and his fists clenched, as he stands there in his Doctor Denton’s pajamas with a grin like to split his head open.
Of course, what all of us kids in the picture are looking at is the Christmas Tree, and more importantly, the gifts under it. All those gifts! Even a family of modest means such as my own was always able to muster at least two or three gifts for each of us — and with six children and two parents, plus the gifts for Grandma and the crowd of aunts and uncles whose presents we would deliver through the course of the week to come — most of the real estate under the tree was pretty well covered with packages wrapped with ribbons and bows.
The parents knew where the gifts came from — they had bought them with my father’s hard earned income — and with all those mouths to feed my dad spent most of his working life at two or three jobs at a time. All those gifts meant some sacrifice by my parents so that we children could have a wonderful Christmas. I think, by the time this picture was taken, I was old enough to know where the gifts came from; but my younger sisters and brother still harbored a belief in the man in the red suit. And even though our home didn’t have a chimney (a fact about which we tried not to talk too much) — the younger children believed that all the gifts came from Santa Claus. In one sense, even I knew there was a certain miracle in all of this — as I was becoming old enough to realize how little money my father made as a school-teacher, and why he worked nights at other jobs — yet under the tree were all those gifts.
Saint Paul the Apostle wrote to the members of the church in Corinth about just such a matter. He was talking about spiritual gifts, not Christmas presents, but he was making a similar point: that these gifts are miraculous, spiritual, and wonderful, and that they come from God. Even the simple gift to declare Jesus is Lord, for no one, he says, could possibly declare that Jesus is the Lord under his or her own steam. This is not the kind of thing one could think up on his or her own — such a declaration is the sign of the presence of God, a declaration made under the influence of God — a gfit from God. And so too all those gifts possessed by the members of the church — as I said last week, gifts that come to us as part of our baptismal heritage — all those gifts distributed among all the members, different abilities for different situations, all come from the same Lord, the same Spirit, for the common good. Whether the wisdom to teach, or the knowledge to discern, a deep faith or the power to heal, the gift of miracles or prophecy, or to speak in the language of heaven or to interpret it — all those gifts come from one and the same Spirit, Saint Paul tells the Corinthians — and us.
The reason for this Pauline reminder was due to some of the Corinthians beginning to treat the gifts not so much as gifts from God but as personal possessions. They’d begun to quibble and get jealous about each other’s gifts, and to compare and rate them like children on the first day back to school after Christmas: “What did you get?” (I have to admit this was part of how I first learned of the limitations on my family’s budget — as I compared the Christmas gifts I had received with some of the more lavish ones of my classmates.) So too, some of the Corinthians, like the schoolchildren, had begun to suggest that the simpler gifts — what might even be called the cheaper gifts — were less important, or perhaps not even from God at all. I mean, what does it take to say “Jesus is Lord.” Just so many words, right?
But what Paul is saying to them — and us — is, No; even that simplest acclamation of faith can only come from God, for it proclaims God, and no one can speak of God without God providing the faith that powers the proclamation. There is one Lord, one God, one Spirit — and the Spirit provides all those gifts, in all their variety, from the simplest to the most extravagant. And what Paul is trying to get the Corinthians — and us — to do is to turn from their seeming maturity — for they think they’ve become like wise older children who know that the Christmas gifts don’t come from Santa at all. Paul wants them and us to be truly mature — with the maturity that allows an adult to believe like a child; for as our Lord himself said, no one can come to him except as a child.
In this sense, Paul wanted the Corinthians — and us — to become like children, to realize that the gifts we possess come — not from our own deserving, and not from Santa, after all, but from someone else — and here it is helpful to switch to Spanish for a moment: no Santa, pero Santo — el Espíritu Santo: the Holy Spirit — whose color, I might add, is also red; but who brings us gifts far better than those our parents gave us, or that we deserve.
It is God who provides us with all those gifts, poured out upon us through the Holy Spirit because God loves us so very much. Remember, my friends, even when we learned that the gifts we received on Christmas morning came from our parents, it was love working through them that enabled them to go without for weeks on end so that we children might have more on Christmas morning. The gifts of God required God to give — and he gave his only Son for the sake of the world because he loved us so much.
All those gifts — the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and understanding, and even the simplest gift to say, “Jesus is Lord” — all the whole pile of presents piled under the tree: not the Christmas tree, my friends, but the tree of sorrow, which is yet also the tree of joy, upon which the greatest gift of all was hung — all those gifts come from God and for the good of God’s people. It is not for us — as it was not for the Corinthians — to compare and rank our spiritual gifts like envious schoolchildren, but rather to put them to work together for the good of the church for which Christ died.
Let us then employ all those gifts, as God has given to each of us and the Spirit empowered all of us together, that we, as our Collect says, illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, so that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.+