Of Super Powers and Spiritual Gifts

The earliest liturgy of my life occurred not on Sundays but on Saturday mornings.  My older brother, Robert, would rouse me from bed.  Wearing footy pajamas and shaking the sleep from our heads, we would trundle monk-like from our shared bedroom into the den.  With kids’ rocking chairs shaped like stuffed teddy bears as our pews and the boxy, pixilated color television serving as both pulpit and altar, we’d turn on the T.V. at 6:45 a.m. to nothing but staticky snow on the screen.  At 6:50 a.m., the snow was preempted by a ten-minute devotional program entitled “The Little Breadcast,” hosted by the local Church of Christ.  Enduring ten minutes of hellfire and brimstone was worth it, because as soon as the preacher on “The Little Breadcast” said “Amen” a burst of sound and color took over the screen.  Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and the Hall of Justice appeared.  Saturday morning cartoons had begun with the Super Friends, and both Robert and I were as mesmerized as two new converts to the faith.

I loved all the Super Friends, but my favorites were the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna.  I suspect I liked them because they were kids and they had super powers.  (I wanted super powers back then, too.)  But the powers allocated to Zan and Jayna were hardly equitable.  Jayna could take the form of any animal.  She could become a soaring eagle or a fearsome grizzly bear.  She could be big or small, sleek or powerful, depending upon the needs of the situation.  Jayna’s brother Zan, on the other hand, had only the power to become water in its liquid, solid, or gaseous form.  Once he became a puddle so as to make a super villain slip while trying to escape.  Once he became mist in order to disguise the movements of the Super Friends.  But that’s pretty weak compared to a grizzly bear.  The most demeaning example I recall is the episode when Zan transformed himself into a bucket of ice cubes.  A bucket of ice cubes? Why would a super hero need to do that?  When super powers were being parceled out, Jayna clearly got the better deal.

zan bucket of ice

Zan’s super powers left a lot to be desired.

In Corinth, the young Christians are bickering.  Unlike the Wonder Twins, they aren’t young in chronological age, but they are surely young in faith, barely babes, and their approach to the Christian life is juvenile to say the least.  In the fervor of their conversion to faith, God has bestowed upon the Corinthians spiritual gifts.  These are remarkable, according to St. Paul’s commentary today.  Some Christians in Corinth are performing miracles; others can heal injury and illness; yet others hear the voice of God and prophesy.  There are also other spiritual gifts, gifts less apparent and flashy, the spiritual gift version of being able to turn into a puddle of water, perhaps.  Regardless of the gift, like adolescent drivers behind the wheel for the first time, the Corinthians don’t yet have the experience or temperament to appreciate the powers at their command.  And so they, like children, begin to bicker over whose spiritual gift is the greatest.  They judge and weigh these gifts from God in the same manner they judge and weigh things in the other venues of their lives: What gives them the most attention, acclaim, status, and prestige.  It is to respond to this jockeying that St. Paul writes his letter.

When I was a little kid, I really did wish for a super power.  I used to daydream about whether I might wake up one day and be able to fly, or become invisible, or shoot heat rays from my eyes.  When I would play in the woods, I secretly hoped I might come across a power ring abandoned by a space alien or a magic bow and arrow.  (A good therapist would likely have a field day analyzing me, since I did, in fact, grow up to wear a costume and each week—Shazam!-like—incant the presence of God into bread and wine.)

As adults, we really do wish for, I think, either consciously or subconsciously, a spiritual gift, a power, something that makes palpable to us and to others evidence of our connection to God, and something that allows us to contribute in a meaningful way.  Like some of the Christians in Corinth, we look around us and see saints and heroes, people whose connection to God is apparent, who seem to have a clear purpose and the gifts to pursue it.  We want that.  We need that.  We want to be able to be the soaring eagle, or the fierce grizzly, or whatever God’s good but hurting world needs.  But for many of us, if we have a spiritual gift at all, by comparison we feel like we are, at best, a bucket of ice cubes or a puddle of water.


We want a spiritual super power that makes evident our connection to God.

And the lectionary doesn’t help today, frankly.  Juxtaposing the wedding at Cana in John’s Gospel with this passage from 1 Corinthians sets up Jesus turning water into wine as the gold standard of spiritual gifts.  That’s a surefire way to make the rest of us feel inferior.

Beginning today, and continuing on for the next two Sundays, St. Paul has something to say about all of this.  Paul says that spiritual gifts all come from, just the name suggests, the Spirit of God.  In fact, they are nothing but the Spirit of God, finding its way to the surface of our lives and into outward expression.  And, there is nothing that a person of faith does in the world that is not, rightly understood, such a potential outward expression.  Consider that: spiritual gifts are not like super powers, it turns out.  I don’t have to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  You don’t have to be faster than a speeding bullet.  We don’t have to prove that we are Samson or St. Peter.  We must simply do faithfully what we already do in the world.  We must simply live our lives as expressions of God’s Spirit.  The implications of this are seismic.  How might the doctor practice medicine differently, if she understood her healing craft to be the very Spirit of God finding expression in the world?  How might the businessman strike his deals, or the policeman enforce the law, or the teacher engage her students, or the preacher deliver his sermons, you name it—if we imagined all of these things as spiritual gifts, as expressions of God’s Spirit in the world?  Our lives would seem less mundane, because they would cease to be mundane.  Even our seemingly small interactions would take on weight.  We’d recognize that every encounter is a potential communication of the Spirit, a potential occasion of grace, and we’d take far less for granted.

Beyond today’s reading, Paul adds that our spiritual gifts are never exercised in isolation.  In that favorite cartoon of my childhood, the Wonder Twins could only exercise their power when they first came together.  The same is true of us.  It is when we engage one another in fellowship, and study, and faithful conversation that we first come to recognize the pursuits, skills, and gifts in our lives as spiritual, that we begin to see them all—no matter how grandiose or subtle and seemingly small—as the expressions by which God’s Spirit moves into and through the world.  Each of our contributions matters.  Each of our gifts is essential.

wonder twins

The Wonder Twins couldn’t exercise their powers in isolation.

St. Paul will end his soliloquy on spiritual gifts by asking, “How will we know when one’s life is an expression of God’s Spirit?”  Paul’s culmination is one of the best-known passages in all of scripture, but most of us likely have never considered it in this, its intended context.  Paul says a few verses beyond today’s reading that the barometer of the Spirit, the way we know whether the doctor, the teacher, the lawyer, the businessman, the prophet, or the priest is exercising life as spiritual gift is whether his actions are borne by love.  You see, it is here (and not as a wedding homily) that Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of…angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

You know the rest, about love’s patience, joy, and endurance.  At the end of the day—at the end of a life—this is the only criterion by which the exercise of our gifts is judged.  Did we speak and act in love?  If we can answer yes, then our lives have been expressions of God’s Spirit, a gift to us made a gift to the world.  It is a gift we have, everyone, been given and a gift we can surely give.

The Fourth Magi

My junior high school vice-principal, Harry Branch, was the world’s biggest Beatles fan. For the final day of my ninth-grade year, Mr. Branch planned a day-long lip sync concert of 1960s music.  Any student could perform, so long as the music was from the 1960s.  But the concert would end with a full set by the Beatles.  Mr. Branch hand-picked the Fab Four, and I was Paul.  He put us through a rigorous training regimen that included afternoon rehearsals in Chris McCurley’s backyard.  (Chris was John Lennon.)  We let our hair grow out as mop-tops.  We had to purchase black turtlenecks and slacks.  And I had to learn how to fake playing the bass guitar left-handed.  (That wasn’t too hard to do, since I couldn’t play it right-handed either.)

We lip synced “Help!,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Twist and Shout,” and more.  The day of the concert, the Paragould Police Department offered us a real-live escort to the front of the Paragould Junior High School (which tells you how low the crime rate was in Paragould; apparently the police had nothing better to do that day).  Screaming fans who’d been coached by Mr. Branch swarmed us as we ran to the auditorium stage.  We were the Fab Four.  It was great.


The Fab Four

But in real life, was it Fab Four?  Might there have been a fifth Beatle?  Ah, and thus we enter the perennial debate.  If there was a fifth Beatle, who was it?  There are numerous candidates.  Let’s focus on three.  First, there is Pete Best.  Best was, of course, the Beatles’ original drummer.  Best was part of the band during their sojourns to Hamburg, Germany in 1960 and 1961, when the band’s sound coalesced.  But after signing their first record deal with EMI in London, Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr.  The reasons differ.  Some reported that Pete Best was unable or unwilling to maintain the rhythm.  Others talked about his sudden mood swings and his desire to be in the spotlight to the detriment of the John, Paul, and George.  Some fans even took to calling the band “Pete Best & the Beatles.”[i]  Either way, Pete Best wanted to go and have his own way.  In a band called the Beatles, he wouldn’t keep the beat, either literally or metaphorically, and that’s no good for a drummer.

Another candidate for the fifth Beatle is Billy Preston.  Preston joined the band on keyboards for the “Get Back” sessions, including the Beatles’ final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple Records building on January 30, 1969.  This was a period in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo were barely on speaking terms with one another, and virtually every week someone threatened to quit the band.  By all accounts, Billy Preston’s sudden presence leavened the others.  He brought peace and a sense of joy in their work.  But just as soon as he arrived, he was gone.  His impact was transient, and two years later the Beatles were no more.

A third candidate for the fifth Beatle is producer George Martin.  Martin produced the overwhelming majority of the Beatles’ songs.  He is often credited with honing their music into a coherent sound.  He helped the Beatles mature into artists.  George Martin was himself an accomplished musician, and he plays on numerous Beatles songs, most famously providing the harpsicord interlude on the song “In My Life.”  Perhaps most importantly, Martin was constant.  He was there almost from the beginning until after the end.  Long after the Beatles broke up, George Martin continued to shepherd their legacy with a sense of duty and a fair measure of grace.  No matter the histrionics or disfunction of the band (and there was plenty of both), George Martin was faithful.  After Martin died in 2016, Paul McCartney said, “If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle, it was George.  From the day that he gave the Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”[ii]  I don’t know about you, but I’ll call whatever McCartney says gospel!

fifth beatle candidates

Pete Best, Billy Preston, and George Martin

Speaking of Gospel, in Matthew today the three Wise Men have traveled from the east guided by a star to pay homage to the baby Jesus.  But wait…something is wrong with that statement.  What is it?  Nowhere in Matthew’s account does it state that there are three Magi.  Have you ever noticed that?  There are three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but the number of Wise Men is left undefined.  What if there were another?  What if there were a fourth Magi?

What qualities would be required to be credited with such a role?  What does it look like to pay homage to Jesus, to leave all behind to follow him, to lay one’s gifts—one’s life—at his feet?  Maybe those fifth Beatle candidates can give us hint about the fourth Magi.

Is it the drummer who won’t keep the beat; who refuses to serve in the background as the foundation that carries the rest; who seeks to put himself always in the spotlight, whether for adulation or mere attention?  The work of the Gospel cannot crescendo into music that can move the world when the followers of Jesus will not follow.  When a guitar string breaks or a voice cracks, the Wise Man knows that keeping the steady beat is the most important gift of all.  It buoys all others and keeps the music moving when it would otherwise falter.  The same is true of discipleship in the world.

Is, then, the fourth Magi like Billy Preston, the one who brings peace and an injection of joy, who soothes and inspires, but who shows up late and leaves early and soon?  It may seem so in the short term, but often such a figure ends up wounding where at first it looks like healing, and distresses where at first he appears to encourage.  It can be intoxicating to join a cause, or an effort, or a faith and share one’s gifts.  But when enthusiasm just as quickly wanes and the disciple fades away, people feel abandoned.  The Gospel is left bereft and there is no one to share grace in a world that desperately needs it.  The gifts that one left at the feet of Jesus remain unused in the stable stall, to be swept away with yesterday’s hay.

What about the third option, the George Martin option?  George Martin’s gifts were abundant.  He may have been a better musician than any of the Fab Four.  He shared those gifts in whatever way was needed, at whatever time circumstances required.  He did not need to be center stage, and he patiently received the sometimes swirling turmoil around him and melded it into something enduring, moving, and beautiful.  He arrived early and stayed until well after all others had gone.  He was committed; he was tireless; he was faithful.  We might even say he was wise.


I would love to have been the fifth Beatle.  (I’ve been singing Beatles songs in the shower since ninth grade, after all.)  But that’s not happening.  It can happen, though, that you or I become the fourth Magi.  It requires not virtuosity or unnatural enthusiasm, but only a willingness to seek out Jesus, to offer to God our gifts whatever they may be, to place the Gospel of love in the foreground and provide a steady and supporting beat for God’s work in this world.  Being the fourth Magi entails dedication to that work from now until the very end, knowing that it won’t always be easy or harmonious when we have personalities, and agendas, and the feelings of others with which to contend.  It means being faithful to the star wherever it may lead.  These things make us wise.  They count us among the Magi.  And they contribute to the music of grace that will change the world.


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vbBXFnLAXEo#t=684

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Beatle#cite_note-16