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.
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.
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.
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.