Gifts of the Spirit

(Epiphany 2, 1 Cor 12.1-11)

January 14, 2007


Paul said to his followers in Corinth, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; . . . To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  (1 Corinthians 12.4-5,7)


The seven families gathered on a Florida rooftop in freezing weather on a January morning, twenty one years ago this month.  After weeks of delays, their big day had finally arrived.  So they talked excitedly among themselves while they waited for history to unfold before their eyes.  Of course the young children were the most animated.  Asking for the umpteenth time if their mom or dad really was on that big rocket and exactly when was it going to take off? 

Finally the countdown began, and there was lift-off.  They all cheered and waved at that massive white beast as its rockets roared and it began to rise into the sky.  Little did they know at that moment, just how tragic the next few minutes would be.

Christa McAullife was the most well known of the seven astronauts that day.  She was chosen from more than 11,000 applicants to be the first so-called average American citizen to go into space.  Actually she was a school teacher, and I can tell you from living with one for many years, there is nothing average about school teachers.  McAullife taught high school science in New Hampshire – she shared her adventure with her students and told them how she was going on the “ultimate field trip.”

In fact, because of her presence on the Challenger mission, NASA had arranged a special satellite transmission into many classrooms that morning.  McAuliffe’s high school was all gathered in the school auditorium to watch the event and her own two children (nine year old Scott and six year old Caroline) were on the rooftop with their dad, Steve, shivering both from the cold and excitement as the watched the historic liftoff with their mom aboard.

One minute and thirteen seconds after lift-off, their world and the worlds of all those on that roof were changed forever.  There was a bright flash of light and then another.  The whole rocket was shrouded in smoke, and then pieces began falling out of the sky. 

The families were ushered inside to sit together while they worried and cried and waited for official news.  It did not take long.  The unspoken worst case – the scenario that they never talked about but knew could happen, had just happened to them.  A tragic accident - All on board had perished.


The families went home to grieve and mourn in relative quiet; but the media circus at NASA had just begun.  After 24 successful shuttle launches, the country and the media had all been lured into a false sense of security.  But this tragedy woke everyone up.  Fingers were pointed; politicians got involved; and the new media was everywhere.  The space shuttle program was suspended indefinitely as NASA began a long investigation to determine what happened. 

Many months later the families and the world got the answer – a $900 o-ring had failed on one of the solid fuel booster rockets.  A $900 o-ring brought down a multi-billion dollar project and caused incalculable pain and grief to seven families.  A $900 synthetic rubber band.


Scholars believe that Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth as a response to a letter that one or more church members wrote to him, asking him to settle certain disagreements that had occurred in the church. 

Does it surprise you to hear that the church even had disagreements within just a few years of being founded?  I guess that means that today’s church is just continuing up a long standing tradition, doesn’t it.?

Anyway, we do not have the letter (or letters) that Paul was answering, but from his responses in 1st Corinthians we can easily surmise what most of the issues must have been.

Paul addresses several specific discords in his letter that are different, but which generally have one common theme.  That is that some of the members are holding themselves above others for one reason or another.  Whether it was from being proud of their superior knowledge; or haughty about a higher social status; or boasting of special spiritual gifts; Certain factions were excluding others in the Corinthian church. 

And Paul’s letter calls them to task for that.

And particularly in Chapter 12, our reading this morning, Paul is scolding those who believe their personal spiritual gifts (specifically the gift of speaking in tongues) are superior to that those of others.

And so he lists all of the spiritual gifts as he understands them, and admonishes his readers that each of their particular spiritual gifts are only to be used to support the greater Body – the Church.  These gifts, Paul says, are the means through which the Holy Spirit works in the believers to sustain and support the church. 

Paul says that in the Body of Christ, each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 

In other words, we are all gifted by the Holy Spirit in some way.  We each have something to contribute to the church as a whole.  And it is only through utilizing our gifts for the common good that they are manifested at all. 

Paul says that our gifts are of no use to us except and when they are used in combination with the gifts of others, to promote the work of Christ in the world.

And he warns the Corinthians not to be lured into thinking that one gift is more special than another.  Just as something as small and inconsequential as an o-ring could sabotage the whole space shuttle program, so the church needs the gifts of all its members to be healthy and prosperous.

Community and unity are favorite topics of Paul.  He frequently reminds his followers of the necessity of being in a Christian community.  Because he firmly believes that it is only in community that we can really utilize our individual gifts and grow in the Spirit. 

That sounds like a fairly simple teaching but it is not.  Pride often, if not always, manages to get it the way.  It did 2,000 years ago, and it still does today.  The difficulty may be that we don’t get to choose who the other parts of the Body are.  And yet they are the ones on whom we must rely in order for us to experience spiritual growth ourselves.

I believe that a very important aspect of spiritual maturity is understanding that gifts of the Spirit are just that – gifts.  They are not something earned or deserved because of a higher level of faith; nor can they be purchased through greater giving.  They are a gift from God for the sole purpose of caring for God’s Church.


Another thing that I see our reading is that the there is also a singularity of gifts as Paul describes them in this chapter. 

I personally find that a little disappointing, but Paul is pretty clear that he believes that One each is the way spiritual gifts are distributed.


Sherry and I went to St. Christopher’s Friday night for an ordination and at the reception following the service, I saw a woman named Dorine, who had gone on the New Orleans mission trip with us last November. 

So of course, we had to reminisce about our trip and say once again what a great experience it was.  Dorine is a lovely British lady.  And she is 80 plus – and that is both in years of age and her weight in pounds.  In other words, she is very small of frame.  So on the surface, she is not particularly gifted for a mission trip of knocking down walls.  But she brought the gift of interpretation, or reflection.  Having recently lost her husband of many years, she understood all the better the loss of the people that were helping.  And her quiet observations helped the rest of us have a better appreciation of what we were doing there and why we were doing it.  There is no doubt that our mission effort was better because of Dorine’s part on our team


Each of us has a spiritual gift; although we are not always sure that we know exactly what it is.  Paul says,

1.     No gift is more important than another.

2.     Gifts are not for individual glory, to draw attention to ourselves; but they are to be used only for the building up of the Church – the Body of Christ.

3.     And the Church always suffers unless all contribute their gifts to work for the common good. 


The families of the seven astronauts who died on the Challenger stuck together after the accident.  Many of them would get together regularly at the home of June Scobee, whose husband Dick had been the flight commander.  At first they just cried and talked and talked and cried.  But as the months went on, they decided that they had to find a way to continue the mission that the Challenger Seven had begun.  The mission that would always be known as the teacher in space mission was just too important to die.

As the brother of astronaut Judy Resnik said, “We did not want to dwell on how the crew died, but what they had lived for.”1 

The result of their conviction to have something good come out of the Challenger tragedy was the founding of the Challenger Center, an organization that promotes space science for kids.  And twenty years later, there are now more than 50 Challenger Learning Centers around the U.S.; with flight simulators, control rooms, and space missions for middle school students to plan and carry out. 

And Christa McAullife’s dream to teach about space - from space - has been realized, . . . . as many thousands of school children have continued to learn about math and science and space in these hands-on centers.

Of course, the family members would all say that they still miss their loved ones; that not a day goes by that they don’t think about the tragedy to which they were eye-witnesses.  But they have risen above their personal pain and each utilized their gifts to bring good to many. 

They have put aside their own losses and devoted themselves to the common good.  Members from each of the seven families sit on the Board of the Challenger Center, and it continues to be one of the most popular and successful ways of teaching science that we have in this country.


That is what we do as the Body of Christ.  We put aside our personal issues and use our God given talent, whatever it is, to promote the common good.  Because we cannot be all that we can be in this place without participation by each and every one of you.

And no contribution is too small.  You may think that you have little to share; that your talents are inconsequential – but God wants you to share what you have no matter how small it may seem to you.

Because you may very well be the $900 rubber band that the rest of us need to stay in the air.




1, by Chuck Resnik