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Out of the Zoo, into the Wild
January 14, 2001
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to first Corinthians chapter 12 and follow along as I read verses 1-11. Hear what the spirit is saying to the churches.
1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.
2 Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.
3 Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.
4 Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
5 And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
6 And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.
7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.
8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
9 To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
11 But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
In the classic children's tale: A city mouse decides to leave her home at the zoo and visit her untamed country cousin. But this mouse out of her house is a mouse out of place. She's long since lost her instincts to feel comfortable in the wilderness. She is safest in her home at the city zoo.
The metro mouse had all the urban survival skills any proper mouse would need. She knew how to have exact change when she boarded the cross town bus. She knew which cathouses and alleyways to avoid. She knew how to cross busy streets, where to shop for imported fine fish, and which boutiques had the hippest mouse clothing. She knew how to look tough and walk strong on the sidewalk, and she knew not to talk to strangers.
Off she went, her clothing neatly packed in designer luggage, to her wild country cousin's home. It was a wooded and green place permeated with buzzy noises, whistling winds and the odd unsettling racket of hidden animals. There were hungry mosquitoes, darting dragonflies, peering hawks and silent hunting owls. At twilight, it got very, very dark - unlike the city mouse's illuminated metropolis - which of course made the scary sounds even scarier.
Worst of all was the food. It was terrible and she had to gather it herself, as if she knew anything about gathering wild food - grass grains, flower seeds and pokeweed berries for breakfast. Nasty stuff! And of course there were plenty of predators breathing down her neck as well. The city mouse could not wait to go home for fear she might be invited to dinner ... as the meal.
No surprise here. Most mice, and plenty of people, feel more comfortable and safer in familiar surroundings. No one likes to be in a situation for which he is unprepared ... especially if he might end up as someone else's dinner.
It's not unlike how we feel sometimes when we leave the safety and sanctity of our worship place and return to the workplace: we often don't quite know how to be a witness, how to use our spiritual instincts in an environment that is sometimes hostile to our faith.
It's a principle biologists are beginning to appreciate. For some time now, natural scientists have been forcing animals to act out the story of the city mouse and the country mouse - in an effort to save endangered species. Researchers are taking captivity-raised endangered animals, releasing them into their native habitat and hoping for successful survival in the wild.
With few exceptions, the project is not going well. "Zoos are becoming latter-day Noah's arks for endangered species," writes one scholar. "But captive breeding has been problematic. Animals born in captivity and then released into nature often have trouble finding food, fleeing predators and selecting mates."
Even carefully screened exposure to people can make animals tame - a condition you don't want a WILD animal to have. When feeding captive condors, workers have worn condor-shaped hand puppets in order to avoid habituating the birds to human contact - but the tactic hasn't worked very well. Unlike wild condors, puppet-raised condors are unafraid of people. They beg food from campers and have even traipsed nonchalantly into suburban houses. What is a WILD animal when it can no longer feel at home in the WILD?
Many animals need to learn complex behaviors if they are to forage successfully and avoid ending up as something else's dinner. Without exposure to older, more experienced members of their own species, young captive-bred animals are at a major disadvantage. They are like children raised without culture or tradition. They don't know how to be wild in the wild.
When a group of animals is released into the wild, as many as 80 percent may be eaten by other animals. In some particularly depressing cases, all the animals have been destroyed.
You can try to teach survival skills to captive-bred animals, but you aren't going to have much success. For one thing, animals don't learn as well or as quickly from people as they do from members of their own species. It takes a condor to teach a condor.
The question is: How do you give endangered animals the skills they need to survive in the wild?
This is not much different from the question Christians ask when they step out of the church door and into the world: How are we going to survive out there? That is to say, how are we going to survive spiritually? Our text today has the answer
In ICR12:1-11, the Apostle Paul is dealing with a series of specific questions the Corinthian church has posed to him.
We do not know what circumstances led the Corinthians to ask Paul about the spiritual pedigree of those who curse Jesus' name. It may be that this was a Jewish synagogue in Corinth that was so anti-Christian that they had pronounced curses upon Jesus in their service. Or perhaps this was some other group that was violently anti-Christian. In any case, the apostle Paul insists that those who say, "Let Jesus be cursed" are not of the Spirit. Jesus is the foundation of the church. The Spirit does not undermine the foundations of the church. Those who have genuinely become a bonded part of the Spirit-bred, Spirit-led community of faith announce reverently "Jesus is Lord."
Verses 4-6 Paul articulates the existence of a variety of spiritual gifts, all of which are derived from the same Spirit. These gifts all come from the same Spirit; these various services or ministries come from the same Lord - that is, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Among the many confused and wrong-headed notions about the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts that the Corinthians seemed to hold was the belief that the gift of the Spirit is given to individuals for individual use and gain. Against that selfish misappropriation of the Spirit, Paul preaches in verse 7 that all the gifts of the Spirit are given for the good of the whole community. Whatever form the Spirit takes within an individual, it must be for the "common good" if it is of the Spirit. An innate connection exists between charismata and diakonia - spirit and service. Spirit and service are equal and parallel means of expressing God's love and power to the community of faith.
[Have a mirror] If you take up a mirror and look into it, What do you see? Obviously you see yourself. You see someone unique, with qualities and abilities that no one else in this world has. God has made each of us with a variety of unique gifts. Do you think that God gives us these special qualities just for us to enjoy? Most people do. We even hear people talking about how they are self-created, or they are "their own man." But there is not one in this world that is self-created. We were all created by God, and put in special circumstances by God, so that , as v7 says, we can share our gifts with others?" God made each one of us special and different so that we could work together. We all can not be great at everything, but if we work together, we can do great things. We xns sometimes moan about how bad the word is, and I guess I am also guilty of that, but what the scripture is saying that if we are actually going to do something instead of just moaning and groaning about the problems, we must all come together with all our differences to work for a common cause.
The corinthian church also had another misconception. They seemed to think that those with spiritual gifts formed a spiritual upper class. Not so says, the apostle. Paul democratizes the gifts of the Spirit in verse 7, claiming that to each and every believer a specific manifestation of the Spirit is given. To be a Christian is to be Spirit-filled. While that Spirit will necessarily take on distinct or unique shape within each individual, it is nonetheless present within all.
In verses 8-10, Paul spells out some of the diverse expressions the Spirit can take in the lives of different believers. The first two manifestations of the Spirit Paul mentions in this list are hardly the dramatic favorites of the Corinthian church. The "utterance of knowledge" he refers to here means knowledge or insight into the meaning and message of the Cross. The "wise speech" or "utterance of wisdom" is the related ability to communicate that message and insight. Instead of some exciting and novel gift, Paul has essentially described the community-building work of teaching and preaching as the first and hence most important gifts of the spirit..
We should specify that the kind of "faith" Paul refers to in verse 9 is a special faith - a faith that enables the gifted believer to do extraordinary things. In 1 Corinthians 13:2 Paul metaphorically speaks of a faith so all-consuming that it can "move mountains." All Christians are required to have faith - that is, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ - but to some there can be a spiritually-infused double portion of faith, a turbocharged faith.
These and all the other gifts Paul itemizes are carefully described as being from the "same Spirit" or the "one Spirit." The gifts themselves were well-known. The gifts of healing and miracles were commonly accepted among the Corinthians, but Paul makes it clear that the power to enact these events is derived from the selfsame Spirit that guides all Christians. The gift of "prophecy" Paul mentions should be understood as similar to the work of the Old Testament prophets who were spokespersons for the messages of God. The discernment of spirits and the two types of gifts of "tongues" - speaking and interpreting - should also be held up against Paul's previously established criterion - that all these gifts are given for the benefit of the community of faith - not just for some individual grandstanding. Again, the gifts are for the church, not for the individual. The abilities to perceive the good and bad spirits in their midst, to communicate the gospel to others outside the Corinthian community, and to understand the questions and insights of these others are all crucial gifts to the successful mission of the growing Christian community.
So the Apostle Pauls answer to the question of spiritual survival when we go from the zoo into the wild is that we must exercise our gifts. But we do not. Unfortunately, when xns go from the church into the world, we tend to act just like other people. We do not take Christ with us when we leave the church. Perhaps you saw the statistics that indicate that the divorce rate is higher among church going people than among non-church going people. Perhaps you have seen the studies that say that xns out in the world act no differently than non-xns. Out there xns tend to be mockingbirds.
You have seen and heard mockingbirds. They are dark, long-tailed birds, who will imitate car alarms and cell phones, squealing brakes and the constant tat-tat-tat of air hammers spitting nails into soft lumber. They throw our urban and suburban noises back at us with subtle mockery and faultless timing. Like a gang of pirate deejays, they make their art out of remixing whatever they hear. Unfortunately this is the way many xns are when we get into the wild. Whatever the world is saying, we say. However the world says we should dress, we dress, and whatever the world says we should do, we do. But this is not the kind of life style that ICR12 is advocating for xns.. xns are not challenged simply to survive as the world, but to thrive, with a variety of God-given spiritual gifts.
Now you might think that it is not a good metaphor to compare the church to the zoo. I assure you that the apostle Paul would think that it is an excellent metaphor, particularly when applied to the Corinthian church. Not only that, but it must have seemed like the worst of the animals had become the zookeepers in the Corinthian church. The church at Corinth had great potential. But Paul was well aware that unless the people were properly taught to use their potential they would end in unmitigated disaster. Perhaps this is what Martin Luther King meant when he said: "Modern man is presently having a rendezvous with chaos, not merely because of human badness, but also because of human stupidity."
That's the downside. The upside is that the church qua zoo is a sanctuary, a safe place to live, learn and grow in God and the Spirit. We have teachers who can instruct us. It is here that condors can teach condors.
Indeed, most great agents of change, as for example Martin Luther King, sat literally or figuratively at the feet of others from whom they learned. Gandhi, although a Hindu, got his inspiration from the teachings of Jesus. Martin Luther King, in turn, regarded Gandhi as his spiritual leader. Jesus himself mentored the disciples, who mentored or discipled others who discipled others. And so on. That is the way xnty works.
Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, gives an example. Every week, a group of men meet to repair cars. Members of the church donate vehicles to the church, and these men of the "Car Ministry" repair them and give them to the needy, usually single mothers.
The ministry began when a young man in the congregation saw a need and realized he had the gifts and the passion to meet the need. He brought together other Christian mechanics and together they got to work for what the apostle Paul would call "the common good."
Hybels says that "These men have found not only fulfillment that comes from serving in their area of giftedness, but they have also forged strong relationships with the other men who serve alongside them ... . They're finding that when you pour yourself out into serving others, you always seem to walk away filled up."
We sharpen our spiritual skills in the company of those who have been there, done that. No wonder that Paul stresses the communal nature of the gifts of the Spirit. They are given of one Spirit, one Lord, one God (vv. 4-6). They are to be used for "the common good" (v. 7). And the body, or community, that receives these various gifts is one (v. 12).
Martin Luther King once said that "Evil is not driven out, but crowded out ... through the expulsive power of something good." That's what spiritual gifts are all about. Driving out evil by doing good. King also said, however, that "history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."
Now this is kind of hard for me to say, because I am not a radical and not an activist. I have not said, for example that we ought to blow up abortion clinics or shoot doctors who perform abortions. I have not said that we should climb into the church van and go picket the state house for a cause or a principle. But it is time that the church made some noise, not only in church, but out there in the wild. And the message of the lesson today is that if we work together, we have the gifts to make an impact. Yes, the devil is out there and the devil is strong, but we have the instincts to thrive and survive, and to tame the cultural wilderness for Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hybels, Bill. "Men at Work." Men of
Integrity, May/June 2000,
Mills, Cynthia. "Breeding Discontent."
The Sciences, May-June 2000, 12-15.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 01/16/01