Grace and Charisma

Sermon on I Corinthians 1:1-9

@First Churches, January 19, 2014

I was too young to be aware of the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.  I try to imagine it.  I visited DC on Easter Sunday, April 9, 2009, the day of the 70th anniversary and re-enactment of the Easter open-air concert by Marion Anderson, the famous contralto African American opera singer.   Toscanini told her, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.”  Easter Sunday in 1939, Marion Anderson was refused permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to sing in Constitution Hall to a racially integrated audience.  Eleanor Roosevelt promptly resigned from the DAR, and she and Franklin invited Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial and an audience of 75,000 people, black and white, and a radio audience of millions.

Marion-AndersonJeanne and I accidently stumbled into this wonderful re-enactment in 2009 and while there my mind went back to August 1963 and the March on Washington-24 years after Marian Anderson, one year before I was born, and now 50 years ago last August.  And this is what I thought: I’m sure Dr. King would have been awe inspiring in person, the kind of preaching that removed our fears and gives courage.  And it also powerful to be in a vast crowd and swept up in the energy of the moment.

How is history made?  Is history the work of great persons; the innovators, thinkers, politicians, saints and generals; who are the rare great people who move history forward?  Or is history the product of the moment, time periods where there is a tipping point, evolutionary drive to survive, the plague, the weather,  dumb luck?


Many 19th century philosophers like Thomas Carlyle were enamored with heroes.  Carlyle said, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”  He wrote about people he believed shaped the world, Napoleon, Martin Luther, Muhammad, and Shakespeare.  He believed that if you just studied biography you would understand the world.  Max Weber, early sociologist agreed.  He penned the modern definition of charisma, as the quality of an individual that set them apart of ordinary people, a supernatural or exceptional quality that lead to a kind of leadership that changed the world.  If you were to read the early Encyclopedia Britannica it was like a compilation of biographies, with almost no reference to the lives of common people and social movements.

Tolstoy thought this was ridiculous.  This is partly why War and Peace was such a long book, to demonstrate that great people were just slaves of history, realizing the decrees of Providence.  One of my favorite quotes from Tolstoy is this: “Everyone wants to change the world, but few think of starting with themselves.”  We can witness a shift towards seeing history as having its own forces.  Darwin’s observed the environmental influences and the adaption of species over generations.   Social scientists like Marx looked at movements and socio-economic forces and the engine of history.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote the book “Tipping Point” to illustrate how there is a momentum, sometimes unnoticed, until there is just enough force to lead to a major change, like water at the moment it starts to boil.

There are great people, there are great moments, but that doesn’t explain everything.  Where does faith come into the picture, what of God and the spiritual realm?  How are we as a church to understand how things change and move?  I don’t want to be stuck waiting for a great person to come along or the right moment and timing. How do we fit into the picture?

The church in Corinth had their own version of this issue.  The Apostle Paul’s letter was written to deal with the faction and ego battles that had arisen.  Some were claiming to have special knowledge, visions, speaking in tongues, prophesies, some special gifts of the Spirit which gave them authority within the community.  And people were breaking into factions around these “special people” and arguing over who was the greatest. Some gathered around Apollos and others said stick with Paul, and Paul wondered if they had all forgotten Jesus.  In the salutation of his letter, our reading today, Paul subtly lays out his major themes, with a great deal of grace and diplomacy.  I am especially interested in verses 4-7:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Two phrases leap of the page to me.  “The grace of God has been given to you,” and “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”  It strikes me that we do not quite believe this in the contemporary church.  Often, we have an anxiety that the grace of God either is not strong enough to get us through.  Or worse, we are anxious that the grace of God is not for us because we are not worthy.  Alternatively, many people our angry with the church, when it seems that the church is not a place of grace but of judgment, a place of tradition rather than transformation.  It may be hard for us to believe with Paul, that we are not lacking for any spiritual gift, because it may seem that everywhere we look, we are lacking.  Lacking in attendance, lacking in dollars, lacking in innovation and enthusiasm.  What would it mean to believe Paul, grace is given to this dysfunctional and factional church-in Corinth-and we in Northampton are not lacking in any spiritual gift?


When I say “grace” and “spiritual gifts” what are we talking about anyway?   Grace often means forgiveness, but it has a broader meaning in both Greek and Paul’s usage.  In Greek, charis is what delights.  It is a state of joyous being, that may come from something beautiful, receiving a gift, or a kindness, as well as a sense of divine favor.  Something comes from outside of us and causes great delight within.  Paul speaks of charis in Christian terms as the divine favor that comes through the life, death on the cross and resurrection of Jesus, so that we may be at one with God.  Charis is forgiveness, yes, but it is all that delights us and flows from God-beauty, truth, wisdom, justice, healing-it is all charis, because we find favor with God that overcomes are limited awareness and capacity.


When I looked up the original Greek for spiritual gift, you won’t believe what I found.  The root word is “charisma.”  To be literal, “you have been given every spiritual charisma.”  Charis is what delights, charisma is that which is in us which is meant for the delight of others.


This is Paul’s view of how the world works.  Grace flows, and not just through a few “charismatic individuals” who are extraordinary beyond all measure, but the charisma is given in some measure to each person for the delight and building of the whole.  I think Paul would have liked Tolstoy more than Carlyle or Weber.  There was only one truly great person in his mind, Jesus the Christ, and though him we all find delight of God.

It is not merely great people, great moments or great movements that shape history.  There are Great Awakenings.  An awakening happens when we collectively wake up to spiritual reality and delight in God.  There is a sudden flow of grace.  We are, of course the church associated with the First Great American Awakening with Jonathan Edwards, and Diana Butler Bass would tell us that the Civil Rights movement was part of the Fourth Great Awakening, and we may now be at an inflection point of a Fifth Great Awakening.  (I hope I have said enough to get you interested in knowing more about her!)

Remember Paul’s blessing this week: You have been given the grace of God, that which delights the soul, you are enriched in every way and given every spiritual gift, every charisma.  Be open to its flow, and awake to the ways you are called to offer grace to others.