The unifying power of sports is undeniable. If you are tempted to disagree, head to the video store and pick up a copy of the movie, Invictus, for you will see this powerful truth in action. The movie shines a spotlight on a significant time in the history of South Africa, after the awful practice of apartheid had ended and Nelson Mandela stepped in to lead the nation to reconciliation. His job certainly wasn’t a walk in the park: uniting a torn country by reconciling the white supremacists who had ruled South Africa for almost two hundred years with the blacks whom they had oppressed. Mandela, himself having suffered from apartheid, saw a chance to create this unity through South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks. However, this was certainly no easy task, as the Springboks had become a symbol of white oppression and were therefore hated by the blacks. However, where others saw impossibility, Mandela saw a golden opportunity. Instead of getting rid of the Springboks, as some had suggested, he set out to win the hearts of the black people to the Springboks. And he did. Both the blacks and whites in South Africa became passionately united to this team, and as a result became united to each other. At one point, Mandela’s aide called this idea about rugby uniting the country being a “political calculation.” But Mandela disagreed, saying, “It is a HUMAN calculation!” He understood human nature. He knew the challenges of unifying people, but he also knew the power of sports to be able to accomplish this seemingly impossible goal. I won’t give away the ending, because if you haven’t watched it, you must. But what I will say is that Mandela was right in his calculations, and the Springboks served powerfully to unite a deeply divided country.
What is it about sports that unites us? I have always been amazed by the instant camaraderie my husband can build with a total stranger when he wears his OSU paraphernalia (except, of course, if the stranger happens to be a Michigan fan). After a couple brief seconds, he and the fellow Buckeye are giving each other high fives, speaking a new language unto themselves, and seem to have become instant friends. This is all sparked by the fact that they are both wearing red hats with the same three letters and a picture of a nut. I continue to be amazed every time. But there is, indeed, something about sports that is a powerful force for unity. It is in our nature as human beings to form bonds with each other when we rally around one person, one team, one goal, one ideology. The most different people on the planet can instantaneously become one.
Paul, the apostle, understood this well and sets out to communicate this truth throughout his letter to the Corinthians. After all, he had to, because division seemed to plague the Corinthian church. They developed factions over who ministered to them, took their fellow brothers to court, formed cliques at church gatherings, criticized their leaders, and tried to separate themselves from their own spouses. They were masters with the sword of division. One of the places where they were wielding this sword was in the arena of ministry. With this new religion of Christianity came the advent of interesting new supernatural abilities, “spiritual gifts.” Fascinating things for sure. I can understand why they were so enraptured with them.
However, the problems came when believers found themselves with certain spiritual gifts that were noticeably different than those around them. Comparison set in, and many believers erred on one of two sides. Some considered their gift “better” than others’ gifts, especially if they had one of the more “cool” gifts such as the ability to speak in a foreign language they have never learned. Yeah, crazy isn’t it? Others, however, felt that they somehow were cheated because their gift was not as “flashy.” With the Corinthians’ natural abilities for not getting along, the church was plunged into division. Instead of unity and love, they exhibited pride and jealousy. With this dilemma in view, Paul sets out in chapter 12 of his letter to correct some of the misunderstanding that led to these attitudes.
Paul starts out reminding the Corinthians of their former life as pagans, soaking in the spiritual spa of idol worship. He reminds them, once again, of the one power that is at work in all of these religions: that of Satan. He says, even though the idols were “mute” (in other words, lifeless statues), they were still “led astray” to them and from the one true God. When Paul talks about being led astray, it is always in reference to the powers that work against God and His Kingdom. In fact, he brings up a line that was most likely quoted in those religions: “Jesus is accursed,” saying certainly it is not the Spirit of God that is working through the person saying this. To the contrary, it is the other spiritual power.
And just as there is one spiritual power at work in the idol worshipping religions, there is also one spiritual power at work in the Christian community: the power of God Himself. It is God who is working in the midst of the Corinthian church, and although he works through each and every person differently, it is still the same God at work in and through all of them. From the moment someone confesses “Jesus is Lord” by placing their faith in him (vs. 3), the Spirit comes to reside in that person—the same Spirit that resides in every believer. And this Spirit, present and working in the lives of all believers, as different as we are, unites us together as one body. It is not an accident that in his challenge, Paul presents this piece of poetic verse:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same SPIRIT.
And there are varieties of ministries, but the same LORD.
And there are varieties of effects, but the same GOD…(vs. 4-6).
Spirit…Lord (Jesus)…God (the word that often refers to the Father)…the Trinity! You see, just as God is one in essence, three in person…we too as the body of Christ, although different in our giftings, are united as one. Unity and diversity can coexist. We can be different while still being the same.
You can’t miss this truth as you continue on in this chapter, and many things jump out from the paper and ink of Scripture. One is how often “Spirit” is mentioned and how he is described… “through the Spirit” (vs. 8), “the same Spirit” (vs. 8), “the same Spirit” (vs. 9), “the one Spirit” (vs. 9), “one and the same Spirit” (vs. 11), “by one Spirit” (vs. 13), “drink of one Spirit (vs. 13). Hmm…seems as if Paul is trying to get something across, doesn’t it? Every gift within the body comes from Him, flows through Him, and is empowered by Him. And the same God working through you is working through me.
A second thing that jumps out here is the truth that “each one” (vs. 7, 11) is given at least one spiritual gift. Every one of us is enabled by God to do a special task in his Kingdom work. This passage lists some, including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing of spirits, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, but this list is not exhaustive. Our job is to determine what spiritual gifts God has given us and be good stewards of them for His Kingdom work. I would encourage you if you don’t know what gifts you’ve been given, or you aren’t using them, to connect with a spiritual leader in your life to do that. You can know based on Scripture that if you have the Spirit inside you, then you have at least one gift, and maybe even more.
Another thing that jumps out here is how passive we as believers are in the process of obtaining our gifts. It says in verse seven, “to each one IS GIVEN….” We don’t pick out our gift, we are given our gift. And these are gifts given by the Spirit to each believer, “just as He wills” (vs 11). None of us get to choose our gift, like it or not. It is given to us by God, our Creator and Savior who knows us best.
Lastly, we must not leave this passage without seeing why the gifts are given: “for the common good.” (vs. 7). Each gift is to bring benefit to others, it is to benefit the body. Each one of our gifts, no matter how different, are given by the same God for the same goal: to benefit and build up the church.
It is clear that throughout this passage, Paul’s primary emphasis is that while the believers have each been given a specific spiritual gift, there is one thing that draws them together into unity: the presence of the same Spirit…there is one Spirit who brings them into salvation, one Spirit who gives them each their gifts, one Spirit who works in the midst of the gifts, and one Spirit who unites them together in fellowship. That there is diversity in the midst of the gifts is clear, but this takes a back seat in this passage to the continuity that runs through the gifts: mainly, the one thing they all have in common, the God who is at work in all of them.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians on a practical level is also clear. There is no room for divisions if one Spirit unites the believers. There is no room for jealousy, if one Spirit works through all the gifts. There is no room for pride, if each gift is indeed, a gift given by the one Spirit. There is no room for despising one’s gift, as it is a gracious intentional blessing from the one Spirit who chose the specific recipient of that gift. There is also no room for neglecting one’s gift, for then God’s very purpose in bringing benefits to all is diminished. Paul’s words throughout ring as loudly today as they did to those first century believers in Corinth: all those who call on Jesus as Lord are intimately connected to God and thus to each other through the Holy Spirit who unites us and works through our spiritual gifts.
If Invictus was about the Christian life, God would be the Springboks team and we would be the people of different colors. He unites us all. And as we focus, not on our differences, but instead on what we share together, we will experience the unity that God has already made real in our midst.