Sunday, May 27

Sermon: The Gifts of the Spirit

Day of Pentecost
May 27, 2007
Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Psalm104: 24-34, 1 Corinthians 12:4-13, John 14:8-17
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell

Fall on us afresh, Spirit, Comforter, our Advocate;
Help us receive the gift we need today.
For only you give breath to the Word,
only you bring the Word to life.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit. In just a few short weeks, the apostles have experienced Christ's death, resurrection, ascension, and now this amazing, perplexing gift. Their emotions must have been complicated indeed.

On the one hand, the disciples may have been ready for Christ to put them in charge of his earthly mission. On the other hand…not so much. Suddenly the disciples have a boatload of responsibility. Now they ARE the church. Every-member ministry, or the priesthood of all believers, can have its daunting aspects. Thank God the disciples had the Spirit to guide and comfort them in the physical absence of Jesus.

Recently, I think I've experienced the Spirit on the move at Reconciler. I've felt a current of energy, excitement, harmony, and renewed purpose as we plan for the future as well as worship together.

Ten days ago we had the most focused, hopeful Council meeting I've attended since I've been at Reconciler. Seemed like we were all grabbing an oar and doing our part to move forward as a community of faith. Then last Wednesday we had an excellent Worship committee meeting where there was again a feeling of forward momentum. We expressed a variety of views on some fairly weighty topics. On several issues we reached a happy consensus, on another issue we agreed to simply let every voice be heard.

To speak in one's own voice, and let others speak in theirs, often requires courage, vulnerability, and humility. We need to let go of the urge to control and compete. I think this is Paul's message in 1st Corinthians 12: we are to use our gifts to confess Christ as Lord and build up community, not to show off our spiritual giftedness. Paul asks us to speak from the heart, knowing God communicates through imperfect human beings and human speech. Each of us hears God in our own language. Yet the same Spirit inspires us all, gives us breath.

In today's epistle reading, Paul writes to the church at Corinth about the great variety of spiritual gifts. He reminds the Corinthians they are all members of the body of Christ. Why does Paul write this? Is there a specific problem at Corinth he is addressing? Is there something church communities today can learn from it?

Gordon Fee, a Biblical scholar, believes the Corinthians are almost certainly abusing the gift of tongues. They may think that only people who speak in tongues are truly spiritual. As a correction, Paul emphasizes the importance of other spiritual gifts.

Paul has no problem with ecstatic speech: he himself speaks in tongues. But he does object when people talk in tongues in public worship, without interpreting. When no one understands the message, the community is not built up.

Gordon Fee thinks today's passage is part of a larger argument between Paul and the Corinthians about what it means to be spiritual. Some Corinthians may be living out an "otherworldly" spirituality, denying the physical, material side of Christianity. They may see themselves as already like the angels, and understand tongues as the language of angels."

But Paul understands spirituality differently. Life in the Spirit does not free us from our bodily existence, but liberates us to live in power and weakness on this earthly plane. Between the already here and the not yet, Paul calls us to loving, responsible relationships in community.

Paul's famous passage about love follows closely on the heels of his passage about spiritual gifts. Paul writes in 1 Cor 13: If I speak in the tongues of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."

For Paul, love is the essential ingredient for the expression of spiritual gifts. Love aims to build up the community, tongues without translation do not.

So I think there are two essential messages in today's passage from 1st Corinthians: 1) all of us have spiritual gifts and 2) It's through Christian love, as Paul carefully defines love, that the gifts of each individual can be brought out, and a truly spiritual community can flourish.

Some time ago, I took part in a church retreat at Three Rivers monastery in Michigan. As our group attended monastic services, and talked about Benedictine spirituality and our lives, I felt a current binding us together, moving us along. It was as if we were being swept into the rhythm of the monks' prayer life. Our divisions of race, gender, status, and orientation seemed not to matter so much. When the monks chanted, it was as if their goal was to blend as thoroughly as possible. And yet the individuality of each monk is respected; they aren't clones. The Spirit allows them breathing room.

A woman dealing with some difficult emotional issues was on our retreat. She said of our time together: "This must be the way Jesus wanted it. Everyone working together, filling in gaps for each other, without even thinking about it." She experienced the presence of the Spirit in our midst.

The current we felt at the monastery is very different from the current described in Madeleine L'Engle's book, A Wrinkle in Time. This sci-fi classic, written by a devout Christian, features a planet taken over by an evil disembodied brain, called "It." The pulse of IT controls the minds and bodies of the planet's inhabitants. Each morning, all the people walk out of their houses at exactly the same moment. Children bounce their balls on the sidewalk in identical rhythm.

This is not the unity to which Paul calls the followers of Christ. Paul is not stressing unity in diversity, so much as diversity within unity. We are not to erase our individuality to form community, but love each other in our incarnational particularity.

Meg, the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time, learns that she can rescue her little brother Charles Wallace from the powerful clutches of IT, by actively loving her brother. For the one thing "IT" cannot do is love. IT is a totalitarian force requiring strict conformity, where the Holy Spirit Is a liberating presence that builds relationships founded on love and respect.

Paul calls the Corinthians, and us, to value each other's gifts. Some people's gifts are flashy, like speaking in tongues. But there are quiet gifts, just as valuable, that don't need interpreting. Paul frequently refers to his own ministry simply as diakonia, meaning "service." Author Marlene Wilson advocates a ministry of "quiet unspectacular things that matter, precisely where you are and with what you have." These include hospitality, active listening, refraining from gossip, helping with everyday things, bearing one another's burdens, and receiving each others' gifts.

This list is not so different from the list Paul sets down in 1 Corinthians 13: "Love is patient; love is does not insist on its own way." These behaviors call us to a certain simplicity in the midst of our complexity.
I think of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." I think too of these words from theologian Martin Marty:

All truly deep people have at the core of their being the genius to be simple and to know how to seek simplicity...they are so uncluttered by any self-importance within and so unthreatened from without that they have what one philosopher calls a certain "availability"....Successful living is a journey towards simplicity and a triumph over confusion."

As Christians, we're called to be available and receptive in a chaotic world. Ours is not to be an otherworldly spirituality, but one grounded in the here and now. For Paul, being receptive to the Spirit is the essence of Christian life. What unites the Corinthians in all their diversity is their "common, lavish experience of the Spirit," their conversion experience.

Here in this place, I invite us to receive and revel in one another's gifts, and drink deeply of the Spirit that unites us. For it is the Spirit, God working in and through community, that allows us to move forward, reconcile, and rejoice. Let us serve simply and humbly, respect one another's differences, and speak the truth clearly in love. In so doing, may we build up the body and help others know the "common, lavish experience of the Spirit."

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