Below is the first draft I wrote for my Sunday sermon. It’s “pretty OK,” but given the events of this week I felt the second half had to be rewritten. It’s not that what I meditate on isn’t important, it’s just that a time when our culture is boiling over I needed to wrestle with a combination of both urgent and important.
Today is Pentecost. This is the day we Christians celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, when tongues of fire spread out from the disciples and on to a crowd made up of many peoples. They heard each other in their native tongues and, when some bystanders were having difficulty processing what was happening, Peter stood up and preached what many consider to be the first Christian sermon. That is, it’s the first public proclamation of Jesus’ lordship post-resurrection.
The Holy Spirit, as we can read in the early chapters of Acts, transformed this small community and empowered them to live out a unique witness in Jerusalem. Eventually, via a combination of typical human migration and public persecution, the message Peter preached that Pentecost began to spread accross what we call the Holy Land, Asia Minor 1, and then across the Mediterranean world. As it spread a new people, the followers of “The Way” 2, slowly formed among the disciples of Jesus. They sought to put his teachings into practice in their lives, and developed a worship unique to their community. This would eventually become codified in language as the worship of the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–and it would be joined with the recognition that Messiah Jesus was, in fact, God incarnate.
This new people would become known not only for their devotion to a crucified Lord 3, but also acts of service and devotion and healing. Jesus’s disciples believed this witness emerged from the gifts given by the Holy Spirit, which is the language we use to this very day. We are the present manifestation of that “new people” who first came into existence in Acts 2–and not just us, but all Jesus’ disciples in this world. All those who walk in “The Way.” And, like our ancient sisters and brothers, we are also empowered to do our work through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And herein lies part of the problem.
We tend to think, as Americans, that “bigger is better.” We can’t help it, it’s part of our cultural DNA and most times we never even pause to wonder at the statement. “Bigger” equals more people, higher production values, and a more grandiose experience–so obviously it is “better.” Therefore, seeing more and more and more signs of spiritual power among the congregation is better than not having a mass of those things.
But what if the simple presence of spiritual power was, in itself, not a witness to whether or not the Holy Spirit was working among a congregation? When Paul wrote to the Corinthians this was the problem he was confronting.
1 Cor 12: 3-13 opens up with a somewhat cryptic statement. It’s not cryptic because of the content, but because of the context. Why was Paul telling the Corinthians that no one could say “Jesus is cursed” while speaking through the Spirit, and no one could say “Jesus is Lord” without speaking through the Spirit?
Paul wasn’t simply speaking about normal conversation. He was, rather, speaking of the practice of ecstatic utterance, speaking out things through spiritual power, a practice with which the Corinthians had significant experience. The link with ecstatic utterance has led some folks to assume that Paul was talking about “testing the spirits.” That is, his statement is a practical test by which the source of ecstatic utterance could be determined. This may have been part of what Paul had in mind but, given the wider context of the chapter, limiting his statement to that is too narrow.
Paul’s point, as I alluded to earlier, is that the presence of spiritual manifestations does not, on its own, indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ disciples had to explore what “fruit” charismatically gifted believers developed. There are two questions by which a spiritual gift can be declared from the Holy Spirit or not. First, does the practice of these gifts exalt Jesus as Lord? Not only with word, but also with action. Second, when the gifts are practiced do they build up the common good? This is a way to perceive if the Holy Spirit is, indeed, empowering a church.
And that brings us to another question, “What does an ’empowered’ church look like?”
And the most true answer I can give you is, “There are endless variations.”
The common thread through 1 Cor 12:4-13 is communicated through two distinct concepts. In verses 4-6 the Greek word for “diversity” appears three times. In these three verses Paul affirms the diversity not only of Spiritual gifts, but also kinds of service and activities as well. The Triune God is identified as the source of all these, and the diversity of each aspect of Christian life leads to a colorful image of the Christian life. People with different gifts, for example, can be called to the same ministry–and even then still enact this ministry in different ways. There is no one way to be a Christian.
And, in fact, this is Paul’s point. In verses 7-13 the phrase “the same Spirit” appears four times. In these verses Paul points out how the diversity of giftedness, service, and activity is part of God’s plan.
This is why Paul brings up the “body” image in verse 12, and explains into what body we belong in verse 13. A body with a unity of function will die–what good is it if a physical body and chew and swallow food, for example, if it can’t digest it? Christ’s body, the church, will suffer the same fate if we try to focus on unity of function–we can’t all have the same gifts, perform the same service, or work these out with the same activities. It’s not healthy, and it stifles Jesus’ disciples who don’t fit into a premolded form.
And right now, look around, the pre-molded forms of a “good church” or a “good Christian” with which we may be familiar 4 are melting. Our buildings are shuttered, our ministry foci have shifted, and our activities are in disarray. And that’s a good thing.
See, our world has been thrown into flux. We are trying to emerge into a “new normal,” but we have exactly zero idea what it will look like. And even when a treatment or vaccine for CoVid-19 becomes available, the “old normal” is gone. Something like it will exist again, but this shared experience isn’t just going to go away. And this emerging “new normal” is crying out for grace, and charity, and service–and needs these things to be brought out into the world through a vast diversity of ways. And lo and behold these are the very gifts we’re given by the Spirit, and the common good is part of the very purpose we are given these gifts by the Spirit.
If we pay attention, we can present the very diversity of giftedness, service, and practice our culture is craving right now. In this time where we’re looking for a “new normal” Jesus’ new people are still here. Will we rise, by the Spirit’s power and calling, and meet the need? Amen.