Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Power of God's Love: Many Gifts, One Spirit

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.Amen.

It’s been a hard week. As it began, we first witnessed the hanging in effigy - on Memorial Day - of our governor, a racist practice used to stir up images of lynching and to stoke fear. Then, on the same day, George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was murdered by police, calling for his dead mother. And crying, “I can’t breathe!” On Tuesday, we learned that the Justice Department is investigating the death of another black man, Ahmaud Arbury, shot down execution-style as he was jogging through his neighborhood in suburban Atlanta. On Wednesday, we learned that we had topped 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 here in the U.S., with a recognition that people of color are dying at four times the rate of white people. On that same day the 911 tape became public from the death of Breona Taylor - an black EMT shot by Louisville police entering her apartment using a no-knock warrant with no identification or warning. And we heard the cries of her boyfriend, “I don’t know what’s happening. Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.” Then, on Thursday, as we began to see the aftermath of the uprising in Minneapolis and watched it expand throughout the country, we heard these words over and over again: “No justice, no peace!” On Friday, we turned on the news to hear of more uprising throughout our country, as well as news that another 2.1 million jobs have been lost, bringing the total to almost 41 million people out of work. And then yesterday, after days of businesses opening up, we hear that coronavirus cases are spiking once again.

It’s been a hard week. And if we’ve been able to simply turn off our television or radio or ignore this on our smartphones or computers because it has simply been too much to take, then I wonder what it must feel like for those who can’t escape it. For those who have suffered for days and weeks, and months and years, and decades and centuries. And who continue to suffer. 

It’s hard to find words today. Yet, on this Pentecost Sunday, I’m reminded of the words in Romans 8, that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

So, I sigh. And I pray that God, who searches my heart, knows, and that God’s will may come to you today in the few words I do have...

We are in two places in our readings today. We’ll begin in Corinth, because this is where we’ve been for the past few weeks. We know of the divisions in the church there - divisions that boil down to status - the belief that certain people are better than others. It’s this context where Paul writes these words in 1st Corinthians 12.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. You know that when you were Gentiles you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak. So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. --1 Corinthians 12:1-13 (CEB)

One of the problems in Corinth was that those who had been given the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues believed that their gift was better than all the others. By all accounts, the church in Corinth had been given a very full measure of the Spirit’s power. So, Paul sets about teaching them how they might discern God’s work in the activity of these many gifts. And, also, how they might value their brothers and sisters in Christ across that variety of gifts.

Or how they might discern what God is up to or what God may be doing in this place. Questions that we might, particularly, be asking at this time.

To begin with, Paul says that through God’s Spirit, God first bears witness to Jesus as Lord. One way to know whether a movement is led by the Spirit is to listen for its claims about Jesus Christ. Through the Spirit, we know Jesus on the cross, in the Lord’s supper, and in the resurrection. Through the Spirit, the church testifies that Jesus - not money, or security, or self esteem, or paranoia, or power, or anything else, but Jesus - is Lord. Gifts that come from the Spirit proclaim Jesus as Lord. 

They also serve the common good. This is Paul’s second criteria. Do our gifts serve the common good - our common life together, not only in the church, but in the world? The Spirit is all about building up the group rather than enriching individuals. While we each may receive gifts from the Spirit, they are to be used for the body as a whole. If not, or if they can’t be shared, then they are not from the Spirit. And, as was happening in Corinth, to rank one’s gift as better than the other is completely odds with the purpose of each gift, which is given for the good of all.

The third point that Paul makes is that, whatever God’s Spirit is doing, it will probably not be characterized by tidiness. Wherever we find the Spirit’s gifts, it will be messy. What Paul noticed in the Corinthian church is that they were enthusiastic about the more dramatic manifestations of the Spirit’s work, such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, or healing. They ignored the quieter work of the Spirit which is to draw them into a community that respects all of its members. Paul is trying to redirect some of their enthusiasm to the more excellent way of faith, hope, and, especially, love, so that they will return to valuing one another more than themselves and their own gifts. That brother or sister in Christ matters more than all of the spiritual gifts in the congregation, according to Paul. And this will be messy. But, Paul’s goal is not a neat and tidy life in community, but a loving one.

These are the criteria for discerning the work of the Holy Spirit among us. The Spirit proclaims Jesus as Lord. Offers its gifts to the church for the common good. And activates love for neighbor in all of the messiness it may bring. 

Now let’s go back in time a little to Acts and the first outpouring of the Spirit. We read from Acts 2:

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. --Acts 2:1-4 (CEB)

The disciples are gathered together in one house, devoting themselves to prayer, and waiting for the arrival of the promised Advocate. 

The future for them is uncertain. Jesus is no longer physically with them, but they wait. And hope. And trust. And, after these past few months, perhaps we, too, can relate. 

And then these signs of the Holy Spirit - fire and wind - descend on them and the Spirit pushes them out of the safety of the room in which they have been staying.

Fire and wind are powerful symbols. They have the potential both for creation and for destruction. Perhaps they are appropriate symbols for the work of the Spirit in this moment. As we wait in the wreckage of what was or what is coming, as we wait for the birth of what will be, we are called to see visions and to dream dreams. 

We might ask of ourselves what of our old lives, both personally and communally, needs to be burned away? What needs to be renewed? Will we allow the fire of pandemic and uprising to burn away the economic inequality and racial inequity that has led to so much unnecessary and unjust loss of life? Will we allow the fire to burn away mass incarceration and an industrial system that has served no one well? Will we allow the fire to burn away an economic system where too many workers are considered “essential” but are not compensated fairly for their work? Will we allow the fire to burn away the idea that equal access to health care is not a human right?

Yet as the Spirit fire burns and winnows, as the Spirit wind tears down and destroys, we know that the Spirit creates. We have seen unprecedented cooperation between scientists and researchers all over the world. We have seen healthcare workers and many others work in sacrificial ways to save lives. We have seen white people stand as allies with their black and brown sisters and brothers. We have seen people of faith reaching out in our neighborhoods in creative and caring ways. We have seen the face of the earth and the sky renewed. 

So, what needs to be burned away in our personal and communal lives in this time? What needs to be renewed? Or, in our language of worship, of what do we need to repent? And in what ways do we need to witness to the life-giving work of God in Jesus Christ? 

We have been given gifts to discern the answers to these questions. We have been given gifts to help us seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We have been given gifts to witness that Jesus. Is. Lord. In our homes. In our church. And where it is needed right now the most, in our world. 

So, come, Holy Spirit. Burn, blow, breathe, move upon us all. That earth and all that’s in it may thrive. That earth and all that’s in it may love. That earth and all that’s in it may live in the harmony and wholeness you desire for us, for people of every color, and for all of creation. Come, Holy Spirit. Come.

Preached online June 7, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Day of Pentecost
Readings: Acts 2:1-4; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Mark 1:4-8; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b 

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