Today is Pentecost Sunday. The primary story for the day is from Acts, chapter 2. The disciples of Jesus were gathered in a house in Jerusalem when the gift of the Holy Spirit came upon them. It was as though tongues of fire rested upon each one, and from that point forward the disciples were courageous, understanding, and equipped to be the ones who would carry on the Jesus movement. Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church.
While this was a very important manifestation of the Spirit, it is important to remember that God’s Spirit has always been present and active, even at creation, and that the Spirit continues to be present and active in important ways in each of our lives. Today I want to focus on the latter aspect of the work of the Spirit.
The Epistle reading for today is the one I just read from I Corinthians. We have spent several weeks studying this letter already this year. Paul was distressed that the church in Corinth was divided, following different leaders. Some said they followed Apollos; some said they followed Peter; some said they followed Paul; some said they followed Christ. The Corinthians seem to have valued wisdom highly, and sort of ranked people in importance by the level of wisdom they had attained. They treated each other shabbily at times, including when they ate the Lord’s Supper. Some would stuff themselves and there would not be enough left for others. They brought lawsuits against each other, quibbled over issues of morality and what foods were okay to eat. They also placed value on people based on the kinds of spiritual gifts they had, with the more spectacular ones having a higher priority of course.
Chapters 12 and 13 are crucial to Paul’s teaching about all of these areas, and they are focused on the proper recognition, appreciation, and use of the gifts of the Spirit. While only a portion of this section has been read, I’m going to address the whole of it.
The first foundational statement is a Trinitarian affirmation that all gifts come from the same source. He writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” Sometimes when you look at people, even in the same church, who seem so very different from you, it is hard to remember this. People who are passionate about mission can’t understand why people would rather get together to study the Bible and pray than to volunteer at AIM. People who are passionate about keeping the building and grounds well maintained can’t understand people who just want to give all the money away. People who don’t like to sing have a hard time understanding people who love to come together every week to rehearse and learn new music, then sing it to the glory of God in worship. People have a hard time seeing serving food and cleaning up at Midweek being as valuable a service for God as teaching a Sunday School class.
The next sentence in the letter is another key to understanding. “To each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Two important things are said in this sentence. First, each person receives gifts of the Spirit, not just a select few. Secondly, the purpose of each of the gifts is for the common good, for the good of the whole community. The spiritual gifts we receive are not given primarily for what they do for us individually; they are given to strengthen the body of Christ of which we are a part.
Next Paul develops this analogy of the church as the body of Christ. A body has many different parts, with a wide variety of functions. He mentions a few pairs, like hands and feet and ears and eyes. It would certainly be easy for feet to get an inferiority complex when looking at hands. The hands are used for all sorts of highly skilled, precise maneuvers and are always in a protected position of honor. The fingers can work independently of each other, and opposable thumbs are one of the wonders of creation. Feet are kept covered up and the toes have very few noticeable skills. Yet feet are our foundation, and much of what they do goes unnoticed until they cannot do those things. And if you have ever had a problem with your feet, you know that if the feet aren’t happy nobody’s happy. It is impossible to ignore them then.
Ears and eyes are another pair he mentions. If ever two things would be totally unable to comprehend how the other works and what the purpose of the other is, these two would be it. Eyes have no concept of hearing. Ears have no concept of seeing. Yet how do you put a priority on which is more important, which you would rather do without? It is easy to imagine how a part of the body would come to believe it was the most important part of all and that the body could never survive without it.
Paul says the same principle is at work in the church, which is the body of Christ. If the preacher starts thinking he is the most important part of the body, the guy that runs the sound system can change that in a hurry. If someone believes they have great wisdom and assumes their position about something is clearly the right one and tries to force it on everyone else, the rest of the body can quickly correct that assumption.
Paul writes, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” That is quite a difference from the way things operate much of the time in social relationships. People often find satisfaction in the failures and disappointments of others, because of envy. Christians are called to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, as a unified body.
This call to mutual acceptance and mutual forbearance is one of the most joyful, and one of the most difficult, callings of being a Christian. It is easy enough to love “everybody,” but when you start putting specific names and faces in place of “everybody” it becomes more difficult. Because we are human beings, we have our differences of opinion and different priorities and different ways of doing things. We tend to get on each others’ nerves.
And so Paul had to go on and talk about one more thing, and he was preaching to himself as much as to anyone else. He said, “Now let me show you a still more excellent way,” the way of love. Without love, he said, none of the gifts amount to a hill of beans. Only when our spiritual gifts are exercised in a loving spirit will they accomplish the purpose of building up the body of Christ.
Richard Hays writes that Paul’s “point is not that love should supersede spiritual gifts but that it should govern their use in the church. Love is not a higher and better gift; rather, it is a ‘way,’ a manner of life within which all the gifts are to find their proper place. Second, love is not merely a feeling or an attitude; rather, ‘love’ is the generic name for specific actions of patient and costly service to others.” (Interpretation, First Corinthians, p. 222)
As we partake of communion this morning, let us be reminded that together we are the body of Christ and individually we are members of it. We will eat the bread as we are served it to remind us that we are individuals who stand in our own relationship to Jesus Christ, who have received unique gifts from the Holy Spirit to be used for building the body of Christ. We will hold the cup of juice until all have been served, then partake of it together to be reminded that we are one body, the body of Christ, and we have an important role to play in its health and effectiveness. We are not called to follow anyone besides Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. His redemptive sacrifice is remembered at this table.
One in the Spirit, one in the Lord, we pray that all unity may one day be restored. They will know we are Christians by our love. The sign out front of our church proclaims it – the greatest of these is love – so let us seek to live by it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 8, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church