+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. +
Over the last eight months, if I’ve had one goal during our second year of this narrative lectionary journey, it has been this: to make it plain that the story of Scripture is our story, a story which continues to speak into our modern-day lives and which makes a difference in those lives. God only knows whether or not I’ve been successful at doing that, but as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost this weekend and mark the end of this year’s trip through the broad sweep of Scripture, it’s important that we all take this conviction seriously, because it’s not just mine, it’s at the heart of what we believe about why Scripture still matters.
The story that we hear in part today is perhaps one of those that’s most difficult for us to translate into our own context. Pentecost’s vivid imagery and amazing claims about the Spirit’s power in our midst are almost incredible, and when we take those images as our litmus test for when the Spirit is on the move, it’s easy for us to imagine that the Spirit stopped working powerful deeds a long time ago. Even stepping out of Acts and reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12 – our second appointed reading for today – doesn’t make things much better on that front.
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:1-13, NRSV)
I suspect that very few of us gathered here today have seen people speaking in tongues in worship, or witnessed anything like the kind of prophetic speech that Paul describes in his letter to the church at Corinth. It’s all too common, I think, for us to discount the work that the Spirit is still up to all around us, because we imagine that this work is limited to the chosen few who have “higher gifts” that are clear to see. We even have a word in English to describe people that just seem to have “it”, that quality that makes them into leaders that others want to follow or places them on a different level than the rest of us: charisma.
It’s unfortunate that this word has come to be used so exclusively, because the apostle Paul certainly didn’t use it that way. This whole chapter from 1 Corinthians is about charisma, and Paul goes out of his way over and over again to make the point that charisma isn’t a special quality that is given only to a few, but a quality of people who are living in the world on this side of the resurrection. In its most limited sense, all Christians – all of us – are people who have been gifted with different kinds of charisma, graces that help us to carry out the work that God has given us to do in the world. In its most expansive sense, there is at least some charisma at work in everyone, because – as Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions attest – faith itself is a gift of the Spirit that we receive through no work or merit of our own. When in our prayer at the table during the communion liturgy we thank God for the Spirit poured out on all nations, this is what we’re talking about – we believe and confess that the Spirit is on the loose throughout creation, creating and sustaining faith, strengthening and encouraging us to be Christ’s people in the world, endowing us with the gifts that make our work and witness to God possible.
What kind of gifts are we talking about? What charisma are present in this assembly? How much time do you all have today? There are gifts too many to number just in this room, because each and every one of you is a charismatic Christian, with unique skills and abilities and talents that you use in unique ways each and every day. From the youngest disciples whose infectious laughter and joy brighten our spirits and give us hope for a future that is better than our present, to those of you who are most experienced at following Jesus who bring your gifts of wisdom and knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of prayerful and faithful service, all of us are gifted by the Spirit with charisma that build up the body of Christ and infuse our community and our world with God’s grace and love. Think about the things you love to do, the things you are the best at doing, the things that bring you the most joy or fulfillment. Think about how each of those things can be avenues for extending the grace and love of God to others, whether they are regular church attenders or never darken the doors of any house of worship. Think about the skills honed over decades of work or the talents that seem to come to you as naturally as breathing, and think about how you can use those skills and talents to show others what God is up to in your life or in the world. Better yet, ask your friends or your family to help you discern what your gifts might be. It can be a strange conversation to start, I know, but it’s often the case that other people will see gifts in you that you can’t identify in yourself.
Let me give you an example: I know that I wouldn’t be standing in this pulpit today if Barbara Klimkowski and Joan Herbon, two members of my home congregation in Southfield, Michigan, hadn’t spent years telling me they thought I had the gifts for ordained ministry. I wouldn’t have been available for this call five years ago if a group of lay and ordained people from my home synod hadn’t spent the previous five years watching and praying and questioning and pushing and guiding me to explore what God was calling me to do. I wouldn’t be here in southeast Nebraska if countless friends and colleagues hadn’t encouraged me over months and years, or if congregations in York, Pennsylvania, and Cumberland, Maryland, hadn’t given me the chance to try on the role of pastor among them for a year each. The point is this: don’t be afraid to talk to others about your charisma, because there is something scary and exhilarating and beautiful about figuring this stuff out together, and the Spirit can work through those other people to reveal things that might be hidden.
If you only hear one thing from today’s service, let it be this: Pentecost is not a one-time event, but an on-going movement in the world. The Spirit’s breath is still blowing, still calling and inviting and directing and drawing us ever closer to God and to one another as we use all the different charisma that we’ve been given in service to God and our neighbors. You have charisma that no one else can claim, and when you get out there and let the Spirit work through you, God is capable of doing things that you might never imagine are possible. So let’s get going, my charismatic Lutheran friends, because we’ve got work to do, and the Spirit is on the loose and ready to make it happen. Thanks be to God for these gracious gifts, and for the opportunity to use them for God’s glory! Amen!