Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
John 14:8-17, 25-27
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
John 14:8-17, 25-27
+ 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!
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
“‘It will be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I pour out my Spirit upon all people! Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams! 18Even upon my slaves, both male and female, I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy!
I have a bad habit of staying up later than I should. With two kids under three in the house, you would think that I would take every opportunity I can to get sleep, but unfortunately I rarely find myself going to bed at a reasonable hour. One of the problems I have with staying up late is that I usually fill the time watching TV, and there is very little on TV that is worth watching after midnight. So when I get tired of watching sports highlights on a loop, I’ll sometimes flip over to that set of channels on our cable package that features Christian programming, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t often find what’s on that time of night on those channels compelling, either. I’ve frequently run into programs that talk about the fact that we are, as the prophet Joel above says, “in the ‘last days’”. What makes those programs so frustrating to watch is that this message about the last days is usually presented in the most frightening way possible. Current events are shoehorned into an end-times calendar that sounds like a horror show, with war and famine and pestilence and human sinfulness being presented as conclusive proof that the world as we know it is going to hell in a hand basket. Often, those determinations are made by comparing the events of today to the rosy picture painted of years gone by.
Lest you think this is an attitude that is prevalent only on late-night fundamentalist TV, I can assure you that this type of thinking is surprisingly mainstream. All of us have a tendency to look at the world around us and focus on all the ways it isn’t the way it used to be, usually with the implicit understanding that this is a terrible thing. I don’t say this to pick on anybody; I do the same thing when I’m talking to high school classmates or college friends, bemoaning the fact that those respective schools have gone downhill in just the last decade. I can only imagine how people can look at the massive changes over twenty, forty, sixty, or eighty years and long for the way things used to be.
As Christians, we pretty much universally believe that we are living in the last days, and many of our brothers and sisters marry that belief with resignation, convinced that we have nowhere to go but down. That resignation belies what the Bible says about the last days; namely that we are in them not because the world is more evil than it was during some imagined time of peace and harmony, but because the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus were the beginning of the end for the powers of sin, death, and the devil. The “last days” language is intended to be a source of strength for Christians, a reminder that the forces of evil are doing their worst because they know their days are numbered. So on this Day of Pentecost, as we reflect on these words from the prophet Joel and on the significance of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I’d like to invite us to think about these “last days” not with a spirit of fear and trembling, but with a different kind of Spirit. When Peter raised his voice on that first Pentecost and addressed the crowds, he invoked the prophetic image of the last days, not as a way of signaling decline or anxiety about the unknown, but as a way of describing the possibilities that lay before the Church as the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles and empowered them to boldly proclaim the mighty deeds of God. The “last days” were seen as a time of promise, in which visions and dreams would unfold as God’s Spirit caused the message about Jesus (and the presence of Jesus) to be spread abroad, capturing the imaginations and hearts of people from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. So often, we hear these stories and consign them to the past, imagining that only the apostles were heirs of such life-changing power. That just isn’t true! The gospel is exploding throughout the world. In South and Southeast Asia, throughout Africa, and in South and Central America, the Spirit’s power is being unleashed, and more and more people are being changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our own country, we have certainly seen dramatic decline in church participation, but it’s important to put the current trends in perspective. The “golden age of the church” to which so many of us look with longing was unprecedented in the history of the world or the church. We experienced levels of church attendance, participation, and commitment that have never been seen before anywhere! In fact, at present the percentage of people who attend church regularly in the United States is roughly the same as it was at the time of the American Revolution! What do we do with that kind of information? Do we see it as evidence of moral and spiritual decline in our society, or as an opportunity to renew and reinvigorate our proclamation of the gospel? Should we fall into the trap of hopelessly trying to recapture what once was, or should we look for evidence that the Spirit is leading us to dream big, to work together to cast a vision for the work of the church in our time and place?
As Lutheran Christians, claimed by Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism and filled with the same Holy Spirit that descended upon those first apostles, we have a great gift to give this world. In a culture that demands results and punishes failure with swift and unrelenting judgment, we have good news to share: that our worth is not dependent on our strength or skill or income or perceived value to society, but on the surpassing love of God who calls us holy, precious, honored, loved, and redeemed! In a society that thrives on fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding, we have good news to share: that our lives have been transformed by God’s amazing grace, and that this same grace is freely offered to all people, everywhere. In a world mired in despair and longing, we have good news to share: that the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters at creation is still moving in our world, transforming despair into hope, fear into friendship, and death into life. In a world where people hunger for lives of meaning and significance, we have good news to share: that God is calling us to pour ourselves out for the sake of our neighbors, friends, and families, bearing in our own bodies the love, peace, and joy of life with Christ.
This isn’t just hypothetical, either. There are so many stories that reveal how the Gospel is inspiring Christians and people of good will to partner with God in transforming the world around us that I can only begin to scratch the surface. Reminded of our communion with God’s people throughout the world, the ELCA and its partners are making real and tangible progress toward the goal of eradicating malaria in Africa. Renewed in our commitment to healing and wholeness, Lutherans continue to be at the forefront of efforts to provide medical care in places of desperate need, like the Augusta Victoria Hospital in the Palestinian Territories. Compelled by our calling to serve our neighbors, our own Nebraska Synod has built a network of agencies and ministries that serves more people throughout our state than any other group! In these ways and so many more, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is speaking powerfully into the lives of people all over the world and transforming that world each and every day.
All of this isn’t to say, of course, that we don’t have any more work to do. Like the first apostles, we have been given the Spirit of the Living God, and we have a choice: will we become depressed and cynical because we’re trying to recapture those days gone by and settle for decrying the state of the world around us, or will we endeavor to see visions and dream dreams of Christ’s body using the many and varied gifts that we have been given to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a world that needs to hear of God’s love and grace? I don’t know about you, but I have the sense that the Spirit is on the move here at St. Paul’s, and that we are on the verge of something new and exciting as a congregation. I’m not sure what it is yet, but on this Day of Pentecost, as we join together in affirming the gift of baptism that has been poured out upon us as individuals and as a community, let us pray that God will grant us the grace and strength to imagine what’s possible for us as God’s people in the Falls City area. Let us continue asking how the Spirit is calling us to be Christ for the world in these last days. Let us trust in the power of the Spirit to guide us into a future filled with promise and hope. Let us give thanks for the joyful and holy task of being the church. The Spirit is here! Thanks be to God! Amen.