The Common Good
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
June 8, 2014
1Corinthians 12:3b-13, Acts 2:1-21
The story of what happened on the Day of Pentecost is a favorite one of the church. It is the oldest of Christian holy days, and is traditionally celebrated as the birthday of the church. As JoBeth read the story from Acts, the disciples had been waiting as Jesus instructed them for the coming of the Holy Spirit, but they really didn’t know what that meant but then, suddenly, they found out what they were waiting for in a powerful way. The Holy Spirit of God blew through the room, enlivening and enlightening everyone there. Those who’d been cowardly were suddenly brave; those who were afraid to speak, began to preach; those who were afraid of strangers began to greet them as if they were long lost friends. It was a life-changing experience, making some of them so different in their behavior than they were before, that outside observers simply thought they were drunk. But it wasn’t something so simple as alcohol. Peter the fisherman, who addressed the crowd to explain what had happened, would never be the same again; he’d never go back to his nets, to his old way of life. Because of what happened that day, his feet were set on a different path.
The celebration of that life-changing day of Pentecost divides our church year into two parts, the first half focused on the life of Jesus, the second half focused on life in the Spirit. Since Advent we have recalled stories of Jesus’ birth, manifestation of his identity, his ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. And now, we embark on a new journey, a journey of Christian life and practice under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
The book of Acts goes on to tell us what early experiments in Christian community looked like. And Paul’s letters are windows into early Christian communities throughout Asia Minor that were struggling to define what this new life meant amid the old life that they were so used to. In all of these writings, the Holy Spirit of God is the driving, motivating force, equipping persons in new and exciting ways for the new lives they had embraced in Christ. People were leading, teaching, preaching, prophesying, offering hospitality, visiting the sick. They were going places they’d never been and risking not only their reputations but their very lives in loyalty to the one in whom they had found freedom from fear, from sin and from death itself.
The Corinthians were a particularly difficult congregation. On the one hand, they embraced the gifts bestowed by God with enthusiasm. On the other hand, however, being human, they had begun to compare their gifts and some had found reason to think of themselves as part of the spiritual elite of the congregation. They thought they were better loved by and closer to God because of their particular gift.
So Paul has a job on his hands. How to encourage the different gifts within the community yet at the same time remind them that these gifts of which they are so proud and boastful, are, after all, gifts! Not their inborn talent, not their inalienable right or possession, not something achieved through their own merit, but free and gracious gifts from God, given to them for the common good, for the up-building of the community and not for the boosting of their individual egos. In their pride and excitement over their gifts, they’d lost sight of the giver.
Paul reminds them of the overarching unity in their diversity that they were ignoring or had conveniently forgotten. Their variety of gifts had all been given by the same spirit to share with each other through belief in God revealed in the person of Jesus. It was time for them to go back to square one, and square one is unity of faith in Christ, the one who is the measure by which genuine activity of the Spirit can be identified. As far as the Spirit is concerned, there is no room for categories or hierarchies that divide one group or one person from another, or causes anyone to think he or she is better, more privileged, or more greatly loved by God than another. Instead, the Spirit of God calls diverse people into community together despite, and maybe because of, their differences.
Although we know this to be truth, that doesn’t make it any easier to achieve or to maintain. We know that Christ calls us to unity; but our human tendency is to separate or rank ourselves on the basis of our differences and preferences for individual priorities and interests. However, as we noted last week, unity matters to God. Remember that according to John’s gospel, it is what Jesus preached about on his last night with his disciples. “Father, I pray that they can be one,” Jesus said. He didn’t pray for their health, or their happiness, their success or their safety, but for their unity.
Not that he meant they should be identical – all the same, with the same thoughts, same gifts, same ways of doing things, same ideas and interests. But that they should be unified in their trust and faith in God as they knew and understood God in Christ, and their love for one another and their community of faith. That’s what the Corinthians had forgotten.
Paul uses the metaphor of the body to explain their unity in diversity. This metaphor would have been quite familiar to the Corinthians. In fact, in classical writings it was often used for the hierarchy of society, for the purpose, however, of supporting the interests of the upper classes. The upper class political writers transferred the truth of the foot’s subordination to the head, to the social body composed of masters and slaves, men and women, rich and poor, the well-born and the peasant. If the Corinthians had not been listening closely as Paul’s letter was read to them, they might have been lulled into thinking Paul was advocating a way to manage the less gifted in the church by making them feel needed but kept in their place by convincing them that they are merely the feet.
But that is not what Paul does. First of all, in the body of Christ, Christ is the head of the body, with all others subordinate to him. All the other bodily parts, although very different one from the other, are of equal honor. For the good of the body, hands aren’t feet and ears aren’t eyes, but they share the work of the body, and one part is not more important than the other. They are interconnected and interdependent on one another, not in competition, because they all receive life and growth from the same Holy Spirit. Paul’s language is the language of friendship, dependence, and cooperation, not of hierarchy, individualism, or domination.
Thus, every gift, service, or activity and every person is equally important, all manifesting the one Spirit through which each is empowered for service for the common good. All of us have spiritual gifts and all rightfully can expect to have these gifts put to use in the community. Gifts are not reserved to a privileged few, but are given to all.
Have you ever wondered about your gifts? Have you ever been guilty of thinking that you have no needed or useful gifts? Do you ever look around at others and think, “I could never do that! I’m just not very talented.” There are a couple of mistakes in that kind of thinking: First mistake: comparing yourself to someone else! Always remember that you are a unique and unrepeatable miracle of God, so comparison does not apply! Second mistake: thinking you’re not good enough! The writer Marianne Williamson has written “You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.” I would say actually, your playing small does not serve God or God’s people.
I think we can rightly identify as gifts of the Spirit any aptitudes or interests we have that are informed by and energized by the Holy Spirit for the greater good, those skills and abilities which are means through which God is a work with grace and mercy for the good of all. So each of us here is gifted insofar as God’s grace and power reorient us away from ourselves and our own interests, away from our fears about our supposed inadequacies, to become agents of God’s love.
Last Thursday evening I attended a meeting of our district’s strategic growth team. Part of the meeting was devoted to small congregations, to hear about their gifts for ministry. What they were doing to make a difference for others and how they were attentive to the needs of their community and one another. Phil Schroeder who is the Conference director of church Development commented that the danger to small churches comes from within, when small churches think they don’t matter or that they can’t do anything because they are only a few people. The truth is, he said, small churches can do great things.
And certainly that is true of our church. Each of you is so willing to share the gifts God has given you, and because of your sharing we make a difference in our little corner of God’s kingdom. We know we can change things for the better in both large and small ways through the sharing of our gifts.
In this congregation we those who teach, sing, visit the sick, send cards and notes, make sandwiches or deliver them, work on church inventories until their eyes cross, greet visitors, pay bills, check to see that the lights are out and the doors are locked. We have others who are good listeners, encouragers, and organizers. And still others who are examples of courage, patience, kindness, endurance, gentleness, grace, and love. The list of gifts that you possess goes on and one, and you express your love for God, God’s people and the church in sharing them.
When I first decided to go seminary people would ask me what do you want to do? And all I knew to say is that I felt that somewhere there was a place that needed a pastor, and I could go there and do what I was called to do and each person there would also do what he or she had been called by God to do, and by working together, sharing our gifts, we would be the church. Oconee Street is such a place.
The Spirit of God is a work in each one of us and has given different gifts to each. So claim them! But more than that, these gifts should not only be identified, claimed, and celebrated, but put to use for the building up of God’s kingdom because they are given to us by the Spirit, not to create division, but unity, for together we are the church, the community of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.