Day of Pentecost A
June 02, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
My friend the Bible teacher and commentator Dale Bruner is a wonderful teacher of biblical stories. Part of Dale’s teachings usually include some dramatic re-enactments of the story at hand. He always elicits a chuckle from the class at this point in John 20 when he reaches a certain part in the story’s re-telling only to reach into his pocket and then pull out a little aerosol can of breath freshener. After giving his mouth a couple squirts, he then goes around the room exhaling into everyone’s faces as he re-enacts Jesus’ breathing out of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples!
This is in some ways John’s version of Pentecost (see the “Questions to Ask / Issues to Address” part of this sermon starter to wonder how this fits with Acts 2) and it is indeed noteworthy to see Jesus literally exhaling the Spirit onto the disciples.
But it’s also what comes next that is quite remarkable. After all, isn’t it curious to note that forgiveness is the first item on the agenda? In John 20, no sooner does Jesus breathe the Spirit onto his followers and he immediately mentions the forgiveness of sins, particularly the disciples’ forgiveness of other people. Apparently there is a tight connection between new life in the resurrected Christ and the act of forgiveness.
On the surface of it, Jesus seems to be giving the disciples both a blank check and a whole lot of clout and power. Are the disciples now going to wield this Spirit-driven ability to forgive (or not) in a willy-nilly, arbitrary way? John 20 provides no guidelines or instructions but we can assume that the intention here is not for the disciples to start walking around a city like Jerusalem and randomly pointing at one person after the next and saying,
“Forgiven. Unforgiven. Forgiven. Forgiven. Nope, not you, pal! Forgiven. Unforgiven . . .”
So how should we read Jesus’ semi-startling words that the disciples had this ability to forgive—or not—in ways that are so binding? It is certainly not a power to be wielded lightly. It’s also something with a clear connection to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and maybe that fact right there tells us something.
After all, consider the setting: the disciples had just recently failed Jesus miserably. They were disloyal, dishonest, fearful, and feckless. Small wonder that upon hearing that Jesus might be back that they locked the door. Maybe they convinced themselves that it was the Jewish authorities they were afraid of. But since they didn’t appear to huddle in locked rooms the day before they were told Jesus had come back to life, you wonder why they locked the door only after hearing Mary Magdalene’s testimony of his return.
In any event, it was an act of supreme grace that Jesus came among them, flashed a kind smile as he spoke “Peace” to them and then gave them the truly great gift of nothing less than a share of the divine through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. In a setting like that, hearing “If you forgive anyone his sins . . .” implicitly carried with it the idea “Oh and by the way, don’t forget all the sins I just forgave in all of you simply by virtue of showing up here brimming with grace!” Those who know they have been forgiven much—and who know that deep in their bones—ought not turn around and behave ungraciously themselves (cf. Matthew 18!).
Yes, there would be people in the future lives of the disciples (as well as in the church those disciples-cum-apostles would found) who would be unforgiven for one reason or another (and the main reason would generally be that they did not want anyone’s forgiveness in the first place). But considering what Jesus did for his disciples that very evening inside that locked room—inside that room that was so filled with shame and guilt–Jesus’ subsequent mention of forgiveness was not only a sign of the Spirit’s presence and power in their hearts but set the tone for the forgiveness they were then encouraged to dole out to others whose sins were as real and as raw as the sins of the disciples had just been.
When you just have had the weight of the world removed from your shoulders through another person’s graciousness toward you, it’s not the moment to start calculating what other people in life you want to see stay similarly burdened and what ones you might be willing to help out. Instead, the joy you feel at having been forgiven becomes contagious—you can’t wait to start spreading it around!
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
We think John wrote his gospel well after the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been written. We think maybe John knew of those three gospels and that is perhaps why he structured his own account so differently. I suppose we could assume that John knew of also Luke’s second volume, his gospel sequel, in “The Book of Acts” but whether he knew that book or not, surely John had been present on the original day of Pentecost there in Jerusalem. Sure, Peter had gone on to steal the limelight that day with that whale of a sermon through which the newly outpoured Spirit of God had converted thousands on the spot. But John must have been there. Granted, he’s not mentioned by name in Acts 2 but by Acts 3 he is side-by-side with Peter doing miraculous healings in the power of that same Holy Spirit who had roared into Jerusalem on Pentecost.
So what’s going on with John’s spare little pre-Pentecost out-breathing of the Holy Spirit here in John 20? How could John have known about the huge and dramatic real story of Pentecost and yet reduce the disciples’ reception of the Spirit to that Easter Sunday, behind-locked-doors event in which Jesus essentially blew them all the kiss of the Spirit? How do we square this imparting of the Spirit—replete with, as noted elsewhere in these sermon starters, the power to forgive sins—with Luke’s big story in Acts 2? It’s a little hard to say.
Was this like an initial deposit, a kind of holy down-payment, of the Spirit with the big “coming upon them with power” display still to come 50 days later? Was this like a preview that would keep them going for another 7 weeks until the fullness really came upon them in ways that would help them midwife the church’s birth after Jesus was seated in power at the Father’s right hand?
In truth, I could on asking questions like this for several more paragraphs (but I will spare you that!). It’s coming up with solid answers to any of these queries that is more difficult. The best we can do is probably speculate (and not get too fanciful even at that) but consider: when Jesus popped into that locked room, he was bursting with the new life of the kingdom. Although there would finally be a certain order of events upcoming, including Ascension and then Pentecost, there was really no containing the power that coursed through Jesus at that time. Resurrection life had to make some kind of an effect on even that first evening of Easter and so, as a sign and symbol and, yes, perhaps as a kind of sneak preview of all that was to come, Jesus could not help but impart some of that new life to those disciples even then.
The power of grace unto forgiveness that his death and now resurrection made possible just had to bust out somehow—there was no containing it in some ways! And so even though a very public and dramatic outpouring of the Spirit and proclamation of the Gospel was still 50 days off, that first Easter could not possibly conclude without some kingdom power leaking out to those disciples. Maybe that evening the “wind” of the Spirit was no more than what Jesus could generate by opening his mouth and puffing out some air—maybe it was no more than the warm air from a person’s mouth, the same as we’ve all felt when a loved one whispers something directly into our ear—but contained within it is great power indeed.
What with the world and with all of history having split in two earlier that day and all, there really was no holding it back. Not completely!!
Before breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, Jesus first showed them his scars. Doing so provided more than just some jolt of recognition on the part of the disciples. This was not only a sign of the continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-crucifixion body. Instead, perhaps we can see in those scars the very earthy nature of the ministry for which the Holy Spirit ultimately equips us. The scars remind us of what even the Son of God had to do so as to make us a holy enough people as to warrant the presence of God’s own Spirit in us. But maybe those same scars remind us that we are called to minister in a rough and tumble world of sin that does that kind of thing to even the divine One in our midst. The Spirit did not come to us from an ecstatic vision of light and glory. The Spirit did not come to us on a silver platter and hand delivered to us by a celestial angel of light. The Spirit came to us from One whose body had been broken and still showed the signs of this. And that Spirit comes to us and calls us to a sacrificial ministry in a world full of brokenness and a world willing to keep on breaking all that is holy.
C.S. Lewis was obviously taken with John 20’s presentation of Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit onto his disciples because he wove just that image into the final scene of his first Narnia chronicle, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Those of us who recently saw the new movie based on this book remember when Aslan, after returning from the dead, goes around and breathes on all the creatures that had been turned to stone by the White Witch, bringing them back to life. It’s a moving image but those of us who have focused more on the film of late may forget the lyric description of this act of new creation that Lewis wrote in the book. So here is the passage from page165 of the Colliers paperback edition of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (Colliers, New York, 1970):
“I expect you’ve seen someone put a lighted match to a bit of newspaper which is propped up in a grate against an unlit fire. And for a second nothing seems to have happened, and then you notice a tiny streak of flame creeping along the edge of the newspaper. It was like that now. For a second after Aslan had breathed upon him, the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back—then it spread—then the colour seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a bit of paper—then, while his hind-quarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stony folds rippled into living hair. Then he opened a great red mouth, warm and living, and gave a prodigious yawn. And now his hind legs had come to life. He lifted one of them and scratched himself. Then, having caught sight of Aslan, he went bounding after him and frisking round him whimpering with delight and jumping up to lick his face.”
It’s a text that really does put one in mind to anticipate those great words: “Behold, I make all things new.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
When I spent some time in Japan some years back, I witnessed daily something I have seen at best rarely here in the United States: commuters on trains and buses with surgical masks on. Some were sick and did not want to spread it to others. But some, I think, were afraid of getting sick and so donned masks in case not everyone with a virus was as considerate as some so clearly were. In any event, it was a strange sight to see but it did remind me of one thing: spiration, breathing, is pretty vital and is also a constant of life.
Without realizing it, we all breathe in and out many times every minute. Respiration is that fundamental process of life by which our bodies refresh their supply of oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. It is a powerful phenomenon and yet the same thing that keeps us alive can kill us, too. The spectacle of all those people wearing surgical masks provides a vivid reminder that spiration, necessary though it is for life, can also prove to be our undoing if we breathe in virus-laden microbes.
The Latin word for “spirit” (spiritus), the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach), and the Greek word (pneuma) all mean “breath” or “wind” at their most basic linguistic level. But, of course, that implies a number of things. For one, it implies that “spirit” is an invisible phenomenon–no one can see the wind, only its effects. It can also imply that “spirit” may at times be a rather fleeting thing. After all, the refrain of the book of Ecclesiastes is that much of life seems like no more than a “breath,” a transient, vapory blip that disappears in an instant. At the same time, however, we know that both wind and breath are not only invisible and sometimes fleeting but they can also be awesome realities. The “breath of life” provided by someone giving CPR literally is the difference between life and death.
And certainly we are aware of the fact that the wind can be hugely destructive–you don’t need to be able to see the wind or know where it comes from to respect its reality and power. Back in 1998—right on Pentecost Sunday as it happened—the Midwest experienced what is called a “derecho.” It’s a fairly rare phenomenon in which atmospheric conditions conspire to set up enormously powerful straight-line winds that travel for hundreds of miles along a weather front. That Pentecost Sunday the winds started in South Dakota and blew clear across to the East Coast, roaring through Michigan at 130 MPH and knocking out power and just about every traffic light in the central part of the state. You couldn’t see the actual wind—it had no color, no tangible substance, nothing you could photograph. But the winds had a lot of oomph that day! Four people in Michigan were killed and over 150 seriously injured by the objects the wind tore apart and tossed about. (If you want to see an amazing radar loop of the derecho coming through Michigan, you can view it here: http://blogs.woodtv.com/2011/05/31/may-31-1998-derecho/ )
Pentecost is the one day of the year when the Church acknowledges in a big way a fact that is true every Sunday and at all times: namely, if we did not have the Holy Spirit, the church would be dead for the same reason you’d soon keel over and die if you stopped breathing right now. Of course even so, it is part of the very nature of the Holy Spirit that it doesn’t call much attention to itself. The Spirit’s job seems to be a history-long highlighting of Jesus. So in order not to get in the way of anyone’s ability to see Jesus as the Living Lord, the Holy Spirit seems quite content to remain about as invisible as a puff of air. The Spirit does not mind one bit if you look clean through him so long as what you are looking at through the Spirit is the Christ of God.
But make no mistake: the Holy Spirit is not the only game in town. There are any number of spirits in life that we can breathe in, get whipped up by, and so be shaped by. But whereas some spirits can consume our lives, only the Holy Spirit of God will finally bring us true life. When God’s Spirit comes down and fills us, we find a purpose, a clarity, and a spark of life that will not and cannot come from anywhere else. The entire creation began when the Spirit of God blew over the waters of chaos. The creation of humanity in the image of God came to its zestful culmination only when the Spirit of God was breathed into the first man’s nostrils. The re-creation of humanity into the image of Christ likewise requires this Pentecostal encounter with the breath of God through the Holy Spirit.
All other spirits in life lead sooner or later to disappointment, confusion, and aimlessness. There is in Scripture a clear parallel between what happened in Genesis 11 at the Tower of Babel and what happened in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Both stories talk about how a group of people are “all together” in one place under the heavens. Both stories have to do with a multiplicity of languages and of God’s involvement in that phenomenon. But each story is the mirror-image opposite of the other.
In Genesis 11 the people decide to mount up to the heavens on their own. They want to build a monument to human achievement so grand and so tall that it will become the focal point for a greater human unity and resolve. But the result of this mounting up to heaven is just the opposite: people end up scattering, having been confused in their languages. Confusion and disunity, not clarity and unity, occur when people on their own try to construct the meaning of life. Of course, Christianity is hardly alone in telling a story about what can happen when mortals try to mount up to be gods. The fall of Icarus, the fate of Prometheus, and other such myths all have the same bottom line: the higher up human beings try to fly, the farther it is they will finally fall.
Most other religions leave it at that. We are told to learn our place in the grander scheme of things and just be content. For people to get close to the gods is detestable to the gods themselves and so dangerous for the people who attempt it. As a well-known line from Shakespeare says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.”
But the Christian vision tells a different story. At Babel humanity tried to mount up to God and fell into confusion as a result. But that was not because God did not want fellowship with humans. God did not frustrate the people at Babel because God just can’t stand human company. God’s ultimate goal, as a matter of fact, is to have fellowship with us. To get that goal, God eventually became human himself! The problem at Babel was that this storming of heaven was being done in an arrogant way and on human terms alone.
The gospel shows us what can happen when God, on God’s own terms of humility and grace, brings heaven down to us. God himself snuck down the back staircase of history to deposit a baby into a manger one starry night long ago. In humility, not pride, the Son of God built his own reverse tower from heaven to earth not so that we could spritely spring our way up but so that he could come down. What happened on Pentecost was another example of this same movement: since we cannot get to heaven, heaven comes to us. And when that Spirit of God blows down from heaven, Babel is reversed! Instead of scattering, people come together. Instead of confusion, a gospel clarity comes. Instead of being a maddening barrier, the multiplicity of languages is transcended so that the same message gets through to everyone.
This Spirit of the living God, this wind and life-giving breath of Pentecost is the only Spirit that can do this. And once it comes, it is all-encompassing. That’s why on the original Pentecost, the apostles were at first deemed to be drop-dead drunk. I’m not sure when “spirit” and “alcohol” first got yoked together, but maybe it was Acts 2. When a person is drunk, the alcohol within him affects everything: thinking, speech, and physical movements are all affected. When the crowds in Jerusalem watched Peter and company carrying on after receiving the Holy Spirit, the conclusion of many was that they were drunk. In a way, they were! They had a new Spirit within them that affected their thinking, their speaking, and their every action and movement. That’s what the Spirit of God is supposed to do for all of us. Pentecost is a good day to check if it does.
As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” The new electronic sign by a local high school near my house regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.
At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob. When that big statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled some years ago, you could see the “spirit” of enthusiasm wash over that crowd in Baghdad. You could no more see that spirit than you can see my breath right now, but you knew it was there. Of course, a similar spiritual contagion has also been whipping up into a frenzy crowds of looters in Baghdad. “Spirit” is real but it can function equally well to inspire good behavior and bad.
Psalm 104:24-34; 35b
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Psalm 104 is a lovely, lyrical hymn of praise to God the Creator and Sustainer. It offers what William P. Brown calls “a grand tour of God’s creation and maintenance of the cosmos.” It glides from verses 2b-9’s description of God’s first acts of creation to verses’ 10-30’s description of God’s ongoing care for what God creates.
Citizens of the 21st century tend to think about and analyze the world in terms of disciplines like science, economics and aesthetics. Psalm 104 invites us to think about that world as “the work of God’s hands.” Those many “works” fill both the earth and the sea. In fact, Psalm 104 seems to want to draw our eyes, ears and attention to the abundance of God’s creatures. After all, verse 24 notes that the earth is “full of” God’s creatures. Verse 25 adds that the “vast and spacious” sea teems “with creatures beyond number.” Yet Psalm 104 reminds us that, in the words of the beautiful hymn, “The Lord God made them all.” In fact, it reminds us that God even creates creatures that seem strange and terrible to us.
This assertion offers an opportunity to reflect on how much more we know about God’s “works” than the psalmist did. After all, he didn’t have microscopes with which to peer into the minutest corners of God’s creation. The psalmist didn’t have a Hubble Telescope with which to stare into the farthest reaches of God’s creation. He didn’t even have undersea apparatus with which to peek into the ocean’s deepest depths. So it may be fair to suggest that we have even more reason than the psalmist did to praise the Lord (1).
God created this abundance, says the psalmist, “in wisdom.” (24). While biblical scholars aren’t sure just what that means, it seems to suggest that God creates with such skill that creatures can do precisely what they need to do. Those plentiful “creatures,” notes the psalmist, include those that fill the earth. So verse 24 is a bit reminiscent of Genesis 1’s account of creation’s sixth day: “And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures, according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind’.”
In verse 25 the psalmist adds with almost breathless awe that God’s work includes the creatures that fill the great seas. That makes it reminiscent of Genesis 1’s account of creation’s fifth day: “And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures’ … So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the sea teems … God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas’.”
Those who read verse 26 may be surprised by its inclusion in the list of abundant sea creatures of the “leviathan.” After all, it was a mythological creature that terrified mariners. The psalmist’s contemporaries thought of the leviathan as an enemy of both God and people. Yet in verse 26 the psalmist compares it to what the NIV Study Bible calls “God’s pet playing in the ocean.” So he invites worshipers to think of God and the leviathan as what Brown calls “playmates.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 104 may want to reflect with hearers on the contrast between its theology and some views of our world. After all, if our contemporaries think of God at all, they tend to think of God as perhaps creating the world but then having nothing to do with it afterwards. By contrast, Psalm 104 views God as vigorously and intimately involved in caring for what God so lovingly and wisely created. Even when worshipers take into account the psalmist’s pre-scientific understanding of the world, we can’t help but marvel at the truths it communicates about God’s deep ongoing involvement in the world God so loves.
Psalm 104 vigorously asserts that God provides for what God makes, including wild animals, trees and even mountains. So the psalmist insists that creation completely depends on God for its sustenance. In fact, her imagery brings to mind a kind of servile or childlike dependence. Psalm 104 invites hearers to think of creation as a baby hungrily straining toward his mother’s breast.
So when God generously provides, the psalmist adds, creatures eagerly scoop up the provision. He uses language that’s reminiscent of Exodus 16’s description of Israel’s act of eagerly gathering manna. It’s vivid language of timely provision, inviting worshipers to think of God’s “hand” as open rather clenched in anger or miserliness. Psalm 104 reminds us that God is very generous, an attribute of God that worshipers sometimes neglect.
Yet when God is not generous with God’s creatures, those creatures suffer. When God looks away, when God withdraws the breath of life, dependent creatures are terrified. They so rely on God’s timely provision that when God turns away, they, in fact, die and return to dust, the very stuff of which Genesis 2 reports God created Adam. However, when God sends God’s creatures God’s life-giving spirit that hovered over the primordial waters at creation, creatures are made and renewed.
Psalm 104’s hymn of adoration concludes with a prayer to the Creator and Sustainer of creation. The psalmist prays that God’s glory will “endure forever.” God’s creation and creatures may be fragile and short-lived, depending completely on God’s generous provision. However, the psalmist prays that God’s glory won’t be fragile, that it will outlast even the creation as we know it.
Yet in a lovely, poetic but perhaps surprising turn, the psalmist also prays that God will rejoice in God’s works. This offers a chance to reflect on how often we think of God as rejoicing. God’s children sometimes think of God as punishing and forgiving, as being angry and loving. However, they may not often think of God as delighting in things. Yet the psalmist invites worshipers to think of God’s care for what God makes not as drudgery, but as something God enjoys. So perhaps, as Brown notes, God’s children’s own care for creation is something not to be just endured, but enjoyed as we celebrate the abundance with which God fills God’s works.
The Revised Common Lectionary offers Psalm 104’s preachers and teachers the opportunity to skip verse 35a’s troubling words. Yet that verse offers an opportunity to explore just how it fits into the rest of the psalm. The psalmist prays, apparently harshly, that sinners will vanish from the earth and that the wicked will no longer exist.
It may seem difficult to reconcile this prayer with the majestic and lyric hymn that is Psalm 104. Yet verse 35a’s words remind us that the wicked mar that for which God cares so deeply, God’s creation and creatures. After all, Psalm 104’s creational chaos comes not from mythical beasts like the leviathan, but from “human” monsters. What’s more, one might interpret verse 35a’s plea not as a prayer for sinners’ obliteration, but for their repentance and regeneration. After all, were sinners to join God’s creation and creatures in recognizing their complete dependence on their Creator and Sustainer, God’s whole creation would join together to sing to the Lord as long as it lasts.
The Lectionary’s appointment of this psalm for Pentecost Sunday offers an interpretation of verse 30’s “When you send your Spirit, they are created.” The Holy Spirit is God’s Pentecost gift to God’s sons and daughters. When God sends us the Spirit, we are, in a sense re-created so that we may more and more conform to the likeness of Jesus Christ.
Few activities are more pleasant than feeding birds. The late Jane Kenyon wrote a lovely poem describing that activity that she entitled, “At the Feeder.” It delightfully capture’s birds’ dependence for their provision and hints at the delight God takes in generously feeding God’s creatures.
“First the Chickadees take/ their share, then fly/ to the bittersweet vine, / where they crack open their seeds, / excited, like poets/ opening the day’s mail./ And the evening Grosbeaks — / those large and prosperous/ finches – resemble skiers/, with the latest equipment, bright/ yellow goggles on their faces.
Now the Bluejay comes in/ for a landing like a SAC bomber/ returning to Plattsburgh/ after a day of patrolling the ozone./ Every teacup in the pantry rattles./ The solid and graceful bodies/ of Nuthatches, perpetually/ upside down, like Yogis … / and Slate-Colored Juncoes, feeding/ on the ground, taking only/ what falls to them.”
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Pentecost presents preachers with the same challenge as Christmas and Easter. What shall we preach on? I mean, every Christian already knows what these high holy days are about. So how we can preach the Good News of these glad days in a way that will interest and inspire folks who know every part of the story? What part of the familiar story will we focus on this year? Shall we watch Jesus breathe his Spirit on his disciples in John 20, the Johannine Pentecost, and encourage the church to go where Jesus has sent us? Shall we revisit the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, and emphasize how the Spirit empowers the church for its witness and brings in a marvelous harvest at the end of the day? (Both are assigned texts in the 2014 Year A RCL cycle.) Or shall we go back another 1,000 years and exult with the Psalmist in the Spirit’s role in giving life to all creation (Psalm 104, also in the Year A readings for Pentecost)?
Our reading from I Corinthians gives us yet another angle on Pentecost, an angle that just might resonate with the church in a culture that is increasingly “spiritual, but not religious” and certainly not Christian. A little while ago, a bestselling book by Elizabeth Gilbert spoke to and for this cultural phenomenon. Eat Pray Love was about her quest to experience everything, including God. In the middle of her journey, she goes to India to find God, and she does. She has deeply spiritual experiences and gets in touch with “god.”
I put the word “god” in the lower case, because she is very explicit in rejecting the Christian God. She says that this business of “Jesus as the only way to God” is too narrow and restrictive. She wants no part of dogma or religion in the Christian sense, though she is wide open to the dogma and religion of the mystical East. So, of course, the god she finds is the god within: her own divine self. Gilbert speaks for the millions who are spiritual but not religious. They are interested in spiritual things but not in Jesus or the religion based on his person and work and teaching.
I Corinthians 12 begins with these words, “Now concerning pneumatikon….” The NIV translates that “spiritual gifts,” because that is clearly what Paul’s major subject in this chapter is. But the word “gifts” isn’t in the original. Paul says simply, I don’t want you to be ignorant about “spirituals,” about things that are spiritual, about things that have to do with the Spirit. Obviously he is referring to the Holy Spirit because that Spirit is central in what follows. But this text gives us a way of preaching on Pentecost that is very relevant to our culture and to the church that is always influenced by that culture. Let’s talk about spiritual things.
As I said, this chapter focuses on spiritual gifts, but Paul also talks about spiritual things that are more fundamental to the Christian faith and life. In fact, our reading for today is bracketed by profound explanations of the central confession that gives us our identity as Christians and of the community that our spiritual gifts are designed to serve. Genuine spirituality, spirituality given by the Holy Spirit, is always centered on Jesus as Lord and always finds expression in the Body of Christ. In other words, healthy spirituality is by definition deeply “religious” and profoundly Christian.
Paul is not at all sympathetic to pagan spirituality. Paul says that the formerly pagan members of the Corinthian church had once been “led astray to mute idols,” an echo of Old Testament mockery of idols that could not hear or speak or act for those who worshiped them. Now these idol worshipers have come to the living God, to Jesus as Lord. Paul insists that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Of course, people can say those words, but they won’t mean them and they won’t bow down to Jesus as Lord, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, says Paul, they cannot (the word is dunatai, a word of ability and power) make that central Christian confession. No one is able to bend the knee to Jesus as Lord, except by the work of the Spirit. Idol worshipers become Christ followers only by the work of the Spirit.
This is the first work of the Spirit, the work on which everything in the Christian life hinges. In his farewell discourse, Jesus said that the Spirit’s main work would be to lead people to the truth about Jesus. “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” (John 16:13, 14) The church’s evangelistic mission can’t be successful and the use of all its gifts will be fruitless, unless the Spirit brings people to Christ.
Remember what happened on the first Pentecost in Acts 2. A gifted church fully aware of its Christ-given mission was inactive until the Spirit was poured out. Then a Spirit inspired sermon resulted in the conversion of 3,000 souls. Peter thundered that God had made this Jesus “both Lord and Christ” and the Spirit cut open the hard hearts of the crowd. When they cried out, “Brothers, what shall we do,” Peter urged them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is first of all about the fact that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:21).” And the fact is, says Paul in our text, that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit’s main work is to connect people to Christ.
Then he connects them to Christ’s Body, the church. The idea of a truly spiritual person flourishing outside of the church would never have occurred to the apostle Paul or any other early Christian. After talking about the unity in diversity of the human body, Paul says “So it is with Christ.” Note that he doesn’t say, “So it is with the church,” though he will say that at length in a moment. Rather, using the literary device called metonymy, he speaks of the body in terms of its head, Christ. If you are in Christ by the work of the Spirit, then you are automatically in his Body, the church.
This, too, is the work of the Spirit. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” There are wildly different interpretations of “baptized by one Spirit” and “given one Spirit to drink.” As you can imagine, sacramentalists hear references to water baptism and the Eucharist in these words. Non-sacramentalists hear these words as references to regeneration (we are born again by the Holy Spirit) and our ongoing growth in grace (we receive the Spirit as nourishment). The Spirit is not only poured on us in our spiritual baptism; he is also poured into us, so that he indwells us and we can overflow with Spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit. John Calvin said the text refers to both. Baptism is our entry into the church and Christ. The Lord’s Supper nourishes our life in the church and in Christ. The Spirit makes real what the sacraments signify and seal to us.
What is the connection between the sacraments and the Spirit? This knotty question has divided the church for centuries. Do the sacraments “contain” the Spirit, so that the Spirit automatically connects us to Christ through the sacrament? Or does the Spirit freely use the sacraments to connect us to Christ by working faith in us through the sacraments?
Thankfully, we don’t to answer that question to get Paul’s main point here. He wants Christians to know that the Spirit has not only brought them to Christ, but also into Christ’s Body, the church. Not only their main confession, but also their main community is the work of the Spirit. So Pentecost is a call to confess that “Jesus is Lord” and to celebrate the community we have in him.
Only in the light of those bracketing truths can the church make proper use of its spiritual gifts. Only if you use your gifts in service to Christ and in service to your fellow Christians will those gifts accomplish the purpose intended by the Spirit. Apparently, the Corinthians weren’t using their gifts in that way. The variety of gifts had spawned an unhealthy, unspiritual competition. “My gift is greater than yours.” “Those people with that gift are superior to the rest of us.” So between the brackets, Paul gets specific and personal.
But first he begins with a fascinating reference to the Trinity in verses 4-6. It’s an important reminder that the entire Trinity is involved with our salvation. Over the centuries various traditions have tended to emphasize one member of the Trinity over the others. So, liberal Protestants have trumpeted the Fatherhood of God. Evangelicals have focused on the Son of God, preaching “Christ and him crucified.” Charismatics have emphasized the centrality of the Spirit for the Christian life. Paul says, “Don’t do that! The Triune God is the God who saves you.” Yes, the Spirit gives gifts (charismaton). But the Lord Jesus gives diakonion, service, ministry. And the Father gives the energy (energemeton) to use those gifts in that service. Here’s a clear call to be Trinitarian not only in our theology and our worship, but also in our practical Christian living.
But now Paul focuses on the work of the Spirit involved in giving various gifts to the church (verses 7-11). His point is that the same Spirit gives each one of those gifts. Note how often he mentions the “same” Spirit, even “one and the same Spirit.” Thus, each gift is as “spiritual,” as Holy Spirit given, as the others. We have no legitimate basis for considering any gift more or less important than the others, since each of them came from the same Spirit.
Furthermore, each one of us has a Spirit given gift. There are no exceptions. Even if you don’t know your gift(s), you have at least one. All Christians are spiritually gifted; there’s no such thing as an ordinary Christian. Paul’s words in verse 7 reminded me of Garrison Keillor’s fictional home town, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, in which “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Paul doesn’t intend to be funny here; he intends to correct. These Corinthians had turned their gifts into a competition as fierce as the NCAA basketball tournament in March. So, he says, “The Spirit has given those gifts to you not as a badge of superiority, but for the benefit of others. They aren’t for you to brag about; they are for you to use for the good of the community.” It isn’t likely that your congregation is engaged in such competition. In fact, it’s more likely that they are unaware of their gifts and feeling a bit inferior and useless. This text can be a wonderful encouragement to our congregations. Pentecost is a call to celebrate the Good News that the Spirit of Jesus has entrusted every one of us with a special gift.
The challenge is to identify our spiritual gifts. Paul helps us here by giving us a representative list. The problem is that it’s hard to define what each one really is. For example, what is a message or word of wisdom, and how does it differ from a message of knowledge? Are these some special supernatural revelations? Or are they ordinary wisdom and knowledge applied in a spiritual way? Usually we think of wisdom as the ability to see all of life and manage it wisely, so that life works well. And knowledge is a specific piece of information. Some think that knowledge here is a special knowledge of God, such as Paul prayed for in Ephesians 3:14-19. Many people think they know for sure what these gifts are, but others have equally assured definitions. Perhaps the most we can say for sure is that they are “pedagogical” gifts that can teach the church.
Then there are the even more mysterious “supernatural gifts” of faith, healings and miraculous powers. Clearly, “faith” is not saving faith, since all Christians have that gift. Paul is probably referring to the kind of faith that Jesus said could “move mountains,” the kind of faith that would be at work in healings and miracles. Until the charismatic renewal hit the church in the 20th century, many Christians were sure that the Spirit had stopped giving these “supernatural” gifts to the church. In this non-apostolic age, these gifts were no longer functioning. But then they seemed to appear again, and the church had to ask if the Bible really taught the cessation of such “special” gifts. My church concluded that the Bible didn’t teach such cessation and encouraged the use of even these gifts, provided that they were used according to the guidelines laid down in these words of Paul. Just don’t think they are greater!
And don’t think that the “communicative” gifts of prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues have opened a new age of revelation to the church. Whatever these gifts amount to, they do not trump the Bible. The canon of inspired Scripture is closed, and whatever communication you receive through these spiritual gifts must be tested by the infallible Word of God. Any word that is legitimately from God, whether it takes the form of prophecy or tongues, will always lead to the confession “Jesus is Lord” and to the community that honors him as such. I could say much more about these “communicative” gifts, but Paul big point is clearer than any explanation of individual gifts I could give. The Holy Spirit always connects to Christ and his church, so any spirituality that doesn’t lead us there is not from God. As I said before, Pentecost calls the “spiritual but not religious” crowd to come to Christ and his church.
I found it interesting that the allegedly stern, logically rigorous theologian John Calvin explained the proper use of the church’s various gifts using the metaphor of music. “The harmony of the church lies in the fact that it is a unity of many parts; in other words, when the different gifts are all directed to one and the same end, just as in music different parts are adjusted to each other and combined so well that they produce one harmonious piece.”