Day of Pentecost A

June 02, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 20:19-23

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 2:1-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 104:24-34; 35b

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    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.

    Illustration Idea

    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.”