May 25, 2020
The Pentecost A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 20:19-23 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 2:1-21 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 94 (Lord’s Day 34)
Author: Scott Hoezee
My friend the Bible teacher/commentator Dale Bruner is a wonderful teacher of biblical stories. He is largely retired now but years ago part of Dale’s teachings usually included some dramatic re-enactments of the story at hand. He always elicited 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! (Wondering Question: Will our resurrection bodies be capable of halitosis? Perhaps not. And even now: someday it may be safe to breathe on each other again too!)
This is in some ways John’s version of Pentecost 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 to play some version of the children’s game “Duck, Duck, Goose” by 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!
But of course since this is a Pentecost Lectionary text—but since we associate Pentecost with something that happened 50 days after Easter—not something that happened on Easter Sunday itself—we need to wonder what the connection is between this John 20 reception of the Spirit and the better-known, dramatic story of Acts 2.
We think John wrote his gospel 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 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 keep 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. (And anyway, when we look at the state of the disciples in the next chapter of John 21, they don’t exactly display the transformative change that will come after Acts 2—so whatever this reception of the Spirit entailed, it was not what we might call “the full monty”.)
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.” If you have seen the movie of this made a few years back, then you recall this scene 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: Stan Mast
Every pulpit veteran has preached on this story many times, but this year we have a ready-made angle into it. We have seen more than our share of violent winds the past year, haven’t we? Hurricanes in the Caribbean, tornadoes all over the South, and in my home territory of West Michigan those bomb cyclones that levelled whole stands of trees and some houses. When we hear the sound of a mighty wind today, it sends us running for the basement and puts us on our knees asking God to protect us from its destructive power.
So when we tell our churches today that we should all be on our knees asking God to send us a windstorm, they may wonder if we have lost our sanity. But, of course, we are referring to this Pentecost story, in which the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and into the world was announced by “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind from heaven.”
The reason for that phenomenon lies in the ancient biblical languages. The word “Spirit” in both Hebrew and Greek is a word that also means wind or breath. The Bible often speaks of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, as the breath or wind of God. In the Pentecost story we see what happens when the wind of God blows through a church and a city. Let’s look at the story of the most famous windstorm of all time, the story of Pentecost, “the day the wind blew and the church grew” (my suggestion for a title for this sermon).
Notice two things to begin with—the condition of the church before the wind and the condition of the church after. Before the storm, Acts 2:1 says, “they were all together in one place.” And that’s good—they were together, all of them, all 120 of them, meeting in one place. Verse 13 of the previous chapter tells us that they were in an upper room. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see them in the very same room where they had shared the last supper with Jesus. They probably spent a great deal of time retelling their memories of Jesus.
That previous chapter also tells the story of the election of the 12th apostle to take the place of Judas the traitor. They did it carefully and prayerfully. Earlier in that chapter in verse 14 we read that they “all joined together constantly in prayer.” For 10 days they had been doing that; undoubtedly that’s what they were doing the day the wind blew.
In other words, they had been conducting the business of the church, decently and in good order and with deep dependence on God. The church at the beginning of Acts 2 before the storm was a neat, tidy, well-run, devoutly prayerful little band of genuine believers in Jesus Christ who loved to get together to do the proper business of the church. Which of us wouldn’t love to serve a church like that?
Then the wind blew. What was the church like at the end of Acts 2, after it blew? Well, they, too, were all together. They were still devoted to the teaching of the apostles and to each other and to prayer and to the celebration of communion. But it doesn’t sound like the same bunch. For one thing, there were 3000 more of them now. And they weren’t so neat and quiet anymore. There is a general sense of awe and excitement bubbling up out of them and all around them.
They were no longer shut up in the upper room. Now they have gone public, out in the temple, where the people and their enemies were. And they were spilling over into each other’s homes, eating together with glad and sincere hearts. Miracles were happening, not the least of which was a sacrificial generosity. People were selling their possessions and giving to anyone who had need. Everyone was praising God. Even non-believers were speaking well of them. It was a holy, happy hubbub, a big, boisterous love-in. And the Lord kept adding daily to their number those who were being saved.
What had happened? We know the answer. The wind of God blew and that wind produced two great miracles, perhaps the two greatest miracles God has ever done, after the creation of the world and the resurrection of Jesus. No, I’m not talking about the tongues of fire and the speaking in tongues. I’m talking about what the church did with its newfound ability in foreign languages and how the people who heard Peter responded. The two greatest miracles of Pentecost are the fact that the church began to testify about Jesus out in the world and the world responded with repentance and faith. The wind of God blew open the church’s mouth and the world’s heart.
Before Pentecost, the church was eager, but unable. They were willing to carry on the mission of Jesus. They said, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel? We’re with you Jesus. We want to see your kingdom come. Let’s go.” And he replied, “Wait for the promise. You need power to be my witnesses.” They were eager, but they lacked the power.
It wasn’t that they lacked knowledge and needed to learn more, take some more classes. They had gone about with Jesus for 3 years, had heard his teaching, and knew him personally as their Savior and as the Risen and Ascended Lord. But they weren’t able to share that knowledge with a lost world. They lacked the power.
So, in spite of their eagerness and knowledge, their lips were sealed out in the world. Then the wind blew. God breathed them full of the Spirit, and they began to speak of Jesus to everyone they met in ways that filled everyone with awe and praise. It was a miracle. It still is.
Perhaps even greater was the other miracle of Pentecost. When Peter spoke to the crowd that day, he was speaking to people whose hearts were absolutely closed to Christ. In fact, in verse 23 he identifies them as Christ killers. “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (For my cautionary comments on the use of “Christ killers” see my April 19, 2020 piece on Acts 2:14a, 22-32 on this CEP website.) These were people whose hearts were hardened. Though they had heard the words of Jesus and witnessed his miracles, they had hearts of stone toward him.
But then on this day when the wind blew, they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and, it says in verse 37, “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and other apostles, ‘What shall we do.’” The word “cut” there means to pierce or stab with a sharp instrument like a needle, or a knife, or a sword. That, of course, is exactly what happened. When the wind blew Peter’s mouth open and he preached this sermon about Jesus, the Holy Spirit pulled the sword of the Spirit out of its scabbard and plunged it deep into the hearts of these Christ killers. And suddenly hearts that were closed in hardened unbelief were opened and softened, and Christ killers became seekers after Christ. “What shall we do?” And before the day was done, 3000 of them were baptized believers. Because the wind of God blew into their hearts and blew the doors off. It was a miracle. It still is.
So, we can clearly see what Pentecost is about. It is about new possibilities for the church and the world, for you and me and the unbelievers we love and the unbelievers we don’t even know. The church today needs to have its doors blown off by the wind of God. I do, and so do many of you. We don’t need more knowledge; at least most of us don’t. We know Jesus and we know a lot about him. We don’t need a greater sense of duty; we know what we’re supposed to do. We even want to do it, at least in our better moments. What we need is power, the power only God’s Spirit can give, the power to speak the name of Jesus out in the world. Only the wind of God can turn a neat, tidy, devoted band of genuine disciples who love Christ’s church into a dynamic, bubbling, Gospel-sharing church that loves the world as God does.
What the world needs is to a change of heart. Politicians and educators, business leaders and social commentators, artists and activists agonize over race relations, gender equality, climate change, international tensions, political rivalries, poverty and war and disease and billions of individual tragedies. What causes all this pain and evil? As they flail around looking for an answer, the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:19 come back to us again and again. It is “out of the heart that evil thoughts come, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, and the like.” What the world needs, what every human needs is a change of heart. We need to have the wind of God blow through our world and pierce hearts and open them to Christ and turn people’s lives around from the inside out.
Here’s how I would end my Pentecost sermon on “the day the wind blew and the church grew.” If you have a burden for the church or the world, if you are troubled by the church’s ineffective witness in the world or by the hardness of the world’s heart, or, more personally, if you are dissatisfied with your own witness for Christ or you have someone you love who is absolutely closed to Jesus, pray for a windstorm.
Now, I know that Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3 that the wind blows where it wills. Of course, that’s true. You cannot command the Spirit. But it is a fact that the early church had been praying for 10 days about this very thing, when suddenly the wind blew. And it is a fact that Jesus promised God will answer your prayer. In Luke 11:13 he said, ‘If you then who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” So pray, my friends, pray for a windstorm.
That’s what it will take to change the church and the world, you and me, as we face a world filled with problems and questions. As the old folk song said, “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.”
The church today often looks like a mirror image of the early church. Instead spilling out into the world speaking the Gospel in many languages so that people from all over the world are gathered into one body, various segments of the church are speaking to each other in closed little groups, each with its own secret, coded, special interest, politically charged language. No wonder the western church isn’t growing. No wonder the number of people who identify as “none” is now nearly a quarter of the population in the US. There’s not awe and wonder at the miracles happening in the church as people of all stripes love each other with abandon and sacrifice. Instead there’s scorn and ridicule at the church’s hypocrisy and division. If ever we needed a bomb cyclone, a tornado, a hurricane of the Spirit, it is now. Let us pray.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Author: Scott Hoezee
Probably Psalm 104:30 is the primary reason why this psalm is assigned in the Year A Lectionary for Pentecost Sunday. And probably this fits overall, but we have to admit that in those translations in which the word “spirit” is capitalized in verse 30—and in other psalms—we are being told by the translators to think of the Holy Spirit. It goes without saying, though, that the psalmists did not have a Doctrine of the Trinity in mind in what they wrote nor any sense that there is a Person within God distinct from a Father or a Son with a formal name of Holy Spirit (capital “S”). Every translation is also something of an interpretation. It is almost unavoidable in the translation process. But one could wonder whether it is a bit of an interpretive overreach to capitalize “Spirit” in this psalm to direct one to think in trinitarian terms.
It may be correct, theologically, to see Old Testament references to God’s spirit—including in the creation account in Genesis 1—as in retrospect an early hint of the fullness of the three Persons in God that would crystalize only after the incarnation. But it does run the risk of making us miss what this would have meant to the original authors of those passages, including the poet who composed the wonderful ode to the creation that is Psalm 104.
Literally, of course, “spirit” in these passages is the Hebrew ruach and also literally this word can mean “wind” or “vapor” or even more vitally for Psalm 104 “breath.” And that is the key to understanding the ending of Psalm 104. The psalmist is not saying God sends some personal agent in the form of the Third Person of the Trinity to every creature on earth but that God is somehow the vital life force—the very breath in the lungs—of all creatures who live. If God breathes onto a creature, it lives and has life. If God stops breathing on that creature, it dies.
I suppose that long about now as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, pondering the very breath in our lungs has peculiar poignance for us. The prospect of a virus quite literally stealing the air from our chests is terrifying. Breathing is something we all do on average 16 times per minute and unlike most of our movements and such, respiration is autonomic—we do not need to think about it or will ourselves to do it (good thing, too, or we’d get very little else done, never mind how sleeping might go . . .). In fact, the only time we pay attention to our breathing is when something is going wrong. In a panic we begin to hyperventilate. Or when sick our lungs don’t work right—fluid replaces at least some of the empty space in our pulmonary air sacs such that each breath nets us less results than usual. When the air sacs totally fill up with fluid, we die (of pneumonia usually—the very word containing the Greek pneuma or “spirit”, the Hebrew equivalent of ruach).
Psalm 104 claims that each breath is given by God. It makes it sound like this is a conscious action on God’s part, which of course is a little hard to take literally. The average adult takes 23,000 breaths per day and nearly 8.4 million breaths per year. In a country like the U.S. of roughly 300 million people, that might be a total of 2.5 quadrillion breaths per year to keep everyone going. One cannot quite see God breathing in and out of each person’s mouth and nostrils every single time. And let’s not even factor in what Psalm 104 includes: birds, beasts, dogs, cats, gophers. Everybody. We are talking about a lot of breaths!
Similarly with the Psalm’s claims that God personally feeds and waters every creature. That would be a lot of meals per day! Surely the Almighty God of the universe has other things to do.
But, of course, we are reminded that the psalms are poetry and so traffic in the language of hyperbole and symbolism. God no more literally breathes into each person’s nostrils 16 times a minute than another poet’s lover really looks like a red, red rose or than a given person in some literal way resembles the summer’s day to which the poet compared her. We know how to handle things like poetry and metaphor.
But that does not for a moment diminish the truth that is behind such sentiments. Nor should we miss the fact that poetry, metaphor, and simile are what we reach for when what we want to articulate or convey goes beyond the conventions of literal, mundane speech. What lies behind such poetics is often something profound.
And so also in Psalm 104: the entire poem celebrates God’s sovereignty over all creation. God made everything that exists—every creature, every species, every wild and wonderful variation of color and sound and smell and taste and texture. And God is somehow the glue that holds it all together even now and it is God—now through Christ Jesus as the New Testament reveals in places like Colossians 1—who imbues the whole creation with a hope that goes beyond whatever suffering decay, or diminishment we see now due to our fallenness.
Somehow the very spirit of God—and yes, maybe this is part of the work of the Holy Spirit as we would recognize that Spirit post-Pentecost—really does allow the whole kit-n-kaboodle to live and thrive. No, perhaps not in the most literal sense of every one of the 23,000 breaths we each take each day. But God does overarch and undergird the whole thing. For God the lyric written by the singer Sting for the group The Police is actually true: “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.”
That sense of God’s providing us with our very ruach may or may not connect as directly to the Person of the Holy Spirit as translations with a capital “S” might have us think. But God’s attending to us by the gentle (now indwelling) presence of that Spirit is right. It’s a right reason to give God all the praise Psalm 104 tries to muster for the whole glorious panoply of the entire creation. And it’s more than a good Pentecostal reason to give God the glory for our salvation in Jesus. Because through Jesus and now by his Holy Spirit we do see the truth of that well-known line from John 1: “In him was light and that light was the life of all people.”
And so we say with Psalm 104: “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God for as long as I live.” But going beyond Psalm 104 we know that “as long as I live” will be forever. Because Someone once said “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will never die but live.” Thanks be to God for giving breath to all God’s creatures, now and into eternity!
One of the greatest innovations in emergency medicine and first aid over the last century was the development of CPR, Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation. Although many heart attacks prove to be too catastrophic to recover from, in a decent percentage of cases people who suffer a cardiac arrest for whatever the reason can be saved with the swift administration of CPR—it works to save a life about 45% of the time it is administered according to the American Red Cross.
Not too terribly long ago someone figured out that we can take the breath from our lungs and transfer it to another person’s lungs to save their life (along with chest compressions that keep blood pumping and the brain profused with oxygen until something might be done to jumpstart the heart). I suppose since Genesis pictures God breathing God’s ruach / breath into Adam’s nostrils at the dawn of creation, we might have tumbled to the idea behind CPR way earlier than we actually did. In any event, CPR may turn out to be a small part of the Image of God in us: taking our own ruach and letting it bring life to another.
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Author: Doug Bratt
God’s adopted sons and daughters profess that the Holy Spirit graciously gives us a relationship not only with Jesus Christ, but also with other Christians. The Spirit whose Pentecost Christians celebrate on this Sunday links us not only to Christ our brother, but also our adopted brothers and sisters in Christ.
God’s people generally like being related to Christ. Through him, after all, we receive the gifts and eternal life. On top of that, his adopted brothers and sisters don’t have to deal with our Elder Brother face to face. So he doesn’t get on our nerves by doing things like hanging around too long or offending us.
God’s adopted family members can’t always, however, make the same claim about our Christian brothers and sisters. They, after all, are with us almost always and everywhere. While our siblings in Christ are often a source of blessing and encouragement, they also sometimes annoy, disappoint and anger us.
So on this Pentecost Sunday, 1 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers might point out that while we generally like the privileges that come with being a Christian, we don’t always enjoy its obligations. Jesus’ followers sometimes appreciate the gift of being a Christian more than its responsibilities.
When the Holy Spirit unites Jesus’ followers with Jesus Christ, the Spirit doesn’t make us solitary Christians. There are no “only children” in God’s family. The Spirit makes us one with Christ’s body and its individual members. As a result, the Spirit makes God’s dearly beloved people, in one sense, responsible to and for each other.
The Holy Spirit gives to God’s adopted children Christ and all his blessings, in other words, not just for our sakes, but also for the sake of the people around us. So we serve the Lord by, among other things, serving our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We try to care for the various parts of our physical bodies. Because I have cancer, I take medicine to control it. When our son broke his wrist, doctors put a cast on it to protect it. People who are overweight do what we can to lose weight.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reminds its proclaimers and hearers that God calls us to extend our care for our physical bodies to our care for Christ’s body. Jesus’ followers want to care as much for the body that is Christ’s Church as we do our own bodies.
Yet even those God adopts into God’s family are naturally sinful people whose own welfare naturally obsesses us. So we sometimes view showing concern about other members of Christ’s body as a burden. What God’s people will gladly do in the new creation we now view as a command.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, God challenges Christians to care for each other. After all, Christ’s body doesn’t just include the people for whom its members naturally care and whom we generally like.
The Church also includes Christians who sometimes frustrate, anger or hurt us. In fact, God repeatedly challenges God’s adopted sons and daughters to love and treat even Christians whom we don’t like as God loves and treats us.
Of course, Jesus’ followers recognize how much we actively sin against each other. Yet we naturally overlook how easily we also fail to do each other good. Perhaps that’s because Christians don’t always consider the sin of neglect to be as serious as, for instance, breaking one of the commandments.
Our consciences sometimes quickly and unmistakably remind us when we’ve done something God doesn’t want us to do. Yet God’s dearly beloved people don’t always listen to them when we fail to do what God calls us to do.
However, God’s dearly beloved people profess that the sin of what we once called “omission” is fully as serious as what we called sins of “commission.” God takes very seriously our failure to use what verse 7 calls “manifestations of the Spirit … for the common good.”
Each time I help our church’s food pantry feed our hungry neighbors, I proudly remember the sheep and the goats’ parable’s commendation of those who feed the hungry. I more readily forget, however, Jesus’ condemnation of sins of omission.
Some of those the King scolds, after all, ask him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” After all, if we knew Jesus was in the hospital or a homeless shelter, we’d rush to help him.
“The King will reply,” Jesus answers. “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” What, in other words, we fail to do for society’s most vulnerable members, we fail to do for Jesus himself. Such neglect is a failure to lovingly share some of the gifts Christ lived, died and rose again to share with us.
Of course, the gifts Paul mentions in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson don’t necessarily refer to financial gifts. They refer to all of the abilities that God has given God’s adopted family members for God’s glory and each other’s benefit.
So, for instance, Paul refers to talents for wisdom, healing and even speaking in tongues. He implies that, for example, even the person who is materially poor who is bound to her home can exercise the manifestation of the Spirit that is prayer for the creation and its creatures, including people. While the exercise of that gift may not seem like much, it’s at least arguably the greatest gift we can give each other.
Of course, it’s easiest for me to recognize when you aren’t using your gifts and talents for the “common good” than when I’m failing to do so. Perhaps that’s why Paul challenges Jesus’ followers to examine ourselves. We relentlessly ask ourselves not only what gifts God has given us, but also how we can use them.
Christians then use those talents the Spirit has given us not only for each other’s spiritual welfare, but also for their physical well-being. Jesus, after all, didn’t just feed the crowds the bread of life that is salvation. He also fed hungry people bread that they could eat and from which they could draw nourishment.
Of course, some Christians concentrate on peoples’ physical well-being, focusing on what they can “use.” By doing so, however, we basically treat each other like animals that only need food and drink.
Other Christians, however, focus on others’ spiritual well-being. They only worry about peoples’ “souls.” Yet by doing so we ignore the fact that God created us not only with souls, but also with bodies that God will raise to reunite with our souls when Jesus returns.
The Bible suggests that the manifestations of the Spirit that is care for peoples’ material well-being is especially focused on people who are poor. In fact it at least suggests that it’s no less sinful to fail to care for people’s physical needs than it is to neglect preaching the gospel or discipling people.
So God’s people bring our offerings to the Lord, not just for the work of the church, but also for our care for the poor. In our daily lives we also look for ways to support kingdom causes that minister in Jesus’ name to needy people. On top of all that, we also look for ways to minister to needy people ourselves.
However, Christians also share our spiritual gifts with each other when we show loving concern for each other’s spiritual well-being. We don’t just talk to others about our concerns for peoples’ spiritual health. Jesus’ followers also lovingly and prayerfully speak to those we know who seem to be spiritually wandering or endangering themselves.
God has, after all, given God’s beloved people rich spiritual treasures not only of salvation and eternal life, but also of the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t, however, give us those gifts so that we can hoard them. God graces us those wonderful gifts so that can, in turn, share them with each other, encouraging and praying for each other.
That sharing, in some ways, begins in families. That sharing begins within relationships that are founded, both in our families and friendships, in the Lord. Yet Jesus’ followers don’t only share our gifts with our believing friends and family members.
God also challenge us to share them with Christians with whom we have some kind of contact. Some of those Christians don’t deserve our gifts and talents. But we remember that those the Spirit gifts didn’t deserve those talents either.
So those whom the Spirit has so gifted don’t just share our talents with people we like or those who are easy to be around. Jesus’ followers perhaps especially find ways to share what we have with those who bother or disappoint us.
However, this sometimes requires the kind of attentiveness our busy and often distracted culture doesn’t always cultivate. The people who are hurting in our own church communities, for instance, don’t always publish their misery.
So those who are eager to share their gifts for the common good find ways to contact such people outside of the church setting. Christians find ways to swallow our annoyances with needy Christians in order to minister to and with them in Jesus’ name.
However, God’s adopted sons and daughters also remember that there are also spiritual gifts that we can use for the salvation of those who don’t yet know Jesus Christ. So Christians pray for family members and friends who haven’t yet faithfully received God’s grace.
Jesus’ followers also pray for missionaries who proclaim the gospel on our behalf. What’s more, we find ways to share our faith with those we know who don’t yet know Jesus Christ. The ultimate good people can experience is, after all, the joy of knowing Jesus Christ as their Brother, Lord and Savior.
Since it is, frankly, not easy to recognize how 1 Corinthians 12’s specific “manifestations of the Spirit” might be applied to the current pandemic, those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may need to be a bit creative. In fact, rather than stretching it to fit this crisis, its proclaimers might want to draw on other lists of spiritual gifts such as those found in Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4.
Not everyone’s conception of the manifestations of the Spirit is for the common good.
In a 1983 article in Context magazine, Martin E. Marty quotes an article in Sports Illustrated about the retired professional boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard. It relates how Leonard told an audience at Harvard University: “I consider myself blessed. I consider you blessed. We’ve all been blessed with God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beatin’ people up.”