Acts 2:1-4 | 1 Corinthians 12:1-13
So today we celebrate one of the great festivals of the Christian Church.
Actually, strictly speaking, today we are celebrating four of the great festivals of the Christian Church, all in one go.
Later in our service we will join together to share in the festival, the sacrament of communion, sharing together brad and wine as we remember Jesus’ last supper with his friends, and his words his words about his own death – a death willingly accepted because it was a part of the process of reconciliation.
And the reason we join together for worship on a Sunday, and not on Saturday, the Sabbath, as our Jewish heritage would suggest, is because we are celebrating the great mystery of the resurrection; the miracle in which that willingly accepted death was turned around into new life, new hope, new opportunities.
And of course we’ve already today witnessed the great festival of baptism; that strange practice by which people – children, adults, babies – are welcomed into the community of the Church. A gift of God, offered to all, like the seed in the story of the sower, never knowing where it will fall and how it will grow.
But today is also Pentecost Sunday. The day when the Spirit of God filled the first disciples of Jesus, and drove them out into the world; speaking the good news, sharing the miracle of God, telling the story of Jesus.
Pentecost, the “fiftieth day”, was a great celebration in the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. Not on the scale of Passover, but none the less, a great day in the Jewish calendar. In Palestine it marked the end of the grain harvest (which traditionally began directly after Passover) and was celebrated much as many communities would celebrate a Harvest Festival; with the best of the produce being brought to the Temple to be shared for the common good of all. It was, in fact, a party, a week long feast of food and drink, giving thanks in celebration for the goodness of God’s provision.
And this was the reason that so many different languages were being spoken in the city that day – if you remember the story, of which we just had a small section read to us today, the great miracle of Pentecost was that, filled with the Spirit, the followers of Jesus overcame the barriers of language, speaking words that everyone, wherever they were from, could understand.
It’s a miracle, a story, that has many sides, many implications. It is, of course, the start of the Church; the beginning of this movement that spread out from those first eye-witnesses to touch people throughout the world, echoing through two thousand years (and counting)
And with the gifting of the Spirit it was also the start of that strange and unpredictable reality that is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives; changing us, challenging us, supporting us, comforting us, and, occasionally, working the miraculous through us.
And this seems to have become a big thing for the Corinthian Church that we’ve been reflecting on for the past few weeks.
And in particular, it seems that the divisions amongst them focussed on the gifts of the spirit – that is, that people within the Church were choosing which faction to support, which leader or guru to listen to, based upon the gifts of the spirit that they displayed: did they speak in tongues? make profound pronouncements? perform miracles and healings?
And while this isn’t really a problem that plagues us here at St. John’s, there is a lot in Paul’s response that we can learn from, as we reflect upon the gifts that God has given us.
For the heart of Paul’s reply lies in these simple words:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
There are varieties of gifts: we are not all, thank God, gifted in the same ways. Some may have a practical bent, others more inclined to study. Some have insights of wisdom, some a natural touch of hospitality, welcoming the stranger. Some have a gift with words of healing and comfort, some the skill of teaching. Some are organisers, some know how to find the words to lead God’s people in prayer and worship. Some are skilled in managing resources, others in leading people, others in hearing and sharing the vision God is bringing to the people.
There is a variety of gifts: but the same Spirit.
And there is a variety of services, but the same Lord. Not coincidental that these are the very next words. For the truth too often forgotten is that those gifts that are given by the Spirit of God, whether they look like spiritual things or secular things, are all given for the sake of service. Your gift as a skilful administrator? That’s given for the service of God. Your ability to speak and be heard? For God. Your skills in finding solutions to difficult practical or political or social problems? You got that skill from God, and you got for use in God’s service.
I’m not saying here that all these gifts, all our skills or talents, are for the sake of the Church, or the Christian institution. There is a variety of services, a wide range of ways that God can be served; and within the congregation of God’s people is just one of them. There are those who serve in our schools, our hospitals; those who serve by administering business, by fixing roads, by growing, transporting, selling the goods we need; by working in or for government; by providing services to those in need, or in protection of those at risk.
The key refrain in Paul’s is this: there variety, but there is one
Different gifts, from the one God.
Different ways to serve, for the one Lord.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
To each is given.
I don’t know if you feel that this applies to you, but it does.
Whether you feel like you have a lot to offer or not, the word is this: everyone has been given gifts of God, manifestations of the Spirit of God.
And the test, in the end, is not what those gifts are, that you have been given. Nor is it the particular way that you use them.
This test is this: for the common good.
Whatever it is that God has gifted you with, whatever skill or talent, resource, insight, relationship, ability; for there are a variety of gifts – there are a myriad ways that you might use it, and no one right way, for there are a variety of services.
But it is given for the common good. Not for you. Not for your profit, not for you aggrandisement, not for your security; but for the common good.
The apostle challenges us to answer three questions:
What is the gift – what are the gifts – that God has given you?
What is the service in which you are putting them to work?
and in it all, is it the common good that is served?