Last week, in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist told the crowd that he baptized with water, but another would come baptizing with the Holy Spirit and Fire. When Luke moves to Jesus’ baptism, he leaves us with the impression that Jesus, upon whom the Spirit falls in the form of a dove, is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire.
In Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells them to wait until the Spirit falls on them, because the Spirit will empower them to proclaim the good news of God’s realm to the ends of the earth. Then, as story the moves to the day of Pentecost, the Spirit falls on the entire community and they begin to proclaim the good news of Jesus in languages they’d never learned, and as a result God was glorified and the Age of the Spirit had begun.
But what does this Age of the Spirit look like and what does it mean for us? In today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul addresses some issues that had emerged. Since he was the founder of this church, members of the church had turned to him for help, and so he offers his advice, sort of like a Regional Minister might.
Apparently there were questions about spiritual things, and Paul doesn’t want anyone to be ignorant about such things, because back when they were Gentiles, they’d been misled by other gods, and it seems that these earlier spiritual ideas had crept into the church, and were threatening its survival.
It appears that this congregation is confused about the pneumatikon or spiritual things. The NRSV and the Common English Bible translate this Greek word as spiritual gifts, but that may not be the best translation. If you drop down to verse four, where Paul speaks of “different spiritual gifts,” you’ll see that he uses the word charismaton. Now it could be just a synonym, but it also could be more than that. While the first word speaks of spiritual things, the second word speaks of grace. I suspect that Paul wants the Corinthians to focus on spiritual gifts that build up the community rather than spiritual experiences that enrich the individual at the expense of the community.
Now, we’ve talked some about spiritual gifts in this church. There were conversations before I got here about them, and I’ve continued to talk about them. In fact, I’ve been thinking about them, writing about them, and teaching about them for much of my adult life. As I’ve shared before, I spent the latter part of my high school years as well as my college years worshiping in Pentecostal churches, where we emphasized the importance of spiritual gifts, with an emphasis on a few particular ones. My next book, which I’ve been writing for several decades and comes out some time this spring or summer also focuses on this issue. So, in the course of my life, I’ve spent some time with this passage of scripture and have found that it is a great storehouse of spiritual riches that God desires to make available to the church today. In fact, I believe that Paul’s word about spiritual things is very timely.
There’s a lot of interest in spirituality, but the question is –what kind of spirituality are people seeking?
You may have heard of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Surveys suggest that this is the fasted growing religious grouping – even if they don’t see themselves as religious. Sometimes you’ll hear them called “Nones.” That’s not “N-U-N-S,” as in Catholic sisters! It simply means that these folks are religiously unaffiliated. Most of them believe in God and think of themselves as spiritual, but they don’t have much use for institutional forms of religion. Buildings, creeds, rituals, and committee meetings don’t speak to them. Not only that, but the younger you are the more likely you are to consider yourself part of this grouping.
Diana Butler Bass’s most recent book, which is entitled Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening speaks to this very issue. She’s been going around the country asking church people what Christianity is going to look like after the religious trappings fall away? Where once people were content to describe themselves as religious, that’s no longer true. So what comes next? What does the church have to offer people who seek to experience God’s presence but aren’t committed to the institution that many of us have invested in very heavily?
One of the criticisms of this new movement is that it tends to be very individualistic. People draw from different traditions and belief systems, but end up creating their own tradition. Many of us who are sympathetic to this growing movement, have a question for them: Is “spiritual but not religious” enough? That’s the question that Lillian Daniel has been asking. She’s written a new book with the title When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough, and if you’ve been participating in John’s study group, you’ve already explored this topic with Lillian, and the group that meets with me on Wednesday will take it up this week.
Lillian is concerned about self-created, do-it-yourself spirituality, because it often lacks a sense of community. There’s no accountability, and no tradition to guide them. As Disciples we think of ourselves as a non-creedal community that allows us freedom to discern the truth for ourselves, but our Founders, the Campbells and Barton Stone assumed that we would listen for the voice of God in scripture and in the community. It’s not just about me – it’s about what God desires for us and from us as a community.
So, Paul writes to this church and reminds them that while there are different gifts – there is but one Spirit. There are different ministries, but the same Lord; different activities, but the same God. Every gift comes to the church from God as an expression of grace and they’re intended to be used for the common good.
Some have gifts of wisdom and others knowledge; some gifts of leadership and others perform miracles; some prophecy and others have the gift of discernment; still others have gifts of tongues or interpretation. And this list is by no means complete or exhaustive.
Because these gifts are signs of God’s grace, we don’t earn them or merit them; we simply receive them as gifts and the proper response is to use them for the common good, because using them in this way reveals the glory of God.
People will tell me that they believe in God but don’t need church, or they ask me why they need church when they can encounter God at the beach in a sunset. While I can understand their statements and questions, I tend to agree with Lillian Daniel that it’s very difficult to stay in tune with the Spirit on our own, especially in times of great distress.
When we experience something like what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, where twenty-six children, teachers, staff, and parents died in a hail of bullets, where do we turn? Where do we go to find solace and support? Many in Newtown turned to their faith communities, and in fact early on people turned to the priest from the Catholic parish that sat nearby the school, and it seemed to me that he drew from the Spirit of God the resources he needed to help support the community at that moment in time.
As important as that work of the Spirit was, true community develops when we’re willing to let the Spirit move in our midst, gifting us with spiritual gifts that God can use for the common good and reveal to the world the glory of God. And the Spirit provides these gifts to everyone as the Spirit chooses, which means that everyone here is gifted and every gift is important.
One of my Disciple colleagues who ministers at a nursing home left a comment on my lectionary reflection this past Thursday. Brian wrote that this passage has been very meaningful to him in his ministry, because it offers encouragement to the residents, so that they can see themselves as gifted and can contribute to the common good. He writes:
They often feel that they have nothing left of value to give. With sensitive preaching and counseling, the ideas that Paul is expressing can show them that whatever they have is more than enough. They are of the same Spirit as their favorite preacher or saint. While it is true that they can no longer teach a Sunday School class, they can still pray. They can hold a crying friend's hand. They can share the wisdom of their years.
Yes, to each is given a “demonstration of the Spirit” for the Common Good. And, it’s not the institutional mechanisms that define the common good, or reveal the glory of God – it’s a community resplendent with different gifts given by the same Spirit.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 20, 2013