Gifts of the Spirit

A Pentecost reflection based on Acts 2:1-21 and the gifts of the whole community. On the day of Pentecost all the followers of Jesus have gathered together in one place.  And there’s this violent rush of wind which rattles the doors, blows that sand through the windows and cracks. It’s the kind of wind you do not want to be out in. Except that this wind doesn’t stay outside. It comes in amongst them and brings with it fire: fire that touches each person and equips them with the Holy Spirit.

Fire and wind may be good or bad. One of my favorite things as a child was listening to the wind blow through the tall prairie grass. But as we know, wind can also be incredibly destructive and actually kill. Fire has similar traits. In a candle or campfire it gives a sense of security, warmth, welcome. Those flames can destroy and kill if not handled with respect.

But the story tells us that this is how the Holy Spirit first came to the disciples: In wind and in flame. In something both gentle and warm and powerful and destructive. This is part of our faith. Used wisely, our faith can give life, can nurture, encourage, offer security and welcome. If we do not tend our faith well, or misuse it, our faith can lead to destruction and death for ourselves and others.

One of the things that Christians tend to be good at is believing that we have to do everything, be everything, look after everyone and be good at everything. I know for myself, it is easy to think that as a minister I have to be good at preaching and leading worship, and visiting, and administration, and Bible study, and small talk and pastoral care and teaching and baking and cooking and hospitality, and technology and organization, and tidiness, and praying, and personal prayer, building relationships, communicating, taking notes, chairing meetings, conflict resolution, keeping everyone happy, making sure everyone else gets along and uses their gifts, time management, appealing to people who are conservative and people who are more liberal, connecting with other denominations, connecting with people outside the church, working with children, teens, families, seniors, funerals, hospital visiting, writing cards, encouraging, doing outreach, lifting up all sorts of justice issues in and out of the church, leadership… These are things that I think I should be good at and that I think I need to do and do well in order to work as a minister…And there are probably many others I can add to this list.  Some of these things are gifts: things that come naturally and do well. Some are skills – things that I have had to learn and have to continue working at. Some are things that are neither skills nor gifts but things I do because I have to.

Using my gifts gives me energy and excitement. Using my skills, I feel competent and able to function.  Using my gifts and skills gives me life, passion, energy.  I love an opportunity to be creative in worship, to try something new and different to help people engage in their faith.

And then there are the things that are neither a gift or a skill. These things are exhausting and draining.  I don’t want to do them…I can if I have to but I tend to avoid them because I know that they will drain my energy. I hate going to large parties and making small talk with people I don’t know.

But there’s good news for us in the readings we heard today: The good news is that the Holy Spirit is among us and gives each of us different gifts. What does this mean? It means that when each of us use our gifts and skills all of us are more alive and more filled with the spirit. I know that there are people in this place who love chatting up other people, who love being in groups of people and who have a gift for “schmoozing” and who could be amazing at sharing the gospel.  I know that there are people who love talking on the phone and could help us stay connected as a congregation. I know there are people with good leadership skills who can help us navigate a challenging time in the congregation. I know there are people who like playing with technology who might be able to connect us and to integrate technology into our life as church. There are those who lead through singing and music so the rest of us can make a joyful  noise…just for starters. There’s a million other gifts too.

What does this mean? It means that I don’t have to be good at everything. I’m free to be human and have a few gifts.

What does this mean? It means that none of us have to be good at everything.

What does this mean? It means that each of us have a few gifts to share with the world around us.

What does this mean? It means that there is not one gift that is better than another or more worthy than another.

What does this mean? It means that we can be part of the same body with different functions.

What does this mean? It means we can trust others to use their gifts so we can rest and look after ourselves. It also means that we can step back from tasks that are not our gifts so others can use their gifts.

What does this mean? It means that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon each of us.

What does this mean? It means we have a choice about how we respond to the fire and wind. We can ignore it, but then it could become destructive and dangerous. We can choose to embrace the wind and allow it to caress us and allow the flame to warm and cheer us. It’s our choice.

What does this mean? It means that we are Christ’s body, We are the people of God.

Acestry in Faith

Ephesians 1:15-23 begins by giving thanks…It gives thanks for all the people and the ministry that they offer to each other and their community. But it doesn’t just give thanks and leave it there. The passage gives thanks and goes on to say that the author is continuing to pray for the community….Continuing to pray that they will be filled with the Holy Spirit and open to being led and directed by God’s spirit.

If the people are open to that spirit they will have a clear sense of their mission, know God’s generosity, and have a sense of God’s power to work through them and others. God is an active God, constantly in motion, constantly surprising and constantly calling us back to our centre in Christ.

Opening ourselves through prayer and meditation is an absolutely critical part of being faithful. Sometimes, it is easy for us to get in the habit of worshiping on Sunday morning and thinking that that is all that is required of us. But praying regularly for one another, praying each of us will be open to the spirit, praying for strength and courage to follow where the spirit leads is essential.

When we open ourselves to the spirit we begin to see with the “eyes of our heart.” R. Mark Guilliano writes that when we see with the “eyes of the heart [we] see those who ache from hunger and poverty with compassion, where too often the eyes in our heads view others with fear and suspicion.”[1] Regular prayer allows us to see the world differently, to see the world through a lens of compassion rather than fear. Fear of others is easier because it maintains that status quo. It’s often a reflex to someone or something we don’t know. But fear prevents action and holds us hostage.

The author of this passage is praying that the people will put their trust in God, not in their fear. When they place their trust in God, amazing things will happen. The author is pointing out that God’s spirit, working through the people has the ability to change the world. In the Laughing Bird Paraphrase of this passage it says: “there is not a single authority that can overrule him, now or ever. Every religious hierarchy and military regime; every legal jurisdiction and people-power movement; every economic imperative and moral principle; God has put them all under the feet of Christ.”

For those of us who identify as Christian this means that God and Christ are central to who we are and how we live. They are central to our identity. We are Christian before we are anything else: before we are Canadian, or a particular ethnic group, our political affiliation or our occupation, we are Christian. We will often talk about our ancestry. “Where did your family immigrate from?” We want to place people geographically. As Canadians, in a country made up mostly of immigrants from all over the world, we have a sense that this geography tells us something about a person, their culture and even gives us a few assumptions about someone. When we meet someone for the first time we might ask about their occupation and where they work. It is less common to ask people about their ancestry in faith.

I asked the gathered congregation on Sunday morning how many people had only called St. Andrew’s their church home? A handful responded that this was the only congregation they had known.

Many people had been connected with other United Churches at some point in their life and many had had a connection with other Christian denominations. A handful had times in their lives as identifying either with another religious tradition or with no particular religion.

But as soon as you leave this building and ask these same questions, the response will be very different. Many people would say that they haven’t had a particular connection with one congregation, one denomination or with even necessarily one particular faith. Questions about our faith ancestry are of the last questions we ask others. We don’t want to pry or be nosy and so we don’t talk about our own faith and we don’t ask others about theirs. And yet if we believe that God is central to our lives and shaping how we see others and the world, why wouldn’t we talk about our faith and listen to how God is at work in other people.

Last week I talked about living in a post-Christian culture. For many people, they will say that they are spiritual but not religious. They may draw their faith from many different traditions, they may be challenged by the ritual and expectations of Christianity and yet still identify with a mission of love and justice which is the good news that Jesus brought.

We cannot assume that people who don’t come to church are not faithful. For many, they have simply gotten rid of the ritual and practice of Christianity and gone back to message of love. This passage begins by describing the community’s love for the saints. We often think of saints as someone who has been martyred for the faith, stood strong in persecution, or done some other amazing act. But in this passage, being written to a group of Christians, perhaps the saints are all those doing God’s work whether or not they identify with the congregation. 

There was tension in the early church about who was in and who was out. They spent time and energy trying to figure out where to set the boundary. Perhaps the challenge for us is not to focus our time and energy on figuring out who is in and out but to focus our energy on being open to the spirit and the ways in which God is working through the saints of our community. Perhaps our challenge is to see with the eyes of our heart the people around who are already filling our community and world with love and join with them. We can add our love to the mix because we are followers of Jesus before we are part of a particular congregation, before we are a particular denomination, before we are Canadian or anything else.

This is the faith of our ancestors: That God’s love could change the world. May we continue that legacy that they have given us. Amen.

 

[1]. R. Mark Guilliano, “Ascension of Jesus” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, ed. Ronald J. Allen, Dale P Andrews and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 246.