Paul on Spirit
In the passage of 1 Corinthians read earlier, the apostle Paul has exhorted his energetic Corinthians to sense the Spirit.
We could use a measure of Spirit, too. In this religious mudslide across the country that has deposited determinism, quietism, pessimism into our common life, we especially hunger for what Paul writes. We truly hunger to pick up what he is putting down here. Are picking up what he is putting down? It’s not heavy.
The future? The future is open, and at least in good part the future of our planet will be forged by the freedom of individuals and groups to make choices for health and life. The present? The present is a good time. The best time to plant an oak tree is a hundred years ago. The second best time is today. The present is second best, and that is pretty good. The past? The past is not in charge. The past is not dead, and therefore not past, but the past is not ruling the roost. You are. What you choose not to do matters. That is why we continue happily to harp on the crucial centrality of tithing, and of inviting. Give away 10% of what you earn, and invite some person every week to church, and you will be like the child born on the Sabbath day: happy, witty, bright and gay.
It is the one Spirit, the same spirit, from which we drink this morning. You know this well, but a few reminders for those who may have been absent on Pentecosts past, or asleep like Elijah’s Baal, on Sunday’s past, or just not really interested in Spirit. First, for Paul there is absolutely no separation between spiritual life and life. Spirit is in life and the much prized division between material and spiritual, prized in ancient Greece and prized today here, Paul humiliates. The same spirit roves and ravages in what is said, what is predicted, what is healed, what is remembered, what is done, what is given. For him, there is no distinction between religious and secular. The same Spirit inhabits all. Second, the Spirit is the Lord. And the Lord is the Church. It is like a body. Many parts, one body. Did you notice just where you expect Paul to say “church”—so it is with…—he says Christ. For him the church is the body of Christ, in some mystical, magical, mysterious, miraculous way. Christ has actual feet. Yours. Actual hands. Yours. Actual muscles. His. Actual voice. Hers. Actual presence. Third, Paul distinguishes gifts from fruit. Fruit if general, lavished upon all—love, joy, peace….Gifts are individual, to one this, to one that. Fourth, the reason for the gifts. You have particular gifts. What are they? Name one. You have at least one, and Paul in know way means his glory hole collection list here to be exhaustive. I do find it compellingly interesting that his list is almost all related to hearing and speaking. It is curious, and not explicable, that he names faith as a gift that some have, and others, apparently, share by extension. You may go to church for many in your family and neighborhood, too. Fifth, the Spirit brings freedom the Spirit evokes grace, the Spirit spreads love. Sixth, and most significant, in the opening of the gifts of the Spirit, for Paul, all of these manifold gifts have one central purpose: the common good. The common good.
In most ways, the conditions in Corinth could not be more globally different from our own. They in tatters, we in Sunday best. They in a borrowed upper room, we in a fine Gothic nave. They in untutored simplicity, we in educated elevations. They in uproarious shouting, we in decency and order. They at the salt water edge of the Mediterranean, we fresh water fish all, along the Genesee. They expecting that the form of this world is passing away, we not expecting that, unless by nuclear incident. And what could we possibly have in common with such a community so torn by Gnostic speculations, incestuous relationships, lawsuits filed member against member, questions about the morality of marriage, selfish inhospitality at table, and a boundless enthusiasm that like earlier Methodism must have seemed “noise and nonsense” to those all around?
One thing we share. As a global village, and as a church, we are perennially threatened by the various shadows and filters that can muffle the sense of full, same Spirit of which Paul speaks here in Corinthians.
Our particularities, in church and nation, can become the sideshows that eat up the circus, the varieties that threaten to obscure the same Spirit at work in all.
The Sound of Spirit
Notice the vocabulary of the gifts Paul names. They all have voice. Our age has become one of email communication: visual communication. Email is a wonderful tool, as long as its visual features are kept in mind. It is immediate, indelible, irretrievable, international, infinitely transferable. And it carries no voice, no body, no sound. Paul has tuned his ear to the speaking of the Spirit, in many voices.
The Spirit speaks in any utterance of wisdom. Note, this is not any religious as opposed to unreligious wisdom, but simply whatsoever things are true. Truth finally needs no defense, even as falsehood finally has none. It is an utterance which Paul connects first with Spirit.
The Spirit also speaks in the utterance of knowledge. Paul does not equate wisdom with knowledge, a lesson for the knowledgeable to bear in mind. He may have in mind the knowledge so prized by his spirited opponents, the Gnostics, who like most predominant religious expressions in most ages, including our own today in America, gain adherence through certainty, whether knowledge of the stars, or the planets, or the spheres, as in Paul’s time, or whether knowledge of eternity, or calling, or determination, as in ours. There is a reason that determinist, certainty promising religions, Gnostic or sacramentalist or fundamentalist, generally do well. To certainty Paul opposes confidence, as in the next gift.
The Spirit also speaks in faith. Faith comes by hearing, hearing by the word of God.
The Spirit also speaks in healing, that is in words of healing: ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’; or, ‘your faith has made you well’; or ‘Lazarus, come out’.
The Spirit speaks in the dynamite of change, of miracle that is the unexpected, whether understood naturally or supernaturally. All nature sings…
The Spirit speaks in prophecy for the common good. The Spirit speaks in conversation about other speaking, discernment. The Spirit speaks, even, Paul allows here, in ecstatic utterance, glossallalia,, as long as other speech is able to hear some meaning.
The sound of Spirit has reverberated in every rebirth of the church, from the noise of Pentecost day, to Paul and his noisy Corinthians, to Augustine and his noisy sermons, to the noisy whispering in the medieval monasteries, to Luther’s noisy shout, “I can do no other”, to Wesley’s noise and nonsense, as his detractors said, in band, class, meeting, conference, worship, sermon and music, all the way to Azusa Street and the birth of post-Methodism, the Pentecostals. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is noise, sound, freedom, speech. And this in great variety.
We too have varieties of gifts, right here. We are gifted with various passions in our speech to one another at Asbury First. There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, varieties of service, but the same Lord, varieties of activities, but the same God. To one is given the gift of… music, mission, management, money, Methodism…all for the common good. Let each one match his passion for a particular gift, with the shared commitment to the common good, known in our faith by tithing and invitation.
Gifts Activated for the Common Good
When conviction is quickened by imagination there is action that makes a difference.
Jesus of Nazareth spoke by imagination when he said, ‘blessed are you poor, for God’s reign is for you’. John Wesley spoke with imagination when he said, ‘there is no holiness save social holiness’. Vaclev Havel spoke with imagination when he said, ‘Hope is not prognosis, but a willingness to work for what is right’.
We may differ in our choices of tactics. On supports governmental programs. Another advocates work by private companies and charities. A third prefers a blend. But all are supported by the same Spirit, at work for the common good. God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. The world can work. It can. We need not discount environmental decay, nor nuclear accident, nor global warming, nor fundamentalist terror, nor rampant disease. All these and other horsefolk of the apocalypse have long been spied. Still, the word can work. The future is open. The present is a really good moment. The past is not in charge.
When imagination is quickened by conviction there is action that makes a difference. Imagine for a moment, a spirited moment directed toward the common good…
Wouldn’t it be nice if the prisons in this country were half-empty and the streets free of homeless vagrants?
Wouldn’t it be nice if every generation received a better education than the one that preceded it?
Wouldn’t it be nice if every man and woman who wanted a job could get one, and so we did not waste a single person or view any person as ‘redundant’?
Wouldn’t it be nice if schools and hospitals and churches and charities had more money than they knew what to do with?
Wouldn’t it be nice if men and women were getting along so well that abuse and abortion were virtually unheard of?
Wouldn’t it be nice if budgets, public and private, were set with a clear, frugal eye to the future, and without being based on borrowing from the next generation?
Wouldn’t it be nice if the measure of success in this great country were formed not against the question of individual achievement, but against the desire for the common good?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we really took seriously, really believed in a final judgment, the day of the Lord, in which hearts are sifted and measurements made—against the prospect of the common good?
Wouldn’t it be nice if warfare ceased, and if what remained only occurred within the bounds of Christian just war doctrine?
Wouldn’t it be nice if democracy, not only of voice and vote, but also of education and endowment and employment and environment were our song?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go to bed at night, not as those who all day have been rivals for position and power and privilege, but as those who have worn an easier yoke and a lighter burden, that of the broken Master, that of real community, that of the common good—I mean as those who have helped each other?
Wouldn’t it be nice if the criterion for medical care were simply, “how sick are you”?
Wouldn’t it be nice if the communal virtues, the gifts of Spirit that work for the common good, the very signposts of salvation—responsibility, industry, frugality, respect for authority, a sense of limits—replaced those of mere success?
Wouldn’t it be nice if every kid in this country had enough to eat tonight?
Wouldn’t it be nice if the love of Jesus Christ, and the fear of disappointing him, and the hope of meeting him in glory, and the joy of working in his fellowship were all that we really wanted and needed?
Too idealistic? Really? Jesus, John Wesley, Vaclev Havel, did not think so. Where has our early love gone? Where is the love revival of our first kiss of faith? Have we begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh? Where is our imagination?
George Bernard Shaw, as usual, had it right: “You see things as they are and say ‘Why’? But I dream things that never were and I say ‘Why not’?
-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel