This is a sermon for the feast of Pentecost, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 12:1-13.
I wonder if you ever look around you, at the people at church, and think we’re a bit of an odd bunch? Thrown together by quirks of history and circumstance, some of us even having come from halfway around the world or with all sorts of interesting backgrounds. Do you wonder if, when we’re looked at collectively, we manage to be more than the sum of our parts?
Or, on a bad day, we might even be tempted to wonder, “Lord, why did you think it was a good idea to put me in church next to that person I can’t stand?”
But if we sometimes might feel like that, I’d answer that God sees us very differently. God, who knew about all of us intimately before we were even born, knew that each of us would be here today. He knew the part we would play in the life of this church. And knowing all of those things, God gave to each of us exactly what we needed so that together, we would be able to carry out his mission in this time and place.
When I was in college, the Jesuits used to call that loving, gracious planning ahead of time “The Dream of the Trinity,” imagining a conversation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in which they discussed exactly what our needs were going to be, and how best to fill those needs. So that it’s not random that we have, for example, Patsy’s wisdom, or Jenny’s skill in administration, or Jacquie’s ability to teach; rather each of those things is an expression of God’s loving care for this community, in providing what it needs through the people who are committed to it.
And if you think me singling a few people out as examples mean the rest of you don’t have such a thing, that’s not true. Here’s what today’s reading from Corinthians said: All these gifts are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
To each one. Not just to the clergy or to the people who are outgoing and willing to put themselves forward. But to each person, the Spirit allots something which, when used in the life of the church, is essential for the good of all.
That has a number of implications.
First, it means that you’re God’s gift to the church. We need you, each one of you, and what you bring, to be able to be the church that God wants us to be. So while that doesn’t mean we can’t argue or disagree, we need to be very very wary of letting that turn into divisions in the church. We’re all in this together, and no one is dispensable.
As Paul goes on to say: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
We’re all in this together, by the grace of God.
Second, if the gifts each of us have are the work of the Spirit in us, equipping us individually so that together, we might be able to be the community God created us to be, then it follows from that, that knowing and using our gifts is actually important.
One of the most unhelpful things that can happen in a church is when someone is trying to be a round peg in a square hole; doing something they’re not good at or passionate about, because they think they “should,” or someone else has twisted their arm. It’s draining for that person, and often it leads to less than great outcomes in what they do.
This is, by the way, why I’ve never been on a flower roster in my life. God did not gift me with the knack of gorgeous arrangements. I remember, though, one church I was in where at one point the usual list of volunteers to do the flowers was a bit light on, and an appeal was put out for more helpers. To everyone’s surprise, one of the teenaged boys put his hand up; and he started to put together creative and interesting arrangements which really spoke of the glories of God’s creation. Now, I don’t know if that young man is still doing anything artistic or creative today, but I really hope he is, because he had a genuine gift for it, and the church honoured that gift – and him – by giving him scope to serve in that way.
But what I observe when I talk to people is that many don’t know what their gifts are. I don’t know whether it’s that we’ve cultivated a culture of humility, to the point that people don’t feel able to say, “Actually, I think I might be good at this, and I’d like to give it a go,” or whether we’ve created a church where people rely too much on the clergy, or what it is, but people often seem hesitant about this.
But we shouldn’t be! If the Spirit has given to each of us, it’s not boasting to say so; and it doesn’t make any of us any better than any other, because everyone has something to bring.
So how do we get to recognise our own gifts? I think there are two things that can be very helpful. One is to think and pray about the different sorts of gifts that Scripture talks about, and see whether they fit you. Are you discerning? Are you encouraging? Are you hospitable? And so forth. If you’re interested in that kind of approach I can give you some resources to stir your thinking.
Another approach is to reflect on your own experience. What have you done which has most energised you, not necessarily just in the church, but in your life in general? What has given you the most joy? How might those things find expression in the life of the church in some way?
Now a caveat. I realise that I am talking to a group of people, some of whom are more rich in years. Some of you, to be honest, are tired, and don’t want to be pushed to give more of yourself than you feel you can.
Please don’t hear me talking about spiritual gifts in this way, and feel that this is code for “You must do more.” That’s not it at all. If anything, it’s a plea to you to make sure that whatever of your precious time and energy you give to the church, you use it in a way which is most effective.
But more than that, there’s a deeper truth to hold on to. God knew our needs, long before we got to this point, and carefully, thoughtfully and lovingly provided for them by providing us with each other. God is not, at this moment, asking us to do anything more than we can do. He knows our limitations, he knows where there is tiredness and illness, he knows where people need to let go of things. His heart holds you in that in nothing but absolute love.
Whatever God is asking us to do, today, tomorrow, next week and next year, it is not more than we can do. If we sometimes feel that the task is too great, perhaps we’ve misunderstood the task; or perhaps God has some surprises in store for us. He’s surprised me more than once!
But what I think we need to hold onto this Pentecost, this celebration of the work of the Spirit in and through each of us, is that this motley bunch of people that we are, was lovingly planned by God before creation began. Each of us is God’s gift to the others, and together, we are God’s gift to a world desperately in need of an oasis of love, joy and peace. Together we are enough to fulfil that loving plan, even when we don’t entirely understand it; and if we can really grasp that, and live it out… well, later in his letter Paul describes how the people who witness that in the church will end up coming to worship, because they will recognise that “God is really among you.”
God is really among us; so let’s hold on to that and let it shape our life here, in faith and hope and love.