Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 On the Body of Christ Susan J. Barnes
Pentecost Sunday, 2017 St. John’s, Minneapolis
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 And no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
“Now there are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit…”
Those were the first words I ever read aloud in a worship service. I was in my late forties. A new reconvert to the faith, I had moved home to Houston for a museum job, and returned with inexpressible joy to the church of my childhood, Christ Church Cathedral. The leader for the Lector corps had “trained” me. I was honored and appropriately anxious as I mounted the steps into the chancel and the Epistle-side lectern. Although I had rehearsed the passage repeatedly, I didn’t have a clue what the scripture meant
God does have a sense of humor. A few years later I realized that this very passage best put into words my “understanding”–my own experience of God. It’s all about the Holy Spirit!
In principle, we are Trinitarians. We “believe” that God is revealed in a mystical union of three manifestations or “persons”: the Creator, Jesus (God’s anointed, the Christ), and the Holy Spirit. In practice, many of us know or experience God more in one of the three than the other two. For some it’s the Creator, utterly alive and present in nature; the out of doors is your church (and that’s where you may be today!). Others are blessed to “know” Jesus personally. For me, the Holy Spirit is palpably present in and among us in worship and in our common life and work, uniting us for God’s purposes as a Body of Christ.
Today we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the event that transformed Jesus’ disciples (those who learn) into Apostles (those who are sent). Each of them had felt called to follow Jesus as an individual. Each of them had known him in the flesh, had heard and seen him minister to others.
They were a very unlikely group: men and women from different places, fishermen, tradespeople, tax collectors and other outcasts, poor people and people of means. Love for Jesus held the odd assortment together. When he was arrested, tried and crucified, the group fractured. Members scattered in fear and self focus. But they came together again in grief, in the upper room where they had last met with him. There, when they were together, the Risen Christ appeared to them. There again, after Christ’s Ascension, as a group they received the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
So what does the Pentecost event have to do with Paul’s image of Body of Christ? Richard Rohr connected the dots in a recent email post (Meditations@cac.org, May 14).
In Hebrew scripture fire is a sign of God’s presence—think of the burning bush. Fire marked God’s first dwelling place in the cloud that hovered over the tent of meeting that Moses and the people carried with them on their journey.
Rohr wrote that on the Pentecost, “the fire from heaven descended, not on a building, but on people!” Humanity was the new dwelling place of God.
Paul didn’t know Jesus in the flesh. He wasn’t present at the Pentecost. But he knew the story and he saw the potential power of the Pentecost event in the communities he founded.
For Paul the Spirit “in whom we live and move and have our being” was the creative force in the church. God’s Spirit had endowed each person with particular gifts. God’s Spirit was calling them together to be a new creation.
As you know, the early Christian communities were radical social experiments–bringing together people of greater diversity than we could possibly imagine. Along with different talents, abilities and gifts, they had different languages, ethnicities, religions, customs, social classes; that led to enormous stresses among them. In this chapter and the following– the hymn to love–Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians casts a vision for the reconciliation of their differences, bridging them through the loving celebration of the gifts of the Spirit.
Commentator Brian Peterson noted that charismata is the Greek word for “gifts” (whence charismatic in English). Its root word, charis, means God’s grace. Peterson wrote that spiritual gifts are “a means through which God is at work with grace and mercy for the whole community….” He continued “When talents are reoriented away from us and our own interests and…become vehicles for God’s love, they are truly the Spirit’s gifts to the church.”
Paul knew that if members of the community could lay aside arrogance, fear, suspicion and judgment to open their hearts in appreciation of each other’s gifts, in self-giving love to one another, the Spirit could take their complementary gifts and knit them together as a single entity, one body. God’s Spirit would empower them together to work for the common good. The whole–which Paul named the Body of Christ–would be far greater than the sum of its parts.
At the Pentecost, God’s Spirit blessed all people–men and women, slave and free, Greeks and Jews, native Judeans and immigrants from the whole Mediterranean world. God blessed all peoples, all languages, all traditions at the Pentecost.
And God blessed them as a collective, a group, as a body.
I began by saying that my experience of God is most truly expressed in the image of the variety of spiritual gifts coming together in the Body of Christ. I see it everywhere when people gather around a cause bigger than themselves and pool their talents and gifts for the common good.
It happens in short-term, one-off events like mission trips, or pilgrimages. The Spirit does this whether we recognize it or not. Pay attention and you will see how very true this is, often in retrospect….
It happens in families. My three siblings and I have very different gifts, different lives. Bound together in love for each other and our parents, we were a true Body of Christ assisting our parents in the last years of their lives. I’m the first born and I had to let go of the feeling I had to be in charge. Instead, I used my own gifts, including that of being a convener. It was a liberation to resign as the eldest!
There are more examples of the Body of Christ at St. John’s than I could name. When, God willing, we break ground on our renovation projects this month it will be the culmination of years of effort by many committees, many bodies–each of which is part of the larger body of this church. It took a full page in the June-July Newsletter to list the names of many of those whose selfless, generous commitment of time, of personal and professional gifts in architecture and landscape design, administration, hospitality, mercy, construction, communication, stewardship, encouragement, fundraising, environmental stewardship, finance, law and service made it possible. And it took another full page to list those whose pledges by May 31 amounted to just over $2,000,000–and counting.
What a hearteningly positive process this has been in a time of dysfunction at every level of government!
It is all about charis, God’s grace–the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, calling us together to care for our building, care for our children, and to care for people in our wider community.
Together we are many, and we are one Body, created by the Holy Spirit, bound together in worship, fellowship and mission, empowered by love of God and one another, nurtured the bread and wine that we share. We are blessed to be heirs of that Pentecost event.
Thanks be to God.