For the Common Good

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
June 4, 2017
Pentecost Sunday

1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13 (CEB)
…No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 4There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5and there are different ministries and the same Lord; 6and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. 8A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, 9faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. 11All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

12Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink.

Today, we celebrate Pentecost, an extremely important day in the life and history of Christianity and the Christian church. Just as Christmas celebrates the day of Christ’s birth, and Easter his resurrection from the dead, Pentecost is the day which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit among believers. Before his ascension, Jesus had promised his followers that he would not leave them “as orphans,” but that he would send a Companion to be with them forever. Well, on that first Pentecost, that’s exactly what happened, and the Holy Spirit has been the Companion of believers ever since!

But the thing about Pentecost is that when God gave the Holy Spirit to that first gathering of believers, it was God’s Spirit not just for the INDIVIDUAL believers, but for the WHOLE Church. I think it’s often very easy for us to imagine that the Holy Spirit is our personal direct connection to our Father in heaven; this builds very naturally out of our teachings of Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. But we often forget that Christ’s salvation is about more than my life, or your life; it’s about transforming the whole world. So, the Holy Spirit comes, not as a communications connection between us and God; the Holy Spirit comes to draw believers together for the work that needs to be carried out in the world in Christ’s name!

The story of Pentecost as recorded in the second chapter of Acts tells us that, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, [the believers] were all together in one place.” Did you hear that? They were all together. And what we hear this morning from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is that the power of the Holy Spirit is revealed most clearly as it unites a diverse body of believers under the headship, the Lordship, of Christ! And friends, what we need to hear above all else on this Pentecost Sunday is that we are at our greatest as disciples when we allow the Holy Spirit to bind us together in Christ’s work in the world.

Paul’s metaphor of the many “parts” (or members) of the body is one of the most powerful in scripture. It’s so easy for us to see in our mind’s eye the picture of a body working in perfect harmony. The ears listening to the sounds as the eyes take in the surroundings. The brain processes the information, while the hand writes—taking notes, and the mouth speaks, sharing the experience. Without any one part of our body, our whole life experience suffers.

It’s like the symphony orchestra. There are so many “pieces” to an orchestra. There are the stringed instruments like the violin and cello. Then there are wind instruments like the oboe, the trombone, and the tuba. Then there are percussion instruments, which can include everything from the triangle to the marimba to the great timpani. Any of you who have been a part of a band or orchestra know that there are these sort of class distinctions within the group. The instruments that carry the melodic line, like the violin or trumpet, tend to think themselves superior to, say, the viola or the trombone, which typically have more harmonic roles (am I right, Floy?). And God forbid you find yourself among those low-life tubas! Such musical hierarchies are typically all in good fun, but I will admit to you that as a trombone player, I suffered something of an inferiority complex until one day in college when I was sitting in the second trombone chair playing along on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Festival Overture,” and all of a sudden the other instruments faded away and I was the only one playing; a solo for the second trombone player of all things. But that’s really what makes music so wonderful. When great composers like Rimsky-Korsakov or Beethoven compose their overtures or symphonies, they do so with all of the instruments in mind. Sure, the music wouldn’t sound right if all you had was a tuba and a triangle. And you might hear the melody with the violin and trumpet, but you miss out on all the wonderful harmonies and counterpoint that are contributed by the violas, bassoons, and other instruments. Only when all of the instruments are working together do we hear the wonderful, beautiful music that we know and love.

When Paul was writing his first letter to the Corinthians, he was dealing with a problem of division in the Corinthian church. It turns out the Corinthians had fallen into this worldly trap of creating a hierarchy where there was no need for one, and some people were setting themselves over and above the others. The young Christians placed a high premium on the gift of speaking in tongues; they had come to view this as the supreme gift of the Spirit. As a result, those who could not or did not speak in tongues were considered to be inferior. The Corinthian church was dividing, but the thing is the Church was never MEANT to be divided. The Church was intended to be like Christ himself continuing to work in the world; one body serving and bringing glory to God’s kingdom. By the power of the Spirit, the Church was created to be Christ’s hands and feet. And the thing is, for that to work, it takes all members cooperating in harmony; the feet to do the walking, the hands to do the healing, the mouths to do the teaching. Without any of these parts, the church’s work is incomplete, and that is why EVERY GIFT used for the common good is “a gift of the Spirit;” no more, and no less important than any other gift!

For the Corinthians, it was division about what was “truly” spiritual. But division in the Christian church continues even today for all sorts of reasons. We could play “fill in the blank” for hours; we divide over who can take communion, whether to baptize infants or adults, who can be ordained, what color the carpet should be, and on and on and on! And as culture has become more and more divided, so has the church! The problem with this is the fact that the Church shouldn’t be like the culture, especially when culture is divided. The church was created to be a united front, reflecting God’s kingdom of unity and wholeness in the world.

And that, says Paul, is how the body of Christ works, too. Where a conductor directs each instrumentalist in their various parts to pull together a beautiful, cohesive symphony, when it comes to the body of Christ, it is the Spirit that holds us together and directs our work; guiding us to use our gifts for the common good. We often refer to Pentecost as the “birthday of the church” because that is the day that all the believers were united by the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit joined together a diverse community as “the Church.” This was the birth of a new body, the body of Christ!

You don’t have to read much past the Pentecost story in the second chapter of Acts, though, the see that the Christian unity established on Pentecost pretty quickly began to disintegrate. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is testimony to that. And certainly, Paul was speaking to a specific church in a specific time and place, but this is a lesson we need to hear over and over again. I have been greatly disheartened in recent years by the disagreements that are so obviously tearing the Christian community apart, even in the United Methodist Church. It’s completely ridiculous. And such schisms happen because we get the mistaken idea that somehow we are better off if we don’t have to deal with those folks who aren’t exactly like us. Division is a destructive reality that distracts us from our higher calling and purpose as members of Christ’s body. If Paul were to magically step into the 21st Century, he would say the same thing to the United Methodist Church that he said to the Corinthian church. But even more than that, he would speak these words to every single congregation. We may not know or understand what led to so many divisions in the Christian church down through the years; we may not comprehend why such division continues even now. But we need look no further than our own churches and communities to see how a body that is supposed to be united can so easily divide.

Paul went straight to the core issue when he wrote to the Corinthians, reminding them that among those who confess “Jesus is Lord,” no one person is better than any other for any reason. Each person is gifted by the power of the Spirit. All persons receive these spiritual gifts, not just an elite few. Still, like the Corinthians, we often point to “our” gifts with superiority, or we determine “ranks” of giftedness, which creates this “hierarchy of holiness.” But what we must remember is that all gifts are God-given. No one has done anything to deserve them. Gifts are not merit badges for holiness or signs of approval from God. Our spiritual gifts are offered by God in response to the needs of the whole community. And what that means is that each person has value and worth; each person is an essential part of the body of Christ, this place we call the Church. And because these gifts have a single source, the Holy Spirit, they are meant to be things that unite us as they are used for the “common good.”

On this Pentecost Sunday, as we celebrate the Holy Spirit which came among believers, offering among them “many gifts,” we would do well to celebrate this occasion with as much joy and fanfare as we do Christmas or Easter. Human nature compels us to follow the way of the Corinthians and continue to hold grudges against our brothers and sisters in Christ because their gifts are not as good as ours, because their devotion is not as pure as ours, because they don’t believe as exactly as we believe, which is of course the only right way to believe. But the inevitable result of such thinking is division; nasty, terrible division. Rather, on this Pentecost Sunday, we should celebrate the variety of ways the Spirit works among each of us. We should look with joy at our wonderful brothers and sisters surrounding us today. We should celebrate the different ways each of us connects with God. We should celebrate the myriad of gifts by which we serve God. And above all, we should celebrate the Spirit, which—even with all of our differences—always holds us together as One. One in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.

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