June 4, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
It must have been quite something to experience that day. Just imagine it: a sound like the rush of a violent wind, more dramatic than a hurricane that bends the trees and washes the ocean onto the shore. Dancing flames hovering in the air, just touching each of the followers of Jesus, so that they are stimulated but not burned. And then the voices: each of those uneducated Galilean men, many of whom had probably never been out of their own community before they met Jesus, most of whom still had never been out of the part of the world where Aramaic was spoken, each speaking in a different language of people from a thousand miles away. They were not just making noises for show; they were speaking so that the whole world could hear what they had to say about God’s deeds of power.
The whole scene was inexplicable. It was loud and chaotic. It probably even seemed dangerous; who lights a fire, then lets the flames hover just over people’s heads? Who starts speaking so that everyone can hear unless they are trying to stir up a crowd to start a riot? Wouldn’t the authorities show up at any moment with all that commotion? The only explanation that some people had was that they were just drunk. How else could you make sense of it?
But, of course, they were not drunk. God was just on the move again in the way God usually moves. God’s movement usually looks chaotic, loud, spectacular, and defiant. God’s movement is usually confusing, and even inexplicable. This was certainly not the first time when God moved that some people watching feared that what they were seeing was dangerous. We all know that, if the authorities had come with swords and clubs to arrest those followers of Jesus, they would have been in good company among God’s children.
Fast forward a generation or so, and the followers of Jesus were still trying to figure out how to make sense of God’s movement. Of course, the followers of Jesus included many more people by then, and those people were scattered all over the known world. The apostle Paul wrote to one community of those people in the city of Corinth in Greece. By the time Paul wrote to the people of the church in Corinth, though, it seems that they were fighting over what the Spirit of God was doing. They were clear that the Spirit of God was doing something. But what the Spirit seemed to be doing was different for each person. For some people, the Spirit was helping them be especially wise. Others had a deep faith, while others seemed to be able to heal people. Some seemed to be able to perform miracles, and others seemed to have a unique ability to speak for God. And on and on. Many people could do many things. But how did they know that it was God who was doing all of those things? How did they know that these were not just especially talented people who could do those things all on their own? Or how did they know that these were not other spirits which were acting against God’s purposes in manifesting these gifts?
And if God was, in fact, doing all of those things, which one was the most important? Which ones should they pay closest attention to? Which needed to be given more time in their community gatherings, more attention from the community members, and more honor as they assessed the relative value of each? I can imagine, with all of those gifts manifesting all of the time, and with all of the people who showed those gifts jockeying for positions, their community felt a bit chaotic, it was loud, it was inexplicable, and it was pretty confused.
Paul stepped into the middle of this problem of a community trying to make sense of what God was doing. He didn’t exactly answer their questions directly, however, by telling them which gifts were superior to the others or even the one right way to know that it was in fact the Spirit of God who was doing all of those things. He couldn’t, because as happens so often among God’s people, the questions they were asking were not the right ones to get the understanding they most needed.
Instead, he simply reminded them that the Holy Spirit is never going to work against itself. All of their gifts come from the one Spirit, so as chaotic and loud and confused as it all might sound, that is the way God usually moves. Sure there is a risk that it is not, in fact, God’s Spirit who is giving some of those gifts. There was no one right way to discern whether it was God’s Spirit or some other spirit doing those things among the people of the church in Corinth. But he did lift up one important way to evaluate which ones were, in fact, being directed by God.
Paul said, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” That last phrase seems to be the important one here: “for the common good.” The gifts which come from God might look chaotic, loud, spectacular, and even defiant of any expectations. You might be confused by them, and you will almost certainly not be able to explain them. They might even seem a bit dangerous, either because of the risk of burning the house down or at least singeing someone’s hair, or, more likely, because of the risk that the authorities will feel threatened and might come to arrest you like they arrested Jesus. But the gifts of God are never the ones that are given simply to build up one individual. And the gifts of God are never the ones that will encourage you to put yourself first, or to put your own family first, or to put your own group first. No, the gifts of God are given for the common good.
The common good means that everyone gets to share in the gifts of God’s Spirit. Everyone gets to look in wonder and awe at what God can do. Everyone gets to share in God’s wisdom and to witness just what a deep faith can be. Everyone has access to God’s healing and God’s help. Everyone gets to experience the power of God at work in the miracles, and everyone gets to be challenged and consoled as the word of the Lord is spoken. And then, everyone is invited to be a part of the community’s life, which is made stronger by these manifestations of God’s Holy Spirit. The common good means that everyone shares in the gifts. That is one way to know that the gifts are, in fact from God.
The common good is a bit out of fashion these days. Few people are talking about what is the common good. How do we make sure that the benefits enjoyed by some people are shared by all people? How do we make sure that no one individual or group gets to hoard resources while other individuals or groups do not have enough? How do we make sure that everyone together has the opportunity to share in the experience of God’s power, God’s healing, and God’s wisdom and hope? These are not questions which are asked much these days.
Instead, we hear a lot these days is about putting yourself or your own group first. We are encouraged to keep our resources for ourselves, and to look at the gifts we have been given as assets for each person to capitalize on so she or he can have more, no matter what others lack. We are told that we deserve the very best things for ourselves, and that our own best interests and the interests of our own family are the only interests that really need to matter to us. Put us first, people tell us. It doesn’t matter what others have, as long as you have the most money, the best schools for your own kids, the highest profit margins for your own company, and the most attention from the authorities to the issues that affect you directly.
But what about the common good? The fact is that if all people have access to as much money as they need, then everyone will benefit. If all schools get the resources they need to educate their students, then the whole community will be better for it. If all companies have opportunity to do business on a level playing field, then the whole economy will grow. If we listen to all voices, including the ones that most people haven’t listened to for a long time, then we will be able to make decisions which are better for everyone.
God’s Spirit pours out over all God’s people. But we know that the gifts are from God when they are given not for personal gain or to favor one group over another. We know that the gifts are from God when they are given for the common good. That’s part of why I am excited that we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper on Pentecost this year. The table over there is a common table, spread with the resources of God which are not for the benefit of any one person here, but are to be shared for the benefit of the whole church. The whole church shares in the Body of Christ, the bread which is broken and given to us. The whole church shares in the Cup of Salvation, the blood of Christ which seals God’s promises of abundant life for all of us. The whole church is nourished by this meal, so that we have strength to do the hard work, we have refreshment for when we are weary, we have hope in the eternal word of God, and we have confidence in the presence of Jesus Christ, who serves this meal to us and teaches us to love and care for one another as we have been loved.
God gives the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit for the common good. And so my prayer this morning, as we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, is that we will use the gifts God has given us to seek the common good. My prayer is that we will share together in God’s wisdom and witness together God’s gift of deep faith. My prayer is that we will seek together God’s healing and offer to one another God’s help. My prayer is that we will experience together God’s miracles and listen together for God’s word. My prayer is that we will discern together what is the common good, even if it means asking questions which are not asked much these days. Because God’s Spirit usually moves in ways that are loud and confusing, spectacular and defiant, even dangerous, but always for the common good.