Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Serving Through the Spirit

Serving through the Spirit
1 Corinthians 12:3-13[1]
  The day of Pentecost is usually a day for us to celebrate what the Spirit of God has done in our lives. But as we have walked through what our Scripture lessons have to say about Easter joy, I find something missing when I look at the church in our day. Many churches are torn by conflict. Others are obsessed with crusading for various political causes. Many of the mega-churches seem like corporations, willing to do anything to prop up the appearance that all is well. And then there are other churches who are just struggling to keep the doors open, or who have given up and are awaiting the inevitable day when they will die. And they are doing that, to the tune of between 4000 to 10000 every year.[2]
   After hearing about the promise that the Spirit would come upon the church to give us the power to carry out our calling to bear witness to Christ, I have to wonder where that power has gone. When you look at the reality that is the church--at least in this culture--the presence and power of the Spirit seems strangely lacking. I have to ask how this can be. Where is the promised power that was supposed to enable us to carry out the mission Jesus gave us?
  Before we start thinking that Jesus has broken his promise, perhaps we should look at ourselves first. Many churches have abandoned the model of how to be the church presented in the New Testament--one that relies heavily on prayer and worship and a deep commitment to discipleship. Perhaps that is too ambiguous, too unpredictable for our liking. And so, in the place of this “spiritual model,” many churches have embraced a “business model” of operating. In the business world, if you want to succeed, you need a well-thought-out business plan, along with a manual of operations with sound policies and procedures in order to guarantee success. As valuable as policies and procedures can be, they are not what gives life to the church of Jesus Christ! As our lesson from the Psalms for today points out, the only true source of vitality is the Spirit of God (Ps 104:30).[3]
  When we look at our lesson from the New Testament, we find that Paul takes an approach that is very different from that of many church leaders in our day. Like the Psalmist, he attributes all growth, all health, all life in the church to the work of God. Now, to be sure, this work is done through the members of the church. But make no mistake about it: the source of all vitality in the church is the presence and working of the triune God. St. Paul says it this way: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). It seems quite clear who is behind the activity that enables the church to thrive.
  But I’m afraid we have forgotten this basic mandate for the life and health of the church. We have gotten so caught up in things like adding programs and slick marketing and worship services choreographed to the minute that we have failed to remember that what brings life to the church is when we do all things “with the strength that God supplies.” (1 Pet 4:11).[4] That brings us back to the fact that God has chosen to accomplish this work through people like you and me. And to do this, he gives us the “gifts of the Spirit,” which as he says are given to each person in the church “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). In other words, every single person in every church has some “gift” that is to be used for the benefit of the whole church.[5] I think if we took this concept seriously--really seriously--it would revolutionize the church in our day. For one thing, if we’re engaged in serving the church and the world around us in this way, then we won’t have any interest in fighting the “church wars” that plague all of our denominations and drive people away in droves.
  The clear conclusion of St. Paul’s view of the “gifts of the Spirit” is that for the church to thrive all the members of the body have to share the gift they have been given. We may all have a variety of gifts, but all of them come from the same Spirit and are intended for building up the body of Christ.[6] I think if every individual in every church across this county took seriously the call to serve the body of Christ in this way, we would be astonished at the transformation that would result.
  I think this is one of the lessons that the church has had to learn and re-learn over and over throughout the ages.  We can accomplish nothing of lasting value if we try to do it in our own strength, by our own talent, through our own wisdom. Only as we carry out our service through the presence of the Spirit who is always with us that we can we hope to benefit the body of Christ and the world around us in a lasting way.[7] Only as we return to this biblical model of serving through the gifts of the Spirit, I think, will we see the church in our culture begin to thrive. Only then will we see joy and new life in our churches.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/8/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Steve McSwain, “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Any More,” Huffington Post Blog October 14, 2013; accessed at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mcswain/why-nobody-wants-to-go-to_b_4086016.html .
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-10, 96, 98-103; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 204-5; Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 296; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:15;  J. L. Mays, Psalms, 336-37.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.4:603-4.
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 300-304; cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3:854-59; see also ibid., 859-901, where he elaborates on the various “gifts” or “ministries” in the Church.
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Future of Creation: Collected Essays, 108: “A church which is filled with the Spirit becomes a charismatic community. It becomes the place of ‘the manifestation of the Spirit’ in the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts (1 Cor. 12:7).” Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3:840; cf. also 1.1:520-22; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 220, 223, 294-95.
[7] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 65, where he says that it is inadequate to say, as the Reformed tradition has tended to say, that the church is present where there is ‘true proclamation’ and ‘a right administration of the sacraments’. He says, “Both are included, yet we shall have to say more comprehensively: the church is present wherever ‘the manifestation of the Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12:7) takes place.”

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