Wednesday, June 21, 2017

One and the Same Spirit

One and the Same Spirit
1 Corinthians 12:3-13[1]
When you take a good look at the many different ways in which Christians practice their faith, you may wonder what all of them have in common. There are so many different approaches to living out the Christian faith. You don’t have to go any farther than Lincoln to see that. Some are traditional, some are definitely not. Some are conservative, some are middle of the road, and some are very liberal. Some don’t even have the word “church” on their sign! And many have removed any identification with a denomination like “Presbyterian” or “Methodist” or “Baptist” altogether from their name.
When you go beyond the confines of our culture, it can be even more challenging. As we look at the diversity in the Body of Christ around the world, it can leave us wondering whether there is anything that unites them in any meaningful way. Of course, some churches don’t want to be united with those who do things differently. They think “difference” means “heresy.” However, I would say that while the way believers worship and their understanding of the faith differs from one culture to another, there is a common thread of faith in all of them. I’ve worshipped with churches in Germany, Romania, Switzerland, Nicaragua, The Philippines, and Cameroon. Wherever people are able to comprehend a larger body of Christ, I have felt right at home.
I think one of the most important reasons why this has been true is because the Spirit of God is working in their midst. That’s part of what St. Paul has to say in our New Testament lesson for today. He says, “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). I think Paul makes it clear that different approaches to the faith are to be expected. These are the “varieties” he speaks of. Not everyone in every church everywhere is going to do everything exactly the same way. That’s not a problem, it’s a sign of health and vitality in the church!
Throughout his letters, the Apostle attributes all life in the church to the Spirit of God. When the church thrives, it is because the Spirit of God is working among us. When the church comes together in a way that unites believers from across cultural, political, national, and ethnic boundary lines, it is the work of the Spirit of God. When the members of a congregation like this one share in the serving one another and the world around us, it is because the Spirit of God has enabled us to do so. For St. Paul, every aspect of the church’s life and ministry comes from the Spirit of God.
The surprising element in all of this is 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 St. Paul says are given to each person “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). In other words, every single person has some “gift” from the Spirit that is to be used for the benefit of the whole church. What that means is that for the church to thrive all the members of the body have to share the gifts they have been given. We may have a variety of gifts, but all of them come from the same Spirit and are meant to build up the body of Christ.
I think one major mistake people make when they look at the “gifts of the Spirit” is that they try to see where they fit into the lists of gifts mentioned in the Bible. But I don’t believe St. Paul ever intended for the lists of gifts he mentioned to be taken as the only possibilities. They are examples of the ways that the Spirit of God was working through people in the churches of his day. To be sure, some of those gifts are timeless. There will always be a need for teaching. There will always be room for generosity. There will always be a place for leadership. But I would say that your “spiritual gift” may not even be in any of the biblical lists. That may make it a little harder to discern how you fit into the body of Christ, but it also gives you the freedom to be the person God made you to be.
When I look at the way we approach our life together, I’m afraid many may consider this “spiritual” model for the success of the enterprise we call “Church” too ambiguous.  We’re much more comfortable with clearly laid out plans, exhaustive manuals of operations, and sound policies and procedures. As valuable as policies and procedures can be, they are not what gives life to the church of Jesus Christ! What gives life to the church is when we all put our “gifts of the Spirit” to work for “the common good” and “with the strength that God supplies” (1 Pet 4:11).
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. It is only as we carry out our service through the empowering presence of the Spirit that we can hope to truly build up the body of Christ and offer our service to the world around us.  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. To be sure, I believe it would look very different from anything we might imagine. And I’m also quite sure there would be far more diversity that we might like. But as we recognize the work of the Spirit in people putting their gifts into practice for the benefit of the church in wondrously varied ways, we will see that it is all the work of one and the same Spirit.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/4/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

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