A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on June 8, 2014 (Pentecost Sunday)
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to 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. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
12For 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. 13For 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. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-13
(Review the story of Pentecost from Acts 2:1-21)
I must admit I have never been a big fan of comic books – but many people are! More than half a billion dollars was spent on comic books and related materials in North America in 2013! And much more has been spent on the recent trend of turning comic book characters and stories into blockbuster films that today make use of computer graphics and 3D special effects.
I think a lot of people are fascinated with comic book superheroes – characters who are endowed with superhuman abilities and gifts, which they use either to threaten humanity, or to save humankind from evil.
The other day I went to the theater to see one of the latest big films: “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” I was curious just to see what it was all about. The X-Men first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1963. They were a group of mutants which possessed extraordinary powers. One could turn into a human flame and burn with intense heat. Another could transform herself into the appearance of any other person. One mild-mannered young man could turn into a fierce and powerful beast. Another was so fast he could move and act without being seen. And one could generate a powerful magnetic field that could move any metallic object.
But it was tough for these mutant superheroes, because they lived in a world that despised them and their gifts. And so they would try to blend in – to be inconspicuous – at least until one brilliant man started a training academy where they could learn together how to use their gifts (kind of like a Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry). Together, they could find acceptance and support.
But their gifts were not always a blessing. They posed real challenges to those who possessed them. There was the temptation not to use their gifts – because they would subject the superheroes to criticism and scorn by non-mutant society. Using their gifts could expose them to the pain and suffering of others. Or sometimes using a gift could cause slow damage to their own bodies. There was a cost. So, it was tempting to just keep their superhero gifts hidden.
At the other extreme, there was always the temptation to use one’s gifts for personal power or revenge. It takes great self-control, when one has the ability to cause pain or death to an enemy, not to use it.
I went to see this film because it seemed to me to be similar to what happened to the disciples of Jesus on that day of Pentecost – when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now the church has believed that the Holy Spirit is one of the ways that God has appeared and been at work in our world as a part of the Trinity – one God in three persons: Father (Creator); Son (Christ our Redeemer); and Holy Spirit (Comforter, Sustainer, Paraclete).
The Holy Spirit has been credited with working in many ways with God’s people over the centuries. In our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, we say that we believe it is the Holy Spirit that creates and renews the Church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. It is the Holy Spirit that moved over the primeval waters at creation as God called the heavens and the earth into being. It spoke through the ancient prophets, and inspired the authors of the texts now collected in the Bible. It is the Spirit that prays in us when we don’t know what to pray. It is the Spirit that calls people into various forms of ministry, and guides the church in times of decision.
And it is also the Holy Spirit that gives spiritual gifts to those who are baptized. Like those comic book superheroes, we become spiritual superheroes – each with our own gifts. Some of them are named here in 1 Corinthians 12 – others are named elsewhere in the Bible – gifts like: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues (speaking in other languages – it seemed to attract a lot of curiosity then, as now), and interpretation. We are all endowed with one or more spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit.
But just like the comic book superheroes, we may be tempted not to use our gifts because they take effort and risk. We may be criticized. We may even suffer. They may take us into involvement with a struggling and suffering world. They open us up to pain and frustration. It is always tempting to just keep them hidden. Except, they are given to be used. They are needed for the common good of the church; they are needed by a hurting and struggling world.
Or, we may be tempted to use our gifts for our own selfish agendas – for our own benefit. That is what was going on in the church in Corinth, and one of the reasons the apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church. Church members were using their gifts to show off how “spiritual” they were, by speaking in tongues or prophesying when the community came together to worship and pray. It became a contest. It was chaos.
So Paul wrote to remind them these gifts were not for their personal benefit, they were for the common good. Later in this letter he wrote, in a very familiar passage we often hear read at weddings,
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”- 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Just like the mutant X-Men superheroes had to occasionally remind one another that using their powers for their own personal vendettas only caused more suffering and didn’t help bring peace for humanity.
One of the challenges for us spiritual superheroes is that we may not even know what our gifts are. We may even be surprised by them. There are various spiritual gifts inventories that folks have developed to help us learn what our gifts might be. We did some work with them quite a few years ago. Some spiritual gift tests and inventories can be found on the internet. But sometimes the best way to learn our spiritual gifts is when others recognize them in us – perhaps even before we know them ourselves!
I have shared the story about when I went to seminary, I thought I might use what I learned there to become a teacher – I didn’t want to be a pastor. But when I had the experience of doing a ministry internship in a church, people responded to me as if I were a pastor! It surprised me.
Jesus said in the gospel of John, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” These are the gifts of the Spirit, given in order to provide for a world of thirsty people. May we be open to discovering our gifts, and using them wisely for the common good of this church and all who long for acceptance and community, and a place where they can discover and use their gifts.
Robert J. von Trebra