1 Corinthians 12:1-11
This season of Pentecost has been an amazing eye-opener for me! For one thing, as a pastor, I have rarely had so much difficulty finding resource material! I have discovered that the prayers in our Book of Common Worship are prayers to God and Jesus. They reflect on the characteristics of God the Creator, and Jesus the human one. Of course, the Holy Spirit is named – we are a Trinitarian tribe after all – but it feels like an afterthought! Prayers are to God and Jesus.
I have also discovered that Pentecost is celebrated as the birthday of the church (which it is), with very little mention of the best birthday present of all time – the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is the one who formed us as the Body of Christ, if the Holy Spirit is the great gift from God the Creator, if the Holy Spirit is the indwelling of Jesus’ own heart – well, why don’t we talk about Spirit more? If the Spirit is our great treasure, let’s learn how to be connected to Holy Spirit, let’s learn about the Spirit’s power and love.
This is where Paul starts this particular part of his letter: “About the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I do not want you to be uninformed.” Yet, sometimes I feel like we ARE uninformed. How did you learn about the Holy Spirit, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit? How many sermons do you remember on this topic? I have had some pretty significant brushes with the work of the Holy Spirit over the years. How have I learned about Holy Spirit? From my encounters, from my life. This makes sense, since the Spirit is how we experience God. She is not so much about belief as experience, so it is harder to teach about her.
I described the beginnings of the modern Pentecostal movement on Pentecost Sunday, reviewing the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles which began around 1906. Many Pentecostal churches find their roots here. More recently, the Charismatic movement began to infiltrate many of the established denominations. It got its name from its focus on the gifts of the Spirit. The word, “charismatic”is the Greek word, χάρισμα (charisma), which means “favor freely given” or “gift of grace.”
The Charismatic movement began around 1960. Dennis J. Bennett. Is that name familiar to any of you? Born in England but raised in California, Bennett is often tagged as the founder of the Charismatic Movement. After proclaiming from the pulpit on April 3, 1960 that he had been baptized in the Holy Spirit, he was asked to resign his pastorate at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a 2600-member congregation in Van Nuys, California. Bennett was featured in articles in both Newsweek and Time magazines. Rather than subjecting his church to a media frenzy, he did resign his pastorate. He moved to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Seattle and led that congregation until 1981.
In 1970, Bennett wrote a book which leaked into our little farm town titled, Nine O’clock In the Morning. It was a book we whispered about after youth group, and hid under our pillows so our parents would not know we were reading it. Charismatic youth pastors came and went in our community, always attracting a crowd. We were told not to go to their events, not to listen to them. They were held in suspicion, but I was never sure why – which made me all the more curious. I read the book. My friends and I talked about it. And we discovered a whole world of spiritual gifts and powers we didn’t know about. I was cautious but respectful and curious. I can’t quote his book anymore, but what I came away with was the deep, powerful and apple-cart-upsetting idea that the Holy Spirit is still alive and well and known to be doing the things she has been doing throughout the Biblical story.
In college, I stumbled into a Charismatic church a lot of other students were attending, and there experienced the people praying in tongues in the worship services, people speaking interpretations, and pastoral teaching on this phenomenon of Holy Spirit power.
On my student mission trip, I served with those who believed in and experienced the powerful and dramatic gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy, tongues, miracles.
During my internship in seminary at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, with Pastor Lloyd John Ogilvie (later Chaplain of the Senate), again I encountered the Charismatic movement among some groups within the congregation. The first Presbyterian Church I joined, in Fresno, was one with a significant charismatic bent. In those years, the Charismatic renewal was dividing churches with fear of or embracing this powerful Holy Spirit.
In my early teaching years, I came across the work of John Wimber, founder of Vineyard Christian Fellowship, who was teaching in the School of World Mission at Fuller Seminary. Through long years of study and prayer, he became a leader in the practice of Spiritual gifts today. I met him, visited his churches and attended conferences he led. Oh, the stories I could tell you! And I remember him as someone who was a bridge-builder. He seemed to be able to bring Holy Spirit power into the normal experience of God.
In my life I have witnessed the gifts of tongues and their interpretation, miracles, healings and much more. I have a friend, a pastor in a large Charismatic church, whose task it was to discern the Spirit’s presence in the words of knowledge or prophecy which parishioners felt they wanted to share. Imagine that job – of discerning who would speak to the congregation! So much power! But as he was respected as a person with the gift of discernment, his guidance was accepted with humility.
How is it that I happen to have been exposed to so many Pentecostal and Charismatic influences? I have no idea! What has been my response? Openness, respect and wondering. It seems perfectly biblical to expect the Holy Spirit to be alive among us in the same way she always was – momentarily in the Hebrew stories and powerfully in the church.
One way in which the movement changed Christianity is that it was the first group to acknowledge the work of women in ministry. Pentecostals and Charismatics, those who believe in and practice the gifts of the Holy Spirit, believe to the depths of their souls that the Holy Spirit gifts whomever she chooses – and sometimes that is people we don’t think fit the profile – black or brown, female or male, slave or free. The Holy Spirit simply doesn’t care what box a person checks on their census form. It is totally irrelevant. Holy Spirit looks, instead for those who are waiting and open.
In college I was introduced to the process of discerning our spiritual gifts. Frankly, most of us found ourselves with the gift of “Helps,” the safest of the gifts, and just possibly the only one we could let in. Of course, the Holy Spirit will give whatever can be given, and Helps is at the very core of what it means to follow the Servant Lord! It motivates the people who change the world, with a passion for the oppressed and over-looked, who keep our community connected by caring for those who might otherwise be forgotten. What would we do without the gift of “Helps?”
But what about the other gifts? Did you test yourself? Did you notice anything about the inventory? For one thing, it doesn’t measure Tongues or Interpretation of Tongues. Since this has been, since the time of Paul, the most obvious and sensational of the gifts, it seems odd that it does not make the list. Further, there are undoubtedly many more gifts of the Spirit than those on the list. Why would Paul know the whole list of everything the Spirit could give? He only talked about the ones he had encountered enough to be familiar with them. So, the gift inventories are never complete. You may have found that when you looked at your “results,” you were disappointed. I know I was when I did it for the first time. “Is that all? I want more!,” I thought. Or, you may have thought, my particular gift isn’t on this list.
Like the gift of superhuman strength. Samson had this one. When the Holy Spirit came upon him, he had incredible strength! So much so that his stories sound a lot like the Hulk! Is there a gift of strength? Not on the list, but there is biblical evidence for it.
I don’t want you to be uninformed about the gifts of the Spirit, either. But you and I together have some work to do! We come from a tradition which has little to teach us about the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit. How do we learn to recognize the work?
Sometimes it is easier to see the gifts by recognizing them in another person. She has the gift of teaching, or the gift of wisdom. When you tell her, she may well deny it saying, “Oh, I am not wise.” But the irony is – that is perfectly true. She may not be wise. Yet she has spoken wisdom which was recognized by others – a gift. Have you ever known moments when what you heard coming out of your own mouth was a complete surprise? It may be a sign of the Spirit’s gift.
Spirit comes with gifts where her people are waiting and open. And this is the rub. Are we that kind of people? Am I?
Do we expect miracles?
Do we expect words of power which change our hearts?
Do we relax in the presence of God, expecting God to come through with exactly what is needed at the precise moment it is needed?
It is a bit scary. Holy Spirit is not in our control. So she brings change winds. I think that is the key reason we do not explore the power of the Spirit much more than we do.
But Paul reminds us here that, while the gifts are a bit foreign, and bring change, and everyone experiences them differently – they are there only for our good. For our common good.
The way I see it is that God has given us exactly the right people and exactly the right gifts to do what exactly God is doing in this time and in this place. We may not know it yet. We may be surprised at how God uses us. And we may be surprised at what happens. We may need to change completely our goals and plans. God may have something completely new in mind. I am sure that the disciples did not anticipate the day of Pentecost, or the growth of the community which followed – growth from below, from service, not from or into power.
May we be open to the Spirit’s gifts to erupt among us, to be used for the common good.