1 Corinthians 12:1,4-11; Galatians 5:22-23
We had a fascinating discussion yesterday at the session planning retreat. I am going to take the liberty of paraphrasing Margaret Anderson, who got us thinking. Margaret has been heard by many of us to say that she did not want to imagine communities without churches. And so she chose to dive in and get completely committed to one church – Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church. I admire Margaret’s commitment, devotion, loyalty, strength and many other things. And this statement begs the next question: why are churches so important? What is the thing Margaret, and so many of us value so highly?
Well, we session members hemmed and hawed a bit as we searched for an answer to this question. But here is what I heard us come to in one word: Character. Churches are a place where we learn to be people of character – people of integrity, trustworthiness, compassion, wisdom. This is the kind of character Paul identifies as bearing the fruit of the Spirit.
Churches encourage character based on replicating the way Jesus lived in his time and translating it into a life our time understands. We are not here just to be a circle of friends – even though we are. We are not here just to produce beautiful music – even though we do. We are not here just to have great teaching – even though we do.
What is the purpose of the character we are building? To change the world into the place Jesus and the prophets envisioned, where love and justice are at the core and all people live in peace and have enough because they know their community and their God has their back.
How do we do this? Human history would say that we are not very good at it. War after war, taking from the earth and not giving back, we have littered the earth with towers of Babel, humans trying to be at the top of the pyramid, able to look down on all others, and having God in our pocket.
Perhaps the most poignant expression of this human nature comes in the unlikely guise of a storybook, written in 1972 by Trina Paulus called, Hope for the Flowers.
The book is called “Hope for the Flowers,” but it is all about caterpillars and butterflies. The truth we know from science is that flowers need butterflies, and their companions, the bees, to be able to reproduce. Without caterpillars doing their jobs of becoming butterflies, the flowers have no hope. In this book, Stripe and Yellow, dear friends, are searching for their purpose in life. Stripe is lured to investigate the phenomenon of a pillar growing in their meadow, which seems to be climbing to touch the sky. Streams of caterpillars are heading for the pillar. It turns out to be a huge pile of caterpillars, climbing on each other, stepping on each other, even pushing each other off, trying to reach the top. No one seemed to know what was at the top. It was hidden in the clouds. It must be what their lives were made for, they thought, because it is what everyone seemed to be doing. Yellow decided not to join the climb, and, forlorn, wandered back to the meadow where she happened upon a caterpillar all wound up in some stringy stuff. She tried to help him, but he said no, he had to do this to become a butterfly. Just that word, butterfly, sent a delicious shiver through Yellow. What did she have to lose? She got up on a branch, hung on and started spinning. You know what happened. Yellow found out what caterpillar lives are for – to become butterflies and visit the flowers and help them thrive. Life had nothing to do with climbing pillars. All those caterpillars had lost what they were made for. They followed the well-beaten path of what everyone was doing. They lost their freedom, and the world lost their gift. But after Yellow, Stripe, and others chose to buck the crowds, and travel an unlikely path, they found their way to becoming butterflies, and became their gift to the world. And the meadows begin to blossom again.
Churches are gatherings of people like Yellow and Stripe, who choose to be completely transformed in order to be a gift to the world. This is why we need churches – people gathered to support and care for each other in choosing the way of love and justice.
How do we become a community of butterflies? There is something to be learned from Stripe and Yellow. They had in their caterpillar bodies all the Deep Magic needed to transform them from what looked like death, into life floating free and serving the world.
The same is true of the church. We have in our body of people all the gifts we need to transform routine to soaring. We have all the gifts needed to do exactly what this group of people is called to do by Jesus. It may be that we don’t have the gift to get to the top of the pillar, but that may not be what we are supposed to do. It is easy to lose our way, like Yellow and Stripe did.
Jesus breathed into the disciples, the Holy Spirit, his own breath. When the disciples went out and preached, the Holy Spirit blew in, changing the lives of those who heard the word and received the gifts. In the communities Paul gathered, people were empowered with gifts of healing, generosity, tongues, teaching, and so much more. So many gifts, that Paul had to teach them to use them so that it didn’t look like chaos.
Wherever the teachings of Jesus spread, so did the gifts – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues. These and more. There are many lists of gifts, all different, with at least twenty different identified spiritual gifts in the New Testament.
Back when I was in college, it seemed to be very important to identify one’s spiritual gift. I have taken many different “tests” to help me suss out my particular spiritual gift. Over the years, I have come to understand the gifts differently. I would say now that the number of spiritual gifts which have flowed through me have been many and varied. And no test would have found them out. Gifts may not take up permanent residence in us, but may blow through as the Spirit has need, in her work of moving over the chaos of creation and re-creation.
So maybe we can begin by recognizing when the Spirit is working through us. Maybe that’s a good definition of Spiritual gift – when the Holy Spirit works through us. Sometimes, you know that the bit of teaching, wisdom, or advice didn’t come from you. Sometimes you just know how to do a thing. Sometimes calling the charge to action flows through you. Something hidden in your subconscious which somehow came out at the right moment? Maybe. A spiritual gift? Yes!
The point of the gifts is to say that we can do much more than we thought! We have resources beyond our imagining! Try stuff outside your comfort zone. I think that is where Spiritual gifts show up most often. When you don’t know what to say, when you have nothing left to give, when you are completely stumped – hold on to your hat – it is a sign that the wind is coming.
So learn to recognize and be grateful for the moments in your day when the Spirit was your gift. It is common, even in our culture, to note the presence of Spirit in peace, centeredness, calm. But sometimes the Spirit moves you to action. Sometimes the Spirit’s presence is powerful, doing or saying things you never thought could come from you. Do you let yourself recognize these Spiritual gifts in you as well?
General Assembly meetings of the Presbyterian Church have, perhaps oddly, been one of the places I have see Spirit pour out in wisdom and words beyond what could be expected. The 223rd General Assembly concluded its work in St. Louis, Missouri yesterday. Two years ago, we experienced its presence here in Portland. The Holy Spirit attends these meetings. I hear it every year. Some surprise decision, a firmness to action which was not anticipated, something sails through with none of the opposition expected. The Holy Spirit was at work. Brian Heron, our Presbyter for Vision and Mission wrote in his blog one example: The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, spoke to the Way Forward Committee and in a moment of exceptional clarity he said that what the PCUSA must do is shift “from an institutional bureaucracy to a movement culture.” [https://holybreadcrumbs.org/]
Now THAT sounds like a Spiritual gift! A moment of clarity! So listen. Quit climbing those pillars! Quit building your towers of Babel! Quit trying to prove your power and influence! Give it all up and become a movement – something which can’t be captured in a bottle or pinned down, but which everyone wants to be part of. Spirit is movement – breath, wind, fire. Watch out, it might be breaking out in you, or maybe in the person next to you.
Back to character for a moment. The kind of character we need in our churches, why churches are so important to healthy communities, is character built on the teaching of Jesus and the power of the Spirit. And what does that look like?
This is where the FRUIT of the Spirit comes in. It is interesting that we don’t have tests for which fruit you produce. That is because the fruit is one. The fruit of the Spirit is singular, not plural. It should characterize all followers of Jesus. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The fruit of the Spirit is ALL of this. We don’t get just one part. When you know someone characterized by these gifts, you will know that the Spirit has found a home. This is what churches are made for.
Lord, may it be so among us. Amen.