Sermon by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
We’re going to take the next three Sundays to look at issues arising from a couple of chapters of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. It’s a letter written in many ways to ‘sort out’ a church where people have allowed their high opinion of themselves and of their groups and cliques to get in the way of the church and its work. And, because the church is new, because it is finding its way in the midst of other belief systems, it is struggling to remain true to the path on which it has set itself. And nowhere is this truer than in the way the work of the Holy Spirit is understood.
For many in Corinth the gifts of the spirit were about display; their faith was about showing off. ‘Look at me’ was how many interpreted what the Spirit was all about – the possession of a gift was something to boast about, to gain attention by. And so Paul tries to put them right. He tries to put them right about what a spiritual gift is, and about what a spiritual gift is for: ‘to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’.
Paul reaffirms what Isaiah speaks of in his prophecy – that God speaks in his Spirit by addressing the people in the plural. ‘You’ are a community, a city, a congregation of people – and the Spirit of God is not for the individual good, but for the common good:
you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
you shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her’,
and your land ‘Married’;
for the Lord delights in you.
But he also affirms that the gifts of the Spirit are not for the chosen few; there is no such category as the spiritual glitterati – ‘to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit’. There are no spiritual superstars – and there are none of us who will not have a gift offered and given, and who will not have the responsibility of using that gift. The gifts of the Spirit cannot simply be left to others to manifest – we’re all in this together.
So then Paul starts listing the gifts he sees at work in the community of Corinth. He surveys the gifts he has seen or those he has been told about; he talks about wisdom and knowledge, of faith and healing, of miracles and prophecy, of discernment and interpretation. He refuses to allow any kind of hierarchy of gifts, no distinction in importance or origin.
So I wonder what gifts we would list as we survey our own community. Because I don’t think we need to restrict ourselves simply to Paul’s categories. What work of the Spirit do we see when we look around at those who are here, with us, now? I have a few suggestions, not an exhaustive list, but three spiritual gifts which I reckon can be found on a regular basis in these here parts: generosity, joy and hope!
There is always the need to see the Spirit at work in the generosity of God’s people. This is a very generous congregation – but there are all sorts of different ways in which that generosity is seen. The most obvious is, of course, the generosity displayed in the giving of money – just have a look at how much was given during Advent for the work of the Lodging House Mission – and this is only one of the many calls on the financial generosity of those who come here.
It is occasionally suggested that the giving of money is in some way an impersonal generosity – and, of course, it can be. It can be that we give money in order to save ourselves from giving anything else; it can be that we end up fulfilling the prophecy of Karl Marx, who said that capitalism reduces our lives to the level where we only interact, we only connect, through money. We are thereby deprived, he said, of our humanity, of what makes human life worth living. But the giving of money can also be what we very often describe it to be – a token of the giving of ourselves.
Generosity, however expressed, is a gift of the Spirit because of its role in bringing us out of ourselves, pointing us away from ourselves. The ‘cash nexus’ that Marx described was primarily about how our lives become dominated by the desire to accumulate wealth, the process by which we accumulate it at the expense of others; our contact with people becomes dominated by what they (and we) are ‘worth’ in a monetary sense. Generosity is (or ought to be) the process, the gift of the Spirit, by which that process is reversed. Of course Andrew Carnegie, whose view it was that anyone who dies still in possession of great wealth was the bringer of evil into the world, was able to be an extremely generous giver only because of his ruthless and exploitative accumulation of the cash in the first place. Generosity, like everything else, has a context.
But generosity, this gift of the Spirit, is expressed in other ways: people are generous with their time, with their energy, with their care, with their concern. And these expressions of generosity do the same as the giving of money – they take our attention away from ourselves and point that attention in a new direction, and that’s what highlights them as gifts of the Spirit. If you want to test what is of the Spirit and what is not, perhaps the first test is whether it makes us concerned with ourselves, or with what is beyond ourselves. So to turn our generosity into a way of feeling pleased with ourselves would be to undermine the very gift it expresses.
There is a gift of the Spirit to be found too in the joy-bringers of the church and of the world. Not everyone, I suspect, finds it easy to be a bringer of joy – which makes the presence of those who do all the more important and welcome. There are those who, when they enter a room, can by their very presence lighten the whole mood of the place, lighten the spirits of the people, lighten the very atmosphere we breathe. It is a gift that can be seen in those who are and have been here for a long time; it is a gift that is very often brought by those who arrive new from somewhere else – an enthusiasm, an energy, a positive, life-affirming grace, that lifts our spirits, and can only be from the Holy Spirit. And we should all pray that there are times when we can be given and can be that gift. We should certainly pray that we can be preserved from the fate of being the opposite of all that, when our presence deadens the atmosphere, lowers the spirits, dulls the enthusiasm of those around us – if we can’t be the gift, we should at least not be taking the gifts of others away!
And then there is the gift of hope. We can sometimes think that hope is the particular gift of the young; we think this because hope is orientated toward the future – and the young are the ones with the future in front of them. But there is a gift of the Spirit that can be discerned in those who are older, those who can offer hope to those who are coming after them. It is the gift of encouragement, the gift of support, the gift of unconditional love. Hope is not located in the past, but the experience of the past can be offered to a future that is still to be made – not because the past can thereby be recreated but because it can be made new and the future made hopeful.
And in our story from the Gospel of John today we find an account of the movement of the Spirit, the gift of God in the person of Jesus, and the way in which Jesus brings generosity, joy and hope. There have been those in the church (pretty much ever since) who have struggled to see the gifts of the Spirit in the action of turning water into wine. But today I want us to notice the spiritual gifts that the story contains, and perhaps also notice what the gifts of the Spirit, let loose among us, can accomplish.
The story is so well known it might almost be recited (perhaps with a little prompting). Jesus is there with his disciples and with his mother – there at an event of celebration, there at a party. We don’t know what the religious bit of the occasion was like because it isn’t mentioned – that was the traditional bit, the bit everyone would know about. The formulae, whatever they were at the time, would have been followed; the couple and those with them would have done what was expected. But the bit John thinks we should be interested in is the bit that was not expected – not even expected, it appears, by Jesus.
And so already, just in that description, we have two clues about the presence and the work and the gifts of the Spirit: celebration and surprise. The Spirit of God both is a cause of and enables a response to celebration, normal human celebration – that human response that takes us out of ourselves, makes us part of a greater ‘something’. But the Spirit of God is also loathe to let us remain in the realms of the expected, the predictable, or the familiar. The Spirit of God is always looking to shake us up, move us on, surprise us.
But, more than that, the gift of the Spirit is to enhance celebration, to make us more joyful, more thankful, more engaged with one another. The actions of Jesus – even though they come as a surprise to him – are to be seen as a contribution to human flourishing. God acts generously, so generously that there is absolutely no chance of the gift running out. Human generosity has the possibility of reaching its limits; God’s generosity has no limits.
And, right at the end of this section, John identifies what Jesus does at a wedding, at a party, in turning huge amounts of water into huge amounts of wine, as a ‘sign’, the first sign, the first indication to his followers of what Jesus is all about. And if you are looking for a sign of hope, this has to be it. Here is a sign that the kingdom, of which Jesus will speak over and over again, is one that has its origin and its expression in overwhelming generosity, in unrestrained and joyful celebration, in a life lived without limits, a life lived for one another, a life lived with a hope that nothing can overcome.
It is the sign of Jesus the son of Mary; it is the life of Christ’s church; it is the wine of God’s kingdom; it is the gift of God’s Spirit. And it is a sign for us and to us of the life to which we are called, the life we trust that others might see in us, life that is life for the world and for all its people.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.