06.04.2017 Preaching Text: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:4a)
What are you especially good at? What skill set or talents do you possess? Have you made something of them? Are you accomplished at a trade, financial matters, or book learning? Does this give you a sense of satisfaction?
I certainly hope so. You’ve likely put a lot of time and commitment into developing these skills. Enjoying a sense of accomplishment is hardly a bad thing, is it?
But does your own particular skill set also make you feel a certain sense of pride? After all, you excel at it in ways others don’t. Does this ever make you feel in any way superior? Maybe just a little?
It’s a tough question. Yet isn’t it the case that we can be tempted, wittingly or unwittingly, to feel just a wee bit better than others because we can do certain things others can’t? Now be honest!
There’s another aspect of this as well. Because we excel in a given area we may be tempted to assume we excel in all areas. The danger here is that we end up “not knowing what we don’t know.”
This is particularly true of intellectuals, I’ve found. If I outperform others in the “important” matters of the mind, it’s a relatively quick step to think my lofty powers encompass the full range of human experience.
The simple fact, however, is that each of us is quite limited in what we know and can do. We can excel in one area of life and be wholly deficient in another.
Every time I attend a Trustee meeting, for instance, I end up feeling utterly useless, inadequate. The knowledge and skill required to properly steward our buildings and grounds escapes me almost entirely.
Which is to say that the only thing I learned from my father about home repair was how to pick up the phone and dial a professional. Of course I do have other skills, ones no better than any other, only different.
Which brings us to Paul’s discussion of the spiritual gifts found in the church, the Body of Christ. There we find people who are gifted in some ways and not in others. But together, the body is strong, as it taps the shared wealth of talents and skills of each individual member. In the areas where I’m weak, there are others who are strong, and vice versa.
Paul felt the need to point this out because the church in Corinth was beset by internal factions. The “elite” group, otherwise known as the “spiritualists,” thought their superior intellect and spiritual gymnastics (such as speaking in tongues) rendered them a cut above the others.
They even celebrated the Lord’s Supper apart from the rest of the church. Paul is having none of this. In characteristic fashion he tells these elitists that he himself could outperform them any day of the week. They’re not to think of themselves so highly, in other words. More to the point, he shows how being skilled in some things never makes any one Christian superior to another. We’re all in this together.
But there’s something else at stake here, something critical. The gifts we possess are not for us alone. This is perhaps the greatest mistake we can make, especially if we have skills and talents our culture recognizes and celebrates.
For even the “greatest” gift is given for a specific purpose. And it’s not, as I say, for our personal benefit. Simply put, we are given these gifts in order that we might share God with others.
The subtext of Acts, therefore, is that the giving of the Holy Spirit serves one basic function: to extend the word of God to the entire world. That’s pretty much it. Believe it or not.
In the Bible, both the Jews and the early church are shown to believe that God one day would intercede in the affairs of our world to defeat evil and restore life to its original state of perfection.
For the Jews, this would be initiated by the expectant Messiah on the “Day of the Lord” which would immediately usher forth God’s eternal “Golden Age.”
The early church believed this as well, but interpreted Christ’s earthy ministry and subsequent Resurrection as but the beginning of this highly anticipated restoration project. Rather than happening all at once, as was the Jewish understanding, it would happen in phases.
First the Messiah would come. Then, after the Resurrection, his remaining followers would be tasked with getting the word out about what was afoot. And what was afoot was the impending return of the Messiah (in their lifetimes they believed) where evil would be defeated once and for all and God’s Golden Age would be established fully.
This produced a compelling sense of urgency within the early church. After all, they didn’t have a lot of time. The world needed to prepare for this glorious, albeit cataclysmic event. Thus the missionary impulse.
But how to achieve this? The answer, as we see in Acts, is by means of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit alone would provide the wherewithal to accomplish this formidable task. It was the Holy Spirit who would give the church the gifts and tools necessary to bring Christ’s message of reconciliation to the world.
To think the Spirit’s gifts are for our benefit alone, therefore, is a grave misreading. While there is indeed great personal satisfaction in doing God’s will, such consideration is secondary. The reason we’re gifted is to gift others.
Thus when we use our gifts for purposes other than God’s will, we deny the reason God gave them to us in the first place. And the church loses its way.
In our adult book study this past week, we read Tony Robinson’s chapter stressing the necessity of using our gifts and talents for spiritual purposes.
Too often, he argues, the church has assumed secular logic to be the same as that informed by the Holy Spirit. The classic example is picking business people exclusively to serve on our finance boards.
Obviously, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except when secular business practices substitute for a spiritually informed use of our resources, as if there’s no difference between the two.
Once it was conceivable, Robinson says, to be a church leader, financial or otherwise, without participating in the worship life of the church. But today, he contends, leadership must be “connected to one’s faith and experience of God,” i.e. informed by the Holy Spirit.
To repeat, the purpose of the church is not to perpetuate itself as an institution, but to be about the work of the Kingdom. And this requires spiritually alert people who are intimately involved in the church’s inner workings, i.e. its spiritual life. Simply having skills, or interests, is not enough.
In the end, the point of origin for all the church does is the Holy Spirit. Minus this, we merely mimic being a church. Without the Holy Spirit, God’s will for us, the church, and the world, is all but lost. Amen.