A Sermon for Pentecost, May 20, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. Spiritual gifts and the gift of the Spirit
Our stated mission includes the charge to “work and pray and give for the spread of [God’s] kingdom” (BCP 291). We regularly instruct people, with some detail, about how to pray and give. What about our spiritual work? Pentecost is an appropriate time to begin a discussion about spiritual gifts, which are the unique ways the gift of the Spirit is manifested in each believer.
Before we can understand our unique spiritual gifts, we must first understand how the gift of the Spirit reorients our lives. The gift of the Spirit is the remedy for sin. The spiritual death that resulted from the first sin was the loss of communion with God through the Spirit of God (Gen. 2:17). As the Holy Spirit is given to the church on Pentecost, this life-giving connection is restored.
The objective sign of the gift of the Spirit, the way Pentecost comes to us, is the water of baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). From the beginning of church, the water of baptism was completed by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands—what we now call Confirmation (Acts 8:14-17, Hebrews 6:1-2). God conveys the gift of the Spirit through sacramental signs so that you can know that we have been given this gift.
But receiving a gift does guarantee we will use it. Planting a seed does not guarantee growth into a tree. Baptism is the beginning. The question is, “What is God doing in your life now? The Bishop prays over those being Confirmed that they will “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” (BCP 297).
II. The gift of the Spirit as a reorientation of Life
The first sin and the spiritual death of Genesis led to notable consequences. The first humans blamed someone else for their own sinful behavior. Then they began to hurt each other. Cain killed his brother Abel. The first murder was tied to worship. Cain made an unacceptable offering to God (Genesis 4:4-5). When God rejected his worship, Cain took it out on his brother (Gen. 4:8).
Sin disconnects us from God and leaves us in a state of emptiness and neediness. We try to meet our needs at the expense of others. We deny our guilt by blaming others. We deal with our pain by hurting others. This is our inheritance “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22). Our emptiness must be filled by something. That something ends up being the various idolatries and addictions of the human condition.
The gift of the Spirit reorients our lives away from the patterns of sin and towards love for God and others. When we stop blaming others, take responsibility for our own behavior, and turn back to God in faith, God gives us his Spirit and restores to us relationship with him. As Jesus said in the gospel,
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him (Jn. 14:23).
As the Father and the Son make their home within us through the Spirit, our lives produce a different kind of fruit. The Spirit fills the empty places of our hearts and begins to heal the wounds of sin. Our interior experience of God’s love and grace is manifested outwardly in love for others. Instead of inflicting our pain on others, we share our experience of grace. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
The word for “comfort” in this passage is the verbal form of the noun “paraclete,” the word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:16-18). We are comforted, strengthened, and healed by the Spirit so that we can be agents of comfort, strength, and healing for others through the Spirit.
III. Worship and prayer as the foundation for love of neighbor
Worship and prayer are the foundation of our love for others. God fills our emptiness and heals our wounds in a progressive manner—not unlike the way an antibiotic slowly kills an infection in our bodies. In the liturgies of the Christian life, we continually bring our disordered selves to God, who continually forgives, heals, and strengthens us. As we “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” we grow in both our interior healing and the love for others that results from it.
The sin of Cain, the Bible’s first murder, was rooted in his refusal to worship God with his whole being. Our ability to love others is dependent upon our worship. When we neglect worship, we lose our ability to love with the love that come from God. The first and great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Our ability to fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is dependent upon our obedience to the first commandment (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). Mere philanthropy can never reach the heights of agape love.
There are errors in the other direction. Our prayer can be self-centered. Interior peace can become the goal with the result that we have no concern for the brokenness of the world. Thus, there are two errors. One occurs when the church neglects its worship and life of prayer and gets caught up in various forms of activism. The church reflects the anxiety and “busy-ness” of the world rather than the peace of God. The other error occurs when the church becomes absorbed in its own spirituality and has no ministry outside of itself. In its authentic pattern, the Christian life begins in worship and prayer. This experience of God’s love is then manifested in good works done for others in love. The absence of either part is a serious defect—even heresy.
IV. Our ministries and the use of our gifts
We often approach the topic of ministry by focusing on what “the church” is doing. The church develops a “program” and recruits its member to give their time and labor. However, ministry works best in the other direction. You are the church. As you pray and experience the love and grace of God through the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will naturally move you into loving behavior towards others. This is not just volunteer work at church. Your “ministry” is your total life “in Christ.” It is what you do at home, work and leisure. Your most significant ministry may be the way you manifest the presence of Christ in a challenging work environment or in a difficult marriage; doing what is right and encouraging others in response to harsh treatment or dishonesty. The worst kind of ministry occurs when we do wonderful things at church but are dishonest and unkind in the other areas of our lives.
The ministry of the church is the sum of the work of the members of the body of Christ. Some of that work takes place at church, but most of that work takes place in the world. The best ministry in the church occurs when there is a pooling of our spiritual gifts for the sake of efficiency; when we can do something better together than we can separately. The worst ministry is when the church decides it should do something and then pressures reluctant volunteers to do things they do not have the gifts, time, or desire to do. Of course, there is also sloth. You must be willing to use your gifts, and this will take time and effort.
Your spiritual gifts are the unique form that love takes in your life. Some people have a gift for quiet service. Some have the gift for giving encouragement or wise counsel. Some people have a gift for giving money. Some have gifts for prayer and intercession. What are your gifts? What form does love take in your life? What is the shape of your ministry? What new things might God be calling your to do? These are questions to ask on Pentecost. You experience God’s love in the sacraments and prayer. How do you share that love with others? In Eucharistic terms, as you receive the body and blood of Jesus at the altar, consider, what are the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in? (BCP 83, Eph. 2:10).