(Ep2. Yr C) (I Cor. 12, 1-11; Luke 4,14-21)
I wonder how you would feel if somebody gave you the same present every year on your birthday and Christmas – and you knew that they gave exactly the same thing to everyone else they knew. I don’t suppose it would make you feel very special. We all like to think that gifts are given after a lot of thought, and are chosen especially for us, to fit our needs and our interests.
In our reading from his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is talking about the gifts that come to the believer from God through the Holy Spirit; and one thing he emphasises is that they are all different. Each one is specially chosen to fit the task given to the person who receives it. The Spirit who gives is the same Spirit – and is the Spirit of God and of Jesus.
Paul uses different names for the source of the gifts – God, Lord, Spirit – but the source is one and the same. The variety of gifts comes from a God who is known as the Trinity – so has variety and relationship within the Godhead; but the gifts are rooted in the nature of that God, who is a unity.
Paul is trying to teach the Corinthians – and us – that just because we all belong to the same Church, we don’t have to be the same. We won’t all learn in the same way, we don’t all worship in the same way, and we aren’t all meant to serve God and the Church in the same way. God needs different people to do different things to build the Kingdom on earth – and through the Spirit is equipping us with what we need in order to do what he asks of us.
This can be a problem for some of Christians. They seem to want everyone to be the same. Perhaps they only feel secure in the company of people who are exactly like themselves, who see things their way and do things as they want. But the Spirit of God is not like that, because God is not like that. The Spirit is the source of the wonderful variety of people and gifts in our world, and God appears to be happy to be served and worshipped in a variety of ways – so long as those who serve acknowledge that people who do things differently are also serving God. This variety is not a problem if we are truly listening to the Spirit – it is only a problem if we are actually only listening to ourselves and our needs.
We learn from Paul’s letter that the Corinthians had a big problem with unity, and with appreciating the gifts of others. Even when they acknowledged that all gifts came from God, they wanted to put them in an order of importance – with the showy gifts, like speaking in tongues at the top of the list, and less obviously spiritual gifts, like simply caring for people, lower down. Paul would have none of this. As he demonstrated by using the analogy of the human body for the Church, every gift, every part is important; and perhaps we need to take most notice of the less obviously ‘religious’ gifts if the Body of Christ is to be healthy and grow.
It is very much a lesson for today’s Church. Perhaps we need to listen very carefully to what the Spirit is saying to us through those whose voices have not previously been heard much in the Church – however hard it is for those who were previously ‘top of the pile’. It is should also alert us to the gifts of those who are on the margins of society, perhaps even those who have been rejected by our churches until recently. Perhaps in rejecting these marginal people, we have denied our churches gifts that could help them to grow and reach more people with Christ’s message.
It’s a lesson that all Christians need to hear in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We pray for unity, but it does not mean we want uniformity. We each have our preferred way of worshipping God and organising our Christian communities, and that will mean we may think some gifts are more important than others; but it doesn’t mean that we should dismiss gifts that are not prized in our particular churches , and argue that they can’t come from God. Such arguments have been the source of much hurt and even evil in the past.
The Spirit, Paul says, gives a variety of gifts – but all the different gifts have some things in common. First the gifts of the Spirit bring faith and commitment. They inspire us to proclaim through our words and our lives that ‘Jesus is Lord’. That implies that God comes first in our lives, before all our other commitments.
Second, the gifts given to believers are not given for their private benefit or advancement, to get them a better job or to make their lives easier. They are given for the common good, to build up the Body of Christ. They only remain ‘gifts of the Spirit’ when they are used in that way.
In the passage we heard from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes from the Book of Isaiah, to claim that the Spirit of God is with him. This scene is like the setting out of Jesus’ manifesto, outlining what his ministry will be all about. In some way, this proclamation at Nazareth is Luke’s Epiphany, the time when Jesus is revealed to the world as the Spirit-filled Messiah.
In Luke’s view, the ministry of Jesus is about serving the lowly, the outcast, those on the margins of polite society, and the poor. It is Liberation Theology, proclaiming freedom for captives and liberty for the oppressed. It is about healing society and educating people so that they see things with God’s eyes. It is about challenging the powers that be, and announcing that the year of the Lord’s favour has arrived – the Jubilee year, when all debts were cancelled and land returned to it’s original owners.
Luke’s is very much a social Gospel. It is about politics and economics, not just private spirituality. Beginning with the shepherds, the outsiders who are the first to worship the Messiah, and through the canticles like the Benedictus and the Magnificat, Luke tells us that the Good News of the Gospel has a particular significance for the poor, the sick and the outsider. Luke does emphasise the need for prayer, and openness to the Spirit, but these are necessary to equip the followers of Jesus for action. Like Paul, Luke sees the Spirit as providing the inspiration and the impetus to take action to change the world.
Since Bishop Alan Smith became the Bishop of St Albans, he has been challenging Anglicans in this diocese to ‘Live God’s Love, and to make three aspects of Christian life their priorities. First, to go deeper into God – to be open to the Spirit, to read the Scriptures and to pray; second, to make new disciples – to teach and to nurture those of any age who are new to the faith. But the third priority is to transform the communities in which we live. That is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Church in Corinth; that is what Jesus was proclaiming he came to do in Luke’s account of the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.
I think those are useful challenges for all Christians, not just Anglicans. How equipped are you in this church to respond to the third of those challenges? Do you ever ask yourselves what it is that this church does which makes any difference to the community around you? Are you transforming your community? Would it actually make any difference to the community if this church was not here? And if not, why not?
Do you ever ask yourselves: “How are we showing this community that, for us, Jesus is Lord, that the Gospel comes first in our lives? How are we being Good News for the poor. Who are we setting free? What blindness are we helping to remove? How are we liberating the oppressed? How are we using the gifts of the Spirit to try to transform this place?”
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. At the beginning of this year, can we all ask ourselves: “Is the Spirit of the Lord upon me?” and “How will people know?”