Sermon - 3 Epiphany
In the Name...
There was an article on the news that St. Paul's Cathedral in London has been found to be sliding towards the River Thames at the rate of one inch per century. Someone remarked that surely in this day and age the Church could move a little faster than that.
Today is the Sunday of the year that falls between the Feasts of the Confession of St. Peter, the event when Peter declared his belief in Jesus as the Christ, and the Conversion of St. Paul, the event when Paul understood that he had been wrong to deny that Jesus was the Christ, and over one hundred years ago a small group of New York Episcopalians decided to observe this Sunday as a day to pray for the unity of all Christians.
At the time, they were laughed at because, in the early 20th Century, churches were very self-contained entities. We may find this hard to imagine today, but, denominations were almost like nationalities. Most people didn't join churches; they were born into them and stayed with them until death. And no church interacted with any other.
Over a century later, however, what those few Episcopalians started has transformed the Christian World out of all recognition. People of all denominations expect churches to work together, today, and regard exclusivity has a sign of sickness. We're far from being one denomination, but, we recognize that we all have gifts and strengths and that our witness to the world is stronger when we unite our diverse efforts.
Our reading from Paul, this morning, deals with the issue of the unity of diversity, but, within the local congregation and that's where it all really has to start. How, after all, can we approach the unification of diverse faith communities if we cannot achieve unification among the diverse members of our own.
On one level, it shouldn't be so hard. Unity of diversity is not a concept foreign to real life. A play or musical concert requires a variety of talents working to one goal to be successful and attract an audience. And in a couple of weeks we'll see how certain NFL teams are able to coordinate a wide variety of individual talents to achieve a certain outcome.
When it comes to the church, however, we seem curiously inept at this, either opting for a chaotic disorder or for a rigid conformity and calling both the Will of God. Certainly with chaos we avoid offending almost everybody and in conformity we attain a short-term efficiency, But, both are wrong because neither truly recognizes the giftedness of the individual and the need for individuals to build up community.
We can learn valuable lessons for ourselves and our own church from what we heard St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Few passages in the Bible have more potential for strengthening the church and its members because few are so emphatic about the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Now, Scripture says a lot about these Gifts and yet I have to say that while I was baptized and confirmed and brought up in churches, went to a religious-based high school, studied the Bible in college and even went through three years of seminary, it was not until after I was ordained that I encountered any real teaching on this subject.
I'm sure this was because the churches in which I grew up were somewhat nervous about the subject. The Holy Spirit was only studied in relation to the theology of the Trinity. The idea that he was a real person, an energizing life-giving person with gifts to bestow was never mentioned. And yet it's all there in the Bible.
At Baptism, each Christian receives all the Gifts of the Spirit he or she needs to do the work that God has in mind for him or her to do. And that's an important concept. There is nobody here who is not here for a reason.
Actually, that's a scary concept. It's common to talk about clergy being called to churches, But, what about this. Have you ever thought that you were called to this church? Ah, ha. You didn't just choose to come here. You were chosen to come here. You have a mission and ministry to exercise in this place.
But, in the words of the old song, smoke gets in our eyes, that is, the smoke screen of sin, of separation from God, obscures our calling. Our self-centredness, our preoccupation with concerns of the material world, our anxieties and fears, our health issues, all these things have a way of distracting us from what is really important in life by pretending that they are life.
And so our gifts atrophy from lack of use and we end up spinning our wheels but, not moving forward. That can happen to any one of us and that is sad, but, when it happens to a church, that is a tragedy.
Interesting, though, the problem in Corinth was actually quite the opposite. Everybody was using their gifts but, they were arguing over which ones were more important. The Corinthian Church was a going concern. It was large and prosperous and attracting new members every day because people on the outside could see the Gifts at work and the lives of the members radically changing.
The problem was that they were growing too fast. Now that's a problem a lot of churches I know would love to have. It's a problem that seems to come back to the Gifts, though. Where they are evident and properly used, there we find success. Where they are either completely neglected or become a source of division, there we find failure.
In our time, a lot of attention is given to tongues and healings just as a lot of attention is being given this week to certain NFL quarterbacks. But, as the teams which won or lost by a field goal or extra point found out this season, the kicker can be just as important as the quarterback. And so too the players who never carry the ball or score a point.
In his letter, we St. Paul mentions lots of Gifts. He mentions "wisdom" and "knowledge." They're not the same thing. Wisdom is the special gift whereby the Spirit endows particular Christians with an understanding of how God’s will and work relates to the living of life, while Knowledge is the special gift whereby the Spirit enables certain Christians to understand the great truths of God's Word and how to make them relevant to specific situations in the church.
Are these your gifts? Well you may say, I don't think so. But, a fellow was once asked if he could play the piano. "I don't know.", he replied. "How can you not know?", he was asked. "Well", he said, "I've never tried." How do we know what our gifts are until we try to discern them? That's why we have Spiritual Gift Inventories, so that we can all try to see what our gifts are. God knows. Often, we don't.
If the wide receiver doesn't catch the ball. If the brass section doesn't blow a note. If the actors don't speak. The team, the orchestra, the play doesn't get anywhere. Compare now, the church. If those with the gift of giving don't give. If those with the gift of healing don't heal. If those with the gift of wisdom provide no guidance. Then, that church also goes nowhere. Is that a church which attracts fans and supporters?
The principles are the same. Unity and effectiveness comes when we recognize and use the Gifts with joy, develop them with discipline, and dedicate them to God's purpose.
Consider what your Gifts are. And we'll win, not the Super Bowl, but, the crown of glory that fadeth not away. A bigger prize, by far.
In the Name..