Texts: Acts 2.1-21; 1 Cor 12.3-13; Jn 20.19-23
Like a mighty wind, the Holy Spirit blows where she will. Like a mighty flood, she is an unstoppable force. Like a raging fire, she can be a power of destruction as well as creation. In Jerusalem, the Spirit descends on the quiet, dignified, orderly gathering of Jesus’ followers with a great noise and what was likely a rather surprising—if not terrifying—light show. 120 men and women then begin babbling in a cacophony of different languages before flooding into the streets, prophesying to the amazed and fearful bystanders about the power of God. Like the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis, God intervenes to confuse their languages—but this time, instead of dividing people the Spirit unites them in the good news of Jesus Christ.
The Church of Christ from its very beginning has included many diverse people: Judeans and foreigners, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, rich and poor. This diversity of people is mirrored by the diversity of gifts that the Spirit bestows on them. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul talks about spiritual gifts of healing, speaking in and translating tongues, prophesy, and miracle working. However, this diversity also means that the Church has from its very beginning also struggled with the human instinct to divide and compete with one another. When we see the differences in the people God has called and the differences in the gifts God has bestowed, we begin building walls, drawing lines, ranking and evaluating one another.
The Corinthians were a diverse lot. Corinth was a metropolitan city, a center of commerce and trade, home to the very rich and the abysmally poor. People from every segment of life found themselves swept up together by the Spirit in God’s church, and just as the old divisions between upper class and lower class died hard, so did the new divisions between those who showed a propensity for flashy displays of faith like healing or speaking in tongues and those whose gifts were more subdued or ordinary.
As people so often do, they took the gifts God had granted them for their mutual benefit and began to use them against one another, creating dissension and division instead of unity and harmony. Paul had to remind them in his letter that whatever gifts they had were from God, not themselves, and that they were given to build up the entire community.
This is the community of the Church. We are diverse, and often divided. We are gifted, but we sometimes use those gifts against one another instead of for the common good. We are often chaotic and confused, messy and mixed up. In the best of times, the Spirit is at the center of this storm of people and emotions and actions and reactions directing it towards God’s ends, but at the worst of times we get caught up in our own agendas and rhythms and fears and claim that power for ourselves, often with disastrous outcomes.
None of that changes the fact that we have each been called by God to be a part of this nutty community and that in spite of—and sometimes even because of—the ways we fail the Holy Spirit remains with us: helping us, guiding us, comforting us, keeping us from getting too complacent or too lost in our own busyness. It is not because of who we are that we have been chosen, but because of who God is, because God has given each of us certain gifts to build up our community, and so God chooses to call us to this community—the Church—to build it up for the common good not only of the Church, but of the whole world.
That decision on God’s part to call us and use us completely apart from our own deserving or merit is what we call grace, or “charis” In Greek. The gifts of the Spirit he calls “charismata;” the word might best be translated “grace-gifts.” Like God’s grace itself, these grace-gifts are not given to us because of our merit or worthiness, but only because God is generous and loves humankind. God gives us these grace-gifts because we are God’s grace-gift to the world, called, claimed and sent through our baptism.
The festival of Pentecost and the scripture readings for today are demonstrations of how the Holy Spirit is at work in us for the salvation of God’s world. The Spirit gifted those early believers to both build up their own community in loving relationship and ultimately to send them out to spread the good news of what God is doing. In other words, the Spirit is at work in us to make us charismatic and evangelical.
These two words give many Lutherans the cold sweats; but what do they really mean? When we talk about charismatic Christians, we may have images of raucous worship with hands raised in the air, but really “charismatic” simply means gifted. We have all been given gifts by the Spirit—all Christians are charismatic.
Some of those gifts are flashy: some of us are gifted at public speaking or are called to feed the homeless and clothe the naked. Many of our gifts are more subtle, but no less important. Some of us are great at tracking money, organizing volunteers, connecting with kids, or making sure the building is cleaned up. Some are gifted at preparing food, welcoming strangers with a smile, running necessary equipment, or even just knowing when to stop talking and listen. Some have more expertise, some have more passion, some have more money, some have more time.
It is also good to remember that we may have gifts about which we do not know. It’s doubtful that any of those 120 disciples who left the house that day in Jerusalem knew that they were capable of speaking in Cappadocian or Arabic. Sometimes we may find that the Holy Spirit rips us out of our comfort zone to have us do something new and frightening; it’s on one of the career hazards of baptism. And yet, if we follow the Spirit’s lead and step out in faith, we almost always find that though the work is hard, it is always rewarding beyond our imagination.
Regardless of what our individual gifts may be, we have each been given something important to contribute to this community of faith and to the global work of the whole Church, and that work to which we contribute is sharing the love of God with the world in both word and deed. That is the definition of evangelism. It’s not nothing to do with our politics or our style of worship or prayer and everything to do with sharing the benefits of God’s love with our neighbors through service, through relationship, and through telling others about the good things God is doing.
As we celebrate baptism—both Isabelle’s and our own—and Pentecost, we are celebrating what God has done and continues to do for us by building up this loony, loving community around us and somehow empowering us to be a force for God’s good work in the world. It isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t always safe, it isn’t always organized; but it is always good. Following Christ won’t make us safe or healthy, happy or prosperous, but then that was never the promise. The promise is that we would have life and have it abundantly, and that is exactly what the Holy Spirit gives: abundant life for all.