1 Corinthians 12.3–13
Today is Pentecost, which means next week is Trinity Sunday. Preachers often feel the Trinity Sunday is a hard gig, but I really feel that Pentecost is the hardest day to preach and to do justice to the message.
How do we preach the Holy Spirit, whom we picture as wind, water and fire? How do we hold wind in our hands? We know the Spirit only by the effects she has in our lives. It’s like what John says (3.8),
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
We only know the Spirit by what the Spirit does. We can’t pin the Spirit down. Ever. We can’t say
- You have to believe the right doctrine to receive the Spirit;
- A bishop must lay hands on you if you are to receive the Spirit;
- The Spirit comes only as a second blessing to particular believers;
- You don’t have the Spirit if you don’t speak in tongues.
We can never put the Spirit in a box or enclose her in any theological system.
With apologies to Donovan, we may as well try to catch the wind as speak of the Spirit.
One thing we do know: the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If we speak of Jesus Christ as we speak of the Spirit, we may say words that are true. Let’s try it with a few reflections.
Reflection 1: Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit
That’s how people recognised him as a man apart from others. That’s what they saw in him, an earthy, infectious holiness. They saw that he was someone in touch with God, whom he called Abba, ‘Father’. They saw that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit all the time.
When they heard his teaching, they heard something that challenged them as the word of God. When they saw how he dealt with people, they realised that this is how they hoped God would deal with them. When they saw his suffering and then experienced his resurrection, they knew they were in touch with God himself.
It wasn’t always so. We hardly ever have a reading from Numbers, the third book of the Bible, but we have one today—and it is clear that the Spirit did not come upon everyone back in the day.
It’s an odd story, isn’t it? God works by ‘taking’ some of the spirit from Moses and placing it on the seventy elders who were around the Tabernacle. But we understand the Spirit to be inexhaustible, I mean, the Holy Spirit is surely infinite! And then there is a complaint when two men in the camp prophesy. At least we get that—they weren’t doing things the right way, so they needed to be taken down a peg or three. Things should always be done the way we’ve always done them, am I right?
But what does Moses say?
Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!
Jesus was filled with the Spirit continually, and through his risen life he has poured out his Spirit upon all who will receive it, upon Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cappadocians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Scythians, barbarians, even upon Australians.
But did you pick up on that very odd verse in our Gospel Reading today?
‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ Now [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit …
‘As yet there was no Spirit …’ No Spirit—what could that mean?
It doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit didn’t yet exist. Maybe we should understand it this way: It was not yet ‘Spirit’ … as we might say It’s not yet summertime. It was not yet the Spirit’s season, the Spirit’s time. That came at Pentecost. And it’s the Spirit’s time here, today.
There is a part for us to play; it is to be receptive to the Spirit. To listen for what the Spirit will say, to listen to those promptings and nudges that indicate the way we should go. Especially when it’s not the way we might choose if left to ourselves.
We hear those nudges and promptings at odd times. The wind blows where it wishes! But as we immerse ourselves in reading the Scriptures, as we join with God’s people in worship, witness and service, we are putting ourselves more in the way of the Spirit that Jesus has given us. It is Spirit-time!
Reflection 2: The life of the Spirit is shaped by Jesus
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus; Jesus gives shape to life in the Spirit. As we know, Jesus turned things upside down. Why did he do that? Because sin has made us think that the way things are is the way they should be. The Spirit of Jesus turns everything upside down too. Let’s see how.
In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul speaks of us as a body, the Body of Christ. But you know, the Corinthians had heard this kind of thing before. When the working classes complained they did all the work and the gentry got all the benefit, a pagan, a man called Menenius Agrippa, said that society was a body. The working people were the hands and feet; they were the less-honoured parts of the body that worked to benefit the body’s better parts. And they shouldn’t grumble about it; it was the part they were given to play.
Paul, as a good servant of Jesus, turns that right around. When he talks about the less-honoured parts of the body, this is what he has to say:
As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
Do you see how Paul turns it upside-down? The ‘honourable’ head and eye cannot say to the less-honourable hands and feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ Paul gives honour to the less-honourable parts, just as Jesus had honoured outcasts in the days of his flesh.
Friends, one thing this means is that we should never be surprised when the social justice arms of the Uniting Church speak for the most vulnerable members of our society. That’s exactly what Paul was doing here. The Body doesn’t exist for the poor to serve the well-to-do, as Menenius Agrippa had said; the Body of Christ exists to serve the poor and to bring God’s justice to light.
The Spirit has brought us into the Body of Christ through baptism. We are the Body of Christ; that’s why we advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves.
Reflection 3: Love is more important than gifts
This follows on from what we have just said. The life of the Spirit is shaped by Jesus, and it is marked by one thing: the love of Jesus.
In my time, I’ve known a number of gifted people who didn’t use their gifts well. They may have been skilled at speaking, or welcoming people, or had gifts of administration or even prophecy. But they used them badly, to divide the Body of Christ, or even for financial gain. I’ve seen these things myself. Where did they fall down? They emphasised the Spirit’s gifts but not the love that the Spirit brings to be within and among God’s people. At the end of chapter 12, Paul says,
I will show you a still more excellent way.
And then he launches into 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, … but do not have love, I gain nothing.
The greatest miracle of the Holy Spirit is not inspiring people to teach or preach, it’s not in giving gifts of prayer or faith or healing, great as those gifts are — the Spirit’s greatest miracle is in forming people who love the unloved as Jesus did.
So, Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was filled with the Spirit, and through his risen life he pours the Spirit upon us, the Spirit who makes us the Body of Christ, serving as Jesus served and loving the unloved as Jesus loved them.
We are the Body of Christ; do you see why we need the Body of Christ? It is because we need one another’s help to live in the Spirit of Christ. Amen.