Monday, June 9, 2014

For the Common Good

The scriptures referred to are Acts 2:1-21 and 1 Corinthians 12:3-13.

Last week Netflix got the third and most recent season of Sherlock, the British TV series that updates the Great Detective's adventures to the 21st century. Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed fictional character in film and screen and it got me to thinking about all of the versions I've seen. Why do I like Benedict Cumberbatch's modern Holmes more than some of the more faithful portrayals? Cumberbatch's Sherlock, with his unruly curly hair, his nicotine patches and blue coat, looks very little like Sidney Paget's original drawings of a middle aged man with a prominent widow's peak, pipe and Inverness cape. In fact, a British actor named Arthur Wontner, who played Holmes in 5 films made in the 1930s, looks like he stepped right off the pages of the original stories. But Wontner's Holmes was very laid back and unexciting, showing none of the manic energy Sherlock displayed when the game is afoot. Cumberbatch captures Holmes' mercurial nature, his imperious manner, his ironic humor and his passion for solving puzzles. Wontner had the look; Cumberbatch embodies the spirit of the man.

Have you ever seen a version of Shakespeare or some other old classic which pulled you into the drama to the point that you forgot that it was something that bored you to tears in your high school English class? There are lots of stories that get retold for every new generation. The successful versions are the ones that capture the essence of the original even if they make some changes in the plot. The 1980s TV series starring Jeremy Brett, the epitome of the traditional version of Sherlock Holmes, capturing both the look and the spirit of the character, even fixed a problem an original story. On the page, the bad guys in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter get away. In the Jeremy Brett version, Sherlock and Mycroft deduce which of the trains leaving the area the villains would take for their escape and intercept them. It's not only a more satisfying ending, it is perfectly in line with what we know of Sherlock and his smarter if more sedentary brother. Catching bad guys with cleverness is totally in the spirit of Holmes. One wonders why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the original author, didn't think of it.

Today is Pentecost, one of 3 great festivals celebrated by the Jews of Jesus' day. Pentecost means “the Fiftieth” indicating how many days after the beginning of Passover it starts. It commemorated Moses receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai. It was also a harvest festival. But for us it is the day when God poured out his Holy Spirit on all believers. It is the birth of the church proper, the ingathering of the first Christians who had not seen Jesus in person. You might say it showed that the gospel of Christ did not die on the cross. It struck the people who heard Peter preach as a still relevant message and one that was eagerly accepted by pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire. But it wasn't just the word of God alone that did it; it was the Spirit of God acting on both the apostles and the listeners.

If what kickstarted the church's birth was the Spirit, it follows that what keeps the church alive is the same thing. We've all been to lackluster services where people are just going through the motions. There is no feeling, no passion behind it. It is dispiriting. They say the right words but the underlying music, so to speak, is missing. It's not enough that we say Jesus died to save us, we must internalize the fact, realizing its infinite cost to God and the great love that motivated it. It's not enough to say that Jesus rose again from the dead, we must grasp the remarkable nature of this event and the tremendous implications of God's act of restoring life to those who should be beyond hope. It's not enough to say that the Spirit of God dwells in each Christian, we must open ourselves to that reality and let God's Spirit work within and through us to do things that quite frankly will surprise and amaze ourselves and others.

And the Spirit equips us to live as a member of the Body of Christ. In our passage from 1 Corinthians 12, we learn that while we are one in the Spirit, he provides us with a variety of gifts, ministries and activities for the common good. 

To some the Spirit gives the ability to speak wisely, the ability to know how to live, how to think, how to approach the situations we encounter daily as a follower of Jesus. Wisdom is about values: what is essential, what is important and what is neither. Wisdom is about observing the ways of nature, human nature and the divine nature. Wisdom is about seeing connections and patterns, differences and nuances, qualities and purposes, improvements and deterioration. It's about putting things in context.

To some the Spirit gives the ability to speak knowledgeably. Some people are sponges for knowledge. They want to learn everything they can, at least about some area or areas of interest. But knowledge is different from wisdom. Knowledge is facts. They are very useful. They are the foundation of all learning, all science, all history, all expertise. Before you proceed in any endeavor it is imperative that you have the facts. But if you don't have wisdom, you can misuse knowledge. In Tuskegee, doctors pretended to treat syphilis in black men but instead were observing the progress of the disease. They were seeking knowledge but lacking in compassion and wisdom. There are also a lot of educated fools, who, to repurpose Oscar Wilde's quote about cynics, know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Knowledge can answer the question of whether we can do certain things; wisdom asks the question of whether we should do them or not.

To some the Spirit gives faith. Faith is often set up against knowledge as if it was impossible to be good with both. But faith is trust and knowledge requires trust. You have to trust that the source of your knowledge is accurate. Scientists must trust that those whose work they are building on did their data collection properly, interpreted their data correctly and did not cheat in the process. Cherrypicking data and even falsification of results happen more often than we'd like to admit, largely because of the amount of money at stake in big research. And I just recently read a very disturbing article on about how textbooks are largely ghostwritten by non-specialist writers working on tight deadlines. The article came from one of those writers!

Faith in our context is trust in God. But shouldn't all Christians have faith in God? Yes, but there are degrees of trust. Remember the distraught father with the epileptic son who, in reply to Jesus telling him to have faith, said, “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:14-27) We have all met people with a remarkable amount of faith in God. These are people who do not panic, do not fret but proceed in the firm conviction that God will provide whatever is necessary for the task at hand. And they encourage those of us who are like that frantic father, trusting God but not as much as we should. Working with a person of deep faith and seeing how God works with them can increase our faith.

One is tempted to consign the rest of the gifts mentioned in this list to the first century when the church was originally being established. The miraculous signs certainly helped the faith spread. Today such extraordinary gifts are not much in evidence. But there are modern day equivalents which are just as vital to the common good of the Body of Christ.

To some the Spirit gives gifts of healing. Paul is probably primarily thinking of the miraculous healings he and the other apostles were able to do in the service of Jesus. But even today there are people who have a gift for bringing healing to the numerous modern ills of the spirit which plague so many people. They bring peace and well-being to the troubled. They can bring home God's forgiveness to those who are burdened unnecessarily by feelings of guilt. They bring God's love to those suffering from neglect by other human beings. They bring healing to relationships, reconciling those who have let a history of slights and fights in the past keep them from forging a better and united future.

To some the Spirit gives the “workings of power,” to render it literally. Most translate this as miracles. Again this is not something commonly seen today, though we know people who were prayed for do and survived and recovered from diseases and injuries against all odds. And if we look at this more broadly, we know people who accomplish miracles in the sense that they have a knack for making things happen. They can organize an outreach program, get a ministry up and running, realize something that was just an idea when presented to them, connect someone seeking help to precisely the person they need, and throw together a charity fundraiser that even amazes those working the event. These modern miracle workers may not have the gift of activating or speeding natural processes up, like that of healing, or arranging to have natural phenomena exhibit convenient timing, like the sudden dying down of a storm, but they do have the ability to make things come together when needed and that is not a talent to dismiss lightly.

To some the Spirit gives prophesy. Unfortunately this is a word with a much broader meaning in the Bible than we give it today. We think of prophesy as being primarily about foretelling the future. But that was just one aspect of what the prophets did. They were mainly preaching to God's people, warning them about following their current trajectory away from God and urging them to return to him and his ways. To that end they teased out the implications of each of those paths and pictured vividly God's promises of eventual reconciliation and restoration. But at its heart to prophesy is to preach and to some the Spirit gives the gift of framing God's message in arresting words, striking images and a compelling call to follow Jesus.

To some the Spirit gives the discernment of spirits. What is that? In the New Testament it is about which messages given in the name of prophesy were true and which were false. In the early days of the church there were no ordained clergy in the modern sense: trained in schools. People spoke as moved by the Spirit—or by their own spirits. And if you give some people a platform, it goes to their head and they start spouting all kinds of nonsense or even things harmful to the Body of Christ. Thus 1 John 4:1 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Paul's suggestion in 1 Corinthians 14:29 is: “Two or three prophets should speak and then the others should evaluate.” So what was preached was compared to the scriptures and the proclamation of the gospel by the apostles to see if its message was consistent with them. Christians were encouraged to use their heads and not blindly accept everything that was preached, especially when it contradicted what was revealed by God in Christ. There are some churches where that might be a beneficial practice to revive.

To some the Spirit gives the ability to speak in tongues and to others the gift of interpreting such utterances. While Paul thought speaking in tongues benefited the individual, he felt in public worship they needed to be interpreted so the whole congregation was edified. Otherwise, tongue-speaking should be a private thing. 

When I was a floating office manager for a home health company, I once noticed, upon entering the city where I was working that week, that an Episcopal church was advertising a Wednesday prayer meeting. I went only to find everyone wandering all around the sanctuary, speaking in tongues. There had been no indication that this was a charismatic service. And I remembered what Paul had said—that if an outsider came into such a service he would think everyone was crazy. Been there, done that! Paul was fine with tongues as a private devotional practice but in public worship everything was to be done for the common good.

And that's really what Paul is getting at in this whole passage. No one person has all of these gifts and so we need one another. Recall how we often speak of “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” One of the key things the Spirit is to do is to make us one. We are no longer just out for ourselves but part of the Body of Christ, which has many members with various gifts and functions but one purpose: to be Christ's ongoing presence on earth.

We we forget that as Christians we are part of a larger whole, we get into trouble. Apart from other Christians one can begin to think that Christianity is imply about my personal relationship with Christ; in a group of Christians, we should be struck with the fact that we are here to love one another and bear one another's burdens. Apart from other Christians we get so caught up in our own personal interpretations of Scripture, that we think Christianity is all about getting every detail of every doctrine worked out just so; in a group of Christians, we realize that others also have valid insights and that some things can be seen from different perspectives and we should not insist that everyone see and say everything exactly the way we do. Apart from other Christians we can start to think that Christianity is all about personal salvation; in a group of Christians, especially a very diverse collection of people from every race and country and culture, we should come to realize that it is in fact about saving and restoring the world God created and helping it become the Kingdom of God.

The Spirit is not here to turn us all into Lone Rangers, each riding out of town on our private missions. Rather the Spirit is here to restore what is broken, especially our unity as human beings created in the image of the God who is love. We are to become one in Christ. And we are commanded to love one another. That's hardly possible if everyone is off doing his or her own thing, seeing stuff only from his or her own perspective, insisting that everyone else conform to his or her own idea of how things should be. As Benedict Cumberbatch does with the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, we are to embody the Spirit of Christ, not the outward trappings. We are to manifest Jesus' love, his forgiveness, his putting people ahead of legalistic rules, his reaching out to the outcasts of society and bringing them into people of God. Changing bad guys into good guys with love is totally in line with the Spirit of Jesus.

If Christianity is simply about orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it would not be unique among the world's religions. Most religions want everyone to think and act alike. Which is why we often try to keep the Spirit fenced off from a lot of what we do in the church. We try to keep him in a box or within clearly demarcated boundaries. Because we are afraid of what he will do. We are afraid of whom we will have to preach to and accept and love in Jesus' name. We are afraid of being embarrassed, of looking foolish, of people thinking we are out of our mind, like folks who drink first thing in the morning, when it is really that the Spirit has set our hearts on fire with the good news of God's reconciling love in Christ.

As Jesus pointed out, the Spirit like the wind is not predictable. The Spirit moves where he will. And we must trim our sails to catch the divine wind lest we be swamped. To stay afloat and on course, we need all kinds of people filled with all the diverse gifts with which the Spirit equips us. And so our motley crew needs to be dedicated to our common mission and our common destination, the Kingdom of God. And we need to remember that we are part of one body, animated by one Spirit, with “one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and to all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

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