sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 08/03/2014
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You may think of yourself or your life as unpredictable, un-patterned, or chaotic, but it’s not true, not really. Your heart beats regularly. Thump thump, thump thump. Your breath too, steady and smooth, rising and falling, in and out. You, waking and walking, showering and brushing teeth, eating, digesting, eliminating, exercising and working, tracing much the same path through your home and your local world, sleeping and then waking again. Day after day after day. A wonder of order.
Look around you. You can’t see it, probably, but the air around you isn’t like you, not at all. It’s in chaos. Molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and water zooming around, colliding, moving in new trajectories, random, pattern-less. (Which, by the way, is why smells travel in every direction, even when there is no wind.)
Now take a breath.
Those disordered molecules are becoming ordered almost as soon as they enter into your body. Each molecule sorted, recruited, finding a place, a purpose. Joining with the incredible structure and life-giving purposes of your body’s systems and cells. The systems and cells themselves order-making machines. You yourself ordered and patterned, distinctive and functional.
Some scientists, in fact, suggest that may be one of the best functional definitions of life that we have. Life takes in this disordered, random, wild stuff and gathers it together, tames it, shapes it, gives it form and function.
This connects to the big picture story of what’s happening in the universe, doesn’t it? To the big question about what’s happening in our lives.
There is the fear that randomness and disorder are in fact running the show somehow, that everything is devolving into chaos. That the end of the story is one of isolation and coldness, making it all meaningless.
And standing against that fear, Love itself. The hope that Love is gathering everything together for a purpose, entering into the chaos and bringing out of it something beautiful, something ordered and purposeful, something that tells a good story. Full of meaning, power, warmth and life.
The announcement of the Bible, the witness of the people who encountered the God who is Love, YHWH, the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father in the heavens revealed by Jesus, is that the true story is a good news story. And at the center of that story is the Holy Spirit whom we’ve been talking about all summer. The non-material, energetically animating, personal presence of the living God.
We first meet the Holy Spirit in Genesis One:
2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit [Breath] of God was hovering over the waters.
This Breath of God is the same Spirit that is poured out on Pentecost to Jesus’ first followers. And to us. God’s favoring and forgiving presence transforming us from anxious, disintegrated, enslaved persons into whole, self-differentiated, free human beings, bearing God’s image afresh to one another and to the creation itself.
The Holy Spirit that hovers over the chaos, the welter and the waste, bringing forth all of creation, and life itself. Order, form, function. The Spirit takes the formlessness and darkness, and out of it shapes a story – a good story.
Listen to the next two verses:
3And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good…
As we’ve explored in our Summer of the Spirit series, one of the primary activities of the Holy Spirit is helping us see.
And what he helps us see is the order he’s bringing out of chaos, the life that’s springing up from the dust, the truth that the story that everything tells, if we have eyes to see it, is a good news story. That love wins, not fear. That perfect Love is driving out fear. We see who we ourselves are – children of the Father in the heavens. Finite, vulnerable, and needy though we may be, we are children of a good Father. We see who all the people around us are – brothers and sisters, beginning under evil like us, broken and flawed, but also children of the same Father. And we see who God is – neither a competitor nor an ally, but a dad who loves and forgives us, and whose glory it is to address our needs as we bring them to him and wait on him. A father to whom we can come with our needs in courageous vulnerability and discover joy is set before us. And through the Holy Spirit, we see what the world around us is – a creation awaiting renewal, awaiting integration with the heavens, awaiting the image-bearers to begin bearing the creator’s image again, longing for God to dwell here in fullness.
The Holy Spirit is the primary gift that our Father gives us; the gift that is so powerful and priceless that Jesus himself told his followers it was better that he go to be with the Father so that they could have this gift. A statement that begins to make sense as we as the Spirit empowers us to bring our needs to God for him to address and we experience the fruit that the Spirit brings. Fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
And the Holy Spirit, the One who is the Father’s gift to us, distributes even more gifts of grace to us. Gifts, freely given, out of God’s favor to each and every one of us, for the bringing together initiative that was inaugurated, that began in earnest, in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit [the Spirit’s revealing] is given for the common good [the bringing together]. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
1 Corinthians 12
We began unpacking this last week, so I’d like to continue that today, making it more concrete and practical for us.
Spiritual gifts are, in essence, the particular ways in which the Spirit helps us see some aspect of reality as it really is, and the way the Spirit helps us connect that seeing with Love’s reconciling, bringing-together purposes.
We talked last time about how that phrase “the common good” (Greek - symphero) might be translated more directly as “the bringing together.” Theologically, we might understand it as the reconciling of all things to Christ that is written about in the first chapter of the letter to the Colossians. We’ll get practical with that in a few minutes, just hold the thought for the moment.
Right now, notice the phrase “the manifestation of the spirit.” In Greek, the word translated manifestation is phanerosis (we get the English words fantasy and phantom from this word) – and it means to make visible. Another way of translating this phrase – a translation that makes more sense to me in context – is “the Spirit’s revealing” or “the Spirit’s revelation.” In othe-r words, the Spirit reveals things to us, helps us see some aspect of reality that was previously hidden, shines light in darkness so that we can participate in the bringing together, the common good.
We already know, in normal everyday life, that seeing is central to repairing non-functioning things. Things where chaos has had its way over order.
Like your broken car. What’s the first thing the mechanic does that maybe you can’t do as well? “Let’s take a look and see if we can figure out what’s wrong.” The mechanic sees what’s wrong, and sees a way to fix it, and then, using his talents and experience and resources, does the actual fixing.
Or you take your sick and broken body to the doctor. The doctor has to first diagnose the problem, and diagnosis is all about seeing, understanding, making connections between different, seemingly random data points and weaving it together into a true story about what’s happening. And then seeing what the way forward to health is. And then using her talents and experiences and resources to do the actual healing.
Plumbers, electricians, engineers, teachers, administrators, accountants, builders, entrepreneurs, artists, everyone involved in improving the world is doing the same thing. Remember how Michelangelo described his creative process? “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to others as mine see it.”
When spiritual gifts – these varied, graceful ways the Spirit helps us see – are combined with loving, cooperative, obedient action, you have miraculous results. As Jesus said, the Father shows him everything the Father is doing, and Jesus does the same thing. The end result? Water changing to wine. Cripples walking. The dead being raised to life. Exiled, oppressed people experiencing true hospitality and welcome. The blind seeing. And on and on.
This is why there is such a variety of gifts; the things which the Holy Spirit will help you see, and the ways in which he will invite you to cooperate in responding to what you see, are potentially infinite. And that is why you will have some gifts, and I will have others, and others will have still others. We are each of us uniquely wired, experienced, impassioned individuals whom the Holy Spirit is gifting with sight and inviting to respond to that seeing with all the talents and training and resources we have.
Practically, we’re talking about God inviting us to participate with him as he makes the world whole again under the authority of his son Jesus.
For example, imagine someone who has been damaged emotionally, mentally, physically – perhaps by their own sins, perhaps by sins committed against them, perhaps simply as a symptom of being a part of this broken world – being made whole again. A mended, healthy heart, a clear and integrated mind with a healthy view of the world, a healed and healthy body.
How might a spiritual gift work in this case? If it’s a message of wisdom you receive through the Spirit, then perhaps you have an insight about the way forward for the person, an action they can do or a new way of thinking that moves them towards wholeness. If it’s a message of knowledge, perhaps you understand something about the nature of their brokenness or hurt that they can then use to cooperate with God in their healing. If it’s faith you receive through the spirit, maybe it’s a surge of confidence to ask God for a particular kind of help for the person, or to encourage them to ask God for, and then in the asking God addresses that need in just the right way that the person can receive. If it’s a gift of healing you receive, perhaps it’s the kind of seeing that doctors and nurses do that lead to healing, or perhaps it’s the kind of seeing Jesus does that leads to authoritative prayer that leads to healing. We can imagine all kinds of gifts of the spirit – ways the spirit helps us see that we then cooperate with – that could participate in the bringing together God is doing for a hurting person. Hospitality – seeing the kind of welcome that would communicate God’s love and favor to a person, or meet them in their specific needs. Prophecy – seeing the words that God wants to speak to the person but that they might only hear and receive if you speak them to them. The distinguishing of spirits – helping a person sort through which voices in their head, or which cultural winds they feel pushing them in one direction or another, are the inclinations of fear and which are the inclinations of Love.
The bringing together can have a wider meaning, too. For example, two people who’ve been divided by fear and hate, having a restored relationship, forgiveness and love at the center. Or two communities, or two races, or nations, divided by years, decades, centuries of animosity, brought together in peace and understanding, forgiveness and love at the center. Surely Spirit empowered seeing in the form of a message of wisdom or knowledge or a gift of healing or the effecting of miracles or the distinguishing of spirits, combined with people willing to give their talents, training and resources to cooperate with God in what they see might be the only hope for this kind of bringing together.
The bringing together applies to a person who hasn’t been on good terms with God, or who has assumed God isn’t on good terms with them, discovering a joyful loving connection to him. I think the speaking in different kinds of tongues and interpretation of tongues is probably often given by the Spirit for this kind of bringing together. It involves a seeing at a primal, profound level that you can be freely yourself before God, and that he is present to the deepest core part of you.
You may notice that spiritual gifts are sometimes hard to separate from natural abilities. Of course! In fact, I’d argue that this is the only way it could be, if the scriptures bear true witness to the nature of God. The Holy Spirit is described by Jesus as the paraclete – the one who comes alongside. The Spirit comes alongside of us and empowers to do what we can’t necessarily do on our own, but what we can most assuredly do in cooperation with him. Doesn’t that sound like Love? Doesn’t that sound like a God who cares about relationship and has created a universe that is fundamentally relational? Doesn’t that sound like a God who revealed himself in Jesus as a divinely incarnated human being? Wouldn’t anything beyond that actually be less?
Which is why spiritual gifts can be exercised in all areas of life – work, raising family, personal relationships, art, music, the political sphere, business, caring for creation, social justice, community development, sports, and on and on.
We could go on, but perhaps we should stop here, for now. We’ve just scratched the surface, in truth. But for today, for this series, we’ll conclude by asking ourselves a couple of questions.
Do we want to be part of the bringing together that God is doing in the world? In ourselves? In our relationships, personal, family and community relationships alike?
Then we would do well to receive and begin to exercise the gifts that the Spirit has for us. We would do well to invite the Spirit to help us see in the particular ways that will give us the most life in God, and will allow us to share that life most freely with the world around us. This is where so much of the fun is to be had in the life Jesus has made possible for us.
You have been given gifts. The Spirit is at work helping you see. Don’t imagine that you are hopelessly blind to the reality of your self or others or God or the world around you because of your own brokenness or inadequacy or flaws. The gifts of the Spirit are for you out of the incredible favor of God, freely given to you. You get to be part of the team. You get to play.
Use the gifts you’ve been given. Don’t be like the doctor who can see the diagnosis and says nothing. Or who can see the cure and does nothing. Put all of your talents and training and resources into exercising the gifts the Spirit is giving you; there is no better investment of those things, because the wind of heaven is at your back when you point your energies in the direction that the Spirit’s revealing leads you. The more you cooperate with the Spirit’s gifts, the more your confidence will grow in how the Spirit is blessing you in God’s great Bringing Together, and the more freely you will play in heaven’s playground.
1. Get help identifying your gifts. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you one of your gifts, one of the ways he seems to help you see. Still feel in the dark? Ask someone in the church to help you. Others often have eyes to see us more clearly than we see ourselves.
2. Practice using one of your gifts in the service of the church.
12…Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
1 Corinthians 14
The gifts are given for the bringing together of the whole world, in every nook and cranny, but the church is the place where we learn, practice, give and receive feedback, grow together in the way of Jesus. Plus, if the church is built up through the gifts, than together we can exercise them even more effectively for the blessing of the whole world.