Sunday, August 08, 2010

Trinity 10 Sermon Notes

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11. Gospel: Luke 19: 41-47a.

“Concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant”. +

What are the common misconceptions or “ignorances”, to use a word from the litany, about spiritual gifts? What do St Paul, the rest of Scripture, and the Church teach that would correct such errors?

There are a number of errors that have been held, with different kinds of people making different mistakes. The first error is ignorance of the spiritual gifts' existence and extent in the Church. The second error is to ignore one's obligation as a Christian to use one's gift. The third error is the misconception that these gifts allow specially gifted individuals to challenge and change what the Church has always taught, bringing it a new “improved” gospel, and trumping orthodox teaching. The fourth error is needless ignorance of what the range of gifts includes. The fifth error is assuming that to be filled with and gifted with the Spirit one must operate in spectacular, obviously miraculous gifts. The sixth error is to consider the gifts to be threatening, foolish or frightening. The seventh error is to say a number of the gifts have ceased. The eighth error is to value the gifts higher than the fruits of the Spirit.

I will deal with the first two together. There are still Christians around the world who hardly know the gifts exist or are unaware that every Christian is “gifted”. But St Paul makes clear in today's Epistle (and elsewhere in the NT) that the gifts are important to know about and that “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for the common good”. So, every Christian should not only know about the gifts in a general way, they should understand that they have a responsibility to receive and activate their own gift or gifts, and so play their own part in building up the Church. This means they need to know how to do this as well, since a related form of ignorance is not knowing how to receive or seek one's own gifts. The means for receiving and seeking the gifts are baptism and the laying on of hands (which we call confirmation) and prayer (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:13, Acts 19:5-6, Luke 11:13).

The answer to the question, about how I know which are my gifts, is not so easy to come by. That’s because it is so personal. It’s about you as an individual. One way we find our gift is simply to be available to God and see what role in the Church he leads us into. Another way we find our gift is listening to others. They can often see things in us we can’t see. But we must also pay attention to our own heart. But all of this can only happen if we believe it can happen and if we want it to happen.

In other words we have come to the answer to the next natural question: How do I make my gifts actually work? By faith and desire is the short answer. We must believe in Jesus, and that he has given us gifts. And we must desire God; seek him, love him and worship him; and desire to use the gifts. (St Paul said in 1 Co. 14.1,12, “desire spiritual gifts, seek that you may excel in building up the Church”.) St Paul also told Timothy, his protégé, to “stir up” his gifts. We cannot do this without faith and desire. It takes spiritual effort. And thus it takes prayer, ... Jesus said “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” So, to play our part in the Church, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit and his gifts to us. And that means we need to pray for this, with faith and desire. And we also need to be ready to listen to God and serve him, as he speaks to us through circumstances, fellow-Christians, and our own hearts.

The third error I mentioned before would make prophets the opponents of the Church and the Faith itself. But, while the prophetic voice must often rebuke certain practices and people in the Church, even in the hierarchy at times, it is never authorised to innovate doctrine. On the contrary, if we look to the OT prophets we see that they were always calling the people of God back to the ancient, revealed Faith, back to what they officially or outwardly professed to believe, yet denied with their actions. That is why St Paul begins today's passage by noting that, no matter what a person claims, they are not inspired by God if they curse Jesus or deny his Lordship. He also goes on to remind us of the doctrine of the Trinity, when he refers the gifts back to the Father (“God”), the Son (“the … Lord) and the Spirit. Therefore, we can say that anybody claiming to be a wise man or prophet who leads people away from the fundamental truths of the Creeds is deceiving himself and others.

Now to the fourth and fifth misconceptions. Few people realise just how many and varied the gifts are. There is no one complete list of them in the Bible. There are, instead, a number of partial lists, none of them identical to any of the others (e.g., Ro. 12.6-8; 1 Co. 12.8-10, 28; 1 Peter 4.11). Here are some of the gifts: practically serving the Church, giving practical aid to those in need, contributing generously financially, administration, encouraging people, communicating special knowledge and wisdom, creating beautiful art, architecture, music and literature for the Church (Ex. 31.3f, 1 Chr. 25.1, 28.12, 1 Ki. 4.29-34, the whole book of Psalms, Da. 1.17 cf. v.4), celibacy (1 Co. 7.7), teaching, pastoring, evangelising, prophesying and healings. Some gifts are obviously miraculous, some look less amazing, but all are necessary for the healthy running of the Church. How we categorise or define gifts does not seem particularly important, since, as St Paul said, the Spirit distributes the gifts to each as he wills (1 Co. 12). Jesus also taught that the Holy Spirit does what he likes, as it were (Jn 3.8). A number of the gifts overlap. What is important, as I noted before, is that we earnestly seek and find what God wants each of us to do for the Church through prayer, and through faith that he has bestowed grace upon us through our baptism and confirmation. By such active faith and by the worship of God for his own glorious sake, we will be filled with the Spirit, whether that involves obvious miracles or not. And we will be able to fulfil our ministry.

However, on the other side there are those who, rather than claiming the extraordinary (especially the gift of tongues) is all that counts, claim that the extraordinary or obviously miraculous gifts must have ceased, or at least are deeply sceptical or frightened of any modern manifestation of them. These are the sixth and seventh errors I listed. But St Paul warns Christians against quenching the Spirit or despising prophecy (1 Thes. 5:19-20) at the same time he tells them to test prophecy (1 Thes. 5:21). Some Evangelical Protestants claim that 1 Co. 13, verses 8 to 12 implies that prophecy and tongues ceased when the “perfection” of the completion of the New Testament came to be. The passage does speak of prophecy failing and tongues ceasing when that which is perfect has come. But both the context itself -- “now we see … dimly, but then face to face” -- and the normal Patristic exegesis shows that the “perfection” which will replace these gifts is that on the other side of Death and Judgement, the Beatific Vision, when we see the Lord face to face. While St John Chrysostom taught that some gifts had been impermanent and had ceased, his was not the generally agreed position. St Augustine assumed cessation originally, but changed his mind in the light of further experience and observation. St Symeon the New Theologian insists on the continuing reality of the Charismata and our need for them and defends the practice of spiritually gifted, unordained monks giving absolution to penitents! Many Fathers attested to miracles or treated the Pauline lists of gifts as having contemporaneous authority, e.g., St Gregory of Nazianzus. So, there is a constant stream of witnesses to the miraculous and “renewal” in the life of the Catholic Church. We need not be afraid of any of the gifts, or of seeking them or of using them. And we must not treat any of them with contempt, lest we insult the Spirit of God.

The final error is to value and concentrate on the gifts more than on the fruits of the Spirit. This is the error St Paul warns against in the same letter to the Corinthians in the famous chapter 13. Verse 2 says, “though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” What, then, is the fruit of the Spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control according to Gal. 5:22-23. Though this sounds like quite a list, all these virtues rest on love or charity, listed first for good reason. No matter how gifted a Christian, if they do not use their gifts and live their lives bearing such fruit, their work is futile. Yet, if we lovingly and patiently use our gifts, serving the Lord with a quiet joy, we can do great things for God, by his grace.

The challenge for the ACC and all the churches of God is to encourage and allow the laity, and not just the clergy, to actualise and use their gifts. In many places this has included using certain openings in even the traditional liturgy to provide opportunities for people to operate in the word-gifts such as prophecy, a gift St Paul particularly encouraged. I have myself argued that the Canadian BCP liturgical rubrics may be interpreted to allow this just before the Sermon. (The fact that the Sermon would follow all of this means that the Pastor of the congregation would be able to supplement, confirm or correct what has been previously said, insofar as this may be necessary, and so maintain doctrinal and moral soundness.) But most of the gifts I listed before do not find their only or natural home in the liturgy. We must understand that the Church's ministry, your ministry, does not begin and end when the Mass does! The Eucharist is essential, but it is not sufficient. We have work to do beyond these walls.

The challenge for each one of us as individuals is to dispel the ignorance and misconceptions and walk in the truth of the Spirit, serving the Church by his power. +

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