Spiritual Gifts

A Sermon for the 10th Sunday After Trinity

All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I love planning gifts, and that’s a good thing because in the Cirilla house gift giving is almost an Olympic sport. Camarie’s birthday is December 11th, our anniversary is the 22nd, and of course then it’s Christmas. I grew up with the tradition of a small Christmas Eve gift and a bigger Christmas Day gift, so that means I have to plan four gifts in a row. So December is not a good time for me to be ignorant of gifts. And on my limited budget that means I have to plan way ahead of time – starting about now actually. But it’s such a joyful process because gift giving is a way to show Camarie that I am paying close attention to her, to what she likes. It’s how I show her that I’m not just thinking about books all the time. And she shows me the same love, where I know those gifts are measured not by their price but by their worth in showing that she pays attention to what matters to me. I’m sure that many of you have had similar experiences.

Not only do we have occasions when we give each other gifts, we also have places. There’s a restaurant we like to go to on our anniversary, for example, which has become a tradition. The place fits the gift, because it is a place with memories. In a few months it will be our four year anniversary, and when we exchange gifts, it will feel more meaningful because we built a little more on that tradition in our favorite spot, like a temple of memory for our growing history together. I’m not just trying to get sappy by talking about this, but I’m saying it because the familiar practice of a married couple having a restaurant they go to on their anniversary is a human parallel to spiritual gifts and their relationship to the space of the church. Often we hear that the church is not the building, the people there are the church, and that’s true. An anniversary isn’t a special restaurant either, but it’s a good practice because it gives a concrete place to fix the memory of what it means to give gifts on that occasion. A church isn’t a building, but although a house isn’t enough to make a home, a house is a fundamental means by which we build the protected and nurtured space for a family to dwell in and to give each other the gift of a loving home.

We see in today’s Gospel lesson that Christ took the time to clear out the house of his Father. Luke reports in the 19th chapter of his Gospel, “And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves. And he taught daily in the temple.” The misuse of the space dedicated to God upset him, and he took serious action to set it right. A core component of what marks a temple space is gift giving – the offering of sacrifices and the receiving of atonement. By turning the temple into a place where people’s faith was being extorted, they were making a mockery of the sacred setting of the memories and the moments of worshippers giving their thanks to God and God giving grace to them. Now, of course, we don’t have the problem of making the church into a place where we extort money in exchange for the sacrifice of animals, though there certainly are churches overly concerned with making a profit rather than making prophets of the Gospel. But more importantly, we might have the wrong mindset when we bring our offering to God. We might think that we’re buying a seat in heaven or getting God on our good side, but that way of thinking closes our minds to the attitude of the gift exchange. We don’t make an installment for salvation or favor – we make an offering, an offering because we are thankful and we want to manifest to God the gratitude for the joy that we have in Him. God is not short on rent, and he doesn’t sell us the power of the Holy Spirit. That mistaken way of thinking was addressed by the story of Simon the Sorcerer, who famously tried to buy the power of the spiritual gifts. These are thought idols about spiritual gifts that need to be cleared out. In fact, the power to give with the right heart is itself a gift of the spirit, as Paul taught in Romans 12:8. And what the spirit-filled attitude of giving does, is it opens our hearts with the capacity to appreciate even more God’s gifts to us. It’s no accident that we sing the doxology in response to the offering – “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” When we are given the grace to give with a spirit-filled heart, then we experience even more fully the joyful heart with which God bestows the gifts of His Spirit on our lives..

As I looked over today’s Gospel and Epistle readings, I realized there was a profound connection between Christ cleansing the temple and the teaching of spiritual gifts by Paul. The simple truth is that, in the normative life of the Christian as envisioned by the New Testament, the Church is a fount of access to the gifts of the Spirit. I am by no means saying that gifts of the spirit only happen in church – not at all. The Holy Spirit is present everywhere. But it’s worth noting that the most famous and visible miracle in the life of the church, apart from the resurrection of Christ from the dead and his Ascension, was the bestowing of the Holy Spirit on the Body of Christ in the form of fire leaping on their heads, and this essential gift happened to a gathering of believers. In the powerful sermon which Peter preached extemporaneously in this event recorded in Acts 2, he said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”  Pentecost happened, by the way, in Jerusalem, a place known as the site of worship, and during the Feast of Weeks – an anniversary at a favorite restaurant, you could say. It was the perfect setting for the Spirit to set the default standard for where spiritual gift giving starts. Every miracle that happens in Acts, whether it be on the side of a road or in a house or a prison, flows from the moment at Pentecost where Christ gave the Bride of Christ an incredible gift in a special place at a meaningful time.

Today, we are celebrating a special occasion. It’s the first day of the week, and in Scripture we learn that Jesus Christ rose on a Sunday. He made his first corporate appearance to the disciples on that same day, as we learn in John 20:19: “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.” That’s why we hold church on Sunday, in remembrance of Christ appearing to his followers on the day of his resurrection. We walked into this church passing the baptismal font, a memory of when we and when we have seen others receive the visible sign of the invisible working of the Holy Spirit. That font recalls the moment when the Holy Spirit gave us the faith by which we say that Jesus is Lord, which according to what Paul said in this morning’s Epistle cannot even be said without a gift of God’s Spirit. We are going to be given in just a few moments, if I ever finish this sermon, a special meal, where we remember the fact that all provision comes ultimately from God and where we receive the spiritual presence of Christ. 

On this anniversary, one so important we celebrate it every week, Christ wants to give us gifts. What do we need? What afflictions do we have? I am not saying God will answer your prayer for those needs in the way you want, but He desires to give you gifts of the Holy Spirit in ways that are as real to your soul as this building, and as this meal we are about to receive, is real to our bodies. Are you in frightening doubts and unsettling confusion about what is true? The Spirit can give you a word of knowledge, if you ask for it from Scripture and from your fellow Christians. Are you unclear about what path you should take in life? Seek a word of wisdom from the strong believers around you and from the Word of God. Conduct a thorough research of the means of grace God has offered for answering those questions. Are you suffering from an illness of body or the mind?  Father Jim can anoint you with oil and pray with you, and direct you to places where you can find help. Now, I don’t want to create the impression that the Gifts of the Spirit are a guarantee of release from suffering. Certainly God can work miracles in our lives, but often the primary miracle which God wants to work in our lives is not necessarily a change in our circumstances, but a change in what our heart most relies upon for stability. In the first chapter of his epistle, James writes, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Wisdom, in a Christian sense, is the informed love for God’s good plan. The fact that James emphasizes that we ask God for wisdom and that Paul puts wisdom and knowledge first leads me to believe that, above all else, the main purpose of the power of the Holy Spirit is to make our hearts flow with love for our Creator and our fellow man, and especially the body of Christ. Look at the image Paul is giving in the first epistle to the Corinthians: the Spirit gives a diverse array of abilities, skills, and inclinations of the heart to members of the body of Christ. You know, later in this same passage, Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Rather than a convenient means to get us what we want, the spiritual gifts, the roles we are called to fill, allow us to bless the Body of Christ with our gifts, whatever they may be. A philosopher once said that to wrestle someone to the ground, you also have to abase yourself to the same level. The same is true the other way – by lifting others up and helping them on their walk to Christ, we take a bolder and more purposeful posture of worship through our service to our brothers and sisters.

A final point I want to make about the Gospel lesson is that Christ’s motivation for cleansing the church is tied to hostility he knows they will be facing. We read in Luke today Christ’s lamentation over the city immediately before He set the temple right: “AND when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round.” I confess, those words feel awfully true to me in these times. Just as a marriage will be more sorely tested by trials that inevitably come from external circumstances if the relationship is weak internally, the Bride of Christ has a harder time withstanding assaults from the World when she is not dwelling in the gifts of the bridegroom. The world wants to shake our faith in Christ, and the spiritual gifts are a powerful means by which God defends us by those attacks. So we must strive to keep our Father’s house a house of prayer and keep our hearts, minds, and souls thirsty for the knowledge, wisdom, and healing of the Holy Spirit, so that if we look up and see that we are trenched about with the enemies of the world, the flesh and the devil, we can say, I know who I am, I know where I am, and I know who has got my back in the midst of this turmoil. By drinking every day from the river of the spirit, our souls stay refreshed, and in turn we can share our diverse spiritual gifts with each other, to build each other up. See, spiritual gifts are much more powerful than earthly ones because the more we give from them, the more we have, and the more spiritual gifts we have, the more we are equipped to experience today, this anniversary of Christ’s resurrection, as a new day which the Lord has made and turn this house of prayer into a home of prayer. Amen.

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