Alton Parish–I Corinthians 12:4-13
Let’s take a trip back in time—way back. Beyond the founding of our country; beyond the Reformation and the Renaissance and Middle Ages; beyond the time of Christ and the Roman Empire; beyond the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; beyond the Bronze Age and into the Stone Age, the time of the cave men. Fred and Wilma Flintstone are standing outside the entrance of their cave one stormy evening, grunting in hushed tones about their neighbor, Barney Rubble, whom everyone suspects squirreled away a double share of meat from the wooly mammoth the clan had barbecued the night before.
All of a sudden, a lightning bolt falls from the sky and zaps Barney. Now, what are Fred and Wilma and their fellow cave-dwellers probably going to think? They’re probably going to think that Barney has been tried and found guilty by a higher power. If they live in a northern latitude, they might call that higher power Thor, or Odin. If they inhabit a more southerly area, they might call it Zeus or Ra. They know nothing, of course, about sub-atomic particles and magnetic fields and the meteorological conditions that are likely to produce lightning. All they see is that a man who has behaved badly has gotten zapped from on high. They put two and two together and come up with stone age theology.
Stone Age theology is simple: If there’s no other explanation for something that happens, then God did it. The God of Stone Age theology is a “god of the gaps.” This god fills in the “gaps” between our experience and what we understand about our experience. Fred and Wilma Flinstone’s grandparents may have thought that women had babies purely at the whim of the gods. But Fred and Wilma have discerned a connection between the birth of Pebbles and something that happened between them nine months earlier, so they no longer see any divine presence in the process of reproduction. There’s no longer a “gap” that a “god” needs to fill. But lightning is another matter, as are earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and solar eclipses. So Fred and Wilma are a long way from becoming atheists, even though they’ve figured out where babies really come from.
Humankind may have come a long way since the Stone Age, but Stone Age theology, I’m afraid, is still quite popular. The problem is, there are a lot fewer “gaps” to fill now than there were then. Scientific research is already storming the gates of the inner workings of the brain and human consciousness. It’s been nearly 60 years since the first Soviet cosmonaut got into outer space and presumptuously declared that he didn’t see any evidence of God’s presence or activity while he was out there. Just a few years after that, the American psychologist B.F. Skinner made a name for himself with the idea that human beings are just complicated bundles of electro-chemical reactions, that all human behavior can ultimately be explained physically, and that what we might call “soul” and “spirit” simply do not exist. If we understand God to be the “god of the gaps,” the force that explains the unexplainable, then God is being gradually squeezed out of a job, and we are being gradually squeezed into atheism. The more that science can explain, the less we need God for.
Today is Pentecost, the day on which we celebrate not just “spirit” in general, but God’s Holy Spirit, the one whose power is released in spectacular fashion upon the gathered church in Jersusalem fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection and ten days after his Ascension. That’s the way the gift of the Holy Spirit is recorded and interpreted by St Luke in the Book of Acts. But in St John’s account, the gift of the Holy Spirit is identified with an earlier event, on the very evening of Easter Day, when the risen Christ appears to the apostles and breathes on them—as routine and unspectacular an act as can be imagined (except during an epidemic, of course, when breathing on somebody can be an act of aggression!)—Jesus breathes on the apostles and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So we have a dramatic and loud bestowal of the Holy Spirit in Acts, and a quiet and gentle bestowal of the Holy Spirit in John. What are we to make of this contrast?
St Paul addresses this very question in his first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth. He looks at it not from the perspective of the original outpouring of the Holy Spirit—whether according to John’s version or Luke’s version—but but from the viewpoint of the particular gifts which that Holy Spirit bestows on particular believers. The operative theology here is that the sacrament of baptism conveys not only new birth and the forgiveness of sins, but one or more spiritual gifts as well—gifts that are meant to be exercised, St Paul tells us, not for personal gain, but for the general edification of the church and her ministry in the world.
Let me be more blunt, for the sake of clarity: Every Christian is a minister, and the ministry of every Christian flows from the spiritual gifts he or she was given in baptism. The list of spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12 is not, I believe, meant to be be prescriptive and exhuastive, but, rather, descriptive and suggestive. But the ones he lists are these: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Some on this list—miracles and tongues, for instance—are obviously spectacular, and nobody would mistake them for ordinary human endowments. There is still a little bit of a “gap” here for a “god of the gaps” to sneak into and find gainful employment. But I’m sure that a research psychologist will sooner or later, if it hasn’t already happened, come up with a credible scientific explanation for the phenomenon of speaking in tongues and other forms of religious ecstasy.
Others on Paul’s list—wisdom, knowledge, faith, for example—seem more ordinary, more common to the rest of human experience. We don’t need any sort of god to explain them. We have a difficult time, in fact, identifying them as spiritual gifts at all. We are tempted to say, “I don’t have the spiritual gift of speed, I can just run fast.” “I don’t have the spiritual gift of craftsmanship, I just know how to sew.” “I don’t have the spiritual gift of music, I just had a good piano teacher.” “I don’t have the spiritual gift of hospitality, I just like to cook and I’ve always been able to meet people well.” I could go on, but do you see my point? If we think of God only when we’re experiencing something spectacular or miraculous, we will, in fact, become functional atheists, because we will fail to see God present and active in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane, the routine. And this blindness, this failure to see through the eyes of faith, in turn, leads to discouragement, despair, spiritual malaise, loss of faith.
I’ve got good news for you, though! There’s no need to be trapped in spiritual discouragement, because God is present and active in the ordinary and mundane every bit as much as he is in the spectacular and the miraculous. As far as I am concerned, the scientists can close all the gaps they want to, because the God I worship doesn’t need gaps in which to reveal himself, he doesn’t need extraordinary occurrences in which to make himself known. He can make himself known in those ways, but he doesn’t need to. Even those abilities and talents that might appear quite natural and ordinary can be understood and appreciated as divine gifts of the Holy Spirit.
If you are baptized, you are gifted. That gift may be lying dormant because of your lack of faith, or lack of instruction in Christian discipleship, or you may be exercising spiritual gifts without even knowing it. But the critical reality here is that every Christian possesses and is meant to exercise spiritual gifts.
St Paul takes great pains to point out that spiritual gifts are not to be exercised merely for the self aggrandizement of the one who possesses them. They are, rather, to be employed building up the body of Christ for its mission in the world. Spiritual gifts will never be recognized as such by the world, because they are only revealed and discerned within the context of the Christian community and Christian discipleship. When a soldier is fighting in the jungle, he wears green camoflage to help him blend into the scenery and not be recognized easily by the enemy. But when he returns to the base, and the background is made up of concrete and asphalt and brick, the soldier can be easily spotted and recognized. In the world, spiritual gifts are camoflaged. Wisdom and knowledge look competely natural. Tongues and prophecy look completely crazy. None are recognized as spiritual gifts. Only in the context of “homebase,” the community of believers, is the camoflage renedered ineffective and the spiritual gifts seen for what they are.
This is why it’s critical to understand and live out the baptismal promise, taken from Acts 2:42, to “be faithful to the apostles’s teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” It is only in that context that we can discern and develop our spiritual gifts. And when we do so—that is, when the church operates the way God intends for the church to operate—we can truly be effective in the pursuit of our mission. The great metaphor than God reveals to us through St Paul is that of the church as a body—the body of Christ, to be specific. A well-functioning, healthy body is one coordinated system made up of many coordinated systems and sub-systems. When each system does its job, the whole body thrives. When one sub-system malfunctions, all the others suffer. The failure of Christians to be aware of, recognize, and develop their spiritual gifts within the structure and discipline of the church, is a major contributing factor, in my judgment, to our failure to prosecute our mission as vigorously and effectively as we know God wants us to. May God forgive us. It is a failure in faith and a failure in love.
But this Pentecost celebration offers us an opportunity to repent, to change our ways, to head a new direction. That god of the gaps is a mere idol. Put it away. Embrace the God who is already waiting on the top of the mountain, along with all his faithful people, when the scientist and the philosopher finally get there. Claim your gifts, and respond with your fellow Christians to the spiritual hunger of all people, and bring all to unity with God in Christ. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Alleluia and Amen.