Day of Pentecost
from the book
Sermons On The Second Reading
Series I, Cycle A
William G. Carter
If you ask me, a sermon should say only one thing. Some of us grew up listening to sermons with three points, and wondered, "What's the point?" The business of worship, the activity of preaching, is too important to be pointless. Each sermon needs to make a statement, to declare one thing that is vital for our faith, our hope, and our life, in the world.
So lest you miss it this morning, there's only one thing I want to say today. This sermon has one point to make, one claim that I want to lay upon our lives. Have a pencil? Ready to write this down? Here is the central message of this sermon: The only church worth having, the only church worth belonging to, is a charismatic church.
I trust this statement does not upset you. I am not going to apologize for it. While I have not said it publicly, I have deeply held the conviction for some time. The only church worth having, the only church worth belonging to, is a charismatic church.
No doubt some people have been confused when I have said that in the past. A few years ago, I was shopping in a religious bookstore. Another customer learned from a sales clerk that I was a pastor. She said, "I'm new in the area. I'm looking for a church. But it has to be a charismatic church."
I said, "You ought to come and worship with us. We have a charismatic church."
She took a second look at me and said, "You can't be serious."
"Oh, yes, I'm quite serious."
She said, "Do you have faith healings?"
"We probably do, but we don't make a big deal out of it. After all, it's a charismatic church."
She said, "I'm not sure I understand. Do people stand up in worship services and speak in tongues?"
"No," I said, "most of our members would find that intrusive. Sometimes at a congregational meeting, our church treasurer says some things that nobody else can understand. But she's not speaking in tongues; she's just explaining the budget."
She said, "I thought you said it was a charismatic church."
I said, "It is."
"Then do you have any strange manifestations of the Holy Spirit?"
I said, "We have a few quirky church members, if that's what you mean."
"I thought you said you were part of a Pentecostal church."
I said, "No, no, we're not Pentecostal. We're Presbyterian."
She said, "Well, if you're not a Pentecostal, you certainly can't be a charismatic!" Then she stomped away in a huff. Well, what does she know? It doesn't stop me from making the one claim that I want to make this morning, namely, that the only true Christian church is a charismatic church.
That doesn't mean everybody is going to understand what I mean. The other day I tried out my one--point sermon on somebody who dropped by the church office. He wanted to hear a preview for Sunday morning. Maybe he figured if I could sum up my sermon in a single line, he could turn off the alarm Sunday morning and stay in bed. In any case, I told him what I wanted to say. I said, "If the church is honest and true about what it takes to be a truly Christian church, it will say without reservation that it is charismatic."
He looked at me for a minute and raised one eyebrow. Then he said, "Oh, I get it. You don't mean charismatic--charismatic. You mean charisma--charismatic. What you're probably going to say is that a good church has to have charisma."
I said, "Not really."
"But it's true," he said. "If a church is going to grow and flourish, it has to have a certain charisma about it. It needs to appeal to people and win them over. A church needs charisma."
"No," I said, "that's not what I'm going to talk about."
"Maybe you should," he said. "After all, that's why a lot of people come to First Presbyterian Church. They like the pastors. They perceive a certain charm about the congregation. They recognize a certain sparkle, flash, and inspiration. It inspires confidence and certainty and pride. People look at our pastors and our church, and they see charisma."
"Ah, be quiet," I said. "That's not what I'm going to talk about."
No, today what I want to say is this: that the church in its truest expression, the church at its best, is a charismatic church.
I don't mean that in some spooky, ultra--spiritual sense. And I don't mean that in the sense of some appealing personal quality. No, I mean "charismatic" in the way that the Apostle Paul addresses that church in Corinth.
As you may remember, it was a troubled congregation. There were probably only fifty members in the church at Corinth, but they were at one another's throats. They were divided into political factions. They were debating sexual ethics. They were fighting about who should receive the Lord's Supper and who should not. They were suing one another in court. They were bowing before the shrines of their culture. They were defending their actions with indefensible slogans and bumper--sticker theology. To top it off, some of the church members insisted that they were more spiritual than some of the other members.
Paul addresses all of these problems in his letter. One of the final items on his list is the business of spiritual one--upmanship. That is what he begins to address in chapter 12. The Corinthians had no doubt that all kinds of wild, spiritual experiences were breaking out in their church. What they wanted to know is whether or not these experiences came from God. That's worth noting.
For instance, throughout history many cultures and religions have reported the experience of "speaking in tongues," or glossolalia. Among them are Hindus, Muslims, and followers of African folk religions. Speaking in ecstatic utterances is not a particularly Christian activity. It happens in many religions. Likewise, you can pick up the National Enquirer and read about faith healings, exorcisms, and miracles of various kinds. The question is not, "Do they happen, yes or no?" The question is, "Do they come from the Holy Spirit?"
Before Paul can answer, he realizes that he needs to change the terminology. The Corinthians wanted to know about "spiritual things." Paul speaks about "charisma," a Greek word that means "gift." The true church, says Paul, is a "charismatic" church, a gifted church. The word Paul uses is always plural: not merely "charisma," a single gift, but "charismata," a variety of gifts. No specific spiritual experience is better than all the rest. There is not one expression of the Spirit which is more charismatic than all the others. The Holy Spirit is more generous than any individual can know. The Spirit touches different people in different ways, creating all kinds of different experiences.
By this point, a dyed--in--the--wool Presbyterian like me may start to get a little nervous. I mean, what if these spiritual experiences get out of hand? Well, not to worry. After all, Paul is the one who coined the phrase, "Let all things be done decently and in order." (1 Corinthians 14:40 is a favorite verse of my very orderly denomination.) You see, Paul was the first Presbyterian, and he knows that if spiritual things get out of hand, the answer is not laying down a lot of rules and regulations. No, offer some substantive theology that lies at the core of our faith.
Paul can't deal with "spiritual experiences" without talking about "gifts of the Holy Spirit," the "charismata." And he can't talk about "gifts of the Holy Spirit" without talking about the Trinity. Do you remember what Paul says?
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone (my emphases).
Spirit, Lord, and God: that's the Trinity. Of course, Paul has the order backwards. Usually we say God the Father, Christ the Lord, and God the Holy Spirit. But the apostle is beginning with his listeners. He takes seriously their experiences of the Spirit, as diverse and different as they might be.
Someone told me about his experience. "A few years ago," he said, "I suddenly discovered an ability that I never knew that I had. Somehow I was able to sense when people around me were in trouble. It came out of the blue. At first, it seemed like a heightened awareness of need. I'd notice a co--worker who seemed worried or a shipping clerk with a furrowed brow. In time, as I paid attention, I decided I could pray for those people, just a word or two, just something that let God knew I cared. Once in a while, I was put in a position to help in some tangible way."
Say what you want, but Paul would call that a gift of the Spirit, a charismatic gift of discernment. If I dare say so, most of us have more of these gifts than we realize or ever develop. We are God's gifted people, and there are varieties of gifts that come from the Holy Spirit. There are varieties of gifts....
But Paul doesn't stop there. He goes on to add, "There are varieties of service but the same Lord." The one way to tell whether a spiritual gift or experience has come from the Holy Spirit - and I mean the only way to tell - is whether that gift or experience is in service to Jesus the Lord. If it truly comes from God, then it continues in the life exemplified in Christ's incarnation: sharing his power, serving the needy, speaking his word, suffering in the shadow of the world's brokenness, and giving life as he gave his life. There is no true life of the Spirit apart from the life of Jesus.
I pause to warn us: When it comes to spiritual experiences, a lot of people like to get as mystical as possible and float above the world. They say things like, "Jesus is born within my heart," or "I listen to Jesus in my heart," or "My heart needs to be cleansed," or "My heart was strangely warmed," or "If you ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart." To put it in other words, "Faith is only a matter of the heart; forget about the world where the Word became flesh." Unfortunately there are some Christians who would like to be more spiritual than Jesus himself. This simply will not do. The life of the Spirit is rooted in the servant life of Christ.
But Paul doesn't stop there. He points to the source of the Spirit, to the Father of Jesus Christ, and says, "There are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone." All things come from God. All things are activated and energized by God, and to God all things shall return.
Paul points us beyond our little bitty activities to the grand scheme of what God is doing in the world. We cannot talk about gifts of the Spirit without talking about serving Jesus Christ. And we cannot talk about serving Jesus Christ without contending with the God who has first called the world into being, and who will finally reclaim all things, in everyone. In the reign of God, there is no distinction between personal life and public life. There is no separation of "spiritual things" from the matters of this world, whether they be family life, local economy, national politics, or global suffering. God seeks to work in all things, making all things new, moving us to God's great, final day of redemption.
In the meantime, we are a charismatic church. If you ask me, that's the only church there is, because it means that we have been gifted by the Holy Spirit, to spread the grace of Jesus Christ, in the end that all things shall be caught up in the glory of God our Creator. The church which catches this vision is inspired by the Spirit to sing with Paul: "From God and through God and to God are all things. To God be glory forever."