We hope to eventually be able to put up videos of the message, but until we get there we will be posting the text.
Morning's scripture: 1 Corinthians 12: 3-11
When I was in fourth grade, I decided that I was going to start reading comic books. I really cannot recreate my 4th grade thought process, but at the time I had a very good reason to start doing this. I got my brother to go along with me in this as well. Now this was back in the day when pharmacies still sold comic books on spinning racks. Due to my brother having asthma and the fact that there were three kids, we seemed to be going to pick up prescriptions a lot. Comics were only a dollar, so my parents did not mind picking them up. We started with the classic heroes like Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. After a few months, I got issue 273 of Uncanny X-men. It introduced me to so many fascinating characters. It also ended with a big cliff hanger, so in a month I was asking to go back to the drug store, so that I could get issue 274. By issue 275-I was hooked. The X-Men have gone on to reach even greater popularity, with several movies over the past decade, including the most recent one that released to theaters a couple of weeks ago. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the X-Men, there is a genetic mutation can occur on the fictional X-Factor gene. This gene is such, that a mutation of it can cause an infinite variety of effects. People born with this mutation have all kinds of crazy powers ranging from growing wings, to controlling the weather, to shooting lasers out of their eyes, and are referred to as mutants. Mutants, being different than normal people, face discrimination and prejudice. Remember, X-men started in the 1960s and the X-men was a comic book that was trying to address very real social issues.
What appealed to me about the X-men so much though is that even though they were shunned and hated just for being who they were, they still did the right thing. The Uncanny X-Men were willing to risk themselves and fight to protect the very people that hated them. The X-Men have these amazing powers, and instead of using them for their own benefit, they use them, in an amazing act of kindness and compassion, to help others. I did not realize it at the time, but one of the great appeals of the X-men is that at the core of their story and identity is grace. It may just be because a new X-men movie came out so close to Pentecost, but I cannot help but see a connection between the two. The X-Men get amazing powers from a genetic mutation, but as this morning’s scripture reminds us, Christians get amazing powers (spiritual gifts if your prefer) from the gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Just like the X-men use their powers to help others, even those who are enemies towards them, we should use the gifts God has blessed us with to help others. Brothers and sisters in Christ, I submit to you today that what churches need today, what this church needs, are more X-Men (and X-women).
Every year, we celebrate Pentecost, which commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit. Truth be told, we do not really understand the Holy Spirit. This goes beyond the fact that the Spirit like the rest of God is mystery and in many ways beyond our understanding. We feel like we understand Jesus, we feel like we understand God the Father, but the Spirit? Not so much, and I am not sure why this. If you look at any book in the New Testament, especially Acts or any of the Epistles, the Spirit is a big deal. The Holy Spirit is constantly mentioned and the context it is mentioned in is one that is critical for understanding who we are as new creations in Christ. Despite the importance of the Holy Spirit, Francis Chan writes in his book Forgotten God: “ While no evangelical would deny [the Spirit’s] existence, I’m willing to be there are millions of churchgoers across America who cannot confidently say they have experienced His presence or action in their life over the past year. And many of them do not believe they can.” We know the Holy Spirit is real, but we do not understand the Spirit, and quite honestly we don’t always try very hard. One of the things that we believe, not just us as Methodist, but that we as Christians across all denominations, is that when someone is saved they receive the Holy Spirit in their lives. The Spirit guides, comforts, and instructs. We believe that the Spirit also manifest itself in fruits and gifts. The Spirit is a complex topic, once we add in ways that groups have interpreted and misinterpreted the works of the Spirit over the years, it gets even more complicated and sometimes controversial. We cannot unpack all of that today. . .unless you all are cool with being here until midnight. However, this morning’s scripture speaks specifically about spiritual gifts and the way that the Spirit works through us and empower us to do things far greater than we can do ourselves.
This morning’s scripture mentions a whole array of spiritual gifts. In mainline protestant traditions like ours we are very comfortable with some of these. We are comfortable with gifts mentioned like wisdom, knowledge, and faith. However, we are a little more uncomfortable with some of the more mystical ones mentioned such as healing, miraculous powers, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. A lot of time mentioning these gifts have a lot of baggage associated with them. For some people, just mentioning the Holy Spirit summons up images of ecstatic Pentecostal worship services, and for others mentioning healing as a spiritual gift brings up images of TV preacher theatrics. For many, these images are not always ones they are comfortable with. This morning, it is not really my place to criticize people who believe to encounter God in these more charismatic ways. All I can do is share from my own experiences, which do affirm that these more miraculous gifts exist.
In 2001, I took a mission trip to Mexico and two experiences on that trip really opened me up to the power of the Holy Spirit. First, there was an instance of speaking in tongues that I affirm. A local church that we worked with, had worship services every single night. A boy in the community had really latched onto our group, and since we were there in the evening he was there too. A young woman that was part of that group, could speak some conversational Spanish. She knew enough to get by, but was far from fluent. On one of the last evenings we were there, the boy said he wanted to follow Jesus and give Him his heart, but he did not know what to say. He asked this young woman to come up front, and help him pray. She went, but she did not know the words to say. Yet the words came to her, and that night she recounted how she led the boy in a prayer that she herself did not fully understand. On that same mission trip, there was an instance where we at a church in a slum community. The church was nothing more some concrete pillars holding up a roof and loose dirt floor. We were suppose to help provide music and dramas for the worship service. A different young woman who was part of the group, took her sandals off at one point and ended up stepping on a piece of barbed wire. Her shriek of pain was frightening. I saw her sit down and lift her foot up with the wire hanging from it. The Mexican pastor immediately took her foot removed the barb wire, and prayed fervently in Spanish. When he was done, she had stopped crying, and I saw with my own eyes that there was not a mark anywhere on her foot. I affirm that all of the spiritual gifts, even the ones that might seem more at place in something like X-men are real and are part of the Spirit’s active presence in the world.
As we consider spiritual gifts, there are a couple of things that we need to keep in mind. First, these are spiritual gifts that come from the Spirit. These are not talents or skills. There is something that you see floating around from time to time called a Spiritual Gift inventory. I am not entirely sure how I feel about those things. They often have multiple choice questions, and seek to correlate answers with spiritual gifts. So for example, if your answers show that you as a person have a true love of learning, then the inventory might conclude that you have the spiritual gift of knowledge. Well, you may indeed be smart and a good learner. God can use these talents and abilities for sure, and they can even be a good place for the Spirit to manifest the gift of Knowledge-but the ability to be smart is not a spiritual gift in itself. Spiritual gifts are from God and are beyond ourselves. To once again use an example from Francis Chan: “This may be a silly illustration, but if I told you I had an encounter with God where he entered my body and gave me a supernatural ability to play basketball, wouldn’t you expect to see an amazing improvement in my jump shot, my defense, and my speed on the court? After all, this is God we’re talking about.” Spiritual gifts are manifestations of the very power of God, they should enable us to do things that we cannot do on our own. Again, I can only speak from my own experience, but in the course of my time in ministry there have been many times where God used me to say or do just the right thing. On my own ability I would not have been observant enough or wise enough to know what to say, but through the almost tangible empowering of the Holy Spirit, God used me to teach or preach just the right thing at exactly the right time. This is one of the reasons why I could not help but think of X-Men, because spiritual gifts are not just abilities and talents, they truly are more like super powers. They enable us to do things beyond our own natural abilities.
In youth ministry, my absolute favorite things to do was teach confirmation. As we taught the basics of the Christian faith to young teens, when it came time to talk about the Holy Spirit I would always use analogies of super heroes, because it was something they could relate to. This inevitably led to one of the teens asking, if that meant God would give them the ability to fly. Now they were asking, because they think flying would be a cool super power to have (and it totally would), but this morning’s scripture reminds us “There are different kind of workings but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” The second point we need to remember, is that we are given spiritual gifts as part of God being at work in the world. This means that they are not for our benefit, but they are meant to glorify God and bring about God’s purposes. Spiritual gifts are meant to bring hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved, justice to the oppressed, and salvation to the lost. When Jesus promises the Holy Spirit in the gospel of John that we heard earlier this morning, the word he uses to describe the Spirit can be translated as advocate or helper. This is a reminder that we need a helper. If we ever find ourselves in a position where we think we are doing fine on our own at following God or fulfilling the mission then we are doing it wrong. The mission, and our specific mission of making and nurturing disciples for the transformation of the world is big. It is bigger than us, and we cannot do it alone. To do it we must have help, and the only help we can get big enough, is the help of the Spirit, the one who empowers us. The one who enables us to share God’s love through actions and words in ways that we cannot through our own ability.
The Holy Spirit is a helper, but the only time we need help is when we get ourselves in over our head. For the Holy Spirit to help us, we have to need help-and we cannot need help when we are fully comfortable. To take a risk, a jump, where we need help is by definition not comfortable. When you think of your own faith life and how you are making a difference for God, are you comfortable or do you need the Spirit’s help? When you think of how our church is fulfilling its mission, do you think we are comfortable or are we reaching for a place where we need the spirit’s help? If your honest answer to those questions is “comfortable” then you need to dream bigger! You need to trust God deeper, and you need to jump into the deep end. Notice what verse 11 from this morning’s scripture states: “All these are the works of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” Spiritual gifts, being used by God to make a difference, is not just for the elite. It is for all of us. God, through the Spirit distributes the gifts to further God’s kingdom to each one. That means that if you take the step from comfortable to following, then the Spirit will help you do more than you thought possible. Like the X-men, we have been given super powers. What makes the X-men superheroes is that they use their powers to selflessly help others, and what makes us true disciples is when we do the same.
Today we celebrate that years ago, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. It helped them do things that were greater than they could on their own. These disciples took risks, and relied on the Spirit for help. Often we use flame to represent the Spirit, and that is accurate because by the power of the Holy Spirit the early church erupted like an out of control wildfire that spread to the very ends of the earth. That fire is still smouldering, and may our prayer be that it erupts again. May you seek to be used by God and as you take bold risk for him, may you learn to rely on the Holy Spirits help. This morning, I wish to end with a prayer. This prayer is adapted from lyrics from the song Build Your Kingdom Here by the Rend Collective. Please join your hearts and souls with me in an attitude of prayer:
Come set your rule and reign in our hearts again. Increase in us, we pray. Set our hearts ablaze with hope, like wildfire in our very souls. Holy Spirit, come invade us now-set your church on fire. We pray in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus who promised the Spirit would come. Amen.