Justice League (message for January 17th, 2016)

Several years ago when I lived in Indianapolis, I read an article in the Sunday paper lifestyle section that really stuck with me.   It was about Mr. Silent, Indianapolis’ very own real life superhero.    He was a guy who were a three piece suit, a silver mask, and patrolled the downtown area.  He would seek to report crime in progress, possibly prevent mischief before it happened, or find any kind of good he could do.    Mr. Silent went silent in 2009, and has not been seen since.   However, the idea of real life superheroes is a thing that exist all over the country.   I am not making this up, and in fact one of the best known of these real life superheroes has even made the national news before.

             In 2012 a documentary called Superheroes was released that attempted to document the exploits and the people who consider themselves real world superheroes, and it is honestly one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen.   The documentary follows people who go by names of things like Master Legend, Mr. Extreme, and Unity.   It is clear from the documentary that some of these people are honestly a little delusional, and believe they have true super powers.  It is clear are in need of some psychological intervention as they have some deep anger issues to deal with.  However, there were others who were very level headed individuals.   They worked 9-5 jobs, and then at night put on a costume and went out to help the homeless.    To hear about grown adults wearing masks, patrolling the streets, and in the extreme examples claim they have super human endurance it is easy for us to dismiss them as weirdos and freaks.    However, this documentary and even the concept of a real life super hero really stuck with me, because these people for all of their weirdness and faults were willing to go out of their way to try and help other people.   It cannot be understated for all of these real life superheroes, wearing a costume and attempting to do good was a huge part of who they were.   I found the concept so completely fascinating and maybe even a little beautiful, because these are people whose desire to make a positive difference in the world inspired them to take radical, life changing, and direct action.    One of the nagging questions that watching this documentary really left me with, is why do we as Christians not have this same driving motivation in our lives?    After all, we claim to follow the ultimate source of goodness, truth, and justice in the universe.    We proclaim that our mission, the very reason why we exist, is to transform the world; to make this world a more loving, more godly, and less broken place.    Why do we sit at home binging on Netflix or cable TV instead of actually putting effort into being a positive force of change in the world?    I do not plan on suiting up and becoming the Edinburgh Lancer anytime soon, but this morning’s scripture is very convicting to me.   It reminds me, that as believers and followers of Jesus Christ we have great power and with that power comes great responsibility.   It reminds me, that in a dark world, we are called to be light.  It reminds me in the face of hopelessness we are to bring hope.  It reminds me that where there is evil, we, as God’s people, need to be heroes.  

            This morning’s scripture is without a doubt one of the sections of scripture in the Bible that is the hardest to understand, especially in context of how it is practiced in our real life faith.  There are some branches of Christianity that lift up one or two of these names Spiritual gifts above the others, and they even go as far to say that you are not truly a Christian if you do not have this specific spiritual gift in your life.   As United Methodist, we reject that line of thinking.   There are others who put a strong emphasis on “spiritual gift inventories” these are tests, that will tell you which of the listed spiritual gifts you have been blessed with.  These inventories can be helpful tools, but I also find it hard to believe that the Holy Spirit can be universally defined and pigeon holed by a multiple choice test.   When we discuss and consider this morning’s scripture, we have to step back and freely admit that we do not have all the answers.   We have to be willing to accept that Spiritual Gifts are a working of the Holy Spirit, and as such we may not always be able to understand them.    However, by focusing on what the scripture states, I think we can come to a better understanding of what spiritual gifts are and how we can experience them in our lives.  

            There are three elements of what Spiritual gifts are that we can learn from this morning’s scripture.   First, Spiritual gifts are of God, not of us.   Verse seven states, “Now to each one of the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”   A spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.   It is the Holy Spirit actively at work in and through our lives.  This means that spiritual gifts are not natural talents we are born with like a good singing voice or that they are skills like throwing a fast ball that can be developed with practice.   A spiritual gift is something that is beyond ourselves.   There is a somewhat mundane but at the same time miraculous example that many of us have probably experienced in our lives.   Have you ever had a Christian friend or perhaps a sermon say something to you that was EXACTLY what you needed to hear?   It spoke to an issue in your life that they would have no idea about.  It was the exact wisdom you needed at just the right time.   There is no way your friend or the preacher could have known it, but it was exactly what you needed.   I believe that is a simple example of the spiritual gift of wisdom in practice.   The Holy Spirit enabled the person to have a message of wisdom that came from beyond them to further enable God to be at work in the world, in our lives.   The first element of spiritual gifts this scripture teaches us are that spiritual gifts are the very power of God working in and through our lives.        

            Second, and this cannot be overstated, spiritual gifts are from the Holy Spirit.  Verse four points out “there are different kinds of gifts but the same spirit distributes them.”  After naming various spiritual gifts, Paul concludes by stating “all of these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one just as he determines.”   A spiritual gift is not something we have power over.  It is not something that we can control, and pull out of our back pocket like a party trick.    Spiritual gifts are distributed by the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit sees fit.  It is not really our place to state that we have a certain gift or do not have a certain gift, because they are the Spirit’s to give for the time the Spirit wishes to give them.    Even though the spiritual gifts come from the Spirit, later on in chapter 12 in verse 31 we are told “now eagerly desire the greater gifts.”   If we want to experience spiritual gifts in our lives, then we need to put ourselves in situations where God has need to empower us with spiritual gifts.  

            This leads to the final element this morning’s scripture teaches us about spiritual gifts.  It does not matter how common place or fantastic the spiritual gift is, they all come from the same source for the same purpose.  Verse six states “There are different kinds of working but in all of them it is the same God at work.”   Spiritual gifts are a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that enable us to do things beyond ourselves as part of God’s work on earth.   Spiritual gifts exist not to glorify us but to glorify God.  They exist to fulfill God’s purposes.    Spiritual gifts are the way that God enables us to be his hands and his feet.  They are they the way that God equips us to join in God’s mission to bring about redemption on the earth.  Spiritual gifts are the very power of God in us that God uses to transform the world.     The final element this scripture teaches us about spiritual gifts is that they exist for God’s purposes, and if we wish to experience these gifts in our lives then we have to be willing to follow and join God in what God is doing in the world.  

            John Wesley, who we consider the spiritual forefather of the United Methodist Church, had an interesting observation on spiritual gifts.   Wesley was never considered to be one who put a strong emphasis on the spiritual gifts, but at the same time he firmly believed in them and he was quick to defend their existence.  A common belief in Wesley’s day was that the spiritual gifts as mentioned in this morning’s scripture were no longer regularly manifest because there was no need for them.   In his sermon “The More Excellent way”, John Wesley strongly refutes this notion.   In answering why the spiritual gifts did not seem to be as frequent in his age, Wesley preached “The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other Heathens. The Son of Man, when he came to examine his Church, could hardly `find faith upon earth.' This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian Church; because the Christians were turned Heathens again, and had only a dead form left.”    Wesley, was not known to pull his punches!   The point though, is one that can and should still convict us today.    If we feel that spiritual gifts are not found manifest in our church or in our lives, then perhaps we only have ourselves to blame.   John Wesley’s words should really challenge us, and force us to consider the difficult question, “does the way we live our lives, the way we spend our time, and the way we invest our time look radically different than the way a non-believer does those things?”

            This brings us back to the real life superheroes, because these are people who have found a motivation to live like no one else.   They may be a little extreme, but at the same time they have dedicated their lives to doing all in their meager power to be a positive force of good in the world.   If a comic book about a guy who dresses like a bat or spider can inspire people to do this, then surely we can find the inspiration in Christ to do the same.   It is by the love of God and the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit that we are able to say Jesus is Lord in the first place.    If you consider yourself a believer and follower of Christ, then the great love of God made known through Jesus the son should have truly transformed our lives.   In response to that wonderful, life giving and life changing love, how can we not want to share that love?  In both actions and in words, we should share the gospel, we should join with God’s in God’s work of bringing about redemption and forgiveness to all.    We can be heroes who stand for what it is right, who bring light into darkness, and who are truly the change in the world.    What is even better, is this morning’s scripture informs us that when we take this stand, the very power of God through the Holy Spirit is gifted upon us to do God’s work for the common good.  

            Real life superhero Mr. Extreme says in the documentary, “it is not super powers that make a real life super heroes, it is super actions.”    In the faith, we have a similar saying.  God does not call the equipped, God equips the called.   When it comes to loving our neighbor as ourselves, to sharing the love of God, and to making disciples of all nations, we are all called.   If we respond to that call, then we can have confidence that God will give us the spiritual gifts, just as he determines, to better fulfill that call.     The question we have to face, is do we answer that call?   Are we going to stay on our couch or are we going to get up and do something?    Are we going to live like everyone else or are we going to join God in God’s mission?    There is no shortage of needs in the world, so pick one and join God in redeeming it.   We may not end up wearing capes or go by over-the-top codenames, but through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can all be real life superheroes.