May 31, 2020

“Spirit-Filled Life”
Acts 2:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 12:1-13
A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi
May 31, 2020 (Pentecost)


The people were gathered together—more like huddled together.  It was different than before—so very different.  Because circumstances had changed so much, they really didn’t know what to do.  They didn’t know how their life together would go forward.

They gathered to pray because that was the one thing they knew to do.  And in their prayers, they cried out to God because everything was so new, so uncertain, so unlike anything they had experienced before.  They mourned the drastic changes in their circumstances.  They wanted so badly to go back to the way things were.  Things before were not exactly stuck or unchanging.  When you follow Jesus, you expect the unexpected.  But at least they knew how to roll with Jesus, and they knew they could trust him. 

But now, nothing was certain.  Their trusted leader and friend was gone—really gone this time.  He had promised a gift that would help them move forward, but they had no idea how that gift would come and what exactly it would do to them. 

And they didn’t know how those outside their group would feel about them.  That’s why they huddled together in the upper room.  They felt safe that way.

Does this story sound or feel a bit familiar?   I imagine that this was how Jesus’ followers felt after he had left them and ascended to heaven.  He told them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, but they didn’t know at all what to expect.  It was a time of uncertainty for them.

In many ways, it is our story today, isn’t it?  There was life before the pandemic, there is life during the pandemic, and there will be a different life after the pandemic.  We know what life was like before, and we miss it.  We are enduring our restricted life now, huddled at home.  And we don’t know what life will look like in the future.  What we can do now is continue to gather online to pray and to wait for the pandemic to play out, and wait for the Holy Spirit to lead us into the future.

The story of Pentecost has things for us to think about, and it can give us hope for the future of the church and our life together.  We’re in for a lot of change, lots of wind blowing and fire.  And that’s good.  Scary, but good.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ friends—about 120 of them.  The entrance of the Holy Spirit was dramatic and scary.  The sound was like a violent wind shook them and was followed by what looked like tongues of fire resting on their heads.  Wind and fire—forces that often can’t be controlled, inspiring fear and commanding respect.  It was an appropriate image for the Holy Spirit.  

And when the fearful, powerful Holy Spirit filled the people, they began to speak in languages they didn’t know.  The first gift of the Spirit was the ability to communicate with others who spoke different languages.  God was praised in many languages, reaching across cultural borders.

The first thing the Holy Spirit equipped Jesus’ followers to do was to proclaim the gospel, the good news of the reign of God.  They were misunderstood by some, but a lot of people got it when Peter stood up to preach that day.  It was an amazing gifting by the Holy Spirit to turn a fisherman from the boonies into a persuasive preacher.  Acts 1:41 tells us that three thousand people accepted Peter’s message and were baptized that day.  There’s no possible explanation except that the Holy Spirit empowered and inspired Peter’s preaching and the people’s response.

Like Jesus’ first group of followers, we are huddled in our homes, lamenting our current situation, yearning for the way things were before.  But instead of waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit, we know that we have already received that power at our baptisms.  While our experience of receiving the Holy Spirit was not as dramatic as it was on Pentecost, it is nonetheless true.  The question is whether we will boldly take up the gifts we’ve been given to proclaim the gospel to the world.

I believe that this is an important moment in the story of the Church (big “C” universal Church).  We have been forced to let go of beloved in-person practices, but the Holy Spirit is helping us to think of new ways to be the church together.  It’s remarkable how so many churches pivoted to online worship in just a few weeks.  And we have been forced to think about how to continue to be church together while we are apart.  The Holy Spirit is challenging and equipping us to be creative and to embrace new ways of communicating and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

The first church members were used to following Jesus around and doing what he told them, listening to his teaching, and just soaking in his presence and lifestyle.  After he ascended, they had to take up the ministry.  They had to make it up as they went along, empowered anew by the Holy Spirit.

We too, having been filled with the Holy Spirit and given gifts for the common good, are now called to take up ministry for a new day and in new ways.  Maybe it will feel like we’re making it up as we go along, but I’m confident that the Holy Spirit is present among us and will lead us if we pay attention and follow.

In our second reading, we hear from the Apostle Paul about how we can be sure that we are indeed paying attention to and following the Holy Spirit.

While the people in the church had embraced the spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit, they had problems in the ways these gifts were being used.  Lots of different gifts were given to help the church grow and flourish.  These gifts included wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues. 

The problem in Corinth was that a hierarchy of gifts had emerged.  Some people thought that their gifts were better, more important and more valuable to the church than others, and that was causing strife.  Paul used the image of a body made up of different parts to illustrate how important all the parts were.  All gifts contributed to the health and functioning of the church.  The reason the gifts were given was so that the church could function together as one body, serving one God.

Paul argued for the appreciation of all gifts, not counting some as better or more important than others.  Each gift had its place and purpose to serve the whole body.  Each person, using their gift, is valued and needed in the church.

So the major indication that the Spirit was at work in and through the people and their gifts was the unity of the body of Christ.  Paul emphasizes over and over that the church serves one God.  Another indication of the Spirit’s presence was that gifts were used with love.  We read 1 Corinthians 13 two weeks ago and learned that without love, spiritual gifts weren’t worth much.  They were like noisy gongs or clashing cymbals.

Today, as we celebrate the Holy Spirit’s presence among us, we are called to unity in the body of Christ, and we are called to love.  A Spirit-filled life is marked by our working together, appreciating all the different gifts that we all have been given to build the body of Christ.  A Spirit-filled life is marked by love:  a concern for others and seeking their best.  A Spirit-filled life invites others outside our community of faith to come and experience this unity and love. 

Many times, when we teach and talk about spiritual gifts in the church, we focus a lot of attention on each of us trying to identify what gift we have been given.  We take the lists in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and then take spiritual gifts inventories.  And when we land on a spiritual gift, we often don’t know what to do with it.  What does it mean to have the gift of mercy, or wisdom, or speaking in tongues?  And is it possible that today, being able to navigate digital media might be a spiritual gift?  [After struggling to learn how to create Facebook posts, I do believe it’s a gift!]  That’s a gift that Paul never would have imagined.

While knowing your spiritual gift can be helpful, I don’t think Paul’s main purpose in listing them was so that we would spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one we have.  I wonder whether his lists were descriptive rather than prescriptive, in that he was describing the gifts he saw in the church at that time.  I have a feeling that if he came up with a list of spiritual gifts today, it would look very different.  I think Paul’s purpose was to show us the diversity of gifts, and to get us to appreciate the fact that the church needs all of them to function as one in Christ.  The fact that he had to spend another whole chapter in his letter telling us to use our gifts with love, and that love was the thing that would last eternally, tells me that he really wanted the church to operate as one unit fueled by love.

Going forward, we want to be a Spirit-filled church, right?  And while the future is uncertain, while we don’t know when we will be able to gather in person for worship, and we don’t know what worship will look like, we can focus on offering ourselves—whatever skills, talents or resources God has given us—to help build the church in whatever way we can in this moment.  And when we don’t know what to do, we can think about what is the most loving thing we can do, and that will be enough and that will be great.

I don’t think the members of the first church knew exactly what they were doing.  Clearly, they didn’t know the best practices, which is why Paul wrote all those letters to them.  But I believe they had learned from Jesus how to love each other and their neighbors.  And they used their gifts, talents and resources to build a life together.

Their Spirit-filled life is described in Acts 2:42-47 (The Message):

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.  Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.

They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

Doesn’t that sound like a great life of a community of faith?  It was not a carefully mapped-out church that had carried out calculated steps to discover each member’s gift with a detailed plan for putting each gift to use.  It sounds more like a life that came out of the exuberant experience of being filled with the Spirit.  It is life that resulted from the people wanting to have a unified life in Christ, appreciating their diversity, and loving each other and their neighbors. 

As we celebrate and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, let us give thanks to God for empowering our life together—even in this time of the coronavirus pandemic.  Thank God that we are still the church, unified in our worship and service, equipped and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  As we go forward into our new, uncharted future as a community of faith, let us open ourselves to the Spirit-filled life.  Let’s be open to the wind and flames of the Holy Spirit as she gives us gifts, unifies us, and empowers us to love.  Amen.