In the weeks since Pentecost, we have focused on the work of the Holy Spirit –
The Spirit reveals to us the truth of God’s grace
The Spirit makes way for the redemptive work of Jesus
The Spirit continues the work of sanctification in our lives
And the Spirit empowers us to bear witness to all of these truths in the world.
We are bound to one another – by love – as members of the Body of Christ, members with unique Spirit-given gifts that make it possible to do more than any of us could do alone.
Looking around this room, we can point to members who embody the gifts of faith, giving, helps, and administration, and teaching. There are members who speak in the strange tongue of finances, and still others who are able to interpret reports and spreadsheets for the rest of us.
If we expand our vision of the Body to include other congregations in the city and throughout Central Florida, we can see how the church universal is meeting the needs of individuals, families and neighborhoods through ministries that are as unique as their contexts and God-given visions.
Churches step out in faith to pursue new things, sometimes at risk of significant loss… because the Spirit has made it impossible to say “no” or “not yet,” And as congregations take those faith steps, the Spirit equips members willing to begin the work, as well as those who support the work. It is risky, messy business- following a Spirit that asks you to move forward without a 200-page strategic plan and fully-funded budget.
But that is the reality of faith.
We would prefer plans, sometimes, mostly because we prefer comfort and clarity. Just as we prefer to know we’re in good hands, on the human side of the equation. We look for the “right person” to take on a challenge.
We sometimes mistake or substitute a person’s skillset and education for their spiritual gifts. My education prepared me to be a teacher and coach, professions in which I learned how to stand in front of groups and help people understand a concept well enough to proceed on their own. That’s all good, but it’s not the same as the Spiritual gift of teaching – or preaching.
My job titles and experience in office environments has led some people to think I am administratively gifted and detail-oriented. Neither of those could be farther from the truth. But God could choose to place me in a faith community or ministry setting where administration is needed and equip me to serve.
When I look back on the ways God has used me as one member among many in the Body of Christ, I see more clearly the ways my Spiritual gifts were much more valuable than my skills, talents and training. And I can see how – when I was focused on how to share my expertise – it had very little to do with deepening my faith and didn’t really benefit the spiritual well-being of the Body as a whole.
This can become a pattern within a congregation, or in the larger gatherings of the Body…. We turn to experts in organizational management, whether in person or in books, to find best practices and best tools to make sure the church is viable and stable. We discern who should take the lead based on resumes and relationships, rather than listening for and trusting the prompting of the Spirit.
A.W Tozer warned of this danger in the church when he observed that
“The average church has so established itself organizationally and financially that God is simply not necessary to it. So entrenched is its authority and so stable are the religious habits of its members that God could withdraw Himself completely from it and it could run on for years on its own momentum.” – A.W. Tozer
We can, as a body, be functionally faithless. The church walking about, mostly dead, a spiritual zombie, if you will.
How would we know?
How can we tell whether we are faithfully pursuing a vision from God in the power of the Holy Spirit – or if perhaps – like Wile E Coyote chasing the Roadrunner – we have followed our patterns and habits beyond the edge of the cliff on our own momentum and are oblivious to the fall that awaits us?
If we can’t measure spiritual health by the quality of a long-range plan, and it isn’t tracked by organizational activity.. then what should we look for as evidence of Spiritual life in the Body?
Remember how Paul ended his discussion of the Body of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit? It is one of the most enticing transitional statements in all of Scripture.
… And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Cor 12:31b)
That most excellent way of living is the way of Love.
Nothing we do in the service of the church.
Nothing we do in service to others.
Nothing we do as a community has value if we do not have love.
The love that binds together God as Father-Son and Spirit is the love that abides
That love will remain when everything else fails and falls.
That is the love that sets us free
Free from the bondage of our past – our sins, our shame, our sorrow
Free from the bondage of our fears – of retribution, of punishment, of pain
Christ has set us free – for freedom that is made known through love
Listen again to these words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (from Gal 5)
Paul isn’t imagining a Galatians gone wild situation, creating a culture that is free from all restraint. We have been freed from the disastrous results of life without God,
of life without an indwelling Christ,
of life without a Spirit to guide and empower.
We have been freed from the constraints of the self-centered culture in which we live, so that we might love and serve others with God’s reckless abandon.
It’s easy to turn the Works of the Flesh segment of our reading into checklist of sins to avoid, a list of all the things we look for to identify the “bad people” in the world who live in the flesh. But look at that list through the lens of Jesus’ commands to God and to love our neighbors (members of the Body and people in the larger community). We would never expect the Spirit to empower Christ-followers to be part of these works.
There is no love for God in worshiping idols or exploring sorcery. We do not love ourselves or our neighbors when we seek out relationships and experiences based solely on physical pleasure. We do not offer love when we allow rage, conflict and power to define our interactions with other people.
When the Spirit takes root in our hearts, when we begin to live according to the law of love, people can see it in our actions, in our relationships. Our lives begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit : love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
As Paul reminds us, There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (from Gal 5)
Instead, we are to bear one another’s burdens because
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (from 1 Cor 13)
The fruit of the Spirit at work in our lives is what the love of God looks like when it flows into us and through.
When we love one another enough to stick together and stick it out.
When we love others enough to stop talking ABOUT people and talk TO them, or better yet… to stop talking and just listen.
When you love enough to be aware that everyone’s got something that weighs them down, something that a word of grace from you might allow them to lay aside
Over and over and over again, God did what needed to be done on behalf of God’s people – on behalf of us. In the same way, we are to do what is needed on behalf of our neighbors. It is not easy setting aside our hopes, our timelines, our needs to care for someone else. In our very human selves, our very human bodies, we can grow weary.
A life of love needs graciousness, perseverance, a constant cheerful sowing, and a refusal to judge who is worthy of help and who is not.
A life of love requires the surrounding and infusing presence of the Holy Spirit, as well as the presence of other persons equally steeped and empowered to assist us when we falter. There is wisdom in the words that
Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up.
See, the Corinthians got all bound up in which gifts and thus which people were more important. Teaching some of the people that they had little or no value
The Galatians were in conflict over the role of circumcision and the old laws in light of this new way of following God – the way of Jesus. Ritual and behavior determined who was in, and who could stay in, thus the power of judgment was in the hands of a few. Leaving others with little or no power, understanding they had little or no value.
Paul’s response to both of these communities, which holds true across the centuries was this…
Remember who you are:
Beloved children of God,
sisters and brothers in Christ,
baptized in water and the Spirit.
Each of you and all of you.
Remember what is most important:
In a world that is still awaiting its ultimate healing and reconciliation, Love is the only law, the only measure that truly matters.
Until Christ returns, we are his body.
We reveal the nature of God’s love in the ways our faith and hope move us to act and speak.
We are God’s plan to bear the burdens of the world
May the Spirit that binds us together, the love that binds us together, empower us to bear one another’s burdens, share our warmth, extend our table to our neighbors and live fruitfully and boldly in a broken and fearful world.