Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
We all recall those Christmases when Santa Claus was expected to visit our homes with gifts for the children. I have no doubt about the reality of Santa, as he is named from St Nicholas the one-time bishop of Myra. As to the rest, well, what can I say.….?
One question that does arise from Santa Claus however was the conditionality of his gifts: had the children been good during the year – or not? But equally, were these presents therefore gifts: unearned and unmerited – or were they wages or rewards? That we may discuss.
For our readings however there is no question that the gifts bestowed on the church were unearned, and indeed were supernatural. Yes, the church had to be in a position to receive them, but otherwise they were also unrelated to personal merit.
Moreover they were not the same of the fruits of the Spirit, listed by St Paul as love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
The first of the gifts of our readings is that in the gospel: it is the authority to forgive – and to retain – sins. It came with the command to proclaim the gospel, with the same authority that God had given to Jesus. It was founded on Jesus’ greeting of “Peace” and it was supported by the promise of the Holy Spirit.
In the chronology of the gifts of the New Testament, the authority of the disciples to preach the gospel and to pronounce the forgiveness takes precedence over all else. It is the commission to lift burdens of guilt and inadequacy, and to proclaim a freedom and a peace that comes nowhere else. This is the authority to offer the world the gift of salvation: which can never be earned and can only be received as Jesus gives it. In our celebration of Pentecost this gift and task is rightly pre-eminent.
But then there were the phenomena of the day of Pentecost. The disciples were already gathered together in one accord: with one intention and purpose, one heart of love of the Lord and desire to worship Him, one desire to love and to serve one another.
- Then came the wind: powerful, uncontrollable, unpredictable and irrefutable. It came to the upper room as a whole and was observed by all: it was no private vision or interior blessing. And neither was it an exercise in mass hysteria – an excuse regularly deployed but rarely examined in convincing social or medical terms. But there in unimpeachable power.
- Next: the tongues of flame. Appearing to all and distributed to all, again without discrimination or selection. There to identify – and to cleanse. Just as the burning bush drew Moses to the site, by being on fire but not consumed or reduced to ashes, so here the tongues of flame were there to anoint and identify and cleanse but not to consume or destroy.
- After this, the tongues of other languages. In this case distributed to all, and giving to each the mystical authority to speak the truth in another language.
- Next there was the first outworking of the anointing of the Holy Spirit in Peter’s sermon: powerful, passionate –and highly effective in persuading his audience of his message.
The gift of tongues is perhaps the most controversial gift of the Spirit, the least understood, the most abused and indeed, resented. But some things must be said about it.
First, it is a gift, and not an imposition. Those released in this gift are not taken with fits, or lose consciousness or control. They do not lose their own personality or freedom of choice, or control of other faculties. You can speak or pray in tongues and still drive a car without losing control of it or losing a sense of traffic.
Next: God does not give evil gifts. In the gospel, Jesus points out that God does not give a stone when asked for bread, or a snake when asked for a fish, or a scorpion when asked for an egg. All His gifts are good and are a blessing. And that also applies to the gift of tongues which is in the church today and is there very openly in some denominations. It is certainly here in All Saints this morning.
Then, there is that sense in which the gifts of the Spirit and the infilling of the Spirit are bestowed in order to up-build and edify the recipient. It may be to strengthen faith, deepen prayer, give confidence to understanding, lead a person on in his or her life and offering within the fellowship of believers, to face a personal trial, to offer a more convincing and effective personal witness to their faith. And what was true then is still true now.
But the final reading points to the life of the church as a whole. It is about the wholeness and the variety of the gifts of the Spirit in the life and witness of the Body of Christ. Paul refers to words of wisdom in the Spirit: this is the wisdom of God rather than a worldly-wise rationalization of conventional thought and custom.
Then there is the telling forth of things that are hidden or unknown: often to help a person to understand the nature of things and perhaps of their own needs. Again this is to bless and not to threaten or undermine. This is the gift of knowledge.
Then there are gifts of healings, the working of miracles, the word of prophecy. The word of prophecy is the utterance of the thoughts of God – and they will always be consistent with scripture and will never depart from it. It is not the placing into the mouth of God of our own social or political agendas. That is more like a breach of the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain.
Then there are the gift of tongues which I have described, and the interpretation of tongues.
The point of all these gifts is to support the central task of the church in proclaiming the gospel.
It is to build, to edify, to strengthen, to release in joy and to endure opposition. It is to offer the life of Jesus in deed as well as in word to the world and the community where we are placed.
But let me repeat:
God does not give evil gifts, even if we still have to learn to receive and to use then properly.
None of these gifts is earned and so none is proof of personal sanctity.
All may be received by the church as a whole, although none will be exercised by any one person all at once. They are given to the Body of Christ so that the Body of Christ may exercise them and be edified by them and in them.
And yes, the Lord is ready and waiting for us to ask for the release of the Holy Spirit among us: Come Holy Spirit.