(I Cor. 12, 1-11; Luke 4,14-21)

I wonder how you would feel if somebody gave you the same present every year on your birthday and Christmas – and you knew that they gave exactly the same thing to everyone else they knew. I don’t suppose it would make you feel very special. We all like to think that gifts are given after a lot of thought, and are chosen especially for us, to fit our needs and our interests.

In our reading from his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is talking about the gifts that come to the believer from God through the Holy Spirit; and one thing he emphasises is that they are all different. Each one is specially chosen to fit the task assigned to the person who receives it.

The Spirit who gives is the same Spirit – and is the Spirit of God and of Jesus. Paul uses different names for the source of the gifts – God, Lord, Spirit – but the source is one and the same. The variety of gifts comes from a God who is known as the Trinity – so has variety and relationship within the Godhead; but the gifts are rooted in the nature of that God, who is a unity.

Paul is trying to teach the Corinthians – and us – that just because we all belong to the same Church, we don’t have to be the same. We won’t all learn in the same way, we don’t all worship in the same way, and we aren’t all meant to serve God and the Church in the same way.

God needs different people to do different things to build the Kingdom on earth – and through the Spirit is equipping us with what we need in order to do what he asks of us.

This can be a problem for some of Christians. They seem to want everyone to be the same. Perhaps they only feel secure in the company of people who are exactly like themselves, who see things their way, and do things as they want.

But the Spirit of God is not like that, because God is not like that. The Spirit is the source of the wonderful variety of people and gifts in our world, and God appears to be happy to be served and worshipped in a variety of ways – so long as those who serve acknowledge that people who do things differently are also serving God.

This variety is not a problem if we are truly listening to the Spirit – it is only a problem if we are actually only listening to ourselves and our needs.

We learn from Paul’s letter that the Corinthians had a big problem with unity, and with appreciating the gifts of others. Even when they acknowledged that all gifts came from God, they wanted to put them in an order of importance – with the showy gifts, like speaking in tongues, at the top of the list, and less obviously spiritual gifts, like simply caring for people, lower down. Paul would have none of this. As he demonstrated by using the analogy of the human body for the Church, every gift, every part is important; and perhaps we need to take most notice of the less obviously ‘spiritual’ gifts if the Body of Christ is to be healthy and grow.

It is very much a lesson for today’s Church. Perhaps we need to listen very carefully to what the Spirit is saying to us through those whose voices have not previously been heard much in the  Church – however hard it is for those who were previously ‘top of the pile’.

The Spirit, Paul says, gives a variety of gifts – but all the different gifts have some things in common. First the gifts of the Spirit bring faith and commitment. They inspire us to proclaim through our words and our lives that ‘Jesus is Lord’. That implies that God comes first in our lives, before all our other commitments.

Second, the gifts given to believers are not given for their private benefit or advancement, to get them a better job or to make their lives easier. They are given for the common good, to build up the Body of Christ. They only remain ‘gifts of the Spirit’ when they are used in that way.

In the passage we heard from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes from the Book of Isaiah, to claim that the Spirit of God is with him. This scene is like the setting out of Jesus’ manifesto, outlining what his ministry will be all about. In some ways, this proclamation at Nazareth is Luke’s Epiphany, the time when Jesus is revealed to the world as the Spirit-filled Messiah.

In Luke’s view, the ministry of Jesus is about serving the lowly, the outcast and the poor. It is the earliest Liberation Theology, proclaiming freedom for captives and liberty for the oppressed. It is about healing society, and educating  people so that they see things with God’s eyes. It is about challenging the powers that be, and announcing that the year of the Lord’s favour has arrived – the Jubilee year, when all debts were cancelled and land returned to its original owners.

Luke’s is very much a social Gospel. It is about politics and economics, not just private spirituality. Beginning with the shepherds ( the outsiders who are the first to worship the Messiah) and through the canticles like the Benedictus and the Magnificat, Luke tells us that the Good News of the Gospel has a particular significance for the poor, the sick and the outsider.

Luke does emphasise the need for prayer, and openness to the Spirit, but  only because these are necessary to equip the followers of Jesus for action. Like Paul, Luke sees the Spirit as providing the inspiration and the impetus to take action to change the world.

In the service in which he was welcomed to the diocese last September, and in his visits to deaneries in the months since, Bishop Alan has been challenging us all to make three aspects of our Christian life our priorities. First, to go deeper into God – to be open to the Spirit, to read the Scriptures and to pray; second, to make new disciples –  to teach and to nurture those of any age who are new to the faith. But the third priority is to transform the communities in which we live. That is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Church in Corinth; that is what Jesus was proclaiming he came to do in Luke’s account of the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.

How equipped are we to respond to that challenge? We are spending a lot of our time at the moment talking about how we can keep this building safe and watertight to be the church for this parish.  But do we ever ask ourselves what it is that this church does which makes any difference to the community around us. Are we transforming our community? Would it actually make any difference to the community if our church was not here? And if not, why not?

Do we ever ask ourselves:  “How are we showing this community that, for us, Jesus is Lord, that the Gospel comes first in our lives? How are we using the gifts of the Spirit to try to transform this place?”

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”.

At the beginning of this year, can we all ask ourselves: “Is it upon me?”

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Word in Time

January 3, 2010

(Reading: John 1, 1-18 )

“In the beginning was the Word”.

In John’s theology, before the coming of human beings who measured time, before the creation of the earth and the planets and the sun and the other stars by whose movements humans count the passing of time, before the light of the stars of the furthest galaxies came into being, the Word of God already was. The memra, the creative power, the reason, the wisdom, the Sophia, the Logos existed before and outside time – and had the character and quality and essence of God.

And once the universe came into being, the Word is the creative force behind it, the Word is the pattern that underlies it, the Word is what gives it light and life.

Our western part of the world is hung up on the word – but not on the Word of God. For most of the last 2000 years it has been obsessed with human words, written and spoken. It delights in definitions and reasons. It tries to control human bodies and minds by laws, by creeds, by articles of religion. It seeks to contain God within written scriptures – a selection of the sacred writings of pre-Christian Jews and an even smaller selection of the writings of first century Christians. But, as a civilisation it has largely lost contact with the Word of God.

Our Western civilisation has tended to replace faith in the Word of God with the idolatry of the human word. The French sociologist and anthropologist, Jean Danielou, writing an introduction to a study of Hinduism, said that the West accuses Eastern religions of idolatry, because they have things that humans have made to represent the divine – but he accuses the Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – of being equally idolatrous, because they worship the words which represent the divine.

We in the West find it so easy to forget that our words are just approximations, representations of reality as we understand it. They are one means by which we seek to impose order on our experience – but they are not the experience itself. All words are human constructions, we share them with others, and we come to them with the assumptions of our own time and our own people. We cannot do otherwise.

Words from other times and other peoples may be translated for us – but translations are inevitably imperfect, because people in different times and in different places do not think in the same way.  We never have perfect understanding of others. So there is always a tendency for us to be like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass – “When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean.”  Which is why it is dangerous for any of us to try to impose the words that convey our understanding of experience, especially religious experience, on others.

The Word of God is outside all of these human limitations – but unfortunately we can only understand it through human words

The Western world, especially the contemporary Western world, is also hung up on time. We mark the passage of time and celebrate anniversaries as no other people have done. We are especially obsessed with round numbers, like the Millennium, or the beginning of a new decade like 2010, investing them with a significance that is beyond reason.

But again, we tend to forget that time is, like words, a human construct, another attempt to impose order on what is beyond our control. And again, it only works if we share our understanding of time with others. At the lowest level, this means that spies and soldiers have to synchronise watches before setting out on a mission – a scenario we know from innumerable films! At a higher level, it means that societies have to agree on how to measure time.  We do not measure days in the same way as the Jews of Jesus’ time did – they counted days from sunset to sunset; we do it from midnight to midnight. We measure years from different significant events. It also means  that when such agreement changes, we may lose time – as we seem to have done with the measurement of time since the birth of Christ, who was probably not born in what we think of as the year zero.

But differences of human understanding of time go deeper than that. In the Greek of the New Testament there were two different words for time, conveying different understanding. First there was chronos – clock-time, weeks, months and years time, time like an ever rolling stream, which had no significance except to mark human mortality. But then there was kairos, significant time, eternal time, the time for decisions, the time that can change things. In the understanding of the Gospel writers, the life of Christ was when chronos and kairos intersected.

Both word and time are only of significance when they are embodied, enmeshed in human life, in a particular place and a particular people. This is what the evangelist John asserts happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

“And the Word of God became flesh, and lived among us.”

The eternal power and reason and wisdom of God became a human being and so part of the human world in all its reality – messy, sinful, confused; subject to the influences of human psychology, social forces, illness, imperfect knowledge, and mortality.  Above all, the word became subject to change.

All living things are subject to change – both renewal and decay and death.  They cannot avoid it. Those humans who seek to deny change become ridiculous – mutton dressed as lamb – or dangerous. The main thing that has stayed with me from my first teaching practice are some words of the teacher in whose class I worked. “Some teachers”, he said, “say they have had twenty years experience; but what they have really had is one year’s experience twenty times over”.

That is not just a danger for teachers. It is also a danger for other professions, and  for societies, for religions, for any individual. We are all subject to time, to chronos, which faces us with a series of kairos events, when we have the opportunity to change or to stagnate. And because “The Word became flesh” it is true also of the Word of God.

Outside a  local evangelical church near my home a notice has appeared over the last few days. “Happy New Year”, it says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.” I don’t believe that is a very helpful way to express our belief. Christ is no longer embodied in the same way as he was. Two thousand years ago, he was embodied in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth; now he is embodied in a multitude of different people, who believe that he carried the Word of God for them. Their belief will be affected by the understanding of all those who have embodied the Christ down through two millennia, from Jesus himself, through the first disciples, the theologians of the Patristic Age, and the Reformers, and also by their experience of life in the modern age. All those understandings will be subtly different, and it is a mistake to try to confine valid understanding to the words of one time, as people have tried to do through defining writings as Scriptures and by Creeds.

“The Word became flesh, and lived among us. And we saw with our own eyes his glory, full of grace and truth”.

We will only see the glory of the eternal Word of God if we see it with our eyes, the eyes of our own flesh and our own time. We will only share the glory and truth of the Word with the world if we speak of them with the words of our own time, with our own understanding of what it is to be a human being, and of what brings life and light and love. The only way the eternal Word of God will make an impact in our world is through those who receive the Word, meditate on it and reflect it in our own time and in our own words.

But it needs to be a reflection in kairos not just in chronos. John the evangelist recognised the coming of the Word as a challenge to our understanding of time and of words, a challenge that demanded change in those who received it.

The Biblical writers of the Old Testament understood the Word of God not just as sound, but  also action.  If we really receive the Word of God, it demands action from us, action to embody the Word, and reflect it in what we say and do in the world.  The epistle of James warns us against being just hearers of the Word, and not doers.

It is only when we act in obedience to the Word  that we  can ensure  that God’s time and God’s eternal Word have entered once again into our time and our world, and that we are receiving still its grace, and truth, and light, and life.