Sermon: Sunday 17 January 2016
Second Sunday of Epiphany
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
The years following Christ were heady times. That first Pentecost, with the Apostles inspired by the Spirit, babbling in many different languages as if drunk. Then the relatively quick development of Christian cell groups almost simultaneously in a variety of places. Paul’s indefatigable and charismatic fervour, compelling commitment and enthusiasm popping up all over the place. The known world changing rapidly under peoples’ noses – balances of power shifting, thought patterns changing and being changed by the emergence of increasingly coherent Christian theology. Dangerous times too; and, after the first wave of enthusiasm, plenty of questions unanswered. How should different pockets of Christianity relate to one another, especially given different cultural and ethnic backgrounds? How to develop some sense of structure, while linking everyone together ‘in Christ’ (that very Pauline phrase)? And how to develop theology in the growing realisation that baptised faithful Christians were dying and Christ hadn’t reappeared!
Paul’s letters date, of course, from that period. Think of some of today’s cities made great through wealth from the sea and you’ve probably got a good image of Corinth. Cosmopolitan, diverse ethnically, economically and strategically important, centres of commerce and wealth but with a dark underside of poverty and squalor also. Paul was understandably apprehensive when he first went there, for these people would be no fools. At the time of his writing the letter we heard from today, the Christian community was if not split into factions, certainly operating in rather separate groups. Not that Paul totally healed things– relationships deteriorated further and they did degenerate into factions. They argued over belief and the practice of faith, there were issues surrounding sexual conduct, scandal and lawsuits even. If we worry about the Church Anglican tearing itself apart today we need look no further than some of the New Testament examples both to cheer and worry us. But their problems are helpful to us, because Paul’s analysis and solutions, given in the spirit of Christ, with a keen sense of his unity with Christ, give us serious and useful guidance as to how we should order our Christian life.
Paul lists a variety of not skills and competencies but spiritual gifts given by God, not for private use, but for the common good. Moreover, because these gifts are for specific purposes, they should not lead to rivalry. If you have a job to do and are given the tools to do it, I should not feel jealous if I’m not being asked to do the same job. I think we have much to learn from this approach. I guess you’ve heard the apocryphal story of the floor sweeper who, when asked what he is doing, responds that he is building aeroplanes. Without his keeping the place clean the construction could not take place.
Differences of gifting are inbuilt; but Paul is clear that both material and spiritual resources are for sharing, and that our self-understanding should be that of a community bound in unity by the Spirit. It’s a vivid illustration of interdependence. Think of a jigsaw with its many differently shaped and coloured pieces. Some on the edge, some in the centre – all integral to the whole. The many blue pieces no less important than the few instantly recognisable gold ones. And each unique. Within our own community.
This is about spiritual gifts but let’s extrapolate. A purist might argue with me, but any gifting used to God’s glory becomes, to my mind, de facto, a spiritual gifting. And if we take giftings too narrowly we quickly arrive at hierarchies with people in ‘holy’ roles overly special, even on pedestals to fall off. We institutionalise, and cast roles as more and less important, with initiative and creative thought easily stifled. But one thing we know for sure about the Kingdom of Heaven is that it is deeply unhierarchical. The first shall be last and the last first. So what about other giftings? The person who comes quietly in here to pray, not least when we may be too distracted so to do. Those who uncomplainingly pick up the unglamorous tasks which, yes, many of us are capable of doing but don’t. There’s a gift of service. Incidentally, the servants who carried the jars at the wedding feast at Cana – they were the ones who actually witnessed the miracle.
If we believe our gifting comes from God, we should allow ourselves, all of us, to become conduits for God’s action. Emphasise one over another and the whole is diminished. So one person might stand back to allow another space to flourish. The point is not the individual gifts or the people who hold them but what they collectively accomplish and how they signpost to God who is both ultimate giver and gift. That means focusing on the bigger picture – lots of gifts, but one Spirit.
And what about giftings as yet unexplored? We’re on a journey as community to discern our collective role, our calling in the here, now and future as Leicester Cathedral. The PMC process (Partnership for Missional Church) which we are undertaking is all part of that. Whole books are written defining and elaborating on what is mission: I like Archbishop Rowan’s simple shorthand statement, “Mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in”. So what is God doing here and how should we join in?
No, I haven’t embarked on a different sermon entirely: this links intimately with giftings. If we think outside the usual tramlines of what we expect of ourselves, if we see things beyond tasks and who can do them but instead look at aptitudes, hearts, minds and energies we may well discern all sorts of amazing giftings leading to new avenues to explore. Look around, look at yourself: here’s a fantastically diverse and able group of people – where is the spirit bubbling? Doers, pray-ers, creative people, activists, listeners, ambassadors, talkers, carers… the list is endless. How might all this energy be channelled in God’s service? Let’s lift the lid and see what’s bubbling!
In our first reading Isaiah says to Judah, ‘Your land shall no more the termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight.’ I wouldn’t say we here are forsaken or desolate, but neither have we reached heaven yet. Isaiah uses a joyous wedding metaphor to illustrate how God will rejoice over God’s people. How may we become a crown of beauty in God’s eyes? By responding to God’s call and activating our gifts.
And then, never mind metaphors and parables about feasts, we have an actual wedding party with Christ in the midst of it. Changing water into wine; from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary. Again, I invite you to look around. Ordinary people or saints in the making? We’re about to gather around God’s table just as we are, with our gifts, our fears, dreams, pains and hopes – here is the feast where we taste and see that God truly is good. Surely then empowerment (in the true meaning of the word), enabling us to go out lustily proclaiming ‘We have a Gospel to proclaim’?
© Alison M. Adams