Gifts for all: a sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 8 June 2014: Year A, Pentecost
Texts: Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Gifts for all

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I’m having an ecumenical week this week. On Wednesday night, we hosted a service at the Old High church for the local Methodist community, at which the President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Ruth Gee, was the preacher. We were remembering first visit to Inverness of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Wesley was one of the most remarkable men of the eighteenth century. He sought to bring to ordinary people a much warmer, more personal, experience of Christianity than was commonly found in the 18th century Church of England. Anglicanism had become very much the religion of the establishment, somewhat sterile and hypocritical, and with little appeal to the mass of people. Wesley once said that the world was his parish, and, riding on horseback (for this was before the railways), he took his brand of the faith across Britain and America. His movement brought the Christian faith to ordinary people in remarkable ways. It became hugely influential in the new industrial areas of Britain, such as the Welsh coalfields, where the Methodist chapel and its male voice choir, and its with its democratic ways and practical Christianity was often the most important institution in the town. Indeed, it’s been said ‘the Labour party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism’ (Morgan Phillips, quoted by James Callaghan: Oxford Dictionary of Twentieth Century Quotations 248.10).

On his travels, Wesley was often warmly received by ordinary people, but not always welcomed by the representatives of the established churches, many of whom refused to allow him to preach in their churches, so that often his sermon were preached in the open air. But when he came to Inverness in June 1764, he had, for once, a positive experience:

Sunday, 10 [June 1764]. – About eight we reached Inverness. I could not preach abroad because of the rain; nor could I hear of any convenient room, so that I was afraid my coming hither would be in vain; all ways seemed to be blocked up. At ten I went to the kirk. After service, Mr Fraser, one of the ministers, invited us to dinner and then to drink tea. As we were drinking tea, he asked at what hour I would please to preach. I said, “at half-hour past five”. The high kirk was filled in a very short time, and I have seldom found greater liberty of spirit. The other minister came afterward to our inn and showed the most cordial affection. Were it only for this day, I should not have regretted the riding a hundred miles.
Monday 11 – I… preach[ed] once more at Inverness. I think the church was fuller now than before; and I could not but observe the remarkable behaviour of the whole congregation after the service. Neither man, woman, nor child spoke one word all the way down the main street. Indeed the seriousness of the people is the less surprising when it is considered that, for at least a hundred years, this town has had such a succession of pious ministers as very few in Great Britain have known.

After Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, I think Inverness is the largest town I have seen in Scotland. The main streets are broad and straight; the houses mostly old, but not very bad nor very good. It stands in a pleasant and fruitful country and has all things needful for life and godliness. The people speak remarkably good English and are of a friendly courteous behaviour.

So you can see why the Methodists of Inverness wanted to have part of the celebrations in the Old High Kirk. When I heard that this anniversary was coming up, I of course wanted to emulate my predecessor, Mr Fraser, in inviting the Methodists to preach in the Old High Church.

And this afternoon, we have another ecumenical event, which I hope many of you will wish to be involved with. We’ve decided to mark Pentecost- the church’s birthday- with a walk to bring Christians from different denominations together. We will start at St Ninian’s Roman Catholic Church, and visiting St Stephen’s, St John’s Episcopal Church, the Crown Church and ending up at the Old High. At each church we will gather around the font, and celebrate the fact that one thing which unites us all is our baptism- the mark of our common faith in Jesus Christ. At Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, it’s good to celebrate what we have in common, to and experience each other’s ways of being Christian.

In our baptism, we are promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. And I’ve no doubt that Spirit of God was at work in the lift of John Wesley, for we depend on the Spirit to constantly renew the church and bringing us to deeper understandings of the Gospel. Jesus promised his followers would receive the Holy Spirit after he himself had been raised to life. Saint Luke in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a very vivid account of that moment, when the Spirit descended on the first Christians. He speaks of wind, fire, and the believers suddenly finding their voice- they go out into the street and begin to take the message of Jesus, his death and resurrection, to people from all over the world.
But all this talk of the Holy Spirit sometimes makes us uncomfortable. There is actually a children’s hymn in our Church Hymnary about the Holy Spirit which begins, ‘Is it spooky, is it weird’ (CH4 602). When I was a wee boy, we used to hear more about ‘the Holy Ghost’, and for a youngster, well, that is just weird and spooky. Churches have quite often rather neglected the Spirit, who is, after all, the third person of the Trinity. I have heard it said that for Protestants, the Trinity is God the Father, God the Son and the Bible; for Catholics it is God the Father, God the Son and the Virgin Mary.

But what does the Holy Spirit mean for us rational, unemotional, Presbyterians? I think we can understand the Spirit very simply if we think of it as God at work within each of us, and at work in the world. Thinking about the Spirit reminds us that God is involved in the world today. Our culture is still influenced by the eighteenth century movement known as the Enlightenment. This was a reaction to the wars of religion which had spread over Europe since the Reformation, and an attempt to use science and rationality as a way of understanding the world, instead of more traditional religion. It’s a movement in which Scots played a big part- men like David Hume and Adam Smith. David Hume was, at the end of his life, a atheist, but many of his friends and colleagues among the literati of Edinburgh did believe in God, and indeed some of them were Ministers and members of the Kirk. One way they attempted to understand God was to imagine that God had set up the world like a great machine which God had set in action, and left to run on its own. The world, they said was governed by unchangeable scientific laws, and so while there was room for a Creator, there was no need for him to get involved. So God was a bit like a watchmaker, who creates his timepieces, winds them up, and then leaves them alone. This sort of belief was perhaps to blame for the rather sterile sort of churchmanship which John Wesley reacted against.

If God has made the world, and left it to run like clockwork, there is need for the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit is God at work in the world. The first verses of Genesis speak of the Spirit creating the world ‘in the beginning’- but really God continues to create. Above all, God speaks to people, leads them in new ways, stirs them up to serve him. Above all, one man, Jesus of Nazareth, is so full of the Spirit of God that it cannot be denied that through him, God is doing something very new indeed.

The Spirit which created the world, the Spirit which was in Jesus, is still at work today. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes about the work of the Spirit in the Church. And in the passage we read today, we hear of how that Spirit gives gifts to each and every Christian.

It used to be that many preachers would take one sentence from the day’s readings and preach a whole sermon about it. And sometimes in Sunday School children would be given a ‘memory verse’, a short text to memorise. I don’t like to take texts out of context like that. But if I had to choose one verse today, something that I want you to remember if you remember nothing else- your memory verse!- it would be the seventh verse of First Corinthians chapter 12. The Corinthians have obviously written to Paul to ask him about the Holy Spirit, and the way it seems to affect different people in different ways. And so Paul writes back to them, and one the things he says to them- is ‘the Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all’.

Sometimes we speak of ‘gifted’ children- children who seem as if they are on the way to being geniuses. But you know, you don’t have to be a genius to be ‘gifted’. I know people who are gifted listeners. I’ve met parents who seemed to me to be gifted in the way they dealt with the children. And Saint Paul is telling us that each and every one of us is ‘gifted’. If we are part of the Church- if we can say that ‘Jesus is Lord’- says Paul- then the Spirit of God is at work in us.

Each person, says Paul, has the Spirit of God present within them. And that is shown in the fact that each of us has different gifts. Some of us are better at some things than others. We have different abilities, and different capabilities. But we are all gifted in some way.

The TV comedy Scrubs is about a student doctor who often finds himself out of his depth. The theme tune goes: ‘I can’t do this all on my own- I’m no Superman’. Sometimes clergy, like doctors, think that they are Supermen, and try to do it all on their own. But fortunately I don’t have to do it all, because, as Paul tells us: ‘the Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all’. The Spirit has given each member of this congregation some special gift, which is just waiting to be used for the good of all. Each of us has a gift for the Church, a way to serve which will benefit all God’s people, and the world around us. You and me are all part of a team.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: ‘we are to use our different gifts in accordance with the grace that God has given us. If our gift is to speak God’s message, we should do it according to the faith that we have; if it is to serve, we should serve; if it is to teach, we should teach; if it is to encourage others, we should do so’. I like that in that list of spiritual gifts, being able to encourage others is included as a gift of the Spirit. So let us encourage one another to think about our gifts, and how we could best use them for the sake of all. We are all gifted, for God’s Spirit is among us.

At yesterday’s Kirk Session conference, we realised that we really need to change our style of worship if we are to move forward as a church. We’ve made that a priority for the year ahead. Well, as the song says, I can’t do all that on my own. But I don’t have to, because I’m not the only one here who is gifted by the Spirit. Each of us has a gift, and we all need to be asking ourselves: What gift has the Spirit given you, and how are you going to use it? The Spirit, said Paul, is present in each of us, and has given us all gifts to use ‘for the good of all’. And, says Paul, ‘It is one and the same Spirit who does all this; he gives a different gift to each person’ (1 Corinthians 12.11).

Methodists, and Catholics, and Pentecostalists, and Anglicans and Presbyterian all bring different gifts to the worldwide church. In the same way, within each congregation, there are different people with different gifts. For God has made us all different. We have different life stories, different levels of education, different interests, different gifts. But whatever gifts we bring, it is the same Spirit moves us, it is the same Spirit at work among us. It is the divine Spirit which filled Jesus with love and compassion, and which has given us all gifts to contribute to continuing the work he began. So let’s give thanks for our gifts- and put them to good use!

Ascription of Praise

Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo