Spiritual Gifts

Fully Clothed

"Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet" by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) - Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet” by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) – Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 22:1-14

The king in this parable takes his son’s wedding celebration very seriously. No surprise there; what’s astonishing is how no one close to the royal family seems to care.

Maybe the king’s son is like the prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all pasty-faced and whiny and trying to sing his way through life, and no one wants to put up with him for the next seven days or so. (Wedding banquets could go on for quite awhile.) Such speculation will cause us to miss the point of the parable, however.

Jesus told this parable near the end of his ministry, while delivering a withering critique of the Pharisees and other leaders of the Jews. The kingdom of heaven is like a glorious banquet. To refuse to go to such a feast makes no sense. Jesus was implying that the Jewish leaders were worse than the wedding guests, refusing to acknowledge the arrival of the messiah and the beginning of the kingdom of heaven. Not only that, they and their ancestors for centuries had participated in the persecution and slaughter of prophets who had declared the coming kingdom.

Therefore, Jesus was saying, the king—God—would invite others, people who had never expected to go to the banquet. For non-Jews, this is the important part of the parable. We Gentiles are the ones gathered from the streets, “both good and bad.”

What an opportunity! All we unwashed heathens have to do is say “yes” to the invitation. But one thing remains in the story: what to wear?

"The Marriage Feast" by John Everett Millais

“The Marriage Feast” by John Everett Millais

This is where we run into the really difficult part of the parable, the four verses that serve almost as a parable unto themselves. The king enters the banquet hall full of commoners but sees a guest not dressed properly. The king’s men bind this slob hand and foot and cast him out into a place darker-than-dark, a location full of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and sounding suspiciously like hell. Here we see it is possible to say yes to the invitation, get into the party, and still not please the king.

“For many are called, but few are chosen,” Jesus concluded his parable.

Three weeks ago, while preaching about God’s enormous grace, I mentioned that Jesus and the early church fathers at times seemed to indicate salvation will be widespread, possibly even universal, while at other times they spoke in a very sober way about the demands inherent in following Christ. This parable seems to be on the more restrictive end of the spectrum.

If we’re not careful, we can be left feeling as if we’re once again striving for our salvation, trying to earn it under some sort of new code or law that has replaced the Jewish system that proved to be such an impossible burden. What must we do, and how well must we do it? What might the king’s fashion rules be? Go to church? Read your Bible? Say your prayers?

The parable, however, really isn’t taking us in such a direction. To fully understand what Jesus was saying, we need one important piece of background information. In Jesus’ day, guests at an elaborate wedding banquet like this one didn’t have to dress for the occasion. The host provided everyone with robes to wear. You simply had to wrap yourself in what was his.

When we accept that invitation to joyous life with Christ, we receive more than an eternity scheduled to begin at a later date. God’s Holy Spirit clothes us with his righteousness and attributes now, if we let God work in us.

This was what Paul was talking about when he said in Galatians that the Holy Spirit gives us characteristics we cannot achieve on our own: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the garments we put on, a kind of clothing we could never stitch together on our own.

Activities like worship, Bible study and prayer aren’t rules, they’re garment boxes, wrapped and ready with our holy, eternal clothing inside. The more we open these boxes, the more of God’s robes we put on.

With such gifts awaiting us, why would anyone want to wear the stinky old clothes from days gone by?

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Red Meat

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1 Corinthians 3:1-9

What does advanced, mature Christianity look like? Well, sort of like advanced eating.

That is Paul’s metaphor, not mine. In his first known letter to the church at Corinth, Paul drew a clear distinction between those who have advanced in their relationship with God via the Holy Spirit and those who have not. His critique of the church was harsh; despite having had plenty of time to grow in their Christian faith, they remained mewling babies, unable to handle anything except the most basic spiritual food.

The evidence underlying Paul’s accusation was straightforward. The church in Corinth suffered from disunity, breaking into factions and rallying around human leaders rather than Christ and the world-changing message of the cross.

It’s a brilliant metaphor, one that can be stretched far without breaking. Most of us have seen how children grow from milk to mashed food to an eventual desire for nourishment as complicated as red meat. (I’ll just go ahead and apologize to the vegetarians now; feel free to visualize raw kale and radicchio instead.) Many children even exhibit a strong desire to move from one type of food to the next, demanding what they’ve never had when they first see it.

We’re called to hunger in the same way spiritually, moving from the basic, comforting message of the cross to more challenging concepts. Just as it would be sad to see an adult unable to stomach anything except milk, it should sadden us to see people 10 or 20 years into their Christian lives who have not moved beyond a beginning Christian’s understanding of the cross.

C’mon, Try a Bite

With all that in mind, I want to put a spiritual sampler platter before you. If you haven’t tried some of this, you should.

Advanced Bible Study. I’m not just talking about being able to distinguish Noah from Moses. Can you dive into God’s word and tease out the big, overarching messages of Scripture? For example, there are recurring themes like creation and holiness, the brokenness sin brings, God’s overwhelming love for us, and the tremendous gifts of grace granted us. Can you then use those concepts to keep the more complicated or troubling points of Scripture in context?

Do you know what it means to study the Bible inductively, to let the Holy Spirit work through Scripture to shape you and change you? It’s a much better approach than letting your human thoughts and emotions blind you to God’s revealed truths.

You do not have to go to seminary to learn all of this. Every good church offers you the opportunity to learn such things. This church offers you such opportunities.

Advanced Prayer. It’s good to pray the Lord’s Prayer and to take time to pray for your family and others around you. But we can go so much further in prayer.

Ever heard of contemplative prayer? Everyone talks about meditation these days, usually from the perspective of yoga practice or Buddhist teachings. Christianity has its own form of meditative prayer, designed to help us better understand God’s will in our lives.

Ever tried praying Scripture? Using the Psalms as a basis for prayer is particularly helpful and enlightening. We’re going to make it possible for you to learn more about praying the Psalms during Lent this year.

Our goal should be to turn our lives into a walking prayer, to “pray without ceasing,” living in constant union with God. Are we there yet? I’m not, but I know I want more!

Living through your spiritual gifts. Remember last week how I mentioned that God continues to pour out grace on us, in part by granting us new spiritual gifts? Do you know what your gifts are? I continue to be astonished by Christians who don’t know how they are gifted.

The gifts we are given tell us specifically how God is wanting to use us in this world now. Knowing these gifts lets us be more effective as we help God build his kingdom. There also is great satisfaction in developing these gifts.

Portrait of a Healthy Eater

If you’re not trying all the possibilities God has placed before you, maybe it will help if I give you a picture of what a mature spiritual eater looks like. We become spiritually svelte, holy and attractive to God.

In particular, I look to another of Paul’s writings, the letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul listed what he called the “fruits of the Spirit,” the result of deep engagement with God.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering (patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” Paul said. Who would not want to be described by others as such a person? And as Paul knew, such people have little trouble understanding God’s will and how to live in unity.

As I say sometimes during communion, the table is set. Come, partake.

God’s Big Secret

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

As we move further into 1 Corinthians this week, Paul begins to talk about spiritual maturity and mystery. He has been talking about the message of Christ crucified, but we begin to understand there is deeper knowledge to pursue.

I’ll begin with a word of caution. The idea that there are deeper mysteries to be explored in our faith is true, but it’s also an idea that has been severely abused throughout history. One of the earliest heresies of the church was the gnostic movement, which claimed there were secret mysteries available to only a select few.

We’re not talking about spiritual elitism, however. The deeper aspects of our faith spoken of by Paul are available to any thinking person tuned in to what the Holy Spirit is constantly trying to reveal to us. Your baptism initially opened you to these deeper revelations, and your continual faithfulness to God opens you further and further.

Let’s go back to the basics for just a minute. Salvation is relatively simple. Through Jesus Christ, God intervened so our sins cannot destroy us. Jesus’ death on the cross cancels out the power sin has over us. All we have to do is believe the story is true.

We don’t even have to fathom how the cross works—we just have to believe that it does. This is why children are able to understand the message well enough to have a renewed relationship with God.

We’re called to go beyond the basics, however. In fact, once the Spirit is at work within us, I don’t see how we cannot want to go deeper. We are invited to take on the mind of Christ, at least as much as humanly possible.

Here’s what I believe is the key to going deeper. We develop our understanding of the meaning of the word “grace,” and then we begin to apply that understanding to every situation we encounter.

The definition of grace is pretty simple. Grace is love you receive even though you don’t deserve it. We talked about the cross just a few minutes ago; it is the great act of grace. We are sinners, but despite not deserving eternal life in the presence of God, the cross provides this glorious joy to us.

Eternal life is just the first gift, though. There are other gifts we receive in this life. We simply have to accept them, holding out our hands through prayer and worship. The Natural Church Development program lists 30 gifts available to Christ’s followers; it’s a thorough, useful, biblical list. And of course, there are the fruits of the Spirit, a new outlook on life we can receive.

You would think that after the first experience of grace, we would receive those other gifts with open arms. Grace can frighten us, though. First of all, it implies a need to change, and a lot of us don’t like the idea of change.

Grace also complicates life by interfering with strict systems of rules. Grace is wonderful wherever it appears, but it also brings us into conflict with the comfort we find in rules. Christianity, properly understood, is subversive, constantly asking, “Yeah, that’s the rule, but what about grace?”

Rules can be important, of course. God spent thousands of years interacting with the Jews through the law for a reason. Sin blurs our view of right and wrong. God’s laws are the corrective lenses.

But we’re also a people saved by grace and called to show grace toward others, especially sinners. One of my favorite biblical examples is the story of the woman caught in adultery.

A more modern example would be the issue of homosexuals in the church. Some denominations have what is essentially a “do not enter” policy for homosexuals. On the other end of the spectrum, there are denominations who do not call homosexuality a sin, ordaining and marrying people in active homosexual relationships.

My denomination’s position is nuanced and takes a moment to explain. We follow the Bible, saying “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” but at the same time we welcome all people into worship and fellowship, believing the life-changing and sustaining grace of God should be available to anyone seeking it.

Certainly, we don’t want to condone sin, but at the same time, we never want to stand in the way of God’s powerful grace. And when we balance the two, we find ourselves occupying some difficult middle ground.

It’s also simply not in our best interests to help the church or any other institution act as if certain sinners are cut off from God’s grace. If any of you are, to use an old Methodist term, “perfected,” I’ll apologize in advance, but the odds are that the vast majority of you struggle with some kind of sin from time to time.

Which sin are we next going to condemn as unforgivable, as unrepairable by God? Lust? Dishonesty? Greed? Pride? If we start erecting barriers for sinners, the church will soon be an empty place, and useless as a wellspring of God’s life-changing grace.

Next week, I’m going to explore further what it means for your life if you choose to dwell in the deeper mysteries of faith.

Take Thou Authority

Mark 1:21-28

Mark’s gospel tells us that early in Jesus’ ministry, our wandering Messiah and his band of followers went to a synagogue, a Jewish house of worship, and began to teach.

We don’t know what part of the Jewish Scriptures Jesus might have referenced, or if he had a particular topic in mind while in Capernaum, a little fishing village along the Sea of Galilee. Mark is typically spare in the details provided. The story instead focuses on the reaction the worshipers had to Jesus.

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” Mark 1:22 tells us. In other words, the truth and power of what Jesus taught seemed rooted in the man himself, more so than the words on the parchment most likely in front of him, words they could have a scribe read to them any time.

Their reaction to Jesus happened even before the next, more tangible event, the entry of a possessed man into the synagogue. The “unclean spirit” within the man seemed to fear Jesus would destroy it and its kind, and it also declared through the man, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

With a very direct command—”Be quiet, and come out of him!”—Jesus exorcised the evil spirit, freeing the man from the possession he had experienced. And of course, the witnesses were astounded.

For nonbelievers, the story sounds anachronistic, rooted in a worldview of mysticism and evil spirits that a rational person should no longer accept. And even for Christians oriented to the idea of a spiritual realm, the story can seem distant, another tale of what Jesus did by way of his divinity a couple of thousand years ago.

It is my prayer, however, that I can convince you this is a story for today. Understood as part of the larger Bible story, it is evidence of the power available to Christians now.

My argument is fairly simple: Jesus was a convincing source of truth and power while on earth because he is God; the church as a whole has the same authority because the people who make it up are empowered by God. It is a very scriptural argument.

John’s gospel captures Jesus promising as much in John 14:12: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Jesus also promised power for his followers in Acts, after his resurrection and just before his ascension into heaven. And we see that power come, the Holy Spirit falling on Jesus’ followers and allowing them to spread the word.

The stories in Acts show those followers matching Jesus’ signs and miracles, up to and including the raising of the dead. We see healings so powerful that the sick need only fall under Peter’s shadow, and like the story of Jesus in Capernaum, we see even the evil spirits having to acknowledge the power now present in the world in Christ’s followers.

This doesn’t mean that all who come to the church for healing of one kind or another will be healed today; if you read carefully, you’ll see that wasn’t the case even in the early days of the church. And it doesn’t mean physical healing is permanent—we sometimes forget that everyone Jesus physically healed eventually died, as far as we know. Universal, permanent physical healing is a promise for the future, a mark of Christ’s final return and our entrance into eternity with our Savior.

We should have confidence as a church in our ability to show the world signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us, however. We should seek healing for people who are physically, emotionally or spiritually ill, praying that such healing will be a sign for those who need to know Christ.

We especially should look at the story of Jesus in Capernaum for clues about what our role in the world is today. He does a couple of very special things.

First, he takes Scripture and somehow shows people that it is alive and full of God’s power. Do we know the Bible well enough, and are we filled enough with God’s Holy Spirit, to show people how it applies in every moment of every day?

Second, he engages with evil so powerfully that what is evil already knows it is doomed. Are we confronting evil everywhere we find it—not just shaking our heads at it, but confronting it, rebuking it, calling it out?

When I was ordained, the bishop said something interesting as part of the ordination ritual. He told me to take authority, instructing me that I am supposed to draw on the power God has given me to do the particular work pastors are called to perform. The traditional words in the service of ordination are “Take thou authority,” spoken with booming conviction by a bishop.

Every Christian needs to hear those words. Every Christian needs to live those words. All of you, Take thou authority, using the spiritual power God grants you until such time as Christ returns.