Written by Pastor Ed
All from the Same Spirit
January 17, 2016
I Cor. 12: 1-11
In 2009, Jack Suderman, then Executive Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada, wrote a paper that began a 7 year process entitled “Being a Faithful Church.” Jack’s paper essentially asked the question of whether we could remain a church and act like a church while we were in the process of discerning difficult questions of faith, most particularly around issues of same-sex attraction.
While we as a congregation haven’t had formal discussions in this process, I know that some of you have kept up on the discussions, and we have made the documents available along the way. Recently the task force released its 7th and final report with some recommendations, which were printed in the Canadian Mennonite and distributed to the churches.
And what did they discover after all of that discussion? Well, they discovered that the Bible is still regarded as the foundation of our faith and that the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective is still an important document. And they discovered that there is still no agreement on issues surrounding same-sex attraction or any number of other issues related to sexuality, among other things.
And so while certainly the Bible and the Confession of Faith remain central to our understandings, they suggest that we recognize that people who take both of those documents seriously have come out at different places on some issues, and we are still in a process of discernment on some issues. And because of that we need to allow more time for testing, maintaining the unity of the church even as we do so.
Now one of the objections that often gets raised in such a scenario is, “How can people who all claim to take the Bible seriously, come to different conclusions about what the Bible says?” And so we start pointing fingers and claiming that whoever we disagree with certainly must not take the Bible as seriously as we do, or isn’t listening to the Spirit, or something!
Well, the reality is that this is not a new question – imagine that! In fact, already during the time the New Testament was being written, while the church was still in its infancy, there were disagreements, and perhaps nowhere was this more true than in the church at Corinth. We know this because of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church, and for the next few Sundays we want to look particularly at chapters 12 and 13 of I Corinthians and ask what they might say to us about the church both then and now.
If there was ever a church that was full of disagreements, it was the church at Corinth. Almost from the beginning of Paul’s letter, he talks about the divisions in the church. They were split into various factions, each one claiming a different leader. They disagreed over all sorts of issues, including the Lord’s Supper, marriage, and it seems particularly over the role of various spiritual gifts in the church. Paul almost tears his hair out over the kinds of arguments the church was having.
Perhaps it’s not all that surprising that the church developed in this way. After all, the church was a new thing. Most social institutions of the day were composed strictly along class lines; you only associated with people who were like yourself. But this new Christian religion brought together people from many different walks of life, rich and poor, various backgrounds, both Jew and Gentile.
And it was a very active church. People were filled with the Spirit and exercising gifts in many different ways, and that’s where the rub came. Where did all these different gifts, charismata, come from? Were they all from God, or were they from different gods, because it wasn’t just Christians who experienced ecstatic events? People began pointing fingers and accusing each other of not being true Christians. And so Paul addresses their questions, these particular ones beginning in chapter 12, “Now concerning spiritual gifts…”
Now we usually focus on the variety of gifts, or charis, that are listed, but the question wasn’t about whether there were different gifts. The question was whether they were all legitimate gifts from God. And Paul, in his somewhat repetitive style, says “yes” there are many gifts but they all come from the same Spirit. And not only are there a variety of gifts, charismata, but there are also varieties of service, diakonia, and varieties of activities, energemata. But they are all “from the same Spirit” given to be used for the common good.
And how do we know what Spirit they are from? Well, Paul begins his discussion with a simple test; if someone can say “Jesus is Lord” then they have the Holy Spirit within them. And if they have the Holy Spirit within them, then we know that whatever gifts they bring come from that same spirit. And that means they are all there for the common good. And that means –
Well, what does it mean? It means that I somehow have to acknowledge that all of those people are somehow endowed with the same Spirit that I claim. To claim that someone I disagree with in the church does not have the Holy Spirit is just wrong.
I recall Jack Suderman sharing about his travels across Canada visiting congregations and in one setting someone made the statement that because another congregation had a different view on same-sex attraction God’s spirit wasn’t in that place and wondered what Jack was going to do about it. To which Jack responded that actually what the person had just said was heresy since God’s spirit is everywhere, and wondered what the elders of the congregation were going to do about that!
Acknowledging that all who claim Jesus as Lord have the same spirit within them is a pretty strong statement, and powerful. I have worshipped with a lot of congregations over the years, and in my previous position as a conference minister got to know 20 congregations quite well. And they were all different. They all exercised different gifts, and yes, some of them I disagreed with on numerous points. Yet I had to acknowledge that the Spirit of God was at work in all of them, and they ranged from what we would say were very liberal to very conservative. Some of them weren’t even sure about the others.
But, Paul reminds us, we don’t control God’s Spirit. God gives out gifts as God chooses, all for the common good. And each of us is created differently as well, and are born into different circumstances, all of which influence how we view the world, the Bible, and our faith. Perhaps the wonder is that we can end up agreeing on anything.
The report of the Being the Faithful Church task group will be discussed, and undoubtedly voted on, at this coming summer’s Assembly of Mennonite Church Canada in Saskatoon. I’m sure there will be some who will be disappointed, wanting the church to take a firm and clear position. Many people don’t like uncertainty. Some people point back to a previous meeting in Saskatoon and say, we voted on this back then and that should have settled it.
But the Spirit is not bound by our votes. The Spirit remains active in the church, in the lives of people with many different gifts, all of who proclaim Jesus as Lord. And that means we need to take them seriously, both those we agree with and those we disagree with. To do less is to diminish God’s work in the world and damage our witness to those around us.
The point of Jack’s initial paper was that the church has always struggled to discern questions of faith since its beginning. Sometimes the church has reaffirmed what it had said before. Sometimes it has modified a previous stance. And sometimes it has changed its thinking. In every case, it has been the Spirit working through the various gifts given to the church that has kept the church moving forward as God’s people, on God’s mission in the world.
So I’m not bothered by the task group’s recommendation. When we don’t agree on issues of faith and practice, voting on it isn’t going to solve our disagreement. So perhaps we need more time to see what the Spirit continues to say to the church. In the meantime, we need to continue to be the body of Christ, acknowledging each one as an important part of the whole. But that’s getting into next week’s sermon.
May the gifts given to each be used for the common good, just as the Spirit wills.