Pentecost June 8, 2014 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-11 Acts 2: 1-12
Rev. Catherine Purves
Why is it that so many of us can identify with the story of Cinderella? What makes the premise of that fairy tale resonate with us? We have no problem imagining a wicked stepmother who would treat her own daughters with such generosity and grace, but who would consign her stepdaughter, Cinderella, to the role of an abused servant. Is this the way the world works? Do some seem to get all of the breaks, all of the advantages, all of gifts? And are the rest simply nondescript, ordinary folks who live in the background? Are they overlooked as unremarkable, while the other favored ones are thrust forward to receive all of the attention and all of the gifts? Is that the way the world works?
Well, the world does seem to be made up of ‘haves’ and have nots’, leaders and followers, people who make history and a vast number of unknowns who are merely part of history. Most people seem to have very low expectations for their lives. Maybe that’s why we can delight in the story of Cinderella, because, against all the odds, she was the one who became a princess. She should have lived out her life in the cinders, but instead she ended up living in a palace. At the same time, we accept that this is only a fairy tale, and most of us don’t expect to rise from the ashes and be discovered by a prince.
On the day of Pentecost, though, that fairy tale came true for us. It became something that we can believe in. It became the way that the world is now, and the way that it will continue to be because of the mighty acts of God the Holy Spirit. The story of Cinderella expressed a hope that became the foundation of the church, because on that day, there were no ‘have nots,’ and no one was skipped over or forgotten. From that day forward no one would be left in the cinders while others were given all of the gifts and privileges. That was not the way it was going to be in Christ’s church. On that day, in an upper room, as that motley crew of disciples gathered – sinners, doubters, and deniers, though they were – on that day, the Holy Spirit filled each one of them. They all started to speak of God’s deeds of power in Jesus Christ. The gift of the Holy Spirit was given, not to some, or to most, but to each. There were no forgotten Cinderellas left in the shadows without blessings that day, because the Holy Spirit was given to each.
And that would be the pattern of the church going forward. That became the assumption of the church, that the Holy Spirit would give gifts to each member. Paul wrote eloquently about the variety of these gifts, and he saw them all necessarily working together to promote the common good. The church was not a random collection of individuals who had all somehow independently decided to believe in Jesus Christ. The modern notion of the church as a voluntary organization that you might choose to join would have been completely foreign and nonsensical to Paul and the Pentecost church. There was nothing voluntary about Pentecost. The church was something that God created through the Holy Spirit, and it was a body, not a collection of individuals. In this body, each person received the Holy Spirit, and those gifts of the Spirit then worked together to empower the church. As Paul said, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
I sometimes wonder if it was an easy decision for Cinderella to step out of the shadows, to rise from the ashes, and to take the risk of going to the ball. She had been told for so long that she was unworthy and that she deserved to be overlooked and forgotten. And in some ways it is safer just to stay in the background and to remain a marginal person. If you limit your expectations at least you won’t be disappointed.
Some people seem to approach church membership in that way. They try to stay in the shadows, assuming that others have the gifts and the calling, the time and the energy to serve the church. They think of themselves as ‘ordinary’ Christians, as opposed to the church leaders and teachers and office bearers. But they have missed the whole point of Pentecost. They are playing at being Cinderella not invited to the ball, when Pentecost means that everyone has been invited, everyone has received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and each person is called to use his or her gift so that the church can be the church. Without your gift we are missing something vital. So, what is your gift, and how can you use it for the common good?
Paul lists a number of gifts in our reading from first Corinthians. These sound like pretty extraordinary abilities that most of us would hesitate to claim. But remember that they are gifts. It is the way that the Holy Spirit chooses to work in you and through you. These are the gifts that Paul names: wisdom and knowledge, faith, the gift of healing, miracles and prophecy, the ability to speak in tongues and to interpret them. Apparently, these very gifts were bestowed upon the Corinthian church. Why then, would they not be among the gifts that we each might receive? Is it because we have a Cinderella complex that we would not expect to receive such gifts or be called upon to use such gifts in the context of our church?
But consider this. You don’t have to be a world-class physician to be a healing presence in someone’s life. You don’t have to be a prophet like Elijah to speak out against injustice or the wrongs of our society. You don’t need to be able to speak in tongues to share your faith with someone else. You don’t have to be a scholar with advanced degrees to have wisdom or spiritual insights that might be of value to others. Sometimes the Spirit bestows these gifts on people who don’t expect them or who don’t think they deserve them. But Cinderellas can become the belle of the ball when the Spirit’s gifts are received and used.
And Paul does not claim that this is an exhaustive list of spiritual gifts either. There are other lists elsewhere that are perhaps less intimidating, including such things as hospitality, prayer, kindness, and generosity. Paul’s point is that everyone has a gift, and that all are equally important in the life of the church. He goes on to explain this later in this same chapter when he insists that no one part of the body, be that a hand or a foot or an eye, should feel superior or more necessary than any other part. To each has been given a manifestation of the Spirit and each spiritual gift is to be valued and used for the common good, or else the whole body will suffer.
The church would be stronger and more faithful if all of the Cinderella wallflowers would rise from the ashes and be ushered by the Holy Spirit onto the dance floor. If some of us aren’t using our Spirit-given abilities (no matter what they are) then others will end up trying to fill that gap in the life of the church. That is a recipe for exhaustion and failure. No one can dance every dance – not even me. I don’t have your gift, just as you don’t have mine. But each and every one of us has a gift, and that’s the one we are meant to use here in our congregation. So, again, I would ask you to consider what your particular gift of the Spirit is, and I would urge you to help the rest of us by using your gift.
This week the Pastor to the Presbytery, Sheldon Sorge, based his weekly letter to the Presbytery on the Scripture readings for Pentecost that we read today. He made what I think is a really important point. He wrote that by the work of the Holy Spirit God provides not only for everyone but through everyone. By that he meant that it is through the gifts of others that we receive everything that we need as members of Christ’s church. And each one of us is used by the Spirit to provide all that our fellow Christians need. There is an amazing mutuality in the work of the Spirit on Pentecost, in the early church, and today. God provides for everyone through everyone. Nothing is wasted. Each gift is necessary for the upbuilding of the body, the church. Every Cinderella among us is Spirit-blessed. So, don’t be shy. It’s time to start dancing. Thanks be to God for the abundance of those spiritual gifts.