June 11th 2017
1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 11-13 Matthew 28:16-20
Whenever the question of what I “do” comes up, in any conversation with someone I’ve recently been introduced to, “interesting” would be the best way to describe the reactions; if I responded I was a cop, or a checker in the supermarket, a teacher, a real estate salesman, no one would blink an eye – I could probably answer that I was an undertaker with fewer reactions. Quite recently I was speaking with a woman whom I had just been introduced to, and who was unaware I was a minister. When the inevitably question came up, and I responded that I was a clergy member, she shared that we had something in common and said she too was ordained, adding, (with a difficult to describe inflection), “on the internet, in ‘that’ (her quotes) Universal Life Church.” She went on to say she has performed several weddings and finds the ‘whole thing’ (my quotes) very enjoyable; then felt the need to clarify that she is very “spiritual” but not particularly religious. (If I had a nickel for every time someone has told me that… it was in fact the second time that week someone had told me that).
Now to be honest, I’ve always understood there are websites where you can become “ordained”, but it would not be accurate to say I was familiar with any of them, so I Googled the Universal Life Church this week. You might be interested to know that their website boasts that over 20 million people, including some very notable individuals like Conan O’Brien, Lady Gaga, and Sir Paul McCartney, have been ordained in the ULC, and (according to the website) are able to perform legal weddings, baptisms, funerals, and even operate their own churches! To be clear, probably the only function in that list which might require legal standing is a wedding, and depending upon where the wedding occurs, I’m not even sure about that. But (again according to their website) it turns out anyone who feels so-called can become a ULC’s minister within seconds utilizing their instant online ordination platform, (providing you can produce $40, and are over 13 years old).
Today we read two scriptures which on the surface might appear to be unrelated… the first is Paul’s letter to the church in the city of Corinth, not far from Athens, in which he describes to these relatively-new believers, the work of the Holy Spirit.
I feel I’m in pretty safe territory when I speculate that Paul had nothing like the Universal Life Church in mind, when he spoke about witnessing to the world and through our spiritual gifts. I don’t think that’s because Paul would have had a problem with our being ‘spiritual’; to the contrary, a great deal of what Paul took issue with, (and he took issue with a great deal), was the inflexible ‘religion’ of his day. He rejected the Temple’s insistence on justification through the strict observance of the Mosaic Law; he opposed the early church leaders in Jerusalem’s myopic obsession that Gentiles first become Jews, through circumcision, before they could be welcomed and receive salvation as believers of Christ; he debated the pagan religions that dominated the cities he traveled to; and he objected to those who were attempting to influence the young churches in the regions his missions trips took him, through the spreading of false teachings. And so, if anything, Paul may have been more spiritual than religious.
He was in fact, so convinced of the work of the Spirit that we can hear his message describing Spirit manifesting in each of us in many of the letters he wrote to the churches he visited, or was in contact with in Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, Colossae, and in Galatia; but he was definitely not one who would claim to be “spiritual but not religious”. We can get a sense of how crucial it was that we understand spirituality from the way he begins the chapter we read from today, saying, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” He describes our spirituality as a gift; it does not originate in our DNA; it is not something we acquire through long hours devoted to meditation; it is not a sense of our own personal calm and serenity; it is not a characteristic, like an appreciation for music or art; and probably most of all… it does not have much at all to do with that ‘feel good’ preoccupation with ‘the spirit from within’ that seems to be the message of all those SBNR (spiritual but not religious) subscribers.
To Paul, every talent and skill each of us has been blessed with is a manifestation of God’s Spirit in us. In some of his letters to those other churches he identifies many of those talents; here in 1st Corinthians he simply says ‘they are not all the same, but are all manifestations – gifts, of God’s Spirit.’ He describes them as a force, working together, not given to serve us, but given to us to do the work of God. This implies that any ‘feel good’ we might experience is not the purpose of the gift, but is derived from using those gifts to do the work of the Lord. This is not inconsistent with the words we used last week when we described the Spirit as our helper, teacher, advisor, and companion.
The second scripture we address today, which seems to have very little relationship to Paul’s letter, is traditionally remembered on the final Sunday of what the Church describes as the ‘extraordinary’ times, the Sundays that marked each season from Epiphany, through Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost, until we finally arrive at today; the day the church recalls Jesus’ instruction to take the message that he brought to the small nation of Judea, and spread it into all the world, which has come to be known as the “Great Commission” or “Sending”.
It is a rather brief scriptural pericope; its gist or theme, can be reduced to a mere one and a half verses: “Go and make disciples of people from all lands, baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” In one sense it is very succinct, in another, very expansive.
How good are you at doing what you are told; are there times when you’d like to, but feel at a loss? I admit I have difficulty when things aren’t spelled out clearly and definitively, also when I don’t have the proper tools. I recently had to begin using a new computer system to record my activities when I am caring for my client with disabilities. We received no training, and virtually no instructions; as a result each of the eight staff members log their activities differently, there is no coordinated effort.
Jesus sets out goals for us but doesn’t really give us detailed instructions, just “go” and “tell”. We’re called to go, but where? ‘All nations’ is a mighty broad place. And how do we ‘make’ disciples? We’ll dispute the specifics of how we baptize, but he’s clear about whose name it is that we baptize in. But how are we going to teach them to obey? Although he promises to be with us, this is still pretty much, uncharted territory. Will living ‘good lives’ make them listen, maybe; but will it make them disciples? I have my doubts. Maybe we need to get some instructions.
And that is where our two scriptures come together this morning. Jesus gives us the task, and within Paul’s letters we find our instructions. Paul tells us that our spiritual gifts are the tools we have been given by the Spirit, to do God’s work, but he also tells us it is not a solo act, we can’t do it on our own. It takes the talents, the skills, the imaginations, the commitment, the gifts… of the cop, the supermarket checker, the teacher, and real estate salesman, it takes the undertaker and the car mechanic, it takes the homemaker and the librarian, and the minister too. We’ve each been given different talents and gifts because it takes the whole body of Christ, the church, working together to do the work of making disciples for Jesus.
I’ve never heard a SBNR evangelizing anyone, because there isn’t anything to be evangelized to; there is no body of ‘not religious.’ That is the key missing-ingredient in a SBNR; they are alone’; being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is not about the spirit, it is a faith in one’s own self. I presume that the woman I was chatting with recently is a very lovely person, but the truth is, she and most other ‘spiritual but not religious’ subscribers, share very little in common with me, at least when it comes to our spirituality. My faith is in Jesus, and it is Jesus who calls us, and the Spirit who empowers us, to go to them, and to teach them how they can come to a relationship with God and the Spirit, through His Son Jesus, that goes far beyond “feeling good”.
— Amen ―