Sermon for 05-13-12: “In Case of Fire, Part 2: The Gifts of the Spirit”

Sadly, due to technical difficulties, no sermon video this week. But you can read my manuscript below. My main point is that all Christians have the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. And that means we have the power of God inside of us. It may be hard, for example, for some of us to believe in miracles. But if we define a miracle as God intervening in our lives to do something that God wouldn’t otherwise do, then miracles happen all the time!

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 12:1-20

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Today is a bittersweet day for me. This is my first Mother’s Day without Mom. Not only that: I was reminded last week that she was here, in this very service, exactly one year ago on Mother’s Day. I was reminded of how quickly her health went downhill after that. I was also reminded of an argument that I had with her on that very Sunday morning a year ago. Even though we had long before made plans for her to join us at church on Mother’s Day and have lunch afterward, she called early that morning to tell me that she didn’t think she was going to come.

I was hurt and angry. I don’t remember if I said, “This may be your last chance to ever hear me preach,” but I think I said something like that. I told her I was disappointed. I guilted her into coming. So Mom reluctantly came, and she was glad that she did. We had a good day.

I shared this story with one of you and you asked me something interesting that pertains to today’s scripture: “Do you think that was the Holy Spirit at work in that situation?”—in that phone call, in that conversation, in that argument. And you know what? I absolutely think it was the Holy Spirit. I didn’t know it at the time… we’re often unaware of when the Holy Spirit is working. But I do believe that the Spirit was prompting Mom to overcome her reluctance, to do the right thing, and to come to church and see her boy preach one last time. Sometimes, when we listen to other people, we are hearing the voice of God.

I believe that God spoke through me that morning one year ago… but I’m not going to get a big head about it—because God spoke through me. After all, back in Numbers 22, God spoke through Baalam’s donkey—which goes to show that if God can speak through one jackass, he can speak through another! Of course God can speak through me—and you, too. But it’s not because we’re anything special. This was the problem Paul was dealing with in the Corinthian church in today’s scripture.

Some of the Corinthian believers had the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, and they believed that this gift made them special. They were holier, more “spiritual,” than other people in the church who didn’t have the same gift. To those Corinthians who believed that the gift of tongues elevated them above everyone else, Paul says, in so many words, “You’ve got it completely wrong!” First, because merely having an extravagant spiritual experience is no sign that you’re a Christian—or that your experience comes from God. The New Testament is quite clear that spiritual experiences can come from demonic forces, too. Paul reminds them in verse 2 that back in the days when they followed after “false gods,” they had plenty of “spiritual” experiences. They were misled by them. Those experiences weren’t from God.

Some of you remember Shirley MacLaine. I haven’t heard about her in a while, but back when I was a teenager in the ’80s she was always in the news as some kind of spokesperson for the New Age movement. She and her fellow New Age mystics were all about having spiritual experiences… For all I know, some of these experiences were real—I have no idea. But that doesn’t mean they were from God. And I’m sure there are plenty of people running around today touting their own spiritual experiences. We shouldn’t be misled. Being “spiritual” isn’t the same thing as being Christian—as the Bible makes clear.

I get wary of that cliché that I often hear these days: “I’m spiritual, not religious.” I want to say, “O.K., but are you saved? You can be as spiritual as you want to be, but you still need Jesus to forgive your sins and give you eternal life!”

Anyway, Paul tells these super-spiritual Corinthians, you have these spiritual gifts. O.K., fine. Do you know what they’re for? Because if you’re not using them in a loving way, for the building up of your brothers and sisters in Christ, and are instead building yourself up, and building up your ego, you’re missing the point. The point of all our gifts, Paul says, is love. He’ll say more about that in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous hymn about Christ-like love.

I don’t believe that most of us Methodists have the same problem as these super-spiritual Corinthians. Most of us aren’t in danger of becoming conceited about our spiritual gifts. In fact, we often have the opposite problem: We doubt that we have gifts of the Spirit at all. We doubt that we have the Holy Spirit inside of us. We doubt that the Spirit gives us power. If that describes you, hear these words: if you’re a Christian, God has given you the Holy Spirit. It’s not some optional extra feature of the Christian life. Paul says that no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. And Paul obviously isn’t just talking about mouthing those words, which anyone can do. He’s referring to the whole experience of becoming a Christian, being baptized, and living our life as a Christian.

Paul goes on to say that we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body… and we were all given one Spirit to drink. All means all. We’ve all received the Spirit!

In the wake of last week’s sermon in which I offered a challenge to our graduating seniors, a pastor friend of mine posted something on Facebook directed toward graduates. It was written by someone named Mark Batterson. It says, “Set God-sized goals. Pursue God-ordained passions. Go after a dream that is destined to fail without divine intervention.” Go after a dream that is destined to fail without divine intervention. I love that. See, the idea of doing something that will fail without divine intervention probably frightens many of us, because we don’t count on divine intervention happening very often in our lives.

Many of you have probably seen this cartoon: A professor has a list of equations on a chalkboard, attempting to explain some scientific phenomenon. In the middle of all these equations, he writes, “Then a miracle occurs.” And his colleague, who’s reviewing his work, says, “I think you should explain this step a bit more.”

We often think that God works like that in our lives. Most of the time, we imagine that we live our lives on our own, relying on our own resources, our own wits, our own strength—and only every once in a while, when we’ve exhausted all other options and can’t do anything else on our own, then we pray for divine intervention. And maybe, just maybe, God will intervene with a miracle and help us. But we can only call it a miracle if we have no other natural explanation.

Brothers and sisters, this is completely wrong. God the Holy Spirit is living inside of us, which means that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves! He is nearer to us than our own breath, our own heartbeat! He is constantly intervening in our lives, inspiring our thoughts, guiding and directing us, giving us power to accomplish what we wouldn’t be able to accomplish on our own—without him. If we define a miracle as “divine intervention,” well guess what? Miracles happen all the time!

We need to start seeing things that way! We need to learn to expect miracles. We need to go after a dream that is destined to fail without divine intervention. We need to believe that we’ve got the power of the Spirit, the very power of Jesus Christ, inside of us!

Christian writer Richard Foster tells a story of young woman named Maria who was a student at the college he was teaching at. She fell out of the back of a pickup truck on campus and suffered severe head trauma. Foster, acting as her pastor, rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital, holding her hand and praying for her on the way, while the paramedics worked to save her life. At the hospital, Foster gave a group of students who gathered there a crash course on intercessory prayer: “The brain is bleeding and swelling from the impact of the injury,” he said. “So our initial prayer efforts must focus on seeing the injured capillaries in the brain begin to heal and for the swelling of the brain to slow down.”[1] And that’s exactly what they prayed. And Maria did get better!

By contrast, Foster described an earlier prayer meeting for Maria with some of his fellow professors. They prayed things like, “It’s in your hands now, Lord; there’s nothing else we can do.” Or, worse, “Lord, help Maria to get well, if it be thy will.” Foster said that while he knew his colleagues meant well, their prayers betrayed the fact that they didn’t really believe that Maria would get better.[2]

Let me tell you right now, if I’m in a terrible life-threatening accident, and I’m being wheeled into an emergency room somewhere, and you’re praying for me, I want you to believe that God will give you what you ask for! Enough of these mamby-pamby prayers! We’ve got power. We’ve got the Spirit inside of us. “We’ve got the Spirit, yes we do…” I don’t care if it sounds like I’m a cheerleader, it’s true!

Let me tell you about a recent experience I’ve had with the Holy Spirit. Last fall, my friend Leslie, a seminary classmate who works at Peachtree Road United Methodist was going with her church on a mission trip to Kenya. In many ways, this was a mission trip like our church takes to Honduras and Paraguay: the people would be building and repairing things. But… Leslie would be doing something else. She would be teaching Wesleyan theology to indigenous United Methodist pastors who live and minister in Kenya.

In case you don’t know, the United Methodist Church is growing explosively in Africa. At General Conference two weeks ago, fully 30 percent of our delegates were from Africa. The Holy Spirit is moving in that part of the world. We can’t start churches fast enough! These people are hungry for the gospel, and there are people being called every day to bring it to them, but they need theological training. The church can’t train and ordain African pastors fast enough! So that’s why Leslie was going down there. And she called me to ask if she could borrow a couple of theology books from me.

As she was talking to me, I felt my heart burning within me. I can do that. No, wait… I should do that. I have a gift for teaching, a head for theology, and I’ve been interested in a while in what’s happening with the Methodist church in the southern hemisphere. I told Leslie this. And she said, “Brent, that would be so perfect!” She said she would investigate whether Peachtree Road could arrange for me to go next time. Well, I’d sort of forgotten about it. Then Leslie called me a few weeks ago. Peachtree Road thought it was a great idea for me to go, they were buying my plane ticket, and I leave on September 5!

Not only that… Last week, I went to this weekly clergy breakfast meeting with our district superintendent, and coincidentally the two missionaries who live in Kenya and run the mission there were at the breakfast. And they’re like, “Oh, you’re Brent!” We had a meeting at Peachtree Road later that morning. As we were talking about this work, another clergy friend in our district, Susan, was listening and she said, “I used to write curriculum professionally when I worked at UGA, maybe I can help you develop this course for African pastors.” And we’re like, “Sure!”

So, at our meeting at Peachtree Road, Susan’s name came up. And these missionaries said, “Should we see if Susan can also go with us.” And I was like, “Yes!” So I called Susan on her cell, and I said, “Susan, we believe the Holy Spirit is calling you to go to Kenya with us.”And she said, “It’s funny you say that, because I was thinking the same thing!” So now she’s going, too.

Friends, this is an example of how the Holy Spirit works! When Leslie told me about the trip, I felt an intuition: Maybe I should do that! The work aligned nicely with my own interests and my own gifts. It felt like something I ought to do. But it wasn’t just what I wanted. Other people confirmed my intuition, my sense of calling. And then there were some other hurdles that were cleared away: The fact that Peachtree Road is paying for what would otherwise be a prohibitively expensive trip is another sign that the Holy Spirit is behind this.

This experience also illustrates that the Holy Spirit works most powerfully when we Christians work together, in a group, in a community, as a church.

Anyway, I was sharing some of this experience with Sharon Yancey, our children’s director, last week, and she said, “I can hear the passion in your voice as you describe this.” And I’m like, “Why wouldn’t I be passionate? When the Holy Spirit gets hold of us, we get passionate!” And we’ve got lots of passionate people right here at AFUMC.

Pastor and author Frederick Buechner put it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” When that thing that we want to do more than anything else happens to be exactly what God wants us to do—look out! That’s where the passion begins. That’s the source of true happiness in life, right there.

I want that kind of happiness for you. I want the Holy Spirit to grab hold of you, inspire you, and enable you to use your gifts in ministry. I want you to be passionate about it.


[1] Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 213.

[2] Ibid, 213-4.

3 thoughts on “Sermon for 05-13-12: “In Case of Fire, Part 2: The Gifts of the Spirit””

  1. Brent, that’s great about Kenya! And, I agree with you that it is at least a 99% probability that the Spirit is behind all this and working through His children in bringing this to pass.

    As you know, my only qualification for all this is whether we should call that a “miracle.” Certainly if we define “miracle” to mean, any action by the Spirit, this clearly qualifies. But, IMO, this is too broad, because we know the Spirit is working all the time. Perhaps we could say an “unusual” working or something along those lines. For myself, it is easier (and I might submit, “cleaner,” or more helpful) to define miracle in some other more restricted manner than “the working of the Divine.” That’s why my own definition (which, IMO, goes along with scripture) is to define the miraculous as “overriding natural laws.” I would submit that goes with John’s references to the miraculous in his Gospel.

    In any event, I would certainly concur with you that in this instance of yours that you have described something “special” in the working of the Spirit is “at play.” As though God is not merely “back stage,” but “on stage.” (Maybe “on stage” could be seen as a definition.)

  2. Thanks, Tom. My concern with defining a miracle so narrowly (although I get that it’s the way it’s usually defined) is that people generally have the idea that if something is “natural,” it is, therefore, not from God. I want to disabuse people of that idea.

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