May 31, 2020

Only the Lonely, V:
By the Same Spirit

Passage: Acts 2:1–3; 1 Corinthians 12:4–13

Click here to listen to the podcast of this sermon.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
And suddenly a sound came from heaven like a rush of mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting.
And there appeared to them tongues of fire, distributed and resting on each of them.”  
—Acts 2:1–3

Thank you to Christine Hides for telling us the story of Pentecost—a red letter day when the spirit was breathed into people, driving them throughout the region to proclaim Jesus’ saving grace.

Decades later, a church in distant town of Corinth reflected the diversity of that same group—people of wide-ranging ethnicities, economic means, and possessing so many voices.

Against the newness of their faith in Jesus and baptism into his church, they still lived in a hierarchical society, with strict tribal barriers, which caused them to wonder if a pecking order of some sort is needed to govern their church.

Being in a community with people who were far different and yet accepted as equals had never been a part of anyone’s lived experience.

After their founder, the apostle Paul left them, they began to posture for who would have not only the last word, but the authority for all the words.  Who would shine and flourish? Who was to hold silent and fade? Paul issued an immediate corrective in a letter whose wisdom speaks to us on this Pentecost Sunday.

Please pray with me.
God, send your spirit among us,
across the miles and various living rooms, dens, and kitchens.
Settle into our hearts and minds.
Stir us with a love for each other and our common good.
Breath your Spirit among us to become
more than we imagined and all that you ordained.
Compel us to walk together in Jesus’ way. Amen. 

1 Corinthians 12:4–13 (Common English Bible)

There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.

A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good.

A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what she wants to each person.

Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.

We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink.

During the dreary spring rain and shelter-in-place orders, Netflix aired The Last Dance, capturing 5–6 million viewers for each of the 10 episodes, chronicling Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bull’s triumphs in the NBA. Initially slated for a June release alongside what would have been this year’s NBA finals, ESPN swiftly moved up the date after the pandemic scorched everyone’s schedule.

All those fans who were starved of sports tuned in and reignited the debate over who had earned the G.O.A.T. title. I’d certainly known of this ongoing deliberation in basketball and across other sports but had not mentally moved from phrase to acronym. G.O.A.T. is short for: the “greatest of all time.”

Inherent to the G.O.A.T. disputes are Jordan’s prowess and the other gifted and diverse players, coaches, and support staff who surrounded him. Jordan may have curated this TV series, leaving his fingerprints all over the story, yet he does not have the last word. Regardless of the facts included or omitted, the Bulls won as each person rose to his highest potential for the benefit of the team.[1]

No one got to this echelon of sports with a track record of only winning. Each knew failure and the experience of picking themselves up again. Or having someone else pull them up and expect them to improve.

Being a part of a team provides both the environment to become your very best and to push beyond your imagined capacities.

To be a part of a team means contending with other people’s messy relationships, with irritating people, receiving their abuse, and pushing back.

In the mess, you forge friendships, trust, respect, endurance. You fail individually. You fail collectively. And you begin again. You get stronger. You win as a team.

In a similar vein but different arena, when you’d think that nothing unique could be written of Abraham Lincoln’s life and leadership, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best seller, Team of Rivals, examined Lincoln’s willingness to stack his cabinet with not just wise leaders, but his rivals.

Lincoln purposefully surrounded himself with those who had sought or continued to seek his demise, whose points of view varied drastically from his, and whose presence would challenge him every step of the way.

Goodwin describes Lincoln as possessing a set of emotional strengths so when these rivals barred their teeth, calling each other names—“liar, traitor, thief”—language unconscionable in the executive suite, Lincoln became stronger.

When one of their feelings would be hurt, rather than gloat, Lincoln would write a letter saying, “if I hurt you in any way I did not mean to do so. Forgive me for things that I might do hastily.”[2] He practiced the humility and strength to admit a mistake and to reconcile for the good of the whole—for the future of the country.

From the time he was young, Lincoln feared dying and turning to dust without making an impact. Fear turned into dreams propelling him from a literally dirt-poor childhood through early losses in the state legislature to the White House.

He dreamt of freeing the enslaved blacks in the south. Such an idea would disrupt the way of life for those who held power, requiring lengthy deliberations within the cabinet of strategy and timing, reconciling disparate factions.

Years later, after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said to one of his closest friends, “Well, maybe at last, my fondest wish has been realized. I will be remembered after I die.”

Lincoln’s team of rivals became the force to breathe new life into a broken country.

Just as Jordan drove himself to excel at basketball and Lincoln rose from poverty to lead our nation, we too have longings that stir in our souls.

Feeling a passion burn within to do something, try to improve, even if we never are included in G.O.A.T. debates, to become satisfies an inherent and unique desire in each of us.

When we lean into these longings, whether to be a writer, an engineer, physician, teacher…or to parent, to bake, or paint, or run the fastest, we can, as we say “get carried away” as these activities delight us.

We get carried away from the mundane and feel more alive. We get closer to what God created us to be.

As the soul’s longings compel us to make meaning of our lives, our pursuit often takes flight within our family, community, or team. Those who love us into being, bless us with confidence and patience.

Can you recall the person—a teacher, coach, relative, or neighbor—who encouraged you?

Even with a passion, not many of us have beginners’ luck. More often someone kept you from being discouraged by the basic, beginners’ foibles. Falling off a bike. Freezing at the piano recital. Striking out. Not getting accepted. Someone held you and pushed you.

As intensely as the spirit stirs a desire to become, the same spirit stirs within us to desire to be with others and experience a joy of belonging. Life flourishes when our desire to be is nurtured within the community to which we belong.

Yet when who we know ourselves to be, confronts the community’s expectations, or who we choose to include crosses the boundaries…something fractures.

If we stifle our desires, we lose our sense of integrity.

If we ignore the constraints of acceptability, we risk exile.

If we remain rebellious our continued presence within the community threatens its collective identity.

Think of the times you were shushed, told to conform, or wear the appropriate attire. At some point in time you just want to scream. Who sets the rules? Who gets to decide who is in and who is out?

Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth addresses such potentially fatal fractures. A church is not just any club, it is Jesus’ gift to us. The church in Corinth became Christ’s body on earth to include the outcast, welcome the stranger, and nurture everyone’s growth.

Paul calls them to remember they all confess Jesus as savior. They belong together through the Spirit of baptism where they are each to become exactly what God created each of them to be.

No one could stifle the varying languages spoken without diminishing the future of the church, which depends upon telling Jesus’ story to new people.

No one could expel a person for merely being different without wounding the body of Christ.

No one could claim a “greatest of all time” ranking or assume authority over another and worship Jesus. Those who believe themselves superior to another person, are worshiping a false god.

As the head of the church Jesus had humbled himself to stand with the marginalized, the poor, the sick, and against the corrupt.

The church birthed equality. It demands justice. And it offers mercy.

Paul’s message comforted those who had sought to remain true to themselves when another tried to foist shame upon them.

The exact same words scolded those who refused to imagine the person next to them was loved and cherished by God.

The church is the one place to which we are called to belong and which needs us to be different.

In the next paragraphs, Paul penned some of the most oft-recited words of scripture as the unique gift God gives in such tensions: Love is patient, love is kind, love is never jealous or boastful. God’s love hopes and endures all things.

The ultimate team of rivals turns into the oasis of heaven on earth by the simple call to love one another for the very differences he or she possess. We don’t do this alone, we do this in God’s care, with God’s help.

Today we celebrate the Spirit of Pentecost breathing the church into being.

Today we welcome new members who come from a wide variety of denominations and traditions—or had no experience with scripture, sacraments, or worship until adulthood. Their hopes and dreams, talents, and needs will breathe new life into us.

Today as Christians, we are called to witness, the breath being snuffed out of those whom God loves as the result of persist racism. George Floyd died at the knee of long-tolerated view that anyone of color may be detained, abused, or killed for shopping, bird watching, jogging, and any of the other activities of common life.

Racism believes he did not deserve to be or belong in this world. We know otherwise.

Accepting the call to be a part of Christ’s church blesses us with eternal gifts.  AND being a part of the church places before us the need to act and use our privilege to speak on behalf of others.

In the past several months, we participated in a miracle, to refrain from normal life to save the lives of others. In such a partisan divided nation, who would have predicted such solidarity among strangers?

Racism is as lethal a virus. Yet we don’t need a vaccine to eradicate it. It is up to each of us to restore health to this body, to not just dream, but to achieve this together.

[1] Marc Stein, “The Last Word on Jordan?  Hardly”, The New York Times, May 21, 2020 and Bryan Armen Graham, “The Last Dance: Is the Michael Jordan documentary a dressed-up puff piece?”, The Guardian, May 9, 2020 inspired and informed my comments.

[2] Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Doris Kearns Goodwin On Lincoln And His 'Team Of Rivals’”, Fresh Air on NPR, November 15, 2012,