THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE GIFT

Sermon delivered on Whitsunday the 4th June 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Acts 2: 1 - 21     1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13     S. John 20: 19 - 23

1 Corinthians 12: 7 “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”

THE MIGHTY SIGN
Today is the great Christian Feast of Whitsunday, concluding the forty days of Easter followed by the 10 days of Ascensiontide, commemorating that day of Pentecost in Jerusalem when God provided the waiting disciples with a mighty sign. As we have heard from our first Lesson today, which contains material read at the Church’s Whit Sunday service from time immemorial, tongues as of fire were distributed and rested on each disciple, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to declare God's mighty deeds in languages or dialects different from their own, yet recognisable to the Jewish pilgrims and proselytes from far and near who had come to the mother-city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. On the Jewish day of Pentecost, when many words were spoken, particularly by Peter the apostolic spokesman, the divine spokesman, the Holy Spirit, spoke the initial word. A measure of power was conferred upon the apostles, but when a measure of power is conferred, responsibility is required. Bound up with the gift is a task, and the lessons today contain a word to us about the task as well as the gift.

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF SPEAKING
It is certainly fair to say that after the coming of the Holy Spirit to the waiting Church on the Jewish feast of Pentecost that followed fifty days after Jesus' Resurrection, the apostles, and in particular St. Peter, were empowered to preach the Good News. Before that they were in retreat, not to say in hiding. The emphasis of the account of this manifestation of the Holy Spirit among them is in the ability to spread the praise of the Lord to men of other tongues gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast. Even the visible manifestation was of tongues as of fire resting on each one, and the Greek word for "tongues" in both of those contexts is the same. The Apostles had been baptised with the water baptism of John the Baptist before or at the beginning of the Lord Jesus' own ministry. Now they were being "baptised" (so to speak) with the Holy Spirit as they became empowered to be understood by a greatly enlarged circle of people than formerly. For this initial group of the Church, one could say that their water-baptism and their Spirit-baptism were separate events, but as the story of the spread of the Good News unfolds in the Acts of the Apostles, we see these two aspects coming together to form one category, a "mystery" or sacrament of initiation into the Spirit-filled life of the Body of Christ.

THE EMPOWERMENT AND RESPONSIBILITY OF THE BAPTISED AND CONFIRMED
Now, Confirmation or Laying on of Hands cannot be considered to be a Spirit-baptism that is separate from water-baptism. Although in the discipline of our Church a person’s Confirmation has often become separated in time from his Baptism, Confirmation should be understood as the completion of the baptismal rite, and emphasis in this ordinance is placed on the task that the Holy Spirit which we share requires of us. So Confirmation is spoken of sometimes as an ordination - the baptised lay person's ordination to his or her calling. And what is that calling? We can't do better than look at what our first lesson shows us was the calling of the infant Church. First they were called spontaneously to expound to people outside the church the mighty works of God. That is something that all of us in some way or another are empowered to do. We are called in one way or another to a God-centred life rather than a self-centred life, just as the earliest Christian disciples were called. But secondly, we see that some are given special powers and therefore special responsibilities. Peter, standing with the apostles, was given an immediate special power of utterance to explain what was going on to those inclined to be opposed. His sermon brought together the known events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection and some of the Old Testament prophecies and writings in such a way that as we are told at the end of his speech, the hearers were cut to the heart. At that point these ones realised that they were part of a generation that had thrown God's gift back in His face and rejected His only Son. What could they do? Peter told them that they also could repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins; and they too would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter and the other apostles exercised their special apostolic gifts because by their possession they had a special responsibility conferred on them. Indeed only some and not all in the infant church could be apostles, but all could and should, in the way the Holy Spirit had assigned to them, tell out to others the mighty works of God. All of us here who have been baptised and confirmed have been empowered to do that as well. So the question is: In what particular manner might we, as a church or personally, be empowered to do this, and are we exercising our responsibility?

THE GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT AT CORINTH
The second Lesson, from chapter 12 in 1 Corinthians, is often thought of as listing various gifts that the Holy Spirit confers upon members of the Body of Christ, and this is true so far as it goes. However, the main emphasis of the chapter is on the responsibility that being given a gift confers upon an individual. That responsibility is summarised in our text today: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. By its nature, a gift is always a privilege, and not necessarily in the modern sense a right. Every privilege we have confers upon us a responsibility, because the responsibility is the reason for our being given the privilege. This biblical concept is at the core of human society, because the society of humans entirely depends upon people taking responsibility for others as well as themselves. Unfortunately for our modern human society, the concept of a person’s right, which is also an ancient concept, does not have the same effect as a gift or privilege. A person’s right does not necessarily confer upon him responsibility or even duty, because unlike gift or privilege, the right of a person is often considered to be inherent and self-evident, rather than given by God. The constitution of the Body of Christ, though, is based on the privileges and responsibilities that are conferred by the Holy Spirit upon its members, and we see the beginning of that constitution being formed on the first Whitsunday, 50 days after Jesus’ Resurrection. It is not too strong to say that we who have been initiated into the Spirit-filled life of the Body of Christ have been empowered or gifted to take our share of the Lord's burden for His people and for the world. These gifts and responsibilities are actually the true beginning of human society. Are we exercising our gifts and responsibilities?

RESPONSIBILITY OF THE CHRISTIAN WITNESSES
In the account of the Pentecostal gifting the first responsibility conferred on those who receive a share in the Lord's own Spirit, is to be witnesses to the mighty works of God before the Jerusalem crowds. Essentially it is that sort of responsibility that remains to the people of God. There is nothing, beyond worship itself, as basic to the Christian task as that of being witnesses to God before our fellow-men. And there was, above all other mighty works of God, the one that it was the first Christians' task and burden to share and proclaim: namely, the mighty work of the Resurrection of Jesus. This is a task that remains to the people of God today. If we are sharing the proclamation of the Resurrection of Christ, then that is evidence enough that the Spirit bestowed at Pentecost is received by us today.

THE WITNESS OF THE CHURCH OF GOD
The whole Church of God is gathered round the Risen Lord in a blessed sharing of His Holy Spirit when we break bread in eucharistic worship, witness and proclamation, and this is the disposition of the Church that is appropriate to her New Covenant nature. This is the witness that is required to be poured forth upon the community. The atoning and healing work of the Body and Blood of Christ, sacrificed for us all, is the victorious fruit of Christ's Resurrection, without which the Cross must be wholly ineffectual for us. For the Church to witness, the Church must gather round her Lord. For that witness to continue in power, the Church must continue to be gathered and thus to share the Spirit that the Lord confers upon us. And if we share that Spirit, we share in the responsibility of proclaiming and conferring upon our community the new beginning of the forgiveness of sins. For, as St. John so marvellously encapsulates in our Gospel today, Jesus taught that the chief responsibility conferred upon us by the privilege of receiving the Holy Spirit is the responsibility of absolving all the sins of the world that can be forgiven. And thus human society can be made possible. This, unlike other prescriptions for society, is real and effectual, and is neither a modern nor an ancient utopia. Let us be about our responsibilities, thanking the Lord for His incomparable gift.


QUESTIONS

1. We can reasonably believe that the gifts at the post-Resurrection Pentecost matched the responsibility conferred at that time upon the disciples. Discuss the match. Compare this match with the situation described in Acts 10: 44ff.

2. Describe situations in which you believe that a gift of God was diverted from its generally intended effect. Can there be a "happy ending" in these circumstances?

3. In what ways are Pentecostal gifts being conferred on the Church today, and how may the corresponding responsibilities be best discharged?