Sermon Sunday 19th May 2019
Reading: Acts 11.1-18
“What Have You Got to Give”?
“If at first you don’t succeed then try, try, try again”. That’s what one of my primary school teachers used to say. Being a very dutiful child I rather took this to extremes. I have miserable memories of slaving over homework, particularly maths homework involving simultaneous equations, and despairing of ever getting a solution but trying and trying inspite of my frustration and in spite of my mother encouraging me to take a break. Of course, her advice was absolutely right – we all know that the harder we try the more elusive our goal can often become. And it’s commonly known – and now, apparently, demonstrated in psychological tests – that sleeping on a knotty problem really does help in solving it. The key lies in the letting go, otherwise we can fatally hinder the creative process, as I did with my maths homework. Of course, relaxing about being stumped and being OK with it is easier said than done when you have a looming deadline or an angry maths teacher in prospect.
The story of the early church was one of letting go, of trusting God against the odds.
It took total defeat for the disciples to do so. They’d been crushed by the sheer awfulness of Jesus’ death, stunned and perplexed by his resurrection and then – almost literally, apparently – blown away by the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the power from on high that turbo-charged the early church. They suddenly realised that in their hopelessness, weakness and bemusement they had access to a mighty power external to themselves
But they still had to learn to stand aside and let the Holy Spirit do its work in and through them. Today’s reading from Acts is a good example of this. For a good, observant Jew like Peter the idea of eating unclean food and baptising gentiles would have been abhorrent to him, but that’s what he concludes God to be asking him to do. And when he realises this he can’t but let go. “Who am I to hinder God’s work?” he asks.
As Christians we not only believe in the power of the Holy Spirit but that we have access to that Spirit. But as ever, the question is how we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit and stop hindering the creative work that God wants to achieve in and through us. This is particularly challenging in a society where the notion of “personal effectiveness” is paramount and is seen as being all down to us to achieve. There is little place for God in today’s world.
This is a massive question, one that no Christian can ever stop asking or trying to answer.
What I want to draw attention to this morning is one particular aspect of the problem and that is how we recognise and use the particular gifts that God has given us. Make no mistake, we all have them. But do we know what they are? And do we use them?
At heart of our faith is belief that we are each of us unique and that there is dignity in our uniqueness, that we are each of us valued equally by God. What’s more we have been made relational beings; we exist to be in relationship with God and with each other. It follows there is joy in the exercise of the gifts God has given each of us, not just the joy of doing something well that we are particularly good at or suited to, but putting that gift at the service of others as well.
Irenaeus, the 2nd Century Bishop of Lyons, said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”. To fully exercise the gifts God has given each of us is truly to be the person He made us. This is when his Holy Spirit is most powerfully at work within us, so long as we are humble enough to admit that these are indeed gifts, gifts we have received by grace and that are not the product of our own striving.
To be clear – when talking about gifts I’m not talking only of what we see as the exceptionally gifted or those with gifts that are generally recognised to be impressive or extraordinary. As St. Paul makes clear in his first letter to the Corinthians there is no space for such elitism in a Christian community:
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.”
If you have a true understanding of your gifts and have plentiful opportunities to use them whether at work, in your family or community, or here in church then you are a very fortunate person indeed. But all too often this is not the case. Too many of us lead stunted lives because we’ve never really found out what our gifts are or come to value them as we could or should. That may not be our fault. It only takes some carping criticism or put-down by others at an impressionable age for us to retreat into our shells only to never really come out of them.
At the age of 63 I still often give thanks for two teachers who spotted potential in me - despite a mediocre school record - and wonder what on earth I would have done without them. Make no mistake – God wants us to lead full, joyful, abundant lives. Jesus declared that to be nothing less than his mission.
If we really want to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to be unleashed in our world then one of the best things we can do is to cultivate and treasure our own gifts and praise and encourage others in the use of theirs. So no more keeping your thoughts to yourselves when you spot potential in someone or see them doing something particularly well. Tell them! Praise them! Encourage them! It may be one of the best things anyone will ever do for them. And if we’re not going to do this, who will?