Happy New Year! Since I was away at school at the beginning of the year, I haven’t had a chance to greet you all with a New Year’s greeting.
The song we just sang, Behold, behold, I make all things new is an appropriate song for a time of new beginnings and fresh starts. And over the next three weeks, the lectionary serves up a series of readings that are appropriate to a time of new beginnings.
We’ll have a series of readings from 1 Corinthians, my current favorite book of the Bible. From 1 Corinthians we’ll read Chapters 12 and 13, with the apostle Paul’s famous image of the body of Christ, a diversity of members working together in a spirit of unity, a variety of gifts given by the one Spirit. And then in Chapter 13, Paul’s famous hymn to love, the greatest of all gifts.
The Gospel stories are also a series of inaugural stories. Today, from John’s gospel, we have the story of the first of Jesus’ signs, the inauguration of his ministry. And then, over the next two weeks, we’ll read about Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and the consequences of his provocative preaching.
So over these next few weeks, we’ll read a pair of stories each week, from Paul’s letter and the gospel, and I’ll try to bring those together in the sermons.
The first reading Harry read for us is the beginning of Chapter 12 in 1 Corinthians. And what I want you to notice here is the cadence or rhythm of the words. Paul writes, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit… there are varieties of services but the same Lord… and there are varieties of activities but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
Varieties… same, varieties… same, varieties… same.
There is diversity, there is multiplicity, and there is unity, and the unity is in, and of, God. This is the pattern Paul will follow when he talks about the body of Christ, in the reading we will hear next week.
In today’s reading, Paul goes on to elaborate a whole listing of spiritual gifts, gifts that one might expect to find in a first-century church, and perhaps in a twenty-first-century church as well. Paul names wisdom, knowledge, faith; healing, miracles, prophecy; discernment, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. A wide diversity of gifts, of ways of being and participating in the church.
A diversity that at times could threaten the unity of the church, when certain gifts are valued above others, or when there is conflict between these different ways of being and participating in church. Certainly, that is what Paul is dealing with in his correspondence with First Church, Corinth. That is what had been happening in the church—divisions and conflicts over different ways of being. And Paul responds with this language of diversity grounded in unity.
At the end of the long list of diverse gifts, Paul concludes, “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” And I like the way that Paul ends because not only does he reinforce this idea of all these gifts, but one and the same Spirit; he also tells us that these gifts are allotted by the Spirit just as the Spirit chooses.
It’s a reminder to us that these indeed are gifts, allotted to us not on our own merits, not by our own choosing, but by the Spirit’s choosing. It’s a reminder that the talents which we seem to possess are in fact not our possessions, to do with what we will. They are the freely bestowed, overflowing gifts of the Spirit, poured upon us or activated in us, individually, yes, but always for the common good. It’s right there in verse 7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Another of Paul’s themes is that, in the church, we exist for each other; to build one another up, to serve one another. That’s the purpose for which we are given these gifts; we’re meant to share the abundance with one another.
Our second story for today, the gospel story that Harry read is also a story about abundant sharing and overflowing gifts. It’s a story of a wedding banquet and an impossible amount of very good quality wine.
As an aside, I want to tell you a story about a teacher I had in seminary, for a course on the Gospel of John. The teacher would have one student read a passage from the gospel and another student would be given a bell—like a front desk bell—and they were instructed to ring the bell each time a key word was read. Because the Gospel of John is full of these key words and phrases that get repeated in the story.
So today’s reading begins, “On the third day…” Ding! “On the third day” is of course an echo of Easter; it links this inaugural act of Jesus’ ministry with the final act of Jesus’ public ministry on the cross. It’s one of the ways John frames, or bookends, the story of Jesus’ ministry.
Last week, when I was in North Carolina, one of my teachers also talked about this story.
He pointed out, you know, isn’t it interesting that the first thing John describes Jesus as doing—the first of his signs in John’s language—is to produce an astounding amount of wine so that this wild party doesn’t have to come to an end? What kind of God are we dealing with here?
We’re used to thinking of Jesus’ primary activities as healing the sick, and feeding the hungry, and teaching. But here, he produces the equivalent of a thousand bottles of very fine wine to be enjoyed by a group of people who the story suggests are already drunk! What kind of God does that?
Not a Methodist God, my teacher pointed out (he’s a former Methodist bishop). And probably not a United Church of Canada image of God either.
It’s an image of God who loves life! In the ancient Jewish culture out of which this story arises, as in many other cultures, the wedding banquet is a celebration of abundant life, of fertility, generating new life, new possibilities, new beginnings.
The wedding banquet, like a wedding in modern times, is a foretaste of all that we hope for, the goal towards which we strive, the hoped for end of full, abundant life, life overflowing.
But this story, too, reminds us of the difference between our own limited, human capacities, and the possibility that comes from God. The wine had given out. What the hosts had been able to provide had a limit, and the limit was reached.
And then Jesus does this miraculous thing of turning vast amounts of water into incredible amounts of wine: there’s no more limit to the wine supply; it’s never going to run out. And the story ends, “and his disciples believed in him.”
Maybe there is an evangelism strategy for us in this: give them lots of good wine, and they will believe! Probably not. But perhaps that’s not so far from the mark: perhaps the evangelism lesson for us in this is that we need to find our way to life. To where the life is, to where the party is, because that’s where God is, mixing and mingling amongst the guests at the banquet, in the midst of real, everyday life.
Taken together, what do these two stories say about us as we prepare to begin a new year together?
Well, I titled this sermon, Overflowing Gifts, because it seems to me that both of these texts speak of how God pours out blessing, in us and to us. How God wants us to build each other up and share abundant life. Our Trinity vision statement reads, “Trinity United Church envisions a world that lives in the wholeness of God’s shalom.” That’s a picture somewhat like the wedding feast where the wine never runs out.
But I’ll admit that when I look at our congregation I sometimes struggle to see those overflowing gifts, or signs of raucous, abundant life. I have a tendency to see the glass as rather less than half-full. And some of you have challenged me to say: “We can do it! There’s life in us yet!”
Well, I think the Scripture readings for today suggest that we’re both wrong. I’m wrong when I worry about the diminished capacity of a congregation made up mostly of older people. And those who argue with me are wrong when they say we older people are made of strong stuff. Because at the end of the day it isn’t about our limited human capacity.
One of our greatest challenges in the United Church of Canada is what I call functional atheism. That’s where we believe that it’s all up to us, and our abilities and capacities. It leads some of us to think that we don’t have a future, because of our demographic challenges, and it leads others to think that if we just work harder, we can somehow keep this thing going. But there’s a difference between turning water into wine, and getting blood from a stone!
Our challenge is that we have stopped believing in supernatural things. We’ve stopped believing in a Spirit who endows each of us with gifts, to enable us to be more than we ever could be otherwise, but not for ourselves—for one another. We’ve stopped believing in one who came among us as God’s Son, who turned water into wine, and made the impossible possible. We’ve stopped believing in a God who is real, and alive, and with us now, a God who wants to shake up our lives, and stir us back to life.
On our own, we’ve got problems. We’re going to hit our limits. But being a church is not about us; it’s not just up to us. It is about what God can do through us, if we allow it; if we can learn to stop relying so much on our own power, and instead open ourselves to God’s gifts awakening in us, and God’s grace poured over us.
That is our challenge: to stop believing in ourselves so much, to stop relying on ourselves so much, and open ourselves instead to what God is trying to do through us, and to us, and with us. We need a new Pentecost—an experience of God’s power and presence that commandeers our lives, and commandeers our church, and leads us to be all that we are meant to be.
On our own, we’re just a glass of water, maybe half-full. But God stands ready to turn us into an unending supply of the best wine the world has ever known. That we may be an abundant blessing, that the world may live in the wholeness of God’s shalom. May it be so. Amen.
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