Your God given gifts are for the common good
I was a strange kid in that I wasn’t overly interested in kid stuff, except sports, and even those were like training grounds and behavioral observation for something far more important to me. My primary interest was in how the world functioned, how people historically had and currently did function, and in how all things were supposed to function together to achieve perfection. I was certainly not the first to come up with this. The philosopher Plato suggested that there are perfect, absolute, and eternal Forms. And that everything in the natural world is derived from the Forms. The created or physical stuff, including human beings, are only an imitation or impression of those Forms and so are imperfect or a shadow of their true nature or our ideal selves. Fortunately, all things will return to the Realm of the ideal forms after death.
One of the greatest things I struggled with as a kid was that I truly believed there was a universal perfection to all things that could only be sought and obtained, if everything could see and move in perfect harmony together toward that universal perfection. What I found incredibly disturbing was that no one else seemed to care about this reality of universal perfection. Instead, they were perfectly content to do things that were illogical, contradictory, and harmful to themselves and others. I can remember laying down the evidence and logic as to why my mother should not continue smoking and being enraged that she would not stop and confounded that it took me telling her that I didn’t want her to willingly abandon me and die like her mother died when she was only 24 to finally convince her to give it up.
What I had yet to learn – as a young, naïve child – was that the shadow world of created things, imperfect in being, could not be escaped with more observation, greater knowledge, excellent training, or top tier teaching. I didn’t learn that until I was 21 when I looked back at my experiences, including how my own reasoning about how we could achieve perfection and purity fit so horrifically, with Hitler and Stalin’s own. Or when I looked at how so many American Christians had fused together their faith and business and political practices. What incredible hubris did my created ideals generate that bled out into irritability, contempt, disgust, impatience, dismissal, and distrust of others, and eventually, a soul sinking depression.
At the bottom of the metaphorical well to which I returned again and again, like the woman who needed water, I finally met Christ and in an instant, saw in blunt, physical form, God’s judgment, his correction, his justification and his sanctification: I saw his Church, one congregation of broken, fragile, corrupt, sad, lonely, angry, needy, distorted people, I saw it and saw that I fit there perfectly, as one of them – all of us incapable of reaching the perfection for which we were created no matter our capacities or gifts.
In seeing this, just walking through the door of the church, I knew the truth: God would have to come to us. Implanted in all of us – in our minds, in our deepest desire - is this deep longing for perfection. Perfection of being which we might speak of as perfect love, perfect peace, or contentment. It drives all of our actions, even the evil ones, where the good we truly seek, as Paul says in Romans, good order, good relationships, good sex, good food is distorted by the reality of having experienced, been hurt or confused, or frustrated, or overly indulged by all the imperfections of life that are a consequence of sin.
I do believe that there is a perfection into which we are being called. And that perfection is a reconciliation to God, where our lives are perfectly formed to the one true human being’s life: Jesus’s. Scripture is filled with this simple, perfect form: God himself. There is no other perfection but to be in his image. But as I said, to get there is not ours to achieve, we cannot. Instead, as our 1 Corinthians reading puts it: “no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.”
But here’s the catch. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. You see I did not encounter God – in fact I only encountered my own golden calf idol of perfection (with potentially horrific consequences) – until I was surrounded with the people to whom God has come: his body, his church. The HS is not given to individuals for their own sake because like me, we tend to make idols out of our ideals when we’re left to our own thoughts and actions unchecked by others who follow this God of ours. God knows this.
Do not forget that this is exactly the temptation that Satan offers to God the Son in the desert, so it was offered to Israel and to each of us: go your own way and I will make you all powerful. God overcomes this temptation by giving The Holy Spirit to those in the body of Christ, not for their own sakes, but so that together, they will build each other up so that as individuals and as a congregation and as a universal or catholic body of believers, they will look like and act like Christ. Again, this is not simply for those within the body so that they become arrogant, like the Pharisees and Saducees presuming their own perfection or holiness.
Instead, the Spirit is given in order that those who do not yet know Christ might see the love of God the Father for them, calling them into Christ, enabling them to see God's self revelation in love and open up so they too can be moved by the Spirit to him. In this way, you and I are made participants in God’s coming to us to gather all things to him. Thanks be to God for this life-giving ministry. AMEN.