Spiritual Gifts

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Just before the pandemic, I went into a hardware store on the Upper East Side and was surprised to find myself in a conversation about the Holy Spirit.  I was wearing my collar and the person behind the register noticed it and began with, “You’re a minister. Can I ask you a question?” And I said, “Sure.” He asked, “Do you believe in the gift of the Holy Spirit?”  But before I could answer or ask exactly what he meant, he went on to express what I often associate with Pentecostal Christians. He wanted to know if I, personally, had received the gift of tongues.  If I had, he wanted to come and visit our church. But if not, then he would pray for me.”  It was one of those times that I wished I had more scripture committed to memory so that I could have answered his Bible-quoting with some of my own—as if that might accomplish anything.  I got out of the store as soon as possible, leaving him a little disappointed in me.

I think a lot of us associate gifts of the Spirit with that sort of dramatic, over-the-top experience. Speaking in tongues, snake handling (like we read about them doing in Appalachia) or instant healing, like they used to show on television and probably still do somewhere.

But the story from Acts is about the Holy Spirit’s wild and unlimited flow into the world.  The Spirit is not restricted to a couple of strange behaviors. 

In his First letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes a fuller picture.

There are varieties of gifts [ Paul says] but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

That loaded word, Pentecostal, has to do with the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate today. The “pente” of Pentecost is just like the “pente” of Pentagon. It means five. And Pentecost is the day that is fifty days after Easter. Originally, this coincided with the Jewish feast of weeks, or Shavuot. As we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, that fiftieth day after Easter was when the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples in a strange and dramatic way. They were overcome by something, and they were changed.

The Acts passage says that the apostles received a gift of tongues, that each one could hear others speaking in a language that made sense to each. And while that is no small thing, there are other places in scripture that talk about the gifts of the spirit. The spiritual gifts go far beyond the ability to speak in tongues or understand another’s tongue. Pentecostalism is the religious movement that highlights the gifts of the Spirit, but especially the gift of tongues, and arose especially in the late 19th century, as a movement of evangelical revival in Great Britain and in the United States. Pentecostals are the people who participate in this movement, like the man I met in the hardware store.

But there are other spiritual gifts.

As I’ve grown in my own faith, and especially as I’ve grown in my own experience of the Church and Christians who populate the Church, I’ve changed my mind about what a Pentecostal looks like.

As I reflect on MY experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church, I see what Paul is talking about. There are those with gifts of tongues, but the way I’ve seen it is not so much through the miraculous speaking and understanding of languages.  But instead, I think of the teacher I know who is able to put complex thought into simple language, so that it can be understood. I think of the person who always has just the right word of grace to speak—which brings peace, brings healing, and brings hope. I think of the person who can speak the truth in the midst of cloudy gibberish.

When I hear Paul’s description of spiritual gifts, I think of those who work for the “common good,” as Paul puts it. And there are those who participate in miracles—not just miracles of healing (and they do happen– sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly).

In Romans 12:6-8, Paul again talks about different spiritual gifts.  He says,

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; administration, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

The Day of Pentecost invites us to not only pray for new spiritual gifts, which we do and will continue to do in the season after the Day of Pentecost.

But also, and especially THIS Pentecost, I think the day also invites us to take inventory of the ways the Holy Spirit has moved among us in the last year and to give thanks.  The gift of fortitude has been by our side. The gift of resilience continues to keep us flexible and open. The gift of tongues has allowed us to speak and hear and encounter God through technology and computer programs we never thought we’d become so good at.

On this day, we celebrate the coming of God’s Holy Spirit in surprising and startling ways. Let us be open to God’s Holy Spirit and let us all be more faithful Pentecostals.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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