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The First Gift

Reverend Philip Stringer

Acts 2:1-21

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

LET US PRAY: Lord of Life, Give us ears to hear and hearts willing to receive, that your word may be food for our lives and a blessing to the world. AMEN

Many of you know that my family and I lived in Taipei, Taiwan— multicultural. International city. Church had people from all over the world. Diplomats, business, educators. Living outside of one’s own culture can be exciting— but also tiring, lonely, frightening and even depressing.

On one occasion I was invited to the home of a Christian couple who had gathered leaders of the expatriate community in order to say, “thank you,” for the things they did in service to the international community. It was a wonderful evening with fine food and fellowship.

At the dinner table, a few people offered toasts of appreciation. Some of the leaders spoke about their experiences during difficult times, and how important it was to have people they knew they could rely upon— and their determination to do so for others, too.

One man— an American who was NOT a Christian— said, “One thing I have learned is just how important relationships are.”

Today, the Scriptures speak to us of the importance of relationship— and point to the source and nature of perfect relationship: the love of God poured out for all people in Jesus.

As Christians, we affirm that life is ALL about relationship. God exists in relationship.

God creates all living things to be in relationship with each other and with God.

God creates us to be in relationship with each other.

A simple definition of sin is: that which separates us from God’s creation and each other. Sin breaks relationship. The gospel is the story of God re-establishing relationship.

Today is Pentecost— the birthday of the church. What do you suppose that means to people outside of the church? What about people in the church? When people think of the church, what do they think of?

For many, they likely think about the institution. Others might think about a neighborhood church building. Maybe they even think about the billion-plus people who are part of this religion called “Christianity.”

What is it that makes us the church? Membership pledges? Institutional structures? The group of disciples became the church when the Holy Spirit came to them-- and the first manifestation of the Spirit's coming-- the very first gift given to them as the church, was the ability to proclaim the gospel message in various languages.

That should tell us something about what it means to be the church.

God's choosing of this gift of languages as the first gift given to the church, is something worth our pondering. It seems to me that— as the first gift that the Holy Spirit imparts to the church— it is probably of first importance to God in the life of the church.

Perhaps it is helpful to point out the obvious: The Holy Spirit did not give the gift so that the disciples could speak to each other. The believers needed no such gift for communicating with each other-- they were all Galileans. The gift was given to them so that they could speak to others. The gift came to them so that they could speak to those outside of their circle.

A friend of mine has expressed the implications of that like this: “The Church exists to give itself away.”

Before the coming of the Holy Spirit, they were closed off— separate— turned in toward themselves. No longer would it suffice for them to be separate from the world, speaking only to those in their circle. The Holy Spirit had changed them from mere believers in the Gospel to proclaimers of the Gospel.

So there is one thing for us to be reminded of today: To be a Christian does not mean believing in Jesus. It means living as the instruments of Jesus reaching out to the world. When Jesus departed from the disciples, he gave them only one instruction: "Go and make disciples of every nation." When the Holy Spirit came upon them, the ability to carry out this commission was immediately given to them.

We are still Christ's church today, and we are still called to a single purpose: to make disciples of every nation.

And that should come as no surprise. It is, after all, our own story! As Christians we recognize that none of us has come to faith alone. There were others whose words and actions brought us to faith in Jesus. There were those who told us the story for the first time, those who helped us grow into understanding of its meaning in our lives; there were those who modeled the faith for us— and those who continue to build us up and encourage us in the faith today— and there will be others whom we haven’t even met yet who will do that for us in the future!

And yet my thoughts return to that man at the dinner party in Taipei. He was not a Christian— I don’t know his story— but he’s an educated westerner and I have to believe that he is familiar with the Church. But he has become the follower of another religion. Like many others, he has determined that what Christianity has to offer doesn’t fit for him. “I have learned,” he said, “how important relationships are.”

Why is it that he did not learn that from the witness of the church long ago? I don’t know. But I do know that often when outsiders look at us, they see a closed group walling off others, instead of a community joyfully reaching out to others to share what they have received. . . And the first gift of the Holy Spirit was the ability to speak to all people.

In our second reading today— from 1st Corinthians— Paul writes, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

It is just a little bit of water that is splashed over most of us at baptism.

And when we gather around this altar, it is just a little bit of bread and just a little bit of wine that we receive. But in them is the fullness of God— washing over us and filling us with new life.

If you have ever been in the mountains you have certainly seen some waterfalls. Not necessarily big gushers, but the kind where the water spills over the edge of a cliff and cascades down into pools. A pool might be quite a far drop below another— and not all of the water makes it into the pool. It splashes and sprays the plants and trees on the side of the mountain, giving them nourishment. Some of the water is carried away as mist. A waterfall isn’t the most efficient way to move water, but it is beautiful to behold.

You and I are like that. We are in a cascade of God’s grace. The love of God is poured down upon your life— and what you receive is given that it might spill from your lives into the lives of others. Like a waterfall spilling down a mountain, it’s a beautiful thing to behold when Christians offer to others what they themselves have received.

And what we have received is offered in many ways— not only in words.

A number of years ago I met a man in Hong Kong who has become a world-famous artist. He Qi is a man about my age. In the 1990’s he became the first Chinese citizen to earn a doctorate in Christian Art since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1950’s. I met him at the Lutheran Seminary in Hong Kong while he was visiting. We sat in his apartment one evening eating peanuts and I asked him about his art. As a teenager he was sent into the countryside to a labor camp. He painted pictures of Chairman Mao for relaxation, until one day he found an old magazine with a picture of Madonna & Child by Rafael. He thought that it was so beautiful that he began recreating it in his own paintings, secretly at night. He explained to me that for him, his art is the way he proclaims the Good News to the world. He speaks in the language of a brush. You speak many languages, too— in addition to English. You speak the language of “Neighbor.” You speak the language of “Teacher.” You speak the language of “Stranger who Helps in a Time of Need.” And more.

Just as there are many spoken languages, so also are there many ways to “speak” with our lives.

When I arrived in Taiwan, I didn’t speak the language— I was there primarily to minister to the expatriate community. But the congregation was more than 50% Chinese, with a Chinese staff and clergy. I didn’t speak their language, but the Chinese pastor gave me a name (which I have shared with you before): “Happy to Share Good News.” It’s a beautiful name— and it scared me to death! I knew right then that I had a tremendous responsibility. My very name was a billboard proclaiming that I have something important to share— and with not being able to speak the language, I knew that I would be speaking with my life more than with my tongue.

But isn’t that the calling for all of us anyway, through our baptism into Christ? Our baptism, in which a little bit of water comes to us, and a river comes gushing out.

The Book of Acts tells us that the Holy Spirit came to the followers of Jesus— and made them the Church. How do we know? Because immediately they began to share the Good News. From them it has cascaded across the world and through the years, until it washes over us.

Now, you and I are BOTH given a new name: “Happy to Share Good News.”



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