1 Corinthians 12.12-31a
We are nearly there, the journey which we have been on since the start of November – a journey which started with advent where we waited with excited expectation, enjoyed parties and twinkling lights, where we waded through online and physical shops looking for gifts and food in the build-up to the “big day”. In our household, we counted down the days with an advent calendar – each day another figure of a nativity scene was added, and chocolate coins were distributed – one for mummy, one for daddy and one for each of the children. And sometimes we would have to restrain ourselves – wanting to skip ahead and have tomorrows treats today – patience can be difficult for adults, let alone young children – but we did it!
Then finally after all that waiting, Christmas was revealed in all its magical splendour, and we began those 12 days of celebrating that God had come among us in human form - that tiny baby which has so radically transformed our lives, and the lives of millions over the centuries.
The final part of our journey has been over the past month, where we have been traveling through the season of Epiphany, where we take time to think about how the coming of Jesus has been, and continues to be revealed to people, and what difference that makes to each of our lives. I wonder, what that difference is for you?
During Epiphany we have looked at several different ways that Jesus was revealed and recognised during his lifetime:
Epiphany is about recognising Jesus, or to use another word – it is about discernment – recognising and naming Jesus for who he is.
This links with our other reading today from Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth. Corinth is ~50 miles West of Athens in modern day Greece. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth because they were having trouble. They were struggling with each other, and the extract we have today follows on from last week, and what Jackie was telling us about the ‘gifts of the spirit’. Today’s reading is part of how Paul is teaching the Corinthians to recognise the diversity they had as a strength, and to discern those gifts that were around them.
I wonder how discerning we are here in this place of All Saints.
How do each of you recognise people’s gifts, encourage, affirm and foster in them a sense that we are part of the body of Christ which extends beyond these walls and out across the whole world and down the ages.
Paul’s letter here expresses the diversity and inter-dependency we as a community have, just as the first Church did. Diversity is a wonderful thing, and being as you are here, part of a Church expression which affiliates itself to the Inclusive Church network, I hope this is not a new idea to you. Just look at the people around you. All unique and individual, and all loved by God.
‘Discerning vocations’ is a phrase I’ve heard quite a lot over the past few years going through my selection processes for training to be a priest. But it’s not reserved only for those who are called to Authorised forms of ministries. It’s for every baptised member of the church. We are each called in our diversity – as the eyes, ears, feet, hands or what ever bodily analogy you wish to use for yourself – to find our place in the wider whole.
And not just to be there – for it is no good if the eye is there, but it does not see; or the ear there and it does not hear; or the feet are there, but do not walk; or the hands there, but do not bless.
Our gifts need to become actions. Faith without action is no faith at all – it is hypocrisy. I’d argue that some of the most important words you’ll here today, are the ones said right at the end of the service each week by the Deacon– who’s nature and calling is service, who sends us out in peace to Love and Serve the Lord.
So how do we serve the Lord? For me, God is in all those moments of kindness, generosity, self-giving, of looking past the dishevelled and smelly exteriors and seeing a fellow child of God, who is loved without question or measure or list of criteria. Paul speaks of how we need to value the least in our societies – the ones that others would reject and think of as value-less – those are the ones that we are to treasure:
v22-23: The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with great respect.
I wonder who these weaker and less honoured people are for us today? Who are they in our world, in our country; who are they in High Wycombe, and who are they in this Church community? Who do we look down upon or wish were not so bothersome to us and our time? What happens when one of these people walks into our Church building – do we clothe them with greater honour and see them as indispensable children of God? Do we see it as an opportunity to reflect God’s love which has been given to us freely by offering them our gifts and talents and time in generous hospitality?
An example, let us suppose a homeless person comes into church on a Sunday morning as we are gathering for worship, and starts asking around for some change to buy a cup of tea. What is our response?
Of course, I hear you cry – we would take them to our well stocked cafeteria and offer them not only Tea, but coffee, Juice, hot chocolate – and yet more, something to eat – a biscuit or two, or some of those mince pies which have been left over from the excesses of our Christmas celebrations. And yet still we would go further, an opportunity for a conversation, a blanket perhaps or other provisions they may need. We offer them the time of day that simply says you are honourable - and you matter - and which gives them Dignity as a fellow human being.
Or do we tell them to stop bothering people, and to be on their way out into the cold of the January season, with not so much as a “by your leave”, only for the rest of us to be commended moments later to the gluttony of left-over mince pies which are to be found at the back of the church.
Which of these do we profess, and which of these do we practice I wonder?
Here me though brothers and sisters, when I say that our sins and transgressions are not what hold or define us. Ours is a faith of death and resurrection, sin and death do not have the last say, and that hope, forward change and potential are ever present. And from what I have seen so far here, there’s so much potential in this place – in YOU.
We need to keep encouraging one another, looking out for the new person and helping them feel welcome and comfortable. Stop thinking that someone else will do it and start doing it ourselves. Joy and excitement are infectious, and the more we practice our generous hospitality, the more God will be at work in us, and be made visible in his world. The more we will make visible the joining together of the body – of the different parts to form a community of love-centred relationships.
So how are we to form this body? What is the glue that knits us all together? For me, it’s what we express as the love of God – or rather that God is Love.
One way we show our being joined together is through shairing Holy Communion. We are joined as one body through the Eucharist – celebrated here for many hundreds of years, and in Churches and places of prayer across our world. “We are all one body, because we share in one bread”. All are welcome at the table. This is a response to our faith, an action to display the outward sign of an inward grace. That in a nutshell is what a sacrament is. The Eucharist, along with Baptism being the cornerstone sacraments of our Church. And these can be an outworking expression of our faith.
Faith needs Action. Faith without action is no faith at all. The words you say today during this service, do not get left behind at the door as you depart, or as you log-off your computer screen, they go with us into the week ahead. As we ‘Go in Peace to Love and Serve the Lord’ - Love is the marker of our God, and through it, it will be the marker of how others recognise God in and through us.
I finish by reminding and encouraging you with the Inclusive Church Statement:
“We believe in inclusive church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate. We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality. We believe in a Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”
Chris Knight, Ordinand, Ripon College, Cuddesdon
1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11
Imagine for a moment your wheelie bin, empty and clean of course. Now imagine it full of water, all 240 litres or 52 gallons of it. Now imagine 3 of those all full of water – that’s approximately 150 gallons or 720 litres, the amount the stone jars held. And finally imagine those bins full of wine. Far more than could be drunk at a wedding party, even one where the celebrations lasted a week, as was the custom in those times. I’m grateful to Hannah Barraclough for these figures. You may remember Hannah was on placement here just before the first lockdown.
For the gospel writer, this story is about far more than simply a wedding at a small village in Galilee. On one level of course that’s exactly what it is, but on a deeper level there is far more to it. There’s a crisis – the wine is running out and family honour is at stake. They would have been shamed in front of the whole village. Jesus is at first reluctant to get involved, but his mother has faith in him; she’s sure he will do something about the situation. He does, and the water becomes wine, and it is good quality wine, and what’s more, there are extremely generous quantities of it.
So, let’s look at this in another way. John never uses words without a purpose. He describes this event as a sign rather than a miracle. A sign points us to something else, something beyond the event described. This is another epiphany, another revelation of Jesus’ identity and power.
John writes ‘on the third day’, referring to Jesus’ activities on previous days, but it’s a pointer as we know that the resurrection took place on the third day. Jesus reminds Mary that his hour has not yet come, a phrase that occurs more than one in these early chapters, until before his trial and crucifixion he says my hour has come, meaning it’s now time to glorify God through his death.
A wedding banquet or any feast in the Old Testament refers to the heavenly banquet that awaits God’ people. We too have a foretaste of that heavenly banquet in the eucharist that we celebrate each week. What does a wedding symbolise? A new relationship, new life, joy. So the water becoming wine is a source of life and joy. Right at the beginning of the gospel, in the prologue, we read that in Jesus was life and that life was the light of all people. This new life is for everyone, not just the chosen few. Jesus promises abundant life as he says later.
This story is a sign of God’s generosity, of God’s generous love to all. It’s a gift. This is not something we can earn. In a nutshell this is the meaning of grace.
And gifts are the subject of our first reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth. Frustratingly we don’t know exactly what the concerns the Corinthians had brought to Paul in their correspondence with him. It seems some may have thought that speaking in tongues was the most important gift given by the Holy Spirit. No, says Paul, definitely not, there are many different gifts, and no single person possesses all of them. They are given by the same Holy Spirit to everyone. I’ll repeat that, they are given to everyone. Equally importantly they are to be shared in the service of everyone for the building up of the community. These gifts are complementary. And the Holy Spirit gives them to each one as she chooses. There are varieties of services and varieties of activities and God activates all of them in everyone.
The gifts listed here are not a complete list. Paul returns to the topic in other contexts. Let’s look at this list. First, the utterance of wisdom: these people speak of the wisdom of God hidden in mystery – they speak with insight that comes from a close relationship with God. To others is given the gift of knowledge, and it’s not easy to make a clear distinction between wisdom and knowledge. Others receive the gift of faith, which is more than simply saying I believe; it’s a charismatic, living faith. Healings and miracles are similar, but we must remember that God is the One who heals; it’s not us. Some have the gift of prophecy, some discernment; they speak out and discern where they see God at work. This has nothing to do with crystal balls and someone telling you that you will meet a tall, dark stranger in the near future. Some have the gift of speaking in tongues – glossolalia to give it it’s proper name; others have the complementary gift of interpreting what is spoken. A word of explanation here: some pray privately in tongues and it’s a way of expressing deep feeling. When people speak in tongues during public worship, as happens in some churches, there should be an interpretation of those words which in itself is a gift.
This is a very brief summary of this passage. And I would emphasise that last sentence: All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
So what about our own gifts? We all have gifts, things we can do well now. And things best avoided. Those of you who know me are well aware of my limitations when it comes to singing. That is best left to the those in the choir who share their gifts with us regularly.
Some of you are creative in other ways: painting; making baptism bears; arranging flowers; welcoming visitors, discerning when to approach someone and when to leave them alone, when to listen and when to speak, when to offer to pray with them; some enjoy working on fundraising challenges – the list is endless, and apologies for missing out so many aspects of our community life.
God is always calling us to do new things, and equipping us to do them, things we didn’t know were possible, until the Holy Spirit nudged us.
I’d like to invite you now to do two things as we reflect for a while on our gifts. First to think what gifts we are already using and thank God for them – no false modesty please! This is between you and God.
Then to consider what new gifts the Holy Spirit may be nudging you towards. You may already be in the process of doing this. And I invite you to continue this in the coming weeks. And if you would like to discuss the way forward, please talk to one of the ministry team or contact the office who will pass on your request.
Let us pray. Generous God we thank you for all your gifts to us. Direct each one of us through your Holy Spirit enable us to undertake new ways of serving you so that together this community may be built up.
The Rev Jackie Lock, Associate Priest
References: Acts 8:14-17 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Introduction: I confess that I haven’t always been an Anglican! In fact, I was brought up as a Baptist. Consequently, I was dedicated to God’s service and care as a baby; a practice rooted in story of the prophet Samuel being dedicated to serve God in the Temple all his life. And this had a profound impact on my self-understanding: I was the Lord’s and somehow knew I would serve God all my life.
Baptism: However, it wasn’t until I was 15 years old that I had a sense that I should acknowledge the fact publicly through, what was called, Believer’s Baptism. And today, as Rita is baptized, we’ll do something not too dissimilar in an Anglican setting but not with so much water. Although there was something powerful in being totally immersed in water as a sign of death and resurrection, the Anglican church is not concerned about the amount of water, as long as it is poured over the baptism candidate, rather than just sprinkled. Of course, it’s what happens inwardly that is relevant as a sacrament is defined as an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual reality.
For me, as a Baptist at the time, I was told that the act of baptism was just a sign of what had already happened in me. But, although that was my understanding, it wasn’t my experience; something did actually happen at the moment of my baptism. I was deeply aware of it and arose from the water filled with joy. Others testified to something happening in the church atmosphere; one person even claimed to have seen a vision of a figure with their arms outstretched looking on from the balcony at the rear of the church.
Yet, when I went back to school the following day, I didn’t feel any different and wasn’t aware of my consciously changing anything in my life – and some of it definitely did need changing! Nevertheless, not long after, a fairly rough and ready school colleague came up to me one day and said something like, “You know you’ve changed, Hugh; something’s happened to you and people really respect you as a result.”
I’ve never forgotten that statement and it’s given me a life-long assurance that God does transform us, bit by bit, as we journey with Christ.
The role of the Holy Spirit: Of course, I’ve reflected theologically on what was going on in me for that to happen. My conclusion is simple: our Gospel passage today has John the Baptist saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ The account then describes the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus as he was baptized in a bodily form like a dove.
In short, it is this inner work of the Holy Spirit which makes the outward act of baptism a transformative experience. And so, we pray, as we do for each baptism candidate, that this wonderful gift will be given to Rita as she is baptized this morning.
Continuing the transformative life: And what of the rest of us who have been baptized? Are we simply observers? No, every baptism is an opportunity for each of us, not only to renew our baptism vows but to receive afresh this life-changing gift that brings us extraordinary joy and peace. This is the gift of the Christian life: joy and peace in the Holy Spirit, whatever the circumstances. It’s the evidence of being citizens of the Kingdom of God.
As an eagle needs to remain in the rising air in order to be able to soar, so we need to daily be renewed by the Holy Spirit to sustain a life of joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.
Conclusion: So, I pray that each of us will open our hearts afresh to God on the Baptism of Christ Sunday and receive this gift, which is both yours and mine and will, we pray, shortly be Rita’s as well. Amen.
The Rev Hugh Ellis - Vicar & Team Rector