Human beings have an innate desire for unity. We become inspired when we see examples of sacrifice, of tireless service, and people coming together. When the pandemic first began, the motto was “we’re all in it together.” The spirit of togetherness was so high. We were willing to endure discomfort, inconvenience and even hardship for the greater good.
But as time goes on, the forces of division creep back. At this moment, I see forces of division running stronger than the forces of unity. People are tired of staying inside, so they flock together with friends. Others trying to adhere to guidelines see that and get upset, quickly pointing fingers and caricaturizing the people. That’s what happened last weekend when people flocked to Trinity Bellwoods Park. South of the border, cities are on fire. Pent up anger is spilling out into violence. Those in power focus on that violence and look for people to blame instead of looking at the roots of that anger. My needs become more important than yours. It’s you vs me. They vs us. When this force is given breath, it can overpower and take over the force that seeks unity.
St. Paul was well aware of this dynamic. He used language of his own time and context to express it, but he captures this dynamic well: “For I delight in the law of God in my innermost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:22-23)
Which of our members are winning the war right now? We have people trying to maintain unity, but we have other leaders – powerful leaders – exploiting the chaos and fanning the flames of this division to maintain their grip on power.
St. Paul said this: “Each builder must choose with care how to build on [the foundation]… Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” (1 Corinthians 3:10, 12-13)
These times feel like the Day that St. Paul was referring to. The kinds of lives we’ve built is becoming clear. The kind of world we’ve built is coming clear. COVID-19 is the fire that has tested and revealed the work we have done in our society. When over 80% of the deaths have taken place in long-term care homes, then we know we’ve done a poor job taking care of our vulnerable elderly. When deaths in the US are disproportionately borne by black and Latino people, then you know how the country has treated its racial minorities. When in Canada we don’t even know exactly who’s been suffering the most because we lack the data, then we know that Canada prefers to be blind instead of exposing cracks in its myth as a nice and generous country.
What kind of world have we built? What kind of world are we building right now? Each of our work will be revealed with fire and disclose what we’ve built. Have we been too passive and blind bystanders to what goes on around us? To the suffering of the most vulnerable in our midst?
The proclamation of our Christian faith is that we are people of the Spirit. Our church mission statement includes a point that we are a spiritual community. But what does this mean? St. Paul said this: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed upon us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12)
Those who live in the Spirit – those who are spiritual – receive and understand the gifts bestowed upon us by God. Today’s passage reveals the purpose of these gifts: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7)
There are varieties of gifts, varieties of service, all according to the unique people we are, but that same Spirit activates these gifts in us for the common good – the well-being of others. In other words, our lives, when activated by the Spirit, are meant to bless and serve others, to make the lives of those around us richer, better, more complete.
Has the Spirit activated your life and gifts to be such a blessing?
We need to seriously ask ourselves this question today. For what purpose is my life serving?
Our gifts are given for the common good. But what is the common good? Who decides what the common good is? Is it merely to take care of my family and those close to me? The people of my inner circle? I believe the answer lies in the words of St. Paul: “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior members, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:22-26)
The true sign of spiritual people – those who live in the Spirit – is how well we take care of our weakest members. Whether that be in our families, social circles, our communities, our society and in this world. That is the barometer of our spirituality, as individuals, as a community, as a society.
Our gifts are to be used to lift up the weakest among us. And St. Paul articulated the greatest of these gifts, the gift of love. Here is how he articulates this greatest gift: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
How beautifully written. If we are spiritual people, we have this gift of love. If we all have this gift of love, we are spiritual people. If we have that gift of love, this world would be such a better place. How do we become spiritual people where the gift of love is activated in us? Where we take care of our weaker members?
Ultimately, it is God who makes us spiritual people. It is the Spirit of God who changes us, transforms us, and instills in us God’s own grace. We are not in control of that. But there are things we can do to invite God’s Spirit to enact that change in us. There is an individual component, and a communal component, and they are highly interconnected.
It first begins with our thinking: where we set our minds. Rev. Kim preached about this last week. And St. Paul again said this: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:5) Where are you setting your mind on a consistent basis? Setting our minds on the things of the Spirit is a spiritual discipline. Every day setting our minds on things of the Spirit. Through prayer, reading and study of the Bible, and hearing the Word of God. It involves meditating on what love is. It involves honest self-reflection, on what’s driving us. There is a deep inner journey that is required to become spiritual people. But I also realize that this inner journey can never take place alone.
We began a Friday Bible Study series on Mark after the pandemic hit. Part of the Bible study involves people sharing their thoughts on the passage we are to study. Reading these reflections, and listening to the discussions that take place, made me realize a number of things. I could see great spiritual maturity in these members. The maturity took shape in the form of real honesty – about themselves, their lives, and who they were. There’s no pretense and hiding behind a veneer of religiosity. But rather, sincere honesty and curiosity. It’s often hard to detect an outward spiritual fervency, so often it doesn’t seem like there’s much spiritual strength, but I can see in the authentic honesty true spiritual strength. And as I thought about it, I realized this: this spiritual maturity has come through consistent engagement in the life of this spiritual community: week after week, month after month, year after year, they have been at this church, absorbing the sermons, Bible studies, retreats, lectures and all those “things of the Spirit.” Without them realizing it or seeing it, I can see how they have been shaped by the Spirit to become more spiritual people. Their consistent commitment to the church has been a deep and integral part of their own spiritual journey, and I see how it has shaped them.
I never liked it when people said “you have to go to church.” It can sound like a very legalistic religious rigidity. But here’s something I realize: we can only continually set our minds on the things of the Spirit with a community that sets its mind on things of the Spirit. This community is the church, the living body of Christ.
The glory of the church is that it is comprised of very broken, compromised people. We come into the church solely because of God’s grace. But in the church, we practice life in the Spirit. As broken people, we bring our self-interest, our pettiness, our jealousies. We get into conflict with one another. But as we seek the things of the Spirit, we learn about God’s forgiveness, about God’s love. Through Scripture we learn more about ourselves and our inner natures. We come to see the need for change. We see change coming through God’s grace. And as we learn about that grace, we learn about forgiveness. In short, the church is a taste of that alternative, Spirit-filled life that God wills for the world. The church is our laboratory to practice the Spirit-given love. Where we take care of our weaker members. Where we practice compassion and justice. Unlike our circles of friends, we don’t choose who to be friends with. We are a community called by God’s grace, learning to accept, forgive and embrace those who might be very different from us.
When we learn to live that Spirit-filled life in the church, we can live like that in the world, and in that way be a light to the world.
We need unity in this world. But not a unity that is brought on by power. Not a unity that silences dissent in the name of order. But a unity that is brought on by the Spirit, who activates the gift of love in us for the common good.
We need this Spirit-activated love in our world more than ever. Let us commit to walking this Spirit-led life together. It’s a challenge today, because we tend to do things we feel like at the moment. If I feel like it today, I’ll go. If I don’t, I won’t. Setting our minds on things of the Spirit requires continuous discipline, and continuous deep engagement in the life of the community that sets its mind on the things of the Spirit.
To the parents of young children, to our young adults, to our college students, to our high school students: let us all learn the discipline and commitment of actively engaging with this community – not just being passive attenders – of coming to worship every week, even when we don’t feel like it. It’s hard work sometimes to show up when you don’t feel like it. But let’s make engaging in worship, in this community, a part of life’s rhythm. And God will do the rest.
May God’s Spirit be alive in us, and activate the gifts of the Spirit to bring about more unity in our world today.