Moses was a complicated guy. He clearly had a sense of righteousness, and, like many people with a strong sense of righteousness, he also had a temper. He could act impetuously and intemperately. As a young man, outraged by seeing an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave, he killed the Egyptian and had to flee. Many years later as the liberator of the Hebrews, when he came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and found the people partying around the golden calf, he angrily broke the tablets of the Law, ground up the golden calf, scattered the powder in the water, and made the people drink it. Yet, the book of Numbers also tells us that he was very humble, more so than anyone on earth. He was surprisingly patient in leading a people who were undisciplined, constantly complaining, rebellious, and who were generally faithless ingrates. He constantly interceded for them with God, who in the early books of the Bible had an even stronger sense of righteousness and an even fiercer temper than Moses did. It is clear that Moses cared deeply for this people he had to lead, and he had profound hopes for them.
In the rather short and somewhat obscure passage from the book of Numbers that we read this morning, this hope comes through in a very specific way. Moses and the seventy elders of the people are gathered at the Tent of Meeting, the place where Moses spoke with God. Suddenly, God descends and takes some of the spirit that was given to Moses, the spirit that let him hear God and lead this whiny, complaining people, and God put it on the elders who then immediately began to prophesy. Which is to say, they spoke God’s word by God’s own calling. However, for some reason, two of the elders weren’t there, but had remained back in the camp. Suddenly, that same spirit came on them and they began to prophesy, too. The propriety of this independent prophesying seemed questionable. So, somebody immediately told Moses about this, assuming that Moses would be jealous and unhappy. Joshua, who would lead the people into the Promised Land after Moses’ death, told him to make them stop. Everybody had seen in the past how Moses had reacted to self-designated leaders among the people, and it never turned out well. Yet, surprisingly, Moses said he had no reason to be jealous. In fact, he said, “would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
Now, in itself this is a relatively minor incident, squeezed between ones of much greater consequence in the people’s sojourn in the wilderness. But, we read it today on Pentecost as a passage of significance, for a very good reason. What Moses hoped for in his people, namely, that God’s spirit would rest on all of them, was a matter of prophecy. What we celebrate today on the Feast of Pentecost is that this has come to pass. For on Pentecost, God’s Spirit has gone out to all God’s people. That, in fact, is now what makes them God’s people and makes them God’s people in a way that is distinctive and unique, for God does not just lay a claim on them – God now dwells within them, and they dwell in God. We share God’s life as God once shared ours.
How does that happen? The way that we normally talk about how we share it comes as a matter of receiving the Spirit’s gifts. Isaiah enumerated seven of them, and when we baptize, we pray that the baptized receive these gifts – the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and courage, the spirit of knowledge and piety, and the spirit of the fear of the Lord. We pray that the baptized receive all these gifts of the Spirit. Furthermore, when we ordain men and women as ministers, elders, and deacons, we witness to the fact that God calls men and women to lead the church, and that he gives them gifts to lead. It isn’t just the minister, but many others as well. We in the Reformed tradition believe that God also calls all of us and gives us each a vocation, a calling, to fulfill in Christ’s service. For, as St. Paul says, there are many gifts of the one Spirit. Each of these gifts is meant to build up the body of Christ. Each is meant to be a contribution to the functioning of the whole, and each person in exercising the gifts he or she is given, is him or herself built up in making that contribution. It is in exercising these gifts that we are remade in Christ’s image, and show that his life is in us.
The idea here is absolutely central to what it means to have faith. It is also central to how we understand this community in which we live. So, because it is so central, it is well worth our time to understand very carefully what is involved here and what the gift of the Spirit means for us because it goes a lot deeper than we may suspect. What is at stake is what kind of a community we really are and it is different than any other community.
Let’s start with an image. There is an old story that goes like this: Two soldiers encounter some other soldiers returning home from the war. They are hungry, but nobody, it seems, has anything to eat, at least nothing they will admit to. The first soldiers say that doesn’t matter. They will make “stone soup” for themselves, and bring a large pot of water to boil and plop two stones into it. They then taste it, and smacking their lips, say that it is very good but needs some garnish to make it just right. Well, as it turns out, somebody has a couple of potatoes which he throws into the pot, being assured that for the gift he can share in the soup. The soup is tasted again, and again, it is declared that something is missing. This time somebody actually comes up with a chicken. So it goes, until finally after several tastings and several contributions, there is, indeed, a very good and very thick and nutritious soup that everybody shares.
This story is told all over the world in several different variants. All, though, have pretty much the same moral: by sharing small individual ingredients, something much larger and much better can be made for everybody. The point goes well beyond soup. It is a message about what healthy communities are like. Communities don’t function when everybody holds their gifts to him or herself. Communities flourish, and everybody in them does, too, when we all pitch in.
The point is a good one, and it is important to keep it in mind whenever we think about the health of our communities. It, however, does not fully describe what the gifts of the Spirit are like in making the church and its community. To be sure, the church community is made richer by the contributions that all the members make. That is not to be doubted; the more everybody contributes, the richer the church is in many ways. But there is something more to the gifts of the Spirit; the Spirit doesn’t just give us stuff and then hope we will use it well. The real gift of the Spirit is something deeper and more basic, it is something that goes to the root of our very being. For this reason, the gift of the Spirit is different than any other kind of gift.
How so? Well, simply put, in reality there is only one gift of the Spirit. That gift is the Spirit itself; that gift is God himself uniting his spirit to our spirit.
So what? Well, let me put the matter this way. In stone soup communities, everybody starts with something, and, as long as everyone holds onto those somethings, for oneself there is no community, and all the individuals who are looking to protect themselves by holding onto what they have and not sharing it are worse off. They have to be convinced to throw what they possess into the pot. When they do, then the community is created. Fine and good. But with respect to the Spirit’s gifts, we are not first individually given gifts, and then bid to throw them into the pot, and then the church and its community are created. The church is created when God gives the Spirit, for the Spirit draws us into God’s life. That is the beginning and the sum total of the Church. Anything distinctive we might have after that is the result of the Spirit drawing us together; it is not prior to it. We first have the Spirit and life and God, and then from that comes whatever particular gifts we may have.
Lest this seem overly subtle, let me put it in its very plainest form. At its root, the one and real gift of the Spirit is not talent, or leadership skill, or prophecy, or teaching, or anything like that. It is not anything we can possess as our own, or choose to use as we will. It is not something we can use like a tool. That is because the real gift of the Spirit is love, nothing more and nothing less. God is love, and, within God, that love is the Spirit that binds Father and Son and itself into one. Outside God, that Spirit creates, and draws men and women into God’s life and binds them to the Father and Son. For that reason, the real gift of the Spirit is God himself as Spirit. Because God is love, to possess the gift of the Spirit is to have God with us, deep inside us, moving us. It is, therefore, also to be joined to all those others to whom God has given the gift of the Spirit. That is what the church community is, pure and simple. We are God’s people when we love God and each other, because we have God’s Spirit dwelling among us. Everything else is gravy, as they say.
Not that gravy is insignificant. But what we usually count as gifts, if they are genuine gifts and not just the apparel of an inflated sense of self, are really nothing more than the outworkings in particular times and places of the one basic gift of love which the Spirit is. Every one of these gifts that we value is a matter of how love responds in a given believer to the world that she lives in, and to the needs that he sees. What is it to have the gift of wisdom or of understanding? It is to look on the world with love and to see it with the eyes of the God who made it. What is it to be a teacher or a prophet or a minister? Of course, it is to be called to speak for God. But to speak for God is to speak with love, and to encourage love. What is it to be Moses, or an elder, someone who leads? It is the result of a call to lead, but that call is always to lead with love and into love. And what does that mean? Well, it is to see, because of love, for example, the future God has in mind for the community. In the Letter to the Hebrews, Moses is described as seeing in the Hebrew people the future salvation of the world even though at the time he looked they were somebody else’s slaves, and therefore nothing. That vision, that ability to see what is not in front of you, to see what is now invisible because it is future, is the vision of love. It was the same spirit that let Moses lead this truly resistant people; it, too, was the love that God gave him for this people. Talent as an individual gift had very little to do with it, and, very frankly, mere talent usually flops in due time in the church community. Churches that rely on talent alone don’t last. Talent alone wouldn’t have gotten Moses to the shore of the Red Sea, much less gotten him across it. But faith working in love did. So, too, faith working in love is what distinguishes us, it makes us what we are. It isn’t instrumental. It doesn’t help us do what we should. It is what we do. It is our success.
On this day, when we celebrate the gift of the Spirit, we do not celebrate the giving of a something. We celebrate the life that God made possible by the life and death and rising again of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we celebrate it not from a distance but here and now in the Spirit. We celebrate it by how we live together. We celebrate it by the love we have for each other and the God who made us. When we do, then, in the words of the old Avery and Marsh song, the world will know that we are Christians by our love.
So, brothers and sisters, love one another even as he has loved us; let God dwell with us.