12th June 2011

“Creating Community”. (Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13).

I wonder when you last gave, or were given, a gift? If you’ve had a birthday recently, your nearest and dearest might have clubbed together to buy you that dream “something” you’ve always hankered after. If you are a married woman, your husband might have given you a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates (and then you had to stop him eating half of them). If you are a parent, your child might have brought you a picture which they say is of a beautiful garden with trees or flowers, but you had to take it on trust and stick it up on the fridge. And, if you own a cat, your moggy might have happily deposited a wriggling frog or a dead bird at your feet. Sometimes it is hard to be gracious when we have been offered an unsuitable gift!

Of course, the giving of presents is not always a spontaneous gesture: it’s something we might feel obliged to do. For instance, guests at a dinner party customarily bring a bottle of wine or some flowers. Going to a wedding definitely requires a present, and the happy couple will probably have a list of gifts they’d like, carefully graded according to price. If you’ve stayed at a friend’s house for a few days, you might want to offer your hosts the gift of a meal at a nice restaurant, as an expression of gratitude. And in cultures such as Japan gift-giving has become a highly formal activity, laden with subtle meanings which an outsider like me would find very hard to detect. In that sort of context, failing to offer the right gift will, at the very least, cause great embarrassment and loss of face; it might even mean that you do not get the contract or promotion you had been expecting.

In one sense, the Day of Pentecost - often called the “birthday of the Church” - is a day of giving, as God bestows the Holy Spirit on the disciples who have been anxiously gathered in Jerusalem ever since Jesus had returned to heaven. Now, several remarkable things took place that day –the flames like fire which the disciples could see, the sound like wind which they could hear, the foreign languages which they could suddenly speak, and the incredible response shown to Peter’s preaching. Everyone must have been amazed. Nevertheless I rather suspect that one of the most powerful emotions felt among the Christian community was one of relief: relief that Jesus had kept his promise to send the Spirit (for he might not have done so), relief that the waiting was over (and it hadn’t lasted too long), and relief at what the Spirit’s coming had actually meant (for I’m sure there had been a great deal of conjecture and fear).

But, of course, there was more to Pentecost than excitement, noise and preaching. For it wasn’t just the Holy Spirit who was given to the infant church, wonderful though that certainly was: the Spirit, in turn, bestowed supernatural gifts of grace to the believers in order that they could worship, serve and evangelise. I do suspect it took time for the Church to discover what these gifts were, and sometimes the gifts were used in inappropriate ways – which is why Paul, writing some 20 years later, had to give some corrective instructions to the church at Corinth. But the principle is one which is still true today: every local church should be a community of diverse people working together for God. The Spirit’s gifts are the tools we should be using.

Now I am aware that the notion of supernatural or “charismatic” gifts, indeed the story of Pentecost itself, may make many of us recoil in horror. For none of us wants wild and bizarre spiritual outbursts, or noisy, riotous and uncontrolled services, or a lack of control coupled with a hyped-up emotionalism. We may well say (and we do), “If that’s what the Spirit and his gifts are about, then I want nothing to do with them”. And I quite understand that concern. But, although I do concede that the events of Pentecost were pretty dramatic (though, dare I say it, we could sometimes do with a bit more drama and excitement in our worship!), nevertheless I must also say that we are quite wrong if we think of God’s gifts to us primarily in these terms.

For what we are talking about is nothing more nor less than the abilities that are freely given by God to every Christian in order to carry out their work in the church and in the wider community. And, when you read through the various catalogues in the New Testament, you’ll find that most of the gifts are actually pretty down-to-earth and practical. True, speaking in tongues, prophecy and what appears to be miraculous are listed – they are the “spiritual gifts” that leap to mind when the subject is mentioned. But alongside those we have other gifts such as “administration” and “hospitality” and one simply called “helps” – they don’t sound dramatic at all. And the inference is clear: every believer ought to find out what their gift is and put it to use, for that will strengthen the community of which we are a part.

Now I think this concept of building community is very important for Christians to understand. At the very least we need to recognise that “church” is not just something we go to on a Sunday morning, but a group of people to which we are committed. That way of thinking is absolutely basic in our Congregational and Baptist backgrounds. Allied to that, we must realise that “church work” is not just the Minister’s responsibility, but something in which we must all play our part, as we are able. Some of the things (such as preaching or singing) we do will be visible and public; while other tasks (such as serving on the Fabric Committee or helping with the Finances) are virtually invisible – which isn’t to say that they are unimportant. There is also a slightly different sense, in which our Visitors use their pastoral gifts and time to keep in touch with people who might otherwise become isolated and forgotten: their visits, letters and telephone calls are some of the glue which holds the church’s community together.

But this idea of building community needs to spill over beyond the four walls or boundaries of the church. For we live in a society which is much more fragmented than it ever has been, one in which people can feel very cut off from those who live around them and in which they may feel like tiny cogs in a machine or one of thousands of ants in an anthill. In other words, they see themselves as insignificant, powerless and totally at the mercy of forces which they are unable to control. In this situation it is vitally important to create a sense of community in which people who live and work in a local area can gather together to improve their neighbourhood, combat social problems, make a stand against big business, enlist the help of their MP or simply give aid and support to those who are lonely. And churches can and should be at the forefront of those efforts.

And – although this doesn’t relate to our situation - we mustn’t think that this is purely an urban problem. There are many villages in which the pub has closed down, the Post Office went last year, the darts and bowls clubs have lost their Council funding, all the children are bussed to a school five miles away, and those who can’t drive to the supermarket get their groceries delivered by Tesco. In these places the church is the one community organisation that still exists. Yet it is often inward-looking and contributes little to local society.

So how can a church employ its members’ gifts in community activities? Well, let me give you an example from last Sunday’s “Big Lunch”, which was organised by the local “Wash Watch” community group. For some of us were involved in the planning (indeed, all the meetings took place either in our church hall or at St. Pancras); we helped in copying the publicity, and in providing the cooking facilities, setting up the games, even putting up the bunting. Perhaps the most unusual gift on display (and one which she also used on the Diocese’s behalf at the Suffolk Show) was Moira’s gift of face-painting, which drew people in and created a party atmosphere. Without the church’s support, I don’t think this event would have taken place.

Now I know that there were one or two hiccups along the way, which meant that people had to wait a long time for their lunch; the more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the paint-stain on the front step which has resisted Jayne’s best efforts to clean it off entirely! Nevertheless I was happy with this event, because this building became a resource for our wider community (and because some of our neighbours came inside for the very first time). I was happy, because some of our folk got involved in our immediate locality. But above all I was happy that we could support a pretty fragile organisation which is trying hard to rebuild a sense of community in an area that hasn’t really got one, and desperately needs it. I am proud of what we did, and I believe it was a truly Christly contribution.

I have to tell you that I wouldn’t have preached in this way 10 years ago. For in the past I saw spiritual gifts purely as supernatural abilities which God grants Christians to be used in building up the church. And, to a degree, I still believe that. But I have also come to realise that we have a calling to use our gifts in the wider community, for we are all human beings whom God has designed to operate together rather than apart. Alongside that, I have done some thinking about the Holy Trinity (which we of course commemorate next Sunday) – for within himself, as three persons yet one, God himself operates as community; a spiritual community into which he seeks to draw people. As we use the Spirit’s gifts to create social cohesion, we are becoming involved in a profoundly godly activity.

Let me close by returning to the idea of gifts. I suspect that there are many women in this congregation who have been given a new frying-pan for their birthday when they would have much preferred a bottle of expensive scent – we husbands can be so unromantic! (I have a horrible feeling that I’m going to pay for that comment after the service). Well, the Holy Spirit is not a husband, although the Church is called the “Bride” of Christ; and his gifts are most certainly offered to us in love. But they are neither spiritual playthings nor sentimental fripperies: they are practical tools for community-building service, for God does not want people to live in isolation.

On this Pentecost Sunday of all days, let us all make sure we know exactly what tools we should be using to make community happen.