Last week we heard the story of Simon the magician-turned-believer. Witnessing what the people did after they received the power of the Holy Spirit, he brought his silver to the apostles so that he, too, could get some of that power. But remember what Peter told him? “Your heart is not right before God.” Peter chastised him for thinking he could buy the power. Peter had the wisdom, knowledge, and discernment to know this person Simon (maybe Philip had advised him) and Simon’s intent to use the power of the Spirit for his own grandeur. We can hope that Simon’s repentance is sincere, that he truly changed the course of his way, and that he finally did get his heart right before God.
In the frenzy of the moment and not at his best, don’t you know that Simon would have loved to have been at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, to have been the one who changed the water into wine? Wouldn’t he have thrilled to tell Mary, the mother of God, not to worry, that he’s got it taken care of, to go up to the steward with a sly, knowing look and ask what he thinks of the wine, only to take full credit (after trying to play the humble one first) for the best wine in the house. Maybe he would even mention to the bride, groom, and family that he had saved them from humiliation but not to worry because he did it out of the goodness of his heart.
All this is exactly what Jesus didn’t do.
Sometimes we take for granted that our tradition is full of rich poetry and well-written stories. This vignette about Jesus and the water-turned-wine whisks us behind the scenes of a wedding banquet, reveals to us the wisdom of a mother, the gifts of her son, and the obedience of the servants. While the party carries on seamlessly, Jesus performs a grand miracle, surrounded by silent witnesses whose lives are forever changed, having encountered the glory of God. Those at the head of the table don’t even know what’s happened, happy they are to enjoy the richness and abundance of the newly found wine. This, the first of Jesus’s signs in the gospel according to John, revealed God’s glory and led disciples to believe.
That’s the beauty of someone whose heart is right with God: there’s no false humility or piety, extravagant showmanship or self-aggrandizing mannerisms. For one who lives out of right relationship with God, there’s godly revelation. We witness the attributes that Psalm 36 enumerates, characteristics like love and faithfulness, righteousness, justice, refuge, loving-kindness, and abundance. People who experience and/or know the love of God as the source of life are a beacon of the eternal light. But it doesn’t mean they’re always perfect.
The churches Paul writes to are a good example. Our epistle today shares part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, and he’s talking about spiritual gifts. They’re believers and gifted with the power of the holy spirit in various ways. Paul, however, is as tactfully as possible trying to present them with a teachable moment. He’s trying to emphasize the value of wisdom and knowledge to help prevent the squabbles or the competition that can wreak havoc on any community.
There are many gifts (and Paul lists several of them), and no one person is going to have all of them. We learn from Simon and Peter’s exchange that we can’t buy the gifts. Paul’s main point is that these gifts are chosen by the Spirit and meant for the common good. Many gifts, one Spirit. Many services/ministries, one Lord. Many activities/deeds, one God, who activates all in all. Again, we get the lesson that the true end is not ultimately about us–it’s not about “our hour” but about giving God the glory.
Yet our lives are intimately connected to each of us, and that we have free will means that we play a vital role in how much attribution God gets, for better or for worse. Maybe that’s why Simon’s story is open-ended. Like him, we get to choose what to do in the error of our ways. At best, we repent and return to the Lord, returning to ways that are loving, life-giving, and liberating not only for ourselves but for everyone. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s biography, and I’m at the part where she’s encountered the deaths of loved ones and is realizing that pursuing her legal career through a traditional trajectory isn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. She’s also become engaged to someone who is encouraging her to see things from a different perspective and with a less fixed course of direction.
That’s what happens when we are in truly loving relationships–we are no less who we are, but we become open to being more fully who we are as God created us to be. It makes sense that Love would be an activation key, doesn’t it? When we love God, we realize the value in truly knowing ourselves and valuing our gifts, whatever they may be. There’s great joy in celebrating our gifts, especially when we get to use them for the greater good, like when Lily can use her Spanish to speak with the refugees, help them find their home, all the while reminding them that they are “mi amor.” Even our adversities, hurts, and struggles teach us more about who we are, and in overcoming them, we garner skills that make us that much more adept at navigating difficult situations in the future.
This loving relationship between God and ourselves and for ourselves takes work and faith and belief and trust and courage–all that. Where I think the Holy Spirit really gets energized, though, is in our loving relationships with each other. Where two or three are gathered, right? When we join our efforts to build community, to work for the greater good, to manifest some aspect of the kingdom of heaven, there is something amazing at work, something recognizable yet out of our reach of control. To me, that’s Spirit at work. It’s nearly electric. It’s bright, a beacon of what is at work.
It’s also vulnerable. When we break down barriers to love, we’re at risk for letting things like hurt, shame, doubt, fear, pride, greed, etc., in. Maybe that’s why our baptismal covenant asks us about when we sin and not if. Because if we’re living a Christian life, chances are we’re gonna get hurt and fall and get off course. The important thing, though, is that we get back up and turn again to Lord, remembering that we have important work to do, important work that only we can do.
On January 17th, beloved poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 83. While she spent time honing her skills and practicing her art, she undoubtedly had a gift for written art, for poetry. I say written art because the poems that she wrote take you out into the natural world she loved so dearly, that she spent countless hours wandering in and observing. And a good poet describes the obvious in such a way that it can depict not only the thing that is but also look deeper into it or beyond it to a greater truth, asking without asking about our own experience or encounter.
As Christians, we believe in God, are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and strive to fulfill our lives in service to God through many and varied ministries. We know we are to give glory to God, but each of us needs to ask ourselves how we’re going to do that . . . or maybe how we’re already doing that. The question that comes to my mind is one I see oft-quoted from Mary Oliver from the end of her popular poem “The Summer Day.” If we haven’t before, we need to be asked now, as Oliver does, “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” The good of all depends on us.