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Gifts, Ministries and the Growth of Faith

 

 1 Corinthians 12:14-26 

Part I:

 

I: — I remember the night Joe Theismann, quarterback for the Washington Redskins, broke his leg. It was just another play in a football game, with several opponents breaking through the Washington line and tackling the quarterback. As the players unpiled themselves, one of them waved urgently at the Washington bench, calling for the team-physician. The T.V. camera zoomed in on the stricken player. He was lying on his back with one leg extended normally in front of him. The other leg was extended normally from hip to knee; below the knee, however, between knee and ankle, this leg jutted out at a 45 degree angle. The referee walked over to Theismann, raised the broken limb slightly, and moved it parallel to the uninjured leg.

Three things stood out in this incident. One, the injured player was in much pain. Two, his broken, displaced leg was unsightly. Unsightly? It was ghastly! Three, the broken leg was nonfunctional; Theismann couldn’t use it for anything. There was only one thing to do: get the broken leg set as soon as possible. Once the leg was set, pain would be reduced, the ghastly spectacle would disappear, and usefulness would be restored.

It’s always important that broken limbs be set. The word in secular Greek for bone-setting is katartismos. Paul uses this word in Ephesians 4:12 when he tells the congregation in Ephesus that the saints have to be equipped “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The gifts that Jesus Christ distributes among his people within a congregation are gifts meant to set the broken limbs of any and all Christians within the congregation in order that the congregation can then exercise its ministry. Broken limbs that aren’t set remain painful to the bearer, unsightly to everyone else, and useless for the congregation’s ministry. The congregation is to be “equipped” for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. Katartismos, equipped.

When Paul uses the word in Ephesians 4:12 he draws on yet another meaning in secular Greek. Katartismos also means to mend, not a broken bone this time, but a fishing net. An unmended net won’t catch fish; a mended net will. Didn’t Jesus appoint his people to be fishers of fellow-humans? Plainly, the church of Jesus Christ is going to catch fish only if its nets are in good repair.

When Christ’s people are “equipped” through the gifts of their fellow-Christians, two things happen. The congregation has its own broken limbs set so that pain is reduced, unsightliness disappears, and usefulness is restored. In the second place, the congregation’s work beyond itself is assisted, for nets mended means that others will be “caught”; that is, they will be brought into the fellowship of Jesus Christ as they are brought into fellowship with Jesus Christ.

Then regardless of whatever gifts or talents or abilities we have, we need to offer them to our Lord himself by means of offering them to the congregation. As we offer our gifts to the congregation, our gifts will “equip the saints”: set the broken limbs within and mend the fishing nets without, with the result that the congregation honours its appointment to be fishers of others and see them added to the body of Christ.

 

II: — “It all sounds fine”, someone objects, “but I don’t happen to have any gifts; I don’t have anything that is significant to anyone, anywhere, for any purpose. I’m simply not talented.” The modesty is unquestionably sincere; unquestionably it is also without foundation. There is no one without a gift; in fact, there is no one without several gifts, many gifts. To be sure, when we speak of someone as “gifted” in the context of church life we commonly mean two sorts of gift only: speaking and music-making. Victor speaks, Maureen makes music, the Shepherds are gifted. Then others aren’t gifted, or are less gifted?

We must be sure we understand what is meant by “gift.” A gift or talent or ability is anything we do. I say “anything we do” rather than “anything we can do” simply because people most often think they can’t do very much. Whatever it is that they are doing right now, however, they plainly can do or they wouldn’t be doing it! I’ve noticed that the people who tell me they aren’t gifted nevertheless do something throughout the day; most are gainfully employed, while others work in the home or do volunteer work. Whatever we do is obviously gift. Since everyone does something, no one is ungifted. The people who claim they lack gifts tell me this as they continue preparing the evening meal, or they tell me this as they take a break from painting their house or mowing the lawn. Right in the midst of doing something, and doing it well, they expect me to believe they can’t do anything! They don’t intend to be ridiculous, but something’s wrong with the picture nonetheless.

Not only are all of us gifted at something, all of us are gifted at a great many things. When the Shepherd family visited the Iona Community in the Hebridean Islands of Scotland, we were assigned daily tasks for our sojourn, as were other visitors to the community. Needless to say fulltime resident-members of the community already knew what their tasks were and performed them diligently. One fellow I chatted with was a lawyer. Unquestionably lawyering was a gift he possessed. But was it his one and only gift? Was free legal assistance the only service he could render the community? During the seven days that I lived at Iona I noticed that this fellow cleaned the toilets every day. (Remember: everyone has many different gifts inasmuch as everyone can do many different things.) Now we must be sure to understand that toilet-cleaning is important. It’s important because the work of the Iona Community — its worship, witness, evangelism, social outreach, hospitality to international travellers — this work is most important, and this most important work will stall if the toilets aren’t kept clean. The only consideration here is whether or not toilets need to be cleaned every day and whether or not someone who is able to clean them is available. Whether or not a lawyer should be cleaning them isn’t a consideration. Jesus washed feet, didn’t he? (No doubt you are itching to find out what my short-term assignment was. It wasn’t to preach or teach or lecture; it was to clean the fireplace in the common room each morning.)

There are as many ministries for us to exercise, both individually and collectively, as there are things that we can do. The gifts we have — all of them — are services we can render.

 

III: — Then does the mere fact of a gift or talent or ability qualify the bearer for a ministry? Certainly not. Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and Sir John A. MacDonald were gifted public speakers. Does this mean they should have been allowed into pulpits? Certainly not. Alan Eagleson has a talent for eliciting the trust of all sorts of people. Does this mean he should become our pastoral visitor? (I cannot forbear mentioning that Alan Eagleson has spoken (i.e., “preached”) from the pulpit of Kingsway Lambton United Church. Why was he invited to do so? Is it thought that Jesus Christ wins disciples [whom he appoints to crossbearing] by means of the world’s “glitz”?)

If more than gift or talent or ability is needed, precisely what is needed? Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is needed; so is love for his people, even love for those not yet his people. Without faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, people can do eversomuch but it won’t be a doing consecrated to the purposes and truth of the kingdom of God. Without faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, people can do eversomuch, but it won’t be done in the confidence that he will own it and honour it and use it. Without love for his people (as well as love for those not yet his people), the motive for doing whatever is done may be the motive of self-congratulation or public recognition or personal superiority born of envy; but in any case it won’t be the motive of love for Christ’s people, the motive of equipping the saints for their ministry, the motive of building up the body of Christ.

It is faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, together with love for those whom he claims for himself, that renders any gift or talent or ability that ministry which serves him by serving his people.

When Joe Theismann broke his leg so very badly he himself was in much pain; everyone who saw him found the spectacle off-putting; and his dysfunctional leg really diminished the team’s effectiveness. Everyone was glad his leg was set as soon as possible.

Katartismos — equipping Christ’s people for ministry; that is, setting broken limbs, as well as mending fishing nets.

 

Victor Shepherd
January 1998                

 

 

Gifts, Ministries and the Growth of Faith

Part II: David Clarkson

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, addressing a graduating class of an English public school decades ago said: “Young people, I do not know what lies ahead for you, but this I do know: you will not truly be happy until you have learned to serve.” This morning’s sermon is in many ways about service and specifically about service to one another in our congregation here, as we exercise our collective ministry as a congregation.

There are many examples of the Lord at work in this congregation. There is much to celebrate. We gather and worship. There is support for mission locally and word wide. There is Bible study, Sunday School and special presentations, all in the context of Christian education. There are Christmas baskets and there are volunteer window sash painters. There is youth work and there is book publishing. There is a strident defense of Christian doctrine and there is quiet nurturing. There is sacred music, and there is practical financial management. There is weekly confirmation that we are fallen sinners and there is a weekly holding up of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

And yet, I think it is important to speak this morning about service, and I have two themes to develop. I shall call them the lesser and the larger. I shall call them the merely important and the utterly crucial.

First, the lesser theme, the one I call the merely important. Each of us here has spiritual gifts to offer congregational life and its ministry. Each has some obligation to the congregation to share such gifts. I do not speak here of misery in such obligations. We are told that our yoke is easy, our burden is light – that is, if we are working in God’s service. John Milton is quoted as saying, “They too, serve, who also stand and wait.”

I don’t think this is true in congregational life. In church work there is an immediacy, a need to get on with the work of the Kingdom. We are not to consider options forever. We are to act.

A brief summary of church government for those not yet immersed: The Official Board and its committees administer the work of this congregation. We support our clergy, we try to put some order into the chaos so that Christian life can occur within this congregation. The Official Board does its work through committees. These committees are responsible for finance and proper accounting of our money, for property and maintaining a place to worship and celebrate church life, for outreach and mission, for Christian education including the Sunday School, for worship organization including music, for pastoral care and organizing our support of each other.

There is added immediacy at this time because four of the Board’s committees have an outgoing Chair – and with no successor in place. All committees but one are critically understaffed. And yet, just supplying names and writing them on a piece of paper called an organizational diagram isn’t adequate either. We may be at a point where much of our church work has to be done differently, re-engineered as they say. I grew up in a congregation of farmers, small businessmen, mothers who did not work outside of the home, and some others who always seemed to me to be a little strange. Some things have changed . . . . The gifts of those people are often different than those gifts we have here this morning – a farmer with a snow plow who, unasked, just sent it off to the church parking lot on winter Saturday afternoons to clear the snow. But gifts unknown then are common place today – keyboard and computer skills, nursing skills, teaching skills, music talent – and especially, compared to those congregations of yesteryear in rural Ontario we have much more cold, hard cash.

 

And yet last Spring we were wrestling with a financial problem. We were not making our budget, and an embarrassingly modest budget at that. How could this contradiction be? We have learned about a God who wants to have a profound relationship, a profound relationship with us, but also the God who rules the cosmos, a power beyond our comprehension, who created us for no other purpose than to have a profound relationship with himself! We know this. Victor has said so a thousand times from this pulpit. We’ve prayed it. We’ve sung it. And yet, we had (and have) a financial problem. And at the same time, in this congregation, on average, we know that a household gives less on Sunday morning than it would have spent the Saturday evening before at the Swiss Chalet and the movies. How does one figure this?

In an attempt to answer this question, let me move on to my second theme, the one that I call the larger, the utterly crucial, about becoming involved in church work, about sharing our spiritual gifts amongst ourselves as a congregation.

I think we need to share our gifts in service. I think we need to do so for our own salvation. Some may think that’s a bit of a stretch. How would one suffer through dull meeting after dull meeting to achieve salvation and what’s the link, and if I really have to do this, is salvation worth it? But here’s the link: We have heard Victor, also a thousand times form this pulpit, patiently explain how Paul states we can’t get our relationship with God right by ourselves. Right relatedness to God is God’s gift to us. We call it grace. We’ve heard nothing else more frequently in this church for the last two decades.

But remember the paradox: the free gift of grace does not imply we sit by and wait for the transfusion. Paul is ready with one of his agricultural examples – he speaks of sowing seeds in the spirit and harvesting eternal life. Seeds, which a farmer or gardener sow, germinate and mature in relation to the forces of nature, which God created. But the farmer must still work. The land must be tilled, the weeds must be kept at bay, watering must be done, young plants must be nurtured. That is, according to Paul, we are to put ourselves in the place where we can be blessed with grace.

There is much about church work that doesn’t at first appear to be pleasing to God, or that doesn’t appear to put us in the posture to receive grace. But the disciplines we more commonly think of as serving that purpose – prayer, worship, fasting, study, submission, confession – these are activities also, that sometimes when they are practiced by us, God may not find particularly pleasing. We are presumptuous if we presume to tell God which postures will nurture grace and which will not. The hymn tune “trust and obey to be happy in Jesus” is relevant. If we haven’t yet participated through service in the life of this congregation, we may not yet be too far down the road in the more contemplative spiritual disciplines either.

In music, it is often very difficult to get a child to practice the piano. And do you wonder? It sounds terrible. And it is hard to refute the child’s position that attempting to play the piano gives no pleasure. But Pablo Casals, master cellist, even as a very old man, said how he just needed to ‘scratch away’ at his cello every morning to feel right with the day.

Christian service begets the desire to do more. Christian service can be like a learning curve. Contribution of your gifts can get you on that curve. Or perhaps a learning curve isn’t the right example. For some it is more like a staircase. Periods of growth and amazing insights can be followed by a plateau before the next jump forward. Be it a learning curve or a stair case, I think it’s important to get on it.

At this point I was searching for just the right word to describe how, having once felt God’s pleasure, one wants to all the more feel such again and again. It is the sort of thing that, the more of it, the more we want. Consider the concept of addiction. As we meet the word addiction in our society, we think of stealing to achieve it, hurting others to satisfy the addiction, and climbing over others in our greed. But in striving to satisfy our addiction to achieve God’s pleasure, all of the opposite is exactly true. I can think of no other example where such a stark opposite exists. There is much wonderful mystery here.

And so back to the financial crisis last spring. We correctly diagnosed that we had less a financial crisis and more a spiritual crisis, a problem of the spiritual temperature among us. I suggest that financial commitment flows from commitment of our gifts to one another as we worship and serve as a congregation.

 

To the extent that I had two themes, I have two conclusions. First, let me conclude the theme that I have called the lesser, the merely very important. We need help, we need big time help, in the administration of our congregation. There is no limit to the number of gifts that are available to work for the coming of the Kingdom here on earth and every Sunday we pray just that, “Thy Kingdom come”. Here is an example of one that is about to open up. It is one of the biggest unpaid jobs in the church. It is the job of the rental coordinator. Our budget receives $25,000 per year from rentals. To achieve this without chaos, some person from this congregation must organize and schedule, negotiate leases, keep track of keys, keep track of accounts payable, protect the essential requirements which the congregation requires for worship and congregational life, allocate space, have back up plans, assess clean up needs, monitor the load on the wear and tear of our facilities. I suppose this job could be divided up, but think of it for now as a single job. Quite in addition to the way in which service makes it possible to become right with God, the doing of this job makes it possible for the church budget to receive an annual cash infusion larger that the five highest envelopes givers all added together!

I have a disclaimer as I finish the first part of my conclusion: that the existing leadership will match people and gifts to appropriate service, and we may not always get a perfect fit. Sometimes feelings will be hurt. This is because our church work and methods are changing. There are absent talents that we used to rely on. There are talents available that we haven’t yet learned how to use and haven’t used well in the past. However, as we read in scripture, we find that the disciples were getting it wrong all the time. So the existing church leadership will try to do as well as the disciples!

But that is not quite the end. I still have the larger theme to conclude, the theme I call absolutely crucial. If I end here, I’ve done little more than make it more difficult for you to offer excuses to avoid service and to make a coherent argument because I’ve had years of church committee work in order to refine my pitch, and besides, it’s just not done to argue back during the sermon. Instead I’ll conclude with a paragraph from Richard Foster’s book, The Celebration of Discipline. This paragraph is why we do church work. Do you need a vision? Here it is. This is why we offer our services to one another because we are trying to achieve something. Richard Foster writes:

“The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with Himself included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant. Such a community lives under the immediate and total rulership of the Holy Spirit. They are a people blinded to all other loyalties by the splendor of God, a compassionate community embodying the law of love as seen in Jesus Christ. They are an obedient army of the Lamb of God living under the Spiritual Disciplines, a community in the process of total transformation from the inside out, a people determined to live out the demands of the gospel in a secular world. They are tenderly aggressive, meekly powerful, suffering, and overcoming. Such a community, cast in a rare and apostolic mold, constitutes a new gathering of the people of God. May almighty God continue to gather such people in our day.”

 

                                                                      Victor Shepherd

January 11, 1998