Sermon for April 17th, 2022
Ordinarily, on Easter Sunday our scripture text is one of the passages from the gospels describing how Jesus was resurrected from the dead on that first Easter morning 2,000 years ago. Ordinarily, but not this year. Don't worry; we'll get back to that story eventually, maybe next year--but if you've been coming to church here (or anywhere) for more than one year, I know you've heard that story many times, and I'm confident you'll hear it again.
Sometimes (and especially on Easter) I think we get so wrapped up in the death and resurrection of JESUS, that we forget how God is calling US to do the exact same thing. In the scripture passage I'm about to read, Paul tells us that WE are to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, and that WE are to be renewed and transformed (which is what resurrection is)--not just on Easter Sunday, but every day of our lives.
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Spiritual Gifts (and how to give them): Introduction
Back in the days of the French Revolution, three brothers were condemned to be executed by that infamous French device, the Guillotine. The brothers were great Christians, and known to be blessed with the spiritual gifts of Faith, Prophecy, and Helpfulness, respectively.
The first brother to be placed in the guillotine was the brother with the gift of great Faith. When asked if he had any last words, he boldly proclaimed, "I have faith that God will deliver me from this fate." When the executioner pulled the rope...nothing happened. The blade did not come down. Taking this as a miracle from God, the authorities released the first brother.
The second brother, the one with the gift of prophecy, was then brought forth, and placed in the guillotine. When asked if he had any last words, he said, "I predict that God will intervene and thwart your plans to execute me." Sure enough, when the executioner pulled the rope, once again nothing happened, and the blade did not come down. Taking this as a sign from God, the second brother was released.
The third brother, the one with the gift of helpfulness, was then brought forth, and placed in the guillotine, face up, looking right at the suspended blade above him. When he was asked if he had any last words, he paused for a moment, looking up at that blade, then replied in his most helpful voice, "Hey! I think I just found out what the problem is with your guillotine!"
Today and for the next seven weeks, we are going to be looking at Spiritual Gifts: What are they? Which ones do I have? And what am I supposed to do with them? There are several "lists" of spiritual gifts in different places in the New Testament, but we're going to focus on the seven gifts listed in Romans 12:1-8. They are (in order) prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.
I believe that if you take this list to heart, if you study the spiritual gifts and how God uses them, you will have the ability to do exactly what Paul says: To be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern (or understand) what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. How does that sound? Have you ever wondered what God's desire is for your life? Would you like for your mind to be renewed...or even transformed? Do you want to be better in your pursuit of what is good, and acceptable, and perfect?
If so, I've got a basket full of seven colorful Easter Eggs just for you! They are labeled: Prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. We'll spend the next seven weeks reflecting on each one of these gifts, and how God uses them in our life, our family, our church, and our world. But today, I want to lay a foundation for what exactly we mean when we talk about spiritual gifts.
We'll start with the word "gift," because it's kind of problematic. In English, the word "gift" can have two possible meanings: One is a present--something freely given from one person to another. But the secondary meaning of gift is that of a special ability or talent--as in, "you're such a gifted person" or "he has the gift of always saying the right thing at the right time."
Over time, we've come to associate the spiritual gifts described in the Bible with this secondary meaning of the word "gift" in English. Spiritual gifts, according to popular opinion, are "special abilities" or "secret superpowers" that each person possesses...all you have to do is discover which one you have, either by taking one of those five-minute Instagram quizzes, or else by asking your friends or your pastor to tell you which gift they think you have.
The problem is, all of that is based on a misunderstanding, a mistranslation of the Greek word χαρίσμα -- which does indeed mean "gifts," but in Greek it only carried that first meaning, something freely given from one person to another, and not the sense of a special ability or power belonging to an individual. In fact, there is another word in Greek, δύναμις, that means power or ability, and this word is never used in connection with spiritual gifts, in Romans or any of the other lists of spiritual gifts.
One of the dangers of seeing a spiritual gift as a "special superpower" is that once we find OUR gift, we tend to exclude all of the others. Imagine if we said, "Ok, ____ has the gift of giving generously to the ministries of the church...all of the rest of you, you're off the hook. It's not your spiritual gift. Oh, and ____ you don't have to be compassionate anymore. That's someone else's gift, not yours." I don't think so. God calls on all of us to be generous AND compassionate as often and as much as we are able to. I'll come back to the "as much as we are able to" next week.
Okay--up to this point, I've described what a spiritual gift is not: It's not a special ability or superpower that belongs to a particular individual. What is it then? Let's go back to that first meaning of "gift" in English, which is the only meaning in the original Greek that Paul wrote in. That kind of gift is something freely given from one person to another. It's tempting to think of spiritual gifts as something that God gives to each one of us. But that's not what our scripture passage today teaches. In fact, it's the other way around. Listen again to verse 1: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present (give) your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."
First of all, I love this idea: What is spiritual worship? Is it three songs, two prayers, a sermon and an offering? No...it's all of us presenting our bodies, our very selves, as a sacrifice to God. It's us sacrificing our time, our abilities, our resources to be part of God's family, to participate fully in the life of his church--that's spiritual worship!
But notice which way the giving goes here--it's not from God to us, but rather from us to God. A spiritual gift is something WE offer to GOD as an act of devotion, love and worship.
Wait a minute, though--what could WE possibly give to God, the creator of the universe, from whom all blessings flow? What pitiful excuse for a gift do WE have that God could possibly want? Well...how about prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouragement, generosity, leadership, and compassion?
Ok, Pastor Neal, that's a little bit weird. How are we going to teach God? How are we going to encourage God, or show compassion to God? Are you sure you don't mean the other way around? I'm sure.
To understand how we give spiritual gifts to God, listen to the words that Jesus spoke to his disciple Peter shortly after his resurrection. He said, "Peter, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord, I love you." "Then feed my sheep. Take care of the ones I love." On another occasion, Jesus told his followers that "Whatever you have done for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done for me."
In other words, if you want to give a precious gift to God, start with your neighbor. You can give your neighbor the gift of prophecy, which simply means proclaiming God's good news. You can minister to your neighbor, teach your neighbor, encourage your neighbor, be generous to your neighbor, lead your neighbor, and be compassionate to your neighbor. And when you give of yourself in these ways to your neighbors, to your church, and to your community, you are giving spiritual gifts to God.
But wait a minute, Pastor Neal! You promised me that you would tell me what my spiritual superpower is! You mean I don't have one? Here's the bad news: You don't have a spiritual gift. But here's the good news: You have ALL OF THE SPIRITUAL GIFTS. Every single one of them. Every single one of you. Bad news: They aren't talents or superpowers. Good news: They are actions; you just have to do them. And to do them, you have to understand them, you have to know what it is you're giving, how to give it, and to whom you are truly giving each gift.
Verse six says "we have gifts that differ according to the grace given us." The word translated here as "grace" is not the usual word for grace. It is πίστεως, which can also mean faith, or trust. I would suggest that a better translation of this phrase would be "we have gifts that differ according to what we have been entrusted with."
In other words, if you volunteered to be a Sunday School teacher this year, you are giving the gift of teaching to God's children, and therefore to God. You saw a need. You rose to the occasion. And you gave a spiritual gift. This makes sense...when you go to the store to buy a birthday present for a friend, you don't ask yourself "What do I want? What am I good at giving to my friends?" Hopefully, you start with the question, "What does my friend want? What does my friend need?" In the same way, the Spiritual Gift that you give to God should be determined by what is needed in God's community, or by the role you have been entrusted with.
Sometimes people come up to me after the worship service and say "I'd like to serve the church in some capacity." I usually ask, "How would you like to serve?" And my favorite answer, the one that makes me so proud as a pastor, the one I think makes God proud too, is this one: "Put me wherever you need me most."
There is great faith in that answer: Faith that God will equip us for whatever we volunteer to do, whether it is in our comfort zone or completely outside of it. Faith that whatever time, ability or resource we have to offer to God, no matter how small or insufficient we may think it is, God will take it; God will use it; and God will multiply it greatly. And faith that our Spiritual Gifts, when freely given in love to each other, are altogether good and pleasing to the Lord; and a blessing to the world.
I want to end today with a story about gifts: Two men lived next door to each other. Both were reasonably well off, but the similarity ended there. One was wise and kind, while the other was spiteful and petty. The spiteful man was jealous of his wise and kind neighbor, and tried to make his life miserable. He would often throw rocks over the fence into his neighbor's yard, or play loud music late into the night.
One day, the kind and wise neighbor woke up to find several buckets of garbage dumped onto his front porch. He calmly cleaned up his porch, washed out the buckets and took them inside, where he filled them with the choicest fruit from an apple tree in his back yard. He then carried them over to the spiteful neighbor's house, and left them on the porch with this note: "Please accept these apples as my gift to you. How nice it is that we are finally sharing with each other other what we have each worked so hard to produce."
People of First Presbyterian Church--you are already sharing your gifts with the people around you, whether you realize it or not! May all of those gifts--spiritual and otherwise--be a true reflection of God's gracious love in your life. Happy Easter; he is risen indeed.