On Sunday, which happened to be Reformation Sunday, we talked about faith – faith as gift, as trust, as faithfulness, as risk, as obedience, as perseverance, and finally, as freedom. This week’s spiritual practice zeros in on one of the most important and specific ways we exercise faith. The apostle Paul writes:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
So it seems that there are particular ways God assigns each of us to exercise our faith. And those ways and ministries aren’t the same for everyone.
But here’s the deal. We’re going to be hesitant to invest time and energy to explore and use our gifts in the body if we don’t have much faith in the body. There are so many things we can do with our talents and gifts and lives, and if we don’t believe that the church, the local church, is that big a deal, we’re going to understandably be cautious about directing very much of our time and talent there. Our motives for not engaging may be selfish – i.e. there are the things I want to do with my life – or they can be unselfish – i.e. I believe there are better, more efficient, more effective ways for me to make a difference in the world.
Let’s be clear — engaging with the world is a good thing. It’s what we are designed to do. Educator and writer Carolyn Custis James describes how the skills and abilities God gave us dovetail, for example, with the nature of the physical world:
God…didn’t create a flat earth. God’s world has mountains that awaken in us the need to climb, to test our limits and find out firsthand what it’s like to stand atop a snowy peak. He created a world that is packed with endless treasure, raw material, and unexplored frontiers designed to stir up in us the artist, the scientist, the explorer-adventurer, the athlete, the mathematician, the botanist, the entrepreneur, and much more.
But the world isn’t just a playground, it’s a Story. The world, with its human societies, isn’t it just raw material for us to explore and fashion with our imaginations. It’s broken. Something has gone terribly wrong. The world needs healing and redemption. It is meant to arrive at a much better end. Most importantly, it needs to find its way back to God, its Creator.
If there’s anything we’ve all had to face during this election cycle, it’s that something is terribly amiss. The animosity, the mistrust, the belligerence, the threats all point to our living in a country and world that is very much out of sorts. Our often well-meaning human attempts to make things right often make things worse. When people are anxious they tend to become conflicted and combative. The American Experiment itself feels at risk.
When the people of Israel returned to Palestine after years of exile and began to rebuild their temple, the prophet Haggai read people’s minds as they compared the new temple with the old one: “Does it not seem to you like nothing?” Likewise, some of us might be thinking, “What can our little church do to make a difference in the world? Why should I invest my time, talent and treasure in something so small?”
Can you imagine how those tiny little house churches felt in the first century, worshiping and sometimes hiding under the shadow of an often antagonistic Roman Empire? What impact could they possibly have? Just surviving seemed like a long shot. Yet, three centuries later Christianity was the de facto official religion of the Roman Empire (which, actually, may have been when the church began to lose it spiritual power).
“‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). God chooses to invest in mostly small communities of mixed spiritual depth to show his love for the world and to bear witness to his coming kingdom, and he asks us to do the same.
In the way Jesus did — by sacrificing himself.
Let’s go back to the Romans 12 passage about the body. Paul introduces the paragraph about spiritual gifts by saying: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your reasonable worship.” Why reasonable? Our sacrifice is a reasonable response to Christ’s sacrifice. As Paul says in Philippians 2, Jesus, the Son of God emptied himself, made himself next to nothing by becoming human and becoming a servant. And that was just the beginning. The journey ended by his undergoing the most cruel, dehumanizing, painful, shameful form of execution used in the ancient world.
It was cruel, in part, because it was so slow. A living sacrifice.
Fortunately, for most of us, being living sacrifices isn’t quite so hard and painful. What makes us living sacrifices is the energy and fulfillment that can come with fitting in with God’s plan for our lives and how he’s designed us. It’s like Jesus said: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to complete his work” (John 4:34).
So we engage with the world in the ways Jesus has designed us to. Like Jesus did when he worked as a carpenter. Yet Jesus didn’t ultimately come to be a carpenter. He came to be Jesus — the teaching, healing, saving Son of God incarnate, in flesh, in a particular place and point in time, with all the limitations that went with being so small. And that’s what he wants us to be. Jesus. His body. With arms and legs and hands and toes that may not look like much, but somehow do the job, however awkwardly.
So we use our gifts and talents and whatever other resources we have for Jesus. To be the body of Jesus.
In freedom. I ended my sermon last week my saying that faith is freedom. What do you need to be set free from in order to sincerely and seriously consider or reconsider your role in this tiny little community called Bellevue Reformed Church?
If you would like some help thinking about your role and gifts, I hope you’ll stop by. That happens to come under my job description (Ephesians 4:11-12).