Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Second Sunday after the Epiphany/Mission Festival (Romans 12:6-16)

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the twelfth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ: Jesus is the One with the gift of prophecy, as He proclaimed to us the will of God, especially God’s salvation through His Son. Jesus is the One with the gift of service, as He came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. Jesus is the One with the gift of teaching, as He taught all who would listen about the nature of the kingdom of God that was breaking into this sinful world like light in a dark place. Jesus is the One with the gift of exhortation, as He encourages us to repent, to turn away from our sins, and believe in the redemption that He has brought. Jesus is the One with the gift of contribution, as He gave all that He had, laying aside His glory to take humble flesh and then laying aside His life to die in your place. Jesus is the One with the gift of ruling, as He is the head of His body, the Church, and He leads and guides her to green pastures and streams of living water, where He will wipe away tears from all faces. Jesus is the One with the gift of showing mercy, divine mercy, overflowing mercy, not giving us what we deserve, but taking that judgment, that punishment upon Himself.

Jesus is the One who possesses every spiritual gift; they are His, and they are His perfectly, in full and complete measure. And He who possesses every spiritual gift then delights to give them away, to you and to me. Spiritual gifts are just that—gifts!—they belong to Jesus, but He entrusts them to our care, we are stewards of them, not owners. He gives them to each person individually, for us to use for the good of others, as Saint Paul says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” Spiritual gifts are given on an individual basis, to each person as Jesus, the possessor of every spiritual gift, sees fit. Different gifts are given to different people, and the same gift is not given in the same way to any two Christians. Jesus gives them in exactly the way that they are needed, not for our own good, but for the good of the body of Christ and the good of a world trapped in the darkness of sin.

Spiritual gifts are not given for the purposes of pride, to puff out chests and inflate egos, to lead us to look down upon those who we don’t think are quite as gifted as we are. Paul warns against such arrogance later in our text. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” I’m just old enough to remember the fervor, really the nonsense, that once accompanied the subject of spiritual gifts. It was once quite trendy, and a quick Google search will tell you that in many places it still is today, for churches to give out ‘spiritual gift inventories’ to help you to identify your gifts, and then give you opportunities to exercise them in various roles within the congregation. This was a Christian version of a personality or career test: find your gift, and we’ll slot you in the right job.

Spiritual gifts then become a mystery, something that I can’t find out until I take this test; often the language of ‘discovery’ is used, as if Jesus makes us search around for how He has blessed us. Spiritual gifts, instead of being received as a gift, are then a source of pride, as we identify for ourselves (using someone’s test) what gifts we have and then call on others to recognize them. Spiritual gifts are then simply a synonym for personality strengths, that I must be allowed to exercise in the way I think they should be used. Most devastating, spiritual gifts are then set up against and above the vocations that God has called us to, they are used as excuses to leave vocations God has given or to seek vocations that He has not. Scripture forbids a woman to serve as a pastor, but many sought that office after a spiritual gift inventory claimed to identify the gift of preaching.

Such a perspective on spiritual gifts is completely contrary to how Paul would have us use the gifts Jesus has given. Spiritual gifts are not given for the self, they are not given for our own good. They are not given to benefit our own life, to exalt ourselves in the eyes of others, or as leverage for church offices. Spiritual gifts don’t belong to us, they are not our possession; Jesus possesses them all, and He gives them how and where He wills, all for the good of the body, His Body, the Church, and for the extension of the kingdom of God throughout the world. The question then is not, ‘what spiritual gift do I have?’ but instead, ‘where has God placed me and what has He called on me to do in that vocation?’ The spiritual gifts that Paul lists here are all general and generic, and that’s the point: the focus isn’t on the gift, the focus is on using whatever God has given you, in whatever vocation He has placed you, in genuine love for your neighbor, as Saint Paul teaches: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

Jesus gives spiritual gifts to individuals for the good of the body of Christ, in each and every place, to show love to our brothers and sisters in our congregation and around the world. He gives gifts to you and to me, spiritual gifts, and also material gifts, to supply what others lack, what is needed in the body of Christ. He uses us in our vocation, He uses us according to the gifts He has given to us, as we, hearing the exhortation of Paul, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” What we have, what gifts have been given to us, we use to supply what is lacking among others, trusting that God will use others to then supply what we lack. This happens in a congregation, as the body of Christ comes together to educate our young, maintain a building, and spread the Gospel, not only the direct preaching of the Word from this pulpit, but those who support this proclamation in numerous ways, and who take it into their vocations during the week. The Christian congregation is an assembly of saints with different gifts, each using them for the good of the body, each one supplying what the other lacks; each member is vital, each is blessed individually for the good of the whole. We see this on a much larger scale when we look at a church body or at the body of Christ spread throughout the world; individuals, congregations, and church bodies in love supply what others lack, using all gifts for the good of the body and the extension of the kingdom of God.

Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pretoria, South Africa has students, men who wish to become pastors and spread the Gospel in their native land, who hunger and thirst for Lutheran theology, but what don’t they have? They don’t have enough teachers, they don’t have enough materials, and they don’t have enough money. What do we have? We have men who can teach, we have the books, and we have been blessed to live in a prosperous land; we can supply what they need. That is what mission work is all about: we supply what others lack, but we are not left unchanged, as they supply what we lack, exhorting us to be faithful to God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions, and refreshing us with their zeal to know and learn more about the truths of the faith.

This exchange of love in the body of Christ is a source of joy, because we are not looking to our own pride, but to the good of others. Saint Paul encourages us, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” The Church is a body, and we do not exalt ourselves over other members of that body, we do not look down on them in pride for any deficiency they may have, but with joy we fervently seek their good, for we all are loved by a God who seeks our good—it is His love, first shown to us, that we then show to others.

Jesus is the One whose love is genuine, never false, never fake, never a show, but always sincere, always honest, always true. Jesus is the One who abhorred what is evil, refusing to give in to Satan’s temptations, refusing to abandon the road of the cross, and instead chose the good: what was good for us, His death, in our place, on a Friday we still call ‘Good.’ Jesus is the One who loves us with brotherly affection, for we have been made His brothers and sisters, brought into His family, by our baptism into His Name. Jesus is the One who shows honor to all, especially the lowly, especially the downtrodden, especially those whom the world has forgotten. Jesus is the One whose zeal is never slothful, but is fervent in His service of you and me with His gifts, pouring out His love and forgiveness in manifest ways. Jesus is the One who rejoiced in the hope of His Father’s vindication, was patient in the tribulations inflicted upon Him for your sake, who constantly cried out to His Father in prayer, and was heard. Jesus is the One who contributes all He has for the needs of the saints, and He shows hospitality to us, calling on us to take shelter under His wings. Jesus is the One who blessed those who persecuted Him, asking God to forgive them as they nailed Him to the tree. Jesus is the One who rejoices with you who rejoice, as you celebrate that gifts and blessings that flow into your life, provision from a generous God, and Jesus is the One who weeps with you who weep, as you face the struggles and challenges of living in a still-fallen world. Jesus is the One who is never haughty, who is not embarrassed to associate with sinners; in fact, He never associates with anyone else. He associates with sinners in order to forgive them. He associates with you, He forgives you, because He loves you; He has every gift in full measure, He has fulfilled every exhortation on your behalf. His love is genuine, and it will never fail, it is His greatest gift. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

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