1I 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. 2Do 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.
3For 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. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
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 we begin an eight-part sermon series focusing on spiritual gifts, spiritual ministries. There are several “lists” of spiritual gifts in different places in the New Testament, and plenty of debate among biblical scholars on which ones really count as “gifts” and which one don’t, but we’ll be focusing on the seven gifts listed in Romans 12:1-8. They are (in order) prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.
Like many other contemporary theologians and pastors, I don’t necessarily believe that Paul, when he wrote this letter to the Romans, intended for this to be an exhaustive list of all spritual gifts, but rather an example of some—perhaps even the most prominent, or the ones most needed by his audience. I like to think that there are other spiritual gifts that are eqully valid, but just didn’t quite make the cut…like the spiritual gift of being able to stay awake all the way through a boring sermon…or the spiritual gift of flipping a hamburger without ever dropping it through the grill…or the spiritual gift of avoiding the pastor when you know he wants to ask you to sign up for something…
Prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion — we’ll spend each of the next seven weeks reflecting on each one of these gifts, and how God uses them for the benefit of the church and the wider community. But today, I’d like to lay a foundation for what exactly we mean when we talk about spiritual gifts.
In fact, that word, “gifts” is, in my opinion, responsible for a pretty serious misunderstanding of this passage, and a problem in the way I see a lot of churches and Christians approach spiritual gifts.
You see, 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 (and the one that is responsible for the misunderstanding) 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 this stream of thought, 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 facebook tests, or else by asking your friends or your pastor to tell you which gift they think you have.
It’s a neat idea, a popular teaching, and there are thousands of books and Sunday-school classes out there which promise to help you find your special spiritual gift and put it to use. 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 this kind of thinking is the tendency, once someone has “found” their special spiritual gift, to exclude all of the others. For example, in our list of seven, “generosity” is listed as a spiritual gift. What would it be like 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. Not your spiritual gift.” I don’t think so. God calls on all of us to be generous in giving of our time, our abilities, and our resources.
So up to this point, I’ve described what a spiritual gift is not: It’s not a special ability or power that belongs to a particular individual. What is it then? Let’s go back to the first meaning of “gift” in English, which is the only meaning in the original Greek that Paul wrote in. It 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 almost 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 worship? Is it three songs/hymns, 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 worship!
But notice which way the gift goes—from us to God. That’s not to say that God doesn’t give anything to us. In fact, everything we are, everything we have comes from God. But when it comes to Spiritual Gifts, this is about us, by the mercies of God, presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…our spiritual worship.
So how can we, mere mortal human beings, presume to actually give gifts of any sort of worth to God Almighty, the creator of the universe and everything in it? God has everything that God needs. What could we possibly have to offer?
I think the answer is found in the gospels, when a Pharisee asks Jesus what is the most important commandment of all. Jesus replies that it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength…and a second is like it: To love your neighbor as yourself. A second is like it. In other words, when you love your neighbor, you are showing love to God.
How can we possibly give any gift worth giving to God? By giving to one another. And what shall we give? Well, how about some “spiritual gifts,” for starters? We can give to each other the gift of prophecy, which simply means proclaiming God’s good news to each other. We can minister to each other, teach one another, exhort one another (which means to encourage one another), be generous to each other, lead one another, and be compassionate to one another. These are spiritual gifts—or perhaps a better way put it—spiritual ministries. When we give them to our church and our community, we are giving them to God.
So who has the gift of teaching, and who has the gift of compassion, and who has the gift of generosity? The answer…you do. All of you. 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 people?” 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.
In the next few months, our church-wide nominating committee will be nominating people to serve as leaders in our church: You, who are members, will have the opportunity to elect our next class of Elders, our Deacons, and Trustees. Several times in the past weeks, I have had people come up to me, or to members of the nominating committee, and say “I’d like to serve the church in some capacity.” I usually ask, “How would you like to serve? What sort of ministry are you called to?” And my favorite answer, the one that makes me so proud as a pastor, the one I have (thankfully) heard many times, 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 are called 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, and use it, and 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.