Sermon - 26th November 2017
Using our gifts
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
I want to start today with a request. I want you to look around this church and to decide - just within your own thoughts - who you think are the gifted people in our congregation. If you had to pick them out for an awards ceremony, who would you say are our gifted people?
Today we come to the end of our church year. From next Sunday we look forwards. We look forwards to the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the start of a new year of hopes, dreams and possibilities. We also look into the far distant future when God’s kingdom will truly be present here on earth and the good news of Jesus will be truly achieved.
So today is our last real opportunity to look back, to trace the journeys we have made together, to reflect on the messages that we have heard and put into practice.
In some of my own recent sermons I have deliberately focused on those movements of the Spirit within our congregation which draw us together and hold us together. I began to feel that there were some things that we did not say to each other as often as perhaps we should - some important messages that should be a more regular part of what we say to each other.
One of the things we should say more often and more clearly is that change and transition are parts of our experience which we cannot resist, because they are part of God’s call on our lives.
When I preached on the story about Philip and his encounter with the Ethiopian official, I recalled that there was a time when this congregation was almost entirely white, financially comfortable, and largely middle-class. We would have read that story about the probably black, culturally different, possibly gay Ethiopian during worship and never asked the questions that would strike us today.
But whatever divine power drove the Ethiopian court official down that road from Gaza and into the arms of Philip, it also drove people through our doors: people who came from unusual places, from different cultures and who spoke unfamiliar languages.
And rather like the Ethiopian, they said to us ‘We are struggling to understand. We are in an unfamiliar land. We’ve been taught a gospel of hate, but we hear that you teach a gospel of love. Is there anything to prevent us from being accepted, and baptised, and ordained into your church?’
And we said, ‘This is God’s church for all people’ and we welcomed them. And we changed, and are still changing - thank God - because we believe that our common identity as children of God is of more importance than the ethnic or cultural backgrounds, or any other feature of our identity, which might be used to separate, divide or exclude us.
When I preached about John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ and thought about how we might imagine our church continuing to be a church for all people, I picked up on part of our mission statement which says that we will be a family for those who come to us.
Perhaps we don’t say often enough, and clearly enough, that our family is not the same when people we love are missing from our gathering. People tell me that they miss us when they cannot be here. As family members, what I think we sometimes overlook is that the family is not the same when even just one of you is not here among us, because we miss you too. Never let it cross your mind that you will not be missed and church will just carry on without you. You do make a difference.
We know that external circumstances over which we have no control sometimes intervene, but every one of us is part of the life, and love, and rhythm of this congregation. Each of us is part of the heartbeat of our family here, and the relationships between us travel in both directions.
We do matter to each other, our dreams are all equally important, especially so when we are journeying together to become the people whom God blesses to be free to love, free to live, and free to dream. We are not the same, the family is not the same, when you are not here to make your unique contribution to our life together.
And that contribution is important because you bring your gifts to us, and we offer our gifts to you. These are the gifts which God gives to us and which shape us together into what Paul calls the Body of Christ - because it is those gifts which give this congregation its life and its energy and its identity as a Jesus-shaped family of faith.
In one of his most lovely hymns, Charles Wesley wrote these words:
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work, and speak, and think for thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up thy gift in me.
Those words challenge me to think about how God might be stirring us up until we reach the stage where we are using our gifts for the mission which God places before us.
If we believe that this church has been raised up by God for a purpose which God has in mind, we can also be certain that God has equipped the people of this church - present and future - with all the gifts they need to fulfil that purpose. God does not set people up to fail.
Somewhere, among those of us here, and those yet to come, are all the gifts we need to achieve our mission. Our task is to discover those gifts, nurture them, and put them into service.
But we need to recognise that sometimes the mixture of gifts in the mixing bowl of our ministry needs to be stirred a little more before it is ready for its purpose. Or perhaps sometimes the mixture is fully prepared but we lack the confidence to apply the necessary heat to finish off the process. Gifts are tricky things; people can respond very differently to being stirred up. Saint Paul had serious problems with a number of his churches on this very matter.
So the question for us today seems to be around how we focus our gifts. We learn from Paul that the hallmark of an authentic spiritual gift, properly nurtured and applied, is that it builds up the church; in other words, it works in harmony with what we believe God is doing to raise up this church and to achieve God’s purpose for us. The old saying, ‘God first, others second, self last’ is still a good benchmark for what each of us does in the church’s name.
Paul gave different lists of gifts in different letters to his communities. Today’s reading mentions apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. In other letters, Paul also speaks of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, sharing God’s message, discernment of gifts, service, encouragement, authority, and kindness.
Perhaps these days, the biblical names used for spiritual gifts are not very accessible to us. We may not always recognise the gifts we bring to our church life in terms of the names used in Scripture. We don’t always have a clear picture of what prophecy, or mercy, or miracles, or discernment of gifts, might look like in today’s culture. Yet there are ways of digging beneath the surface of the language and realising how God uniquely equips each one of us to grow in discipleship and, in so doing, to build up our church.
We use our gifts whenever:
- we show hospitality to each other, give our time, share what we have, and provide pastoral care to people who need our support;
- whenever we learn from each other, when we teach, share our knowledge, encourage, empower and explain;
- whenever we administer the tasks of our present life together, plan for the future, show leadership, and act prophetically by campaigning for change;
- whenever we come together to listen to God, to seek healing, to share the good news of our faith, to show mercy and forgiveness, to be in communion with each other, and to pray.
We already achieve many of these outcomes through the gifts that God plants in each one of us. Gifted people are already active in these areas. But God is still stirring up other gifts; there will be other ministries to develop, other disciples to welcome into God’s church along with their unique gifts.
The exact shape and dimensions of the gifts we receive are as unique as the individual person who receives them. And only by addressing this very personal question, at the right place and right time on our faith journey, will we be able to release the spiritual energy which gives power to our mission: the energy -
- to discover and use our gifts,
- to discern and empower the gifts in others,
- to follow Jesus,
- as transformed disciples,
- building up the church which God has raised here among us.
Something else we don’t say often enough is ‘thank you’.
Thank you for the past year.
Thank you for exploring your spirituality within the good news of inclusion, equality and celebration that we preach here.
Thank you for being a family who love and care for each other across all our diverse experiences, identities and cultures.
Thank you for taking your faith into the world and doing what you can to bring God’s Kingdom of justice and peace a little closer.
And a special thank you to the gifted ones among us.
Have you decided who they are? Well, I’m looking at them - I’m looking at you - every single one of you. And so, I believe, is Jesus.