Sermon - 25th September 2016
Spiritual gifts - and farewell to Lee Gellatly
Scripture - Romans 12:1-13
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The letters of Paul which have come down to us in our bible are broadly concerned with Christian churches which were undergoing change: in some, Paul commended the community and its leaders for positive and progressive change, in some, he challenged them around what he perceived as changes for the worse. But Paul understood that a living community of Christian followers was always dealing with change because it was connected with, and was responsive to, the society in which it existed.
The ministry of Jesus himself was founded on bringing about changes in society by reforming corrupt and oppressive systems and structures, and by teaching a fresh understanding of the core values of God’s word. The first disciples experienced major changes to their lives, and to their faith, as slowly, and not without struggle, they started to share Jesus’s vision of the coming Kingdom of God. After Jesus’s death, they experienced a sense of call to God’s service, and they were empowered by the gift of God’s spirit to go and work out what that call really meant.
Christian communities, with their values of inclusion, their open spirituality, and their social action, all began as reforming, radical and progressive influences in the locations where they sprang up. They were a threat to the status quo, often regarded as anti-social, and they relied for their leadership and their energy on the spiritual gifts which they discerned and nurtured within their own community and among those who came to join them.
In today’s reading, Paul gives examples of what he considers to be gifts given by God’s spirit for the building up of Christ’s church. He speaks of:
- declaring God’s message,
- exercising authority,
And the subject of spiritual gifts is one that Paul returned to in other writings. Lists of these gifts - similar but with some variations - can be found in letters to the church in Corinth and to the church in Ephesus. The belief that God equips Christ’s church with gifted people whose task is to build up the strength and healthy relationships of the worshipping community was an important working model for Paul. He saw it as the source from which churches would be nurtured and would survive in the face of the changes which they would always be challenged to negotiate.
Christian churches today also face many changes that we are challenged to negotiate. How we deal with change is one of the recurring themes - in one guise or another - which dominates the private thoughts and public debates of many church leaders. There are issues where one congregation may be drawn to adaptability and flexibility based on new insights around some particular religious values, whereas another congregation may feel conscientiously bound by traditional interpretations and stances.
These tensions put many of today’s Christians in difficult places where they would generally prefer not to be. But that is also where Paul, and his congregations, and the communities founded by the first apostles, also found themselves to be; because discerning the mind of Christ in continually changing circumstances is never as easy as we may hope for.
Paul would probably say that our toolkit for doing that - for discerning the mind of Christ - is the array of spiritual gifts which God has given to us to strengthen and build up the church in times of change and uncertainty.
One of the critical uncertainties facing the church at this present time is around what we expect our professionally-trained ministers of word and sacraments to contribute to the missions of our congregations. We know that by the time Lee is ordained to her first pastorate, there will be many fewer such ministers serving the church. There is a huge discernment process to be undertaken around what a ministry of word and sacraments will look, and sound, and feel like in 5, 10, or 20 years time. Changes are upon us, and failing to respond to them is simply not an option - but within radical and progressive Christian communities, it never was an option.
This is a world of uncertainty into which Lee is walking with her eyes open and with much courage in her heart. I have no doubt that God calls Lee to serve in this world of change and challenge, and I also believe that, although this would be a fearsome prospect for some, for Lee it will be a ministry of great creativity, inspiration, affirmation, and a powerful source of blessing to the congregations she will serve.
Life will be different for her; the skills and aptitudes she will require will be different from what have previously been prioritised in the training of ordained ministers.
Ideas are emerging that ministers will be directly responsible for fewer specific tasks, but will focus on discerning, teaching, encouraging and enabling the gifts of others to deliver more varied ministries from within a broad congregational membership. This is both exciting and daunting because Lee will be required to respond to challenges born out of uncertainty.
Those of us who remain here also will be required to respond to challenges born out of uncertainty. Every departure leaves a gap in the pattern of relationships and the store of resources which give shape and form to the community from which a member leaves. Personal friendships will undoubtedly continue, but the dynamics of our church will alter and we will be aware of that as each week passes.
But if we listen to St Paul, we will be aware that God’s outpouring of spiritual gifts is still alive and active in this church through the ministries we discern, enable, and nurture, and through the love we show to one another, through the respect we afford to one another, and in the joyful hope, patience and prayer with which we approach the future.
I know that in this church today there are people who are overflowing with gifts which will build up God’s church in this place: people who declare God’s message to others, who live lives of service to others, who teach, and encourage, who share what they have, who exercise authority, and whose natural response to any situation is always to show kindness.
And only God knows what gifts we may be blessed with by those who are yet to come and may recognise that this church is where God is calling them to be.
It has been a privilege for all of us to share in this part of Lee’s journey of faith. It is a privilege to bless her and commend her to the particular calling which she has discerned for herself and which others have discerned to be upon her.
And it will be a privilege to continue the journey on which this church has embarked, knowing that God empowers us with the gifts we have, and the gifts yet to come, as we offer affirming spirituality, inclusive community and assertive social action such as we find at the heart of the good news which Jesus proclaimed.
Will you pray with me:
Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.