Sermons That Work

Gifts for Service, Epiphany 2 (C) – 1998

January 18, 1998

What a marvelous set of readings we have for today! First, Isaiah declares that God loves us, and will treat us superbly. Then in the epistle, St. Paul tells us that here are many kinds of people – because God the Holy Spirit wanted it that way, for his own purposes. And finally, in the Gospel reading, St. John tells a story about how Jesus did something unheard of — he changed water into wine. And his disciples become believers.

(These epistle and gospel readings are among the best known and most preached about in the Christian bible.)

I want to focus this morning on the reading from St. Paul, the reading about the varieties of gifts which come from the Holy Spirit. In the final portion of this reading, Paul lists a number of gifts that people receive, concluding with the observation that the different gifts were given to the different people as the Spirit chose. These differences in gifts are according to the choice of the Holy Spirit — not the choice of the recipients.

Now many sermons on this passage emphasize the message that God wants many kinds of people in His Church and that we should both expect and respect diversity. I agree with these points, but I do not believe that diversity is the main point of this passage. The main points are that all these gifts come from God, and that they are intended to be used in serving God.

Look at verses 4,5, and 6, which list varieties in three things: in gifts, in service, and in working. The gifts, though various, all come from the same God. The varieties of service are all in the service of the same Lord. And the same God inspires people to do different kinds of work, all for the common good.

“Inspire” is a marvelous word. It means to impart to someone a spirit of enthusiastically wanting to do something. Think about team spirit — it can be the difference between a very good performance and a very bad one. Having spirit doesn’t change your basic skills, but it certainly does change the way they are used, and it thus changes the results.

Now imagine yourself as one of the first century people for whom St. Paul’s message was written. The world in those days was very, very different from our world. One of the major differences was in the status of the common people. The vast majority of people were viewed as the property of either one of the very few very, very rich people. In this period, in the Roman Empire, owned people were the vast majority of the population. Owned people did not have property rights, and they did not have the legal right to marry. While the may have considered themselves married, their marriage had no legal status, and it would have been ignored for instance by the rules of inheritance.

Now this situation doesn’t mean that the owners always treated these people like Simon Legree treated his slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although many undoubtedly did. The view at that time was that the owner (or ruler) had the right to treat his possessions any way he wanted to. In the civil system, most people were not Roman citizens, and thus had no Roman law rights. And while Caesar might be a long distance away, he had local authorities who exercised his power and his rights of ownership according to his purposes.

In the first century view, the owned persons owed loyalty to their owner. Even St. Paul, in Colossians [3.22], says that if you are a slave, your Christian duty is to be a good slave.

This idea is very foreign to us today, isn’t it? At least, St. Paul went on to say, “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” [4.1] In today’s terms, masters were middle management.

Some had authority over some of the owner’s property — including, but not limited to, the owned people. People with this authority and responsibility were to administer the property — again including the owned people — as desired by the owner. That is, they were supposed to do things like use the property to make a profit for the owner or to carry out specified projects for him.

In the modern world, we use the term manager, or steward, to describe someone who administers property and/or organizations — things typically owned by someone else. Today’s manager or steward is responsible to the owner for obtaining the results the owner wants.

But, let us go back to the world of the first century Roman Empire, where the term lord implies power over people, and ownership of them. [pause]

Now, consider this statement from a first century perspective: “Jesus is Lord.” [pause]

Or, consider these words: “Lord God almighty.” [pause]

Gives you a different perspective, doesn’t it?

To many of us, the idea that we might be some other person’s property is not only quite strange, it is quite jarring, and extremely offensive. If we lived in the first century, here’s what we would think — I would hope that the Christian message that we were not the property of some other human being, but the property of an all-powerful, all-loving God, would be very, very good news. It would be even better if we thought that we thought that we were the children of God, not just the property of this God. No wonder Isaiah says that God will treat us well!

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be God? For some reason, this question occurred to me one day. I don’t know why — and it really doesn’t matter.

Well for those of us who thought for a minute or so about what it would be like being God, a mental picture should suddenly come to us. We could imagine God’s view as God looks down at us squabbling in the world. We could imagine God’s feeling very much as we feel as a parent, looking down at a bunch of squabbling kids. While a small part of us may have felt like wringing their necks, or at least giving their bottoms a good whack, we know that the best thing is to insert ourself into the fray, and end it. No matter how rotten they were being, and no matter how exasperated we felt at what they were doing, we still loved them. And we loved them no matter how different from each other they were.

When many of us gave this thought, we have more sympathy for God — and also more confidence in God’s love. In a limited, but still meaningful way, we feel that we can understand it.

We are all God’s children, and he loves us no matter what we are like, and no matter what we have done.

But with our status as God’s children, there goes responsibilities.Jesus taught that we are God’s stewards, using God’s property to get his work done. This is like giving our kids varieties of things to do around the house, and holding them accountable for doing them. It helps get the needed work done, and it’s good for the kids.

And St. Paul is expressing the same idea in verse 5: “…there are varieties of service, but the same Lord.” That is, the same Lord, whom we are to serve.

Varieties of working are mentioned in verse 6, and all the work is inspired by God.

In verse 7, we are told that all of these gifts which come from the Spirit have a purpose: that purpose is to equip us for working for the common good.

Isn’t saying that we should work for the good of everyone — the common good — the same as saying that we should all love one another? In the bible, love isn’t just a feeling — it’s something that is expressed by action.

Our hope is that, with all of our diverse gifts, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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