Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost 2017 — Preaching Notes

August 27, 2017 (Year A)
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

#ThreeSteps  |  Step 3: Step Your Spiritual Gifts

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Romans 12:1-8

God’s calling and gifts cannot be called back. As we step out in faith, placing all of our allegiance in Jesus, we remember with Paul that we disciples of Jesus are not the only people to whom our God has made covenant promises. And so we step out in our faith in Jesus while stepping toward our sisters and brothers through God’s promises to Abraham, the physical and spiritual descendants of both Isaac (the Jewish people) and Ishmael (the Muslim people). We step toward these spiritual siblings with respect for God’s irrevocable calling and promises to them, and, at the same time, confessing and seeking to be faithful to God’s irrevocable calling and gifts to us as those who have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (I Peter 1:3).

We step out into our own identity in Christ. We step toward others in our extended family. And we step forth, both within the community of the church and toward the wider world, in the power of the spiritual gifts we have been given, whatever these may be.

If you followed our suggestions for Easter Season and Pentecost, you may have created formation groups during Easter Season to help persons explore and claim their spiritual gifts and discern the ministries to which they were committing themselves within the life of the congregation and the wider community. And you would have commissioned them into these ministries in worship on Pentecost.

It’s now been over two months since Pentecost. It’s a good time for a refresher and a check-in, or perhaps for those who have arrived among you since Pentecost, a primer on the reality and value of these spiritual gifts and the calling we have to engage our discipleship to Jesus by using them.

Paul reminded his contemporaries at Rome why we have been given gifts, what some of these gifts are, and how to make the best use of them.

Why does God give us spiritual gifts? It’s so we have the resources we need to offer ourselves to God! This is what Paul starts to describe in verse 1 when he talks about “present[ing] our bodies as a living sacrifice.” Paul is not asking first century Christians in Rome, or us today, to cast ourselves on sacrificial altars. Nor is God looking for us to give something we don’t have. Nor does God intend for us to manufacture something to offer to God. That’s not how sacrifices work in God’s economy. Instead, we offer to God from the bounty God has already given us. So God gives us everything we need to offer ourselves to God in a way that is “holy and acceptable.”

Some translations, including the NRSV, speak of this “offering our bodies” as “our spiritual worship.” But the word translated worship here is not normally translated that way from the Greek. A less “forced” translation would be “reasonable public service.” (For Greek nerds out there, the typical Greek word for public worship is “leitourgia,” while the typical Greek word for public service is “latreia.” Romans 12:1 uses “latreia.”) This word choice points to the way in which Paul extends the metaphor of our participation in specific ritual acts as Christians (sacrifice) to a whole life of service, not just worship. Just as we offer physical gifts and prayers to God in sacrifice in worship, so also we are called to offer the spiritual gifts we have been given in our life of public service, both in the context of the church communities and its needs and in the wider world.

So our first act of stepping forth in our spiritual gifts is to recognize these gifts aren’t for us to keep for ourselves, but for us to offer to God, in all the ways and places we can make use of them.

Paul goes on to underscore that we have been given such gifts is not a basis for any of us to assert our own superiority over anyone else. The default “worldly” way of approaching giftedness is to assign greater honor and privilege to those it deems “most gifted” or having the “most important gifts.” however the local culture determines such rankings. This is such a default that Paul takes pains to say “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (verse 2, NRSV). We’re not to use the worldly defaults at all! Instead, the way we value the gifts we are given is with careful attentiveness to what God has given each of us. It is to trust that what we have been given by God is exactly what is needed for us, and from us, for the common good. No more is needed, and no less. What God has given is enough, and often more than enough.

So the second act of stepping forth in our spiritual gifts is to be assured of the sufficiency of these gifts for God’s purposes in our lives and the life of the world. No comparisons, just quiet confidence as we step forth.

Now, and only now, does Paul begin to offer a non-exhaustive list of what some of those gifts are and how we might each apply God’s way of considering them and using them and growing them so we can offer ourselves ever more fully in sacrifice to God and service to others.

We grow in our capacity to use the gift of prophecy-- proclaiming God’s ways into the lives of others-- as our own faith increases. We grow in exercising gifts of service as we actually serve. We don’t grow by calling ourselves servants of others, but in the course of serving itself. Similarly, we grow in our capacity to teach others by the practice of teaching, and in our capacity to offer encouragement and challenge to others as we offer such encouragement and challenge.

We grow as givers as we grow in our own generosity. There is no plateau where we can say we have “arrived” or congratulate ourselves. We become better leaders as we become more reliable in our relationships and duties of leadership toward others, not simply as we obtain (or refer to) leadership positions and titles. And we become more compassionate as we keep cultivating-- wait for it-- not “feeling deeply for others” but, rather, gratitude. Gratitude, not pity, is the fuel of compassion (verses 5-8).

All of these gifts are about the outflow, the self-offering, the sacrifice. The Spirit’s gifts are intended to be poured out on the world through us just as we pour out our lives before God in worship.

It’s in stepping out at using these and other gifts the Spirit has given us, not focusing on having them in the first place, that we grow in our capacity to offer ourselves to God and in public service to the church and the wider world.

So, as we conclude this series, how are you doing, yourself, and how are we doing (or getting better at) taking these three kinds of steps in the Christian walk?

How are you doing with entrusting you whole life to Christ, grounded in and buoyed up in the life of the Triune God? How can we help each other do this better? And how can we offer a better public witness to it through our public-facing ministries as a congregation than we currently do?

How are you doing with stepping toward your Jewish and Christian neighbors? And how can we as a congregation take better next steps in that direction?

And especially for all of us today, how are you doing at stepping forth in the gifts God has given you-- better at offering yourself to God, at approaching these gifts not as markers of superiority or rank, but as indicators of how to serve and grow in service, and better in the ministries you are engaged in, whether in this congregation, or in the wider community? And how can we as a congregation improve our support of your growth in ministry going forward?

Hear Christ’s call and respond. Step out. Step toward. And step forth as the Spirit leads.

Categories: Year A, Twelfth Sunday After the Pentecost — August 27, 2017