This is the message delivered at our small fellowship this morning. I think it is relevant for a great many groups of the Lord’s followers.
“Why are you here?”
Readings: Ephesians 4:9-16 and I Corinthians 12
This message grows out of a recent conversation in which a member of our group replied to the question, “When are you going to preach?” by responding that he was not sure he had anything much to say. I took issue with that: because I firmly believe that every one of us was put here on purpose. Every one of you has been brought here for a reason: because either you are, you know, you have, you understand, or you can do, learn teach, or become something that the rest of us NEED, in order to function as the Lord intends that we should.
If we seriously call ourselves God’s people, we have work to do. There is a hurting world to heal and comfort, a Kingdom to be built, realized, and shared, and this can only happen if “every part is working with the strength that God supplies.”
One of the most common references to the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.” In addition to the passages already read, Paul wrote to the Colossian church that with Jesus as the Head, “all the Body, supplied through its joints and ligaments, and knit together, grows with a growth that comes from God.” (Col.2:19). As you know, I do a lot of knitting. And I know all too well what a mess I have if one stitch is dropped! The whole thing is ruined! With Jesus no longer physically present, this is the ONLY way he can be seen by the rest of the world.
The contribution of every part is essential to the growth and function of a body. By far the most extensive treatment of this topic is found in I Cor.12, which should be the subject of a careful study of its own. Our human bodies are intricately and carefully designed by their Creator. Each part has a necessary role to play in order that the whole may function properly. “You all, then, are the Body of Christ, and individually, you are parts of it.” (v.27). In fact, the choice to be joined to the Body of Christ should be the last individual act of a person’s life. From then on, he is no longer a separate individual, but a part of a larger whole: the Body of Christ. Alone, a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear, cannot survive long. Neither can it fulfill its proper function without the contribution of the rest of the Body. An individual part can’t even be in a proper relationship with the Head without the necessary connecting parts! A finger is of no use unless it is attached to a hand, which itself must be attached to an arm, which is utterly dependent upon a shoulder – Were each individual part to be attached directly to the head, the result would not be a Body, but a monstrosity! “Just Jesus and me” simply does not work. Only together can God’s people become his presence in the world.
Some of the most detailed instructions in this regard occur in Ephesians 4. Paul speaks of various functional persons having been given by God to the church: apostles, prophets, teachers, etc. He maintains that all of these exist for a single purpose: “for work of service, and for building the Body of Christ.” They are neither officials empowered to rule over the rest, nor employees hired to do all the “work of the church.” They are simply members of the Body, entrusted with the responsibility to lead and facilitate the work of all the others!
Paul also illustrated the indispensability and mutual dependence of every part of the human body in I Cor.12, stressing that no part can claim greater value than another, nor divorce itself from its need for all the rest. The members of the Body are intended to support, build up, and serve each other. The leadership functions are intended to help them learn to do that. Notice that these leadership functions are “gifts” given to the church, not to individuals.
The grammatical structure makes this abundantly clear. Different individuals are “given” to the Body, in order that it may perform necessary functions. A careful perusal of the end of the I Cor.12 passage makes it obvious that the list Paul provided does NOT represent a hierarchy as some groups assume, but most likely the chronological order of the supply of those functions. Apostles, for example, were usually the ones who introduced Jesus and his Kingdom to a group. Prophets then explained and expanded the message, and often suggested practical applications of it (the offering for famine relief, for example) , teachers guided and guarded the flock, and equipped them for service in the many ways listed – not only to the group, but also to any people in need.
In neither the Ephesians nor the Corinthians passage are “gifts” represented as the possession of the persons exercising them. Nowhere are they said to have become the “property” of the individuals concerned. Contrary to popular assumptions, you do not “have” a “gift.” Nobody does. You ARE a gift to the portion of Jesus’ Body with which you are associated!
There have, on numerous occasions in the history of “churches” and “Christian teaching,” been campaigns in which people are urged/encouraged to identify “their gift” and put it to use in some vague category of “service.” “Which item on this list are you good at?” can be a very threatening – and exclusionary! — question. It is usually an attempt to fill some sort of empty “slots” in a predetermined hierarchical structure, and to exclude anything and anyone not already on the agenda. This is not a New Testament activity. “Gifts” are elevated or disparaged according to the biases of the “leadership”. Hapless souls are urged to choose among items on a codified list which is their “gift” as if it were a merit badge of some sort! Such exercises miss the point completely. The Biblical message is simply, that in a healthy Body, when a need arises, the Lord has a member of that Body available and empowered to minister to that need. These are not status symbols, or permanent assignments: they are simply the wherewithal to get a job done! If the Lord assigns a job outside the Body, He likewise provides one or more members with the ability to accomplish the task. These empowerments should never be viewed as status symbols or diplomas!! They are simply a delivery system to bring the power of God to bear upon the human situation! None of the “gifts” suggest any outstanding merit on the part of the person entrusted to deliver them, any more than the postman is responsible for what you get in the mail! The “gift” is from the Lord. The one who receives the “gift” is the person who needed it! Perhaps the person who delivered it is the “pony express”! Or maybe Fed-X or UPS.
Different individuals may serve different functions at different times. There is a very good reason why all this discussion leads directly into Paul’s better-known dissertation about “love.” That’s the only way it works!
The lists of “gifts” in the New Testament differ slightly, and none pretend to be exhaustive. None of them have anything whatever to do with natural talents nor learned abilities. They are no more and no less than the supernatural provision of God for the needs of his people.
“The manifestation of the Spirit is given to/through each one for everyone’s benefit.”
We are each set in the Body for a particular purpose in the plan of God, for the good of all the members. The Spirit hands out the assignments. We need only to be available.
Sadly, such usefulness is foreign to the experience of many, if not most, of the Lord’s people, who assume that a single individual needs to be “in charge.” As in our human bodies, parts that are immobilized or unused eventually become unusable. Weakness, disease, and even paralysis may result when a member gets no exercise in its intended work. There are many members in the Body of Christ in dire need of intensive “physical therapy” if they are ever to function as their Lord intends.
There were no bench-warming spectators in the New Testament church. “Church” was never intended to be a “spectator sport” where the vast majority are not participants but are reduced to being mere observers of a performance by a handful of professionals. A congregation is NOT an audience! In fact, in the functioning Corinthian church, everyone had so much to contribute that some regulation was necessary, in order that that their contributions could be shared in an orderly manner. The latter part of I Cor.14 provides a scenario for how this can work.
When the assembly comes together, EVERYONE is expected to bring “a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation” (v.26). Instructions are very specific, making provision that everyone’s contribution may be heard. And do not forget (v.29), the admonition that those listening must “judge” what has been said! Whenever a contribution of any kind is offered!
“For you can all prophesy, one at a time, in order that all may learn and all may be encouraged” (v.31). Is there any one among us so mature, so complete, that he no longer needs to learn or to be encouraged? And who is wise enough to predict from which brother or sister the needed lesson or encouragement might proceed? The emphasis is on the Body’s need for the ministry of EVERY brother and sister!
Perhaps we should set aside an extended time to discern together what each of us has been placed here for! In the New Testament church, responsibilities were assigned in many different ways. Here is a quick overview of some of them.
Jesus, of course, personally chose twelve of his disciples, and later 70 more, to whom he delegated the responsibility to “preach the Kingdom” ahead of his own arrival (Lk.10:1). After Pentecost, his methods were more varied.
Sometimes, as with the early (Ac.3 and 4) accounts of Peter and John, their assignment was simply a case of acting faithfully, when an opportunity arose, on the instructions they had been given years earlier (Lk.9:2, 10:9).
In Ac.6:1-6, the congregation perceived a need, and was instructed to suggest godly individuals to take care of it, who were then “appointed” by the apostles. Interestingly, at least two of these quickly “outgrew” their original assignment, with Stephen (ch.7) becoming a powerful advocate for “the Way”, and subsequently being martyred, and Philip (ch.8) becoming an itinerant evangelist.
Philip’s case is interesting. His trip to Samaria may (or may not) have been on his own initiative, but after his successful mission there (8:26), a messenger instructed him to head for the Gaza road, and (v.29) the Spirit directed him to the Ethiopian’s chariot, and then (39-40) even “carried him off” after the assignment was completed! Perhaps in order to receive a “specific assignment” we need to be busy at the tasks we already perceive!
Ananias, on the other hand, (Ac.9:10-19) is introduced simply as “a certain disciple” – just one of the folks in Damascus. But the Lord spoke to him directly, in a vision. And although at first he argued about it, his obedience gifted all the rest of us, down through the centuries, with the ministry of Paul! We never hear of Ananias again. He just happened to be listening when the Lord needed to recruit someone.
Peter also was busy (Ac.10) when the Lord directed Cornelius (by means of a “messenger”) to send for him. (A very simple investigation reveals that “messenger” and “angel” are totally random translations of the same word). Knowing that the assignment would give Peter cultural problems, the Spirit designed an object lesson, as well as explicit directions to respond to the summons. Wisely, Peter included other brethren as witnesses, who aided in responsibly reporting to challengers, later.
Barnabas (Ac.11:22-26) was sent by the apostles to Antioch, to check out the gathering there. He had already established a reputation for gracious faithfulness (4:36, 9:27). He seems to have recruited Saul on his own initiative (v.25).
We are not told how Agabus (Ac.11:28, 21:10) became known as a prophet, but his word was taken seriously by the group at Antioch, who immediately organized famine relief. Paul later refused his counsel, but his prophecy proved to be correct.
Then of course, there is Saul/Paul. It is important to note that not all of his instructions were as dramatic as his Damascus Road encounter with Jesus (Ac.9). I don’t know why so many folks seem to think that is the one that should be normative. After he was committed to the Lord, it did not require such drastic measures to get his attention! The congregation at Damascus (9:24-45) sheltered, accepted, and nurtured Saul, and helped him escape the city. Barnabas enabled his acceptance by the other apostles (v.27). The Holy Spirit spoke to the prayer meeting in Antioch (Ac.13), to commission their first journey, and they were sent out by both the group (v.3) and the Spirit (v.4). During the trips, however, the “leading” seems to have been more a matter of necessity! When they were run out of one town, they went on to the next! The account of the second journey is interesting. The second trip was undertaken at Paul’s own initiative (Ac.15:36-41), and the Lord is neither blamed nor credited for the argument with Barnabas that resulted in their separation.
Wouldn’t you like to know how they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to preach in Asia, and how “the spirit of Jesus would not allow” their next attempt, to Bithynia? It was only after these frustrations, that Paul “saw a vision” and his group “concluded that God had called” them to Macedonia. Interestingly, we are told that it was simply Paul’s annoyance (16:18) that precipitated the healing of the fortune-teller. Later, another vision reassured him of the Lord’s protection in Corinth.
Honesty requires the conclusion that there are more questions than answers in the latest Acts account. After two years in Ephesus (19:21), Paul “set out in the Spirit” to go through Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem. Both of those are in the opposite direction from Jerusalem. He was warned of trouble by many brethren (20:22, 21:4, 21:10), but consistently rejected their counsel. Yet later he took the advice (21:18-26) of the elders in Jerusalem, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment. Please note that in no case are any of these decisions attributed to “God’s will”! It is presented simply as narrative. Those who claim to explain it as “God’s plan” cannot draw any direct evidence from the New Testament. It is clear, however, that the power of God was entirely adequate to use what may have been mistakes, or even just stubbornness on the part of his devoted servant Paul, for his good purposes. This should be an encouragement to us all!
Other disciples did allow themselves to be “led” by the counsel of brethren. Paul recruited both Timothy (Ac.16:3), who was highly recommended by his home congregation, as an assistant and apprentice, and Silas, (Ac.15:40) who shared his second journey.
Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders” (Ac.14:3) in every new congregation, and urged Titus (Tit.1:5) to do likewise.
From Corinth, where he had met and worked with Aquila and Priscilla (Ac.18:1-3), Paul took them along to Ephesus, (18:18), where they in turn corrected the teaching of Apollos, preparing him for more responsible service, to which the Ephesian brethren subsequently recommended him.
I know this is just a fly-by survey: the point is, we are all in this game together! And the Lord graciously manages to make use of our sometimes – or maybe often – bumbling efforts to be faithful.
So we must continually be asking, asking ourselves, and one another, “Why are you/we here?”
What do I need to learn from you or you from me?
What can we do or be together that none of us can do or be alone?
Let’s help each other, both to ask, and to answer, such questions in faithfulness!