Good Gifts for Growing People: A sermon on Romans 12:1-8

So, there is this idea that women have the ability and commission to preach just as much as men. This sermon is offered alongside the work of other like-minded groups of people who are each doing their bit for bringing about the fullness of women’s ministry.

You can watch the YouTube video (~25 minutes, ~480MB) or you can read the text which is (for the most part!) reproduced below.

(The video is also embedded above, but it doesn’t display in all readers.)

Are you a walking-talking concordance? Great – jump right in! If not, you might want to read the passage before reading the text, but it’s not compulsory.

An illustration of Asperger’s Syndrome

A few years ago, I read a book called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.

The book is a piece of fiction written from the perspective of a teenage boy who has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism. This particular boy, is very intelligent; he likes maths and science and solving puzzles. However, he doesn’t understand social cues, he has difficulty interpreting people’s facial expressions and he gets easily overwhelmed by his environment.

Now, for many people with Asperger’s Syndrome, who are often called ‘aspies’ this book has been a gateway for understanding and acceptance. When people who don’t have autism, people who are ‘neurotypical’ read the book, they begin to appreciate that aspies view the world very, very differently and they face challenges that neurotypicals do not perceive. I can even attest to this happening within my own family; my husband has Asperger’s Syndrome and some of my family members were very much helped in understanding him when they read The Curious Incident.

However, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is a piece of fiction, written by a neurotypical author. It has its flaws and it has its limits. For one thing, it’s about a boy; Asperger’s often manifests differently in girls. For another, it’s about a teenager; Asperger’s has different effects on adults – my husband is over 30 but still sometimes gets asked for ID.

However, because this book has reached such fame and acclaim, many people have been reading the book and say “I now understand Asperger’s Syndrome. I now understand autism.” So there are schools where you have children with Asperger’s being sensationalised and pigeon-holed by their peers. Assumptions are made about what that person does or doesn’t like, what they’ll find easy or difficult. And so now I’m not surprised when I hear an Aspies say, “If you’ve met one person with Asperger’s Syndrome, you’ve met one person with Asperger’s Syndrome.” Even with their similarities, they are different.

Now I don’t have a problem with the book being famous and being a go-to book to help illustrate the differences between aspies and neurotypicals. It is a good illustration. The problem is because it is a good illustration, people are tempted to take it as the only illustration. They can even use it as an excuse to not pay attention to the reality of some people’s lives.

If it had been a bad or mediocre illustration, people would have paid it less attention. They would have been more likely to pay attention to its flaws and gaps and balance its features against other illustrations and stories of what it is to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

So where am I going with this?

The body: an illustration of the church

Paul liked to use images and he uses them a lot in the New Testament, sometimes rapidly jumping from one to another and then another. In 1 Thessalonians 5 he says that the thief will come in the night, so the woman will go into labour, so you mustn’t get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armour. [Tom Wright, p144, Surprised by Hope (SPCK)] These images don’t necessarily belong together but he uses them to get his point across. In 2 Corinthians chapters 4 and 5 he talks about the body but uses different images. He refers to the body as a jar of clay, a tent, a building, as clothing – each different image makes a slightly different point.

That’s how Paul writes. And every now and then he uses an extended image to make a number of points. And sometimes, when it’s a really good image, he uses it more than once.

One of the images Paul uses repeatedly throughout the New Testament is the image of the church as the body of Christ. Now in some ways he is trying to describe a reality and it’s not just an image or illustration. But at the same it is an image and a metaphor – and he uses it for particular purposes. Paul used it to teach the early churches about how to be united through diversity, how an individual’s distinctiveness has a part to play in the collective and united work of the church, how no one gets to take undue pride in their position, because we all belong to each other and we are all interdependent.

And, as an aside: Paul had a very high view of the body. He saw the body as a good thing. Depending on your translation you might read Paul talking rather negatively about “the flesh” in other parts of the New Testament. Paul uses the word flesh in a variety of different ways and when he does use it negatively he is not talking about the body. That’s a discussion for another time.

The point I want to make here is that Paul had a high view of the body, so when he said the church is the body of Christ, he meant that in a very positive way.

But even good illustrations have limits

Even so, this image can lead us to false assumptions about our varied identities in Christ. My hand can only ever be my hand. It will never be my beating heart. It will never be the hair on my head. It might be able to sense things via touch, but it will never see or taste. I might be able to do a handstand (actually I can’t) but my hand will never be a foot.

Similarly, we might assume that, if we are parts of the body of Christ that our identity in Christ is fixed and unchanging.

Maybe we can be a very strong foot, or a very skilled hand, or a very observant eye – but that is the most and the best we can be.

And this can lead to difficult conundrums: what do you do if you’ve lived your life believing you’re a foot, when in your heart of hearts you always wished you were an ear? Do you accept it as God’s will? After all God made you and he’s the one with the infinite wisdom.

Spiritual ‘gifts’?

And here in Romans 12, Paul uses this image of being parts of the body of Christ alongside another image – that of the Holy Spirit giving spiritual gifts. (For the record he does exactly the same thing in 1 Corinthians 12.)

Again it’s easy to run into problems. It’s easy to believe that you have a spiritual gift or you don’t. Just as you might own a piano or not own a piano.

Except that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not objects that you have or don’t have. We don’t say, “I don’t have a piano, therefore I’m not a pianist.” We don’t say, “My fingers have never touched a piano, therefore I could never be a pianist.” But do we think of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that way?

You know: “I prayed for someone, but they didn’t get better – I must not have the gift of healing.”

“I thought I knew what God’s perspective on a situation was, but later realised I was wrong – I must not have the gift of prophecy.”

“I gave somebody some bad advice with incomplete facts – I must not have the gift of teaching.”

Well if the disciples had followed that logic that they would never have had any ministries.

The question is not “Have I ever tried and failed?” where if the answer is yes, it’s not for you.

The question is rather, “What am you curious about? What sparks your interest? How would you like to see the world change? What are the stories that really reach into you and spark your imagination?”

Because once you’ve asked those questions there are four very simple things to do: pray, study, get alongside people who can support you, and practice. And then keep on praying, studying, walking alongside people, and practicing.

Yes, we’re like body parts where we each in our distinctiveness have a part to play in the united collective whole. But we’re also like clay that is the process of being crafted. A body part will only ever be that body part, but clay changes shape as the potter works with it. It is my firm belief that anyone and everyone can ask the Holy Spirit for a gift they don’t believe they have. There might be some gifts where you invest more and specialise more than others; that’s OK. My point here is that I would urge you not to discount yourself from something you’ve never tried or never experienced much success at.

Being like clay

Now, I’m conscious that earlier in the book of Romans, Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Does the clay say to the potter, why did you make me?” He uses the image of clay, but negatively. If we think that we’re a foot but we’ve always wanted to be an ear, is that talking back to God? I don’t think it is. Talking back to God is about saying “Who are you?” to him. But when it talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that’s about us coming to God about our dreams and hopes asking for his help. And that’s completely different.

And if we take a step back, it is helpful to think of ourselves as being part of the body of the Christ, or as being like clay taking shape, or as being like branches on the vine – the truth is, we’re not body parts, or clay, or branches. We’re people; made in the image of God. And using our free will to engage with God about the things we’re curious about, that spark our interest – I think that’s one of the most powerful things we can do. And not only that, I believe God loves it when we do. He is the potter who enjoys seeing us take shape; he is the gardener who enjoys seeing us grow.

Now for some people, they may not know have a clear idea about what really sparks their interest. Or at least, not when it comes to the things of God. There could be many reasons for that, but that doesn’t mean you’re out. That doesn’t mean, no gifts for you, no place in the body for you. That’s not how the love of God works.

So if you’re afraid that there’s something ugly or misshapen about you, ask God to shape you, it’s what the potter does. If you’re concerned there is something unclean or unruly and decaying in your life, ask God to prune you, it’s what the gardener does. And if you’re afraid that you lack skill and direction, ask God to guide you, it’s what the head of the body does.

And you may find that what you thought is an issue, God doesn’t see as an issue. And you may find that something you didn’t think was an issue is actually something God wants to work on. Join the club.

But everyone has a unique part to play, a contribution that only they can make.

Launch out into the deep

There’s a story in Luke 5 about how the disciples had been fishing all night and had caught nothing, but Jesus told them to put their nets down for a catch. [OK, so, when I did the video I got this story slightly mixed up with another one in John 21 where the disciples throw their nets to the other side of the boat and get a huge catch. Whoops.] And I mention this story because if you are not going to grow if you don’t launch out, if you don’t step out into something a little less familiar. That stepping out can be a daunting prospect. Especially if you tried it once before and it didn’t really work. But the question I would challenge you with is this: are you going to launch out, to step out, to ask the Holy Spirit for good gifts and then to start practicing with them? (And keep on studying, and praying, and practicing, and getting alongside people, and learning from your mistakes?)

And if that’s too daunting for you, the question is this: are you going to start preparing for launch? Are you going to say, “God this isn’t something I want, but it’s something I want to want. Will you help me prepare and give me courage?”

And if you’re already out there and you’ve had several catches – great, where are you going to go fishing next?

There is a whole world out there, hungering for the life-giving work of the Spirit of God. Are you going to be intentional about the part you have to play in the Holy Spirit’s redeeming, sanctifying, transforming work? A work that is for this world, for the here and now?

Because that commission is given to each and every one of us. And when God gives, he does not find fault. He gives generously. He guides and directs and instructs with gentleness and wisdom.

And the gentleness and wisdom that God gives has taken my breath away, because he teaches me with a compassion that I don’t always give myself or others. And I find confidence and strength in knowing that this is the kindness and goodness of the One who wants me to be all that I can be.

So I would encourage you to think about what sparks your interest. What do you want to take to God, to develop and nurture and grow, so that you can be all you can be?

God, after all, gives generously and ungrudgingly to all people.
– James 1:5b (NTE)

Three relevant statements from my list of 95:
8. We yield to God so that he can shape us. In that sense, we are like clay.
25. The Holy Spirit is a person.
56. The commission of the church is to embody, for the sake of the world, the same reconciling covenant faithfulness (that is, righteousness) that was shown to us in Jesus.

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