THE PURPOSE OF CHRIST’S GIFTS
Ephesians 4: 1-16
Long before God formed me in the womb of my mother over 62 years ago, I wonder how the Holy One did it? Did God, like a child, cut up my features like paper dolls? Did God, like a teen in chemistry class, mix my ingredients together, and make me? Or did God, just know how to put the right chromosomes together and then endow me with spiritual gifts- like wisdom, understanding, and respect for the Lord? Who knows how God made me and gave me the gifts I have? Who knows how God made you? But it is clear that there is not a set recipe for any of us. Like snowflakes, we are all different. But like Christmas cookies, we are sprinkled with characteristics that make us unique. Some in our midst serve God directly as a minister, a chaplain, a choir director, an organist, a Sunday School teacher, an usher, an elder, a or a person showing great hospitality. Others have similar ingredients but their work took their gifts in other directions. Some are excellent at medicine, some excellent with their hands, or with their hearts, or with their minds. There are so many professions, jobs, and important tasks that need to be done in our world. And yes we can take a raw talent and hone it. With practice, someone can be good at sports, or at music, or at mathematics, or in construction. As the late Mr. Rogers used to say to his television neighbors: “Each of you is unique. There is no one else quite like you!” And so it goes.
When Paul was writing to new Christians in Ephesus, it was a very cosmopolitan town- and very pagan. In the city was a giant temple to Artemis- the goddess of the hunt and of fertility. People would come and pray to her. And in the harbor was a giant statue of the emperor Domitian—whose ego was as giant as the harbor creation- believed to be 27 feet high on top of a massive base; and the Emperor demanded that people address him as “lord and god.” That was the climate of Ephesus when the apostle Paul started writing to a group of Christians there, trying to talk them into believing in the one true God, and in Jesus the Christ-the anointed one-the one who came to save people from the darkness and guilt of sin. It was not a fertile land for planting gospel seeds in Ephesus; it was rocky to say the least! But Paul used God-given gifts for the same reason they’ve been given to us: for the building up of the body of Christ, which is the church. They are not given to stoke our own ego; they are given so the Body of Christ can be equipped to face the wiles of the evil one, and the distractions of the world. Even in our day, finding fertile soil for planting gospel seeds can be difficult. Some people let words from a horoscope guide their important decisions. Some people leave choices up to chance. Others find their answers—and sometimes their gods—online or in peer groups. Some fall into the world of gaming and bit coins that can move from fun to the darkness of obsession or gambling.
Into the first century world and—by extension—the twenty-first century word, Paul writes that he is “a prisoner of the Lord.” That is not just a metaphor; Paul was an actual prisoner, imprisoned for his testimonies about Christ! Some of the most powerful letters historically are from those imprisoned for Christ; the German Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a 20th century example that wrote letters from prison. But in the first century world, when people could often been seen in shackles (or fetters) against their will, Paul’s claim that he is indebted to Christ and no other. He is willfully shackled to Christ. The response to the Prayer of Confession that Glory chose last week declared “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to me; let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.” We, like Paul, may choose to be a prisoner for the Lord. But here was the radical proclamation for the culturally diverse people of Ephesus: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the hope of your calling, on Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.” Goodness. That would really turn people on their heads when they first heard it! “One Lord!” (not Domitian)! “One faith!” (in a community of many faiths?) What a ridiculous idea people must have thought. Paul had brought a giant culture-shift to them, and today he keeps grounding even us in Christ during the shifting tides of our fast-moving world.
Next Paul talks about gifts; and not just ordinary gifts but ones from Christ. He says “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive and he gave gifts to his people.” Then, like a commentator, Paul explains what he meant: “When it says ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had descended into the lower parts of the earth.” Maybe you wondered where the phrase “He descended into Hell” originated in the Apostle’s Creed; this is one place it is found in the Bible. Then Paul listed gifts; gifts different from the Gifts of the Spirit listed in Isaiah chapter 11. Referring to Christ, He says, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles (that means the sent ones), prophets (another word for preachers) some evangelists (that is, people who share the gospel with others), some pastors (generally persons who oversee flocks called congregations) and teachers (the a high calling of helping others learn about Jesus and the Bible). All of that is to equip us for the work of ministry. When I was ordained as a minister back on July 24th 1981, I chose those words from Ephesians to be on the cover of my ordination bulletin. Those words grounded me then, and now, to Jesus Christ.
Finally, Paul says why it is important to be grounded, and to use the gifts God has provided. “We must no longer be …tossed to and fro and blown by every wind of doctrine; by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” That described Paul’s world but it describes ours too, doesn’t it? There are people all over our land who want you money, want your allegiance, and want your vote; many of them will say anything to get them! They can try to influence you over the phone, through the mail, by hacking your information, or in person. This passage implores us to stay grounded, using the gifts God has given us to ward off those who would trick us, entice us, or try to win us away from the one true God. We may not have a shrine to a goddess at the edge of town, or a huge statue of an emperor off of our beaches, but believe me, there are those with a desire for power and influence who want to turn your eyes from Jesus. Don’t let them! Keep Jesus in your sights. We who love Jesus are part of God’s plan to change the world! Together let’s serve our Savior, and no other. Together, let’s give glory to God, and no other. And we can, together, be grounded by the grace and the words of God in the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me”—spoken in love, from the source of love. An anemic body of Christ may fall; but a strong body will stand. Do your part to keep the body of Christ strong.
Jeffrey A. Sumner August 5, 2018