January 27, 2019

All Hands on Deck

Passage: Ephesians 4:1-16

20190127 Sermon Rev

 

Imagine our church as a boat.  What kind of boat would it be if it were to reflect the nature of our congregation?  Let’s consider a few possibilities.  A rowboat is powered manually.  It is relatively slow moving and a bit clunky.  A sailboat is powered by the wind.  It may spend time standing still or risk capsizing in high winds.  A catamaran is sleek, flashy, and engineered for speed.  It skims the surface.  Its purpose is to bring pleasure to passengers.  A canoe is unsteady and usually stays close to shore within sight of land.  A cargo ship is big and bulky.  It requires many workers and travels into deep waters and foreign ports.  A cruise ship is also big and bulky but more elegant.  Its specialized crew caters to feeding and entertaining the paying passengers.  A fishing boat is a working vessel.  It concentrates on one specific job.  A houseboat stays in one place.  It’s designed for use by a family, a close-knit group.  A lifeboat rescues people then hands them over to someone else.  A battleship fights off evil forces.  Its occupants are protected from outside world.  A kayak carries one or two people in their own space.  Kayaks may travel in somewhat loosely associated groups

 

Which one of these best reflects our congregation?  Perhaps you have other options to consider, or you would tweak the explanations given.  Maybe our church is a combination of two or more of these floating vessels.

 

The fact that there is a sailboat on the worship table to symbolize today’s topic doesn’t mean that I think Salina Mennonite Church most closely resembles a sailboat.  Nor does it indicate that I think a sailboat represents the type of church that God prefers or calls us to be.  Even though you might infer from the descriptions given that there is a single best way a church should operate, I suggest that all of these are appropriate in certain circumstances.  (Well, maybe not the catamaran and it wouldn’t be good if we all churches were cruise ships).

 

Today is the second Sunday in a series based on a resource titled Stewards of Grace.  Last week we considered the topic of time.  Today we think about talent.

 

Paul wrote the letter of Ephesians to the followers of Christ who were living in the city of Ephesus.  Ephesus was one of the most important cities in western Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  Because it was at the intersection of major trade routes, it became a commercial center.  It boasted a pagan temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana.  Paul made Ephesus a center for evangelism for about three years.

 

Unlike several of Paul’s other letters, Ephesians does not address any particular error or heresy.  Paul wrote this letter so that his readers might better understand the dimensions of God’s eternal purpose and grace and come to appreciate the high goals God has for the church.  One of Paul’s themes is unity.  All Christians are one family in Jesus and they should act with love toward each other.  He also writes about the church—not a church building, but the church that is made up of all Christians throughout the ages.

 

In Ephesians 4, Paul uses one my favorite images – the church as the body of Christ.  Togetherness and unity of purpose are not completely of our own doing.  Living as followers of Christ takes humility, gentleness, patience, and love.  These are not things we do or can create entirely on our own, they are gifts of God.  And according to Paul, these are the building blocks of unity.

 

But unity does not imply sameness.  Being part of one body led by one Spirit, and having one hope, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism does not mean all Christians become one person.  We retain our individual personalities and abilities.

 

Paul acknowledges this later in the chapter, when he lists gifts and various roles in the church.    He describes the work of equipping by beginning with four servant-leader roles – apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers.  We may not use all these titles in our churches today, but the functions of these roles are still necessary.

 

The title apostle comes from a word that means “one who is sent out.”  The title of apostle refers to more than just the 12 disciples who traveled with Jesus.  Barnabas was identified as an apostle, as was James the brother of Jesus. Others included Paul, Priscilla and Aquila.  Initially, in New Testament times, apostles were people who had seen Jesus during his time of ministry or who had seen and witnessed the risen Lord.  The apostles were important pillars in the early church because they were able to remind the people of what they had seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears.

 

In the current church, the role of apostle may be a function of the long time members of the congregation.  These people have observed and witnessed the faithfulness of the Lord during the years.  They provide stability and a sense of history and continuity in the midst of changing times.  They serve as reminders that we stand on the shoulders of many who have come before us.  They are witnesses of God’s faithfulness.  They are able to tell us the stories of old, just like the original apostles passed on what they had seen and heard.

 

The role of apostle may also be visionary and pioneering, always pushing into new territory.[1]  They enjoy dreaming and change, doing new and challenging tasks.  These people like to establish new churches or ministries.  They come up with new, innovative means to do kingdom work.

 

A core questions apostles ask is:  Are we doing what God wants us to do?

 

The next group, prophets, hear and listen to God.  The biblical prophets did not so much foretell the future as they did forth-tell, or declare, the will and purposes of God in order to keep the community of faith on course.  Most of the prophets were wanderers – they had no home.  They had a specific passion and function.  They often spoke to a certain audience, be it leaders – like Moses speaking to Pharaoh – or to a specific people group, like Jonah going to the Ninevites.

 

Today the prophetic role continues in various forms.  Ephesians 4:14-16 calls for leaders in the church to speak the truth in love and not be like infants “tossed back and forth by the waves.”  Prophets work to move the ship back on course.  They enjoy being alone with God, waiting and listening.  Often they are able to stand back from circumstances to get a clear picture of what is happening.  Then they can see creative solutions and develop a vision for situations others don’t see.  They understand the times and what people should do.[2]

 

The Bible talks about mutual accountability, being responsible to and for one another.  As we speak truth in love to one another, we are continuing the prophetic function of old and the mandate described by Paul to the church in Ephesus.  This prophetic role is an important element of the equipping and sanctifying function of the church.

 

A core question prophets ask is:  Are we hearing God’s voice and responding appropriately?

 

The evangelists were the missionaries of the early church.  These were the people who felt called by God to bring the good news to others.  They may have traveled far, or they may have stayed in their home community.

 

This role of evangelism and service has not changed a lot.  Many congregations support a number of evangelists, missionaries, and service workers around the world, either directly or through church related service and mission organizations.  Evangelists also share their faith right where they are – by what they say and by what they do.  Natural evangelists love spending time with others.  They often remind other people in the church that there are un-churched people still out there in the world. [3]  Being an evangelist might mean pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone.

 

A core question evangelists ask is:  Are new people hearing the good news of God’s kingdom?

 

The fourth group Paul names includes both pastors and teachers.  These roles are related, but not necessarily synonymous.  The pastors of the early church were not wanderers.  It’s been said that evangelists cover territory a mile wide and a foot deep, whereas pastors cover territory a foot wide and a mile deep.  They served as teachers and counselors and shepherds.  Pastors are called to care for the body and encourage its members, one person at a time.

 

The roles of pastors and teachers today are very similar to those in biblical times.  Pastors shepherd God’s people. [4]  They see needs, provide comfort, and encourage others.  They empathize with others and exhibit patience with those in need.  Pastors speak the truth in love.  They are good listeners.  Teachers hold forth the truth and are excited by it. [5]  They look for ways to explain, enlighten, and apply truth.

 

A core question pastors ask is:  Are we caring for and showing compassion for other people?  A core question teachers ask is:  Are we immersing themselves in God’s Word and living it out?

 

Members of the clergy hired by a congregation often combine the roles of pastor and teacher.  But pastoring and teaching happen not only by the one who carries the title but also by other persons within the church.

 

In fact, this is the case with each of these roles – and with other roles that are not in Paul’s list from Ephesians 4.  Most of us have assumed each of these roles in some way at some time in our lives – in the church and in other settings.  Of course, we are all different; we are each more suited for one role than for another one.  And we make choices all the time about what we do.

 

A website I visited during my research this week provides a ministry survey. [6]  When I took the survey, my strongest areas were teacher and pastor.  I decided I’m in the right profession.  I recommend you try this too.

 

A quotation attributed to Teddy Roosevelt is appropriate for our discussion on the stewardship of talent.  Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.  For me, this helps to focus my thinking as I consider making the best use of my talent.  Do what you can acknowledges there are limitations.  No one can do everything.  With what you have reminds us that we each have something to offer.  What I have is different than what you have.  Where you are states that situations and circumstances differ.  What you do now may not be the same as what you did at another time in another place and may not be the same as what you do in the future.

 

In our consideration of use of talent, the what you have part of the statement stands out to me.  Let’s look at some of the things each of us does have.  We talked about time last week.  We will talk about money later on in the series.  Experience includes work and life experiences.  It is affected by age, education, circumstances.  Energy is affected by health and life circumstances.  I plan to talk about health on the next two Sundays.

 

The combination of these four factors alone – time, money, experience, energy – makes a great difference in what each of us has.  As I look at our congregation, I see students, part-time workers, full-time workers, and retired people.  I see families and empty-nesters.  I see couples and singles.  I see young, older, and older still.  All of these affect the amount of time, money, experience, and energy each of us has.

 

A fifth factor each of us has is ability.  This ties in most directly to the topic of the morning.  Each of us has natural abilities, talents we are born with.  Some of us have great talent in a particular area; others in another area.  We can practice, we can develop & enhance these.  It’s possible to take a small talent and make it much greater.  It’s possible to have a great talent and choose not to use it.  The gifts listed in Ephesians 4 as well as other gifts we find listed in the Bible could fit in this category.

 

And we have a sixth factor, personality.  This also ties into the topic of the morning.  We know that each of us usually operates in a particular way based on our personality.  There are a variety of ways of classifying this:  extrovert or introvert, optimist or pessimist, analytical or intuitive, dreamer or practical, quick to make decisions or a ponderer of decisions.  These all affect how we operate in the world and how we operate with each other.

 

We can think of each of these as individuals.  How much time, money, experience, energy, and ability do I have?  What is my personality?

 

We can also think of these things as a congregation.  How much time do we have together as a congregation?  How much money?  What have we experienced as a congregation?  How much energy do we have?  What talents and abilities do we have as a group?  What is our church’s personality?

 

These change as time goes on.  The situations and circumstances differ.  What we do now as a congregation will not be the same as what we did in the past and may not be the same as what we will do in the future.  I hope these are not new questions for you.  We asked these during our Journey Forward discussions last fall.  We will continue asking them as we vision and plan for the future.

 

As I look over this list there is something missing.  We are gathered here today because we have a commitment to God; a commitment to faith.  This commitment affects our decisions in using what we have. There would be a variety of ways we could talk about what this faith commitment entails.  Glenn McDonald, a Presbyterian minister, identifies six marks of discipleship.  McDonald suggests that as we take on these marks of discipleship, we will more fully understand our specific calls to ministry and service within the body of Christ and within the world.

 

These marks of discipleship include:  (1) A heart for God.  The greatest commandment is to love God with our whole being.  All other loyalties and priorities must yield themselves to the place God should hold in our life.  (2) A mind transformed by the Word.  Faithfulness requires a commitment to the written word of the Bible, the Word made flesh in Jesus, and the Word of God’s spirit living within and among us.  (3) Arms of love.  This entails reaching out our hands in friendship and service to others, regardless of who they are.  Jesus said the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  He demonstrated that we are all neighbors.  (4) Knees for prayer.  To be a praying people, we must first become a humble people.  Prayer recognizes our inability to do the work of the church on our own, as well as an acknowledgement of our dependency on God.  (5) A voice to speak the Good News.  Proclamation of the story of salvation and of the kingdom of God is what sets us apart from service-oriented civic organizations.  To be faithful is to acknowledge what God has done and share what it means to follow Jesus through what we way and what we do.  (6) A spirit of sacrifice.  The call to sacrifice is at the heart of the gospel.  We have tended to concentrate on the benefits of discipleship and downplay the call to commitment.

 

All of these qualities – time, money, experience, energy, ability, personality, heart for God, mind on the Word, arms of love, knees for prayer, voice with good news, and spirit of sacrifice combine as we steward our talents and create a mission and vision for our church.  They help us to see who we are and why we exist as a congregation, our mission.  They help us state our goals and hopes for the future, our vision.

 

Keep these things in mind as you reflect on three questions.  What qualities that characterize followers of Christ do you see most evident in your life and in the life of our congregation?  What can this congregation do with what we have, where we are?  What commitments do you make concerning your use of talent?

 

May the Spirit of God guide us as we reflect together.

 

[1] Mike Breen and Steve Cockram, Building a Discipling Culture, accessed at www.fivefoldsurvey.com

[2] Breen and Cochran

[3] Breen and Cochran

[4] Breen and Cochran

[5] Breen and Cochran

[6] www.fivefoldsurvey.com

 

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