Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Exercising Your Gifts Through The Body

by Ted Schroder

There is no greater frustration in life than experiencing a gap between our ideals and our realities, between our expectations and our actualities. That is the constant problem in political discourse as well as religious experience. It's the disappointment felt by the losing team. So it is healthy for us to consider the practicalities of our own ideals: how realistic are we about what we can achieve in our own lives and in our church.

How can we make what we do happen? How can we sow the seed of the kingdom? How can we grow the kingdom of heaven in quantity and quality? How can we grow in the love of Christ, in discernment and knowledge? In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul tells us that we can make it happen through our understanding that the church is the Body of Christ and that we are individually part of it. Individual Christians are born by the Spirit into the Body and remain part of that Body.

The metaphor Paul uses is very graphic. The church is the Body, animated by the Spirit, under the headship of Christ. It is the Body of Christ in the world. The work of Christ in the world is done by the body, by all Christians working together in one organic unity. The body is made up of many parts: just as we have different bodily parts so we have different parts of the church body. Each is connected to the other, and all need one another. We have different functions but are equally needed for the health of the whole. No one should have inflated ideas about their importance, or deflated ideas about their insignificance. Each has a contribution to make.

This is how Eugene Peterson in The Message puts it:

"no matter how significant you are it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn't be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, 'Get lost; I don't need you'? Or Head Telling Foot, 'You're fired; your job has been phased out'? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way - the 'lower' the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary... The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don't, the parts we see and the parts we don't. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance."

Why is it necessary for Paul to spell this out? Was it because some people were trying to get their own way, throwing their weight around? Was it because some people were trying to make everyone else over into their own mold? Was it because some people had become so self-sufficient that they felt they did not need others? Was it because some were takers and not givers? Was it because some were content to be spectators and not players? Was it because some people felt that they could be Christians without being part of the church? Was it because some felt they did not need the church?

In any game it is not possible to win unless the whole team pulls together. In any business it takes all parts of the workforce and management working together to become a success. The best plan in the world will be pure idealism without everyone working together to make it happen. What is it that can prevent that happening?

Moral philosopher Mary Midgley contends that, "Ever since the Renaissance, it has been the key project of our culture to free individuals from the pressure of their social background and to enable them to stand alone. Endless devoted efforts have been made to pry each loose from his family, his state, his church and any other shell to which he might cling, and allow him - indeed force him - to think and act for himself... The careful separating out of each soul from its social background has of course been responsible for an immense amount that is distinctive and valuable in the achievements of our civilization. No other culture has carried it nearly so far. No wonder that to many people it never looked, until lately, as if we could ever have too much of that good thing, individualism." (Evolution As Religion, 166)

What we have painfully discovered in recent years is that we cannot live to ourselves, we are part of a whole. We are environmentally connected. We are part of a global economy. What one person does affects others. We cannot live independently of others. We have learned that one part of the body cannot be treated without affecting other parts. We are more and more aware that one part may be cured at the expense of another part because of side effects. The communal aspects of life, which used to be despised now appear as both necessary and understandable in terms of the sciences. The words of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who won great battles against tyranny, still echo in our minds with the question, "Can anything be more important than individual liberty?" But when excessive individualism threatens marriage, family, the state, and the church, we must question it.

Midgley goes on to say: "Of course, human beings are distinct individuals. But they are also tiny, integral parts of this planet - framed by it, owing everything to it, and adapted to a certain place among its creatures. Each can indeed change its life, but does not originally invent it. Each receives life in a family (as a petal does in a flower), in a country (as the flower does on the tree), and in the biosphere (as the tree does in the forest). Our environment gives us nearly everything we have.... All this is no derogation of our essential dignity, because dignity is meaningless without a context. The only person who might conceivably exist and make sense on his own is God, and even He apparently prefers not to try it, since He creates the world. And whatever might be true of God, man is no god, but a social being and a part of the fauna of this planet." (op.cit.170)

Just as we have to value and respect the physical and cultural environment in which we live, by acknowledging our dependence on one another, and curbing our unrealistic selfish individualism; so too, those of us who claim to be Christians, have to value and respect the Body of Christ, of which we are a part, by acknowledging our need of one another, and restraining our selfish desire for an unrealistic spiritual independence.

We need one another. Lone-ranger Christians who think they can dispense with the church are mistaken. If we have a personal relationship with Christ we are part of his Body. We are not independent of one another, we are interdependent. Professing Christians who say they don't need the church, are going against nature. Spiritual isolation breeds grotesque and unbalanced lives. Fellowship in the Body of Christ should nurture a healthy person.

In the movie, "Hear No Evil, See No Evil", Richard Pryor stars as a blind man, and Gene Wilder stars as a deaf man - chasing gangsters and escaping wrongful arrest by the police. It is an hilarious spoof showing how each must depend on the other for both are handicapped. So it is with all of us in the church. In order to get anything done, we have to rely on one another, and work together.

We need to exercise our gifts. Just as parts of the body can atrophy if we do not use them, our spiritual gifts can shrivel up if we do not fulfill our obligation to use them for the common good. We are created for a purpose - to participate in the life of the church, and not just be a spectator, or depend on the exertions of others. We are called to do our part through serving and giving in one capacity or another. "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms." (1 Peter 4:10)

Russell Conwell was one of Philadelphia's most prominent preachers toward the end of last century and the beginning of this. He was most famous for his celebrated inspirational lecture, "Acres of Diamonds", which he gave more than 6,000 times throughout the country. He founded Temple University, hospital, and the seminary which is now Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, whose new extension campus we support in Jacksonville. He exhorted people to use their God-given gifts, all their talents, abilities, and imagination, to serve others. He denounced both the 'lazy poor' and the wealthy who accumulated riches solely for their own enjoyment. I commend his prayer to you.

I ask not for a larger garden
but for finer seeds.

I ask not for a more distant view
but for a clearer vision of the hills between.

I ask not to do more deeds
but for more effective ones.

I ask not for a longer life
but for a more efficient one for the present hour.

I want to plant more,
advertise more;
tell the story of Jesus in clearer form.
I want the world to be more wise,
and also more glad because I was used.

may some oak say, 'I grew stronger';
may some lily say, 'I grew purer';
may some fountain say, 'I threw clear water higher.'

May some good books be read;
may some good friendships be made;
may my total influence tell for righteousness,
without an unnecessary tear.

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