Have you noticed what a list maker is the Apostle Paul? He just loves to make lists - almost every one of his letters features at least one list. Forget that he was a tentmaker, we never get to see any of that. In his letters, what we see is that he was really a list maker.
Several of his lists are either about sins (what constitutes them) or sinners (who commits them). One of them is about love: Love is patient, love is kind. But most of them are about vices, and sometimes I worry that he can get into his list making of negative behavior with no small amount of gusto. But of course, Paul was a skilled writer and rhetorician and he knew how to capture the attention of the assembled who came to hear his letters read in church. And his mission often was to offer teaching to the communities that he founded, to help them know how to live a moral life, a worthy life, a life dedicated to following Jesus as Lord.
Fortunately in our reading today, we are not confronted with a list of sins and sinners or vices and vice-practioners, but rather a list of spiritual gifts that exist in a Christian community. It’s not an exhaustive list but it’s a helpful one - because it feels like these gifts (prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, being compassionate) are easily discerned. Paul is writing to the community in Rome, which he actually did not found but was planning to visit in the future, and he wrote them a long and beautiful letter explaining his theology about what God has done and exhorting them to live a morally good life that has been made possible by what God has done.
While it is not unusual for us to read Paul’s lists as do’s and don’ts (frankly, mostly don’ts) of the actions of individuals, his focus was about individuals as part of a community of believers who form the Body of Christ. Their individual actions are of course a part of this but his focus is on community. How to build up the community, how to live for others in the community, and yes, sometimes how certain actions tear down a community.
Today’s list is one of my favorites because with it he states plainly and without any sort of ranking that we members of the body of Christ have different gifts and different functions and it is our work to discern and use our gifts in our life together. And that a community needs different gifts to work together, just as a body has different parts that work together. In another letter, to the Corinthians, he gets dramatic and explains this by saying that the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you nor the head to the feet say I have no need of you. But today’s list is gentler, less bombastic, more grace-filled.
So, all our gifts are needed, be they from the head or from the heart or from the hands, and we all have our parts to play, a maxim repeated of course by nearly everyone from Shakespeare to Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham. But it is helpful to hear Paul say this to the community in Rome because not only does he name the gifts - again: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, being compassionate - isn’t that wonderful that being merciful, being compassionate is on the list? but he reminds them that whatever their gift it, it is valuable to the community because they are the Body of Christ AND they are also members of one another. Personally. They are not just a collection of talents to be used for a purpose but a community that offers their particular collection of gifts to serve one another for the sake of one another. And so we minister, we teach, we are a prophetic witness, we exhort, we give, we lead, we practice mercy, whatever it is that we have been given.
And those gifts have equal value. Different does not mean less than. One gift is not greater than another, is not more important or more prestigious. So of course a community needs a variety of gifts. If we were all the same, we would be a pretty lopsided community. And he uses his own gift of exhortation to exhort us to both discern and exercise our gifts for the good of all. This is how we live out the grace that has been given to us.
So, that’s good.
But all of this does not exist in a vacuum. We don’t discern our gifts in order to just randomly go out and use them. You know the saying: if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. We also need to discern the times, the situation, the context in which our community finds itself. The question of “what is my gift?” must go hand in hand with the question “what is our community called to be in this place and in this time?” Otherwise maybe I’m just going around nailing nails. And maybe doing that in a lovely way or a very skilled way, but what I’m doing may actually be beside the point.
In the coming weeks, we will be continuing to ask these questions of ourselves as a community: what are our gifts? What are our assets, our strengths? And also, what are the needs in our community in this time of chaos and crisis? What do we have and how can we use what we have to build up our community, to serve one another, to love our neighbor as ourself?
Or to to take Paul’s exhortation a step further and ask, how is it that we will we present ourselves as a living sacrifice to accomplish God’s mission here on earth?