4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function,5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
I have been thinking about the term “essential workforce” a lot lately. I get it. When the goal is to avoid as much contact with other people as possible you want to limit unnecessary opportunities for the virus to spread. Eating is essential; hence the need to keep the food supply and grocery stores in operation. Eating in a dining room at a restaurant is not essential and so restaurant seating areas are closed. But, if you own or work at that restaurant that is closed I’m guessing you are starting to feel how essential it truly is. Again, I get it. We are always called, in the gospel, to sacrifice certain things for the sake of others and right now that call to sacrifice is different for different people. Some are working harder than ever. Some are not able to work at all. And some are working in radically different conditions than ever before and are learning how to do that on the fly. Somebody or some group somewhere needs to determine what is essential and what is not and I’m sure there would be disagreements no matter who was making those decisions – I’m not interested in the political question and I’m certainly not qualified to make any healthcare recommendations. I’ve been thinking about “essential workforce” not in terms of the current restrictions in regards to COVID19 but in terms of the church’s life.
As we have been slowly walking through Romans 12 the last few weeks the emphasis at the beginning of the chapter is on the variety of ways in which God has equipped the church. We are one body and as such we have many parts. “The members do not have all the same function so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (12:4-5). Last time we looked at what that means for us individually. We each have been graced with gifts that the others in our church family need. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (12:6).
Here, I want to think through what that means corporately. Paul’s list of seven gifts in verses 6-8 is a sampling of gifts not the complete set. But, look at how comprehensive this partial list is: prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, contributing financially, leadership, and mercy. The list ranges from helping a neighbor with a flat tire (service) to visiting widows in the nursing home (mercy) to helping an out-of-work friend at church pay the monthly bills (contributing generously). In fact, the list is underwhelming in its normalcy.
"Prophecy" and "exhortation" are the two words that probably sound most obscure to us – they are churchy words that most people don’t really use in real life. But, they shouldn’t be too scary. To exhort someone is to appeal or encourage them to do something. But the word is the same root word Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit – the Paraklete – which is often translated as The Comforter or The Helper. There is some debate as to what Paul means when he uses the word “prophecy” but the general sense is clearly not about predicting the future. The Prophets were those who spoke God’s word on God’s behalf to call people back to faithfulness. And so someone with a prophetic word for a congregation would likely be someone who takes God’s word (Scripture) and helps apply it to a current situation; not unlike what we think of as a short sermon or devotional today.
What strikes me about this list is that Paul assumes the church has a variety of needs. Some are what we would typically refer to as “physical” and some as “financial” and some that we would normally refer to as “spiritual” but Paul doesn’t seem to differentiate the three. They are all essential. God has assigned these “gifts” (12:3). They are not arbitrary. Nor is this the church-life equivalent of participation trophies. What is at stake here is nothing short of the total transformation of life – of not being “conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (12:2). We are becoming new people. And we need one another in the process.
I met with some pastor friends last week via Zoom. It wasn’t ideal. I’d much rather meet with them in person. But, it was nice to see faces and hear familiar voices. This is the group I typically get together with a few days every year and because of the travel restrictions we won’t be able to do that this year. So we each spent a few minutes checking in about what is going on in life right now. Jeremy, who pastors a church in Portland, made the comment that one thing he has noticed the last few weeks is that members of his congregation have come to realize how much they need each other in ways that they wouldn’t have admitted just a month ago. It is often the case that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
My prayer is that during this time of distancing we would all feel in a very real, and at times painful way, though I hope the pain doesn’t last too long, just how necessary the others in our church family are. Not just in the general sense of everyone doing their bit to help the whole but in the personal sense of God assigned these people to this place at this time with these gifts to help one another grow up in Christ.
Gracious God we pray today that you would help us stay awake. Keep us attentive to you and how you remain at work among us. Keep us attentive to the needs of others – in our homes or neighborhoods or across town or our families and friends in other parts of the country. We continue to pray for the spread of the virus to slow, for endurance for the administrators, nurses, doctors, janitors, cooks, and other healthcare workers in hospitals in the hot-spot areas that are working tirelessly. We pray for leaders – national, state and local – give wisdom, clarity and direction. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen