Paul loves this image of the church being a body. Each part of the body carries out its own function, sometimes that function is supported by the other members, and sometimes it is not. But, either way, each part has a role, and when it all works together, it is excellent.
Paul lays out some rules, as he usually does, in this passage, and it is worth taking a look at them. First, Paul urges us to know ourselves. We cannot get very far in the world if we do not know what we can and what we cannot do. We have to have an honest assessment of our capabilities, and we have to do this without conceit and false modesty.
Second, Paul urges us to accept ourselves and use the gift that God has given to us. I guess we first have to figure out what that gift is, but once we do, we have to use it. We cannot, and should not, envy what other people’s gifts are. I would love to be able to play the piano, but that is not my gift, and I should not be envious of people who can. I mean, I have lots of free time, and they have to practice. By accepting ourselves as we are and where we are might mean that our gift is something that no one notices. We might always be behind the scenes doing our thing and never getting seen. But, having people behind the scenes is as important as having folks in front. Paul is saying that we must accept our position even if what we do is unseen and goes without acknowledgment. Sure, it is helpful to be thanked and acknowledged for what we do and the contribution we make, but if we are doing it just to be publicly thanked, we are doing it for the wrong reason.
Third, Paul is saying that whatever the gift is we have come from God. Paul calls these gifts charismata, and in the language of the New Testament, this is something given to us that we could have acquired on our own. For example, I might be able to play the piano, I took lessons for a few years, but I was not very good at it. I could read the music and play the notes, but I could not make the music. But the one who can make the music has the charismata, the gift from God to make music. Each of us has our charismata, and it is that which is given to us from God.
Fourth, and this ties back into something I have already said, we each have a gift, but we should not use that gift for our prestige, but it should be our duty to use that gift for the common good. Now, I am speaking of the life of the church here, no life outside the church that is a different conversation. So, we use our gift for the betterment of the House of God.
Now we must turn to the gifts that Paul mentions.
The gift of prophecy. Rarely does prophecy in the New Testament have to with foretelling the future. Usually, prophecy, in a New Testament context, has to do with forth-telling the word of God. The prophet is the one who can announce the Christian message with the authority of one who knows. Now, some think they know, and some know. Many are called, but few are chosen. I hear people all the time say that God has called them, and I have no doubt that they believe that. But, God calls, and the church confirms that call. God indeed equips those he calls, that is why we have seminaries and other schools where preachers and teachers study. It has always amazed me that we will not trust a medical professional that is not licensed and insured. A medical professional that has not gone through years of schooling and other training. We would not go to a surgeon for an operation who flunked out of medical school but decided that they were “called” to be a surgeon. But, we are willing to follow anyone who says that God has called them to preach. Anyone can say they are a preacher, that does not mean they are. God calls, and we have to equip those he calls.
There is the gift of practical service, what Paul calls Diakonia, which is where we get the word Deacon from. Deacons were those chosen to serve at the table. The ministry of the Deacon is the ministry of service. We may not all be called to preach in the church, but there are many other ways that we can be called to serve — driving someone to an appointment — sitting with someone who has just lost a loved one. Setting up the tables and chairs in the hall. Baking cookies for coffee hour. Praying for people. All of these are what Paul would call practical service. We show other the love of Christ by doing simple things for others.
The gift of teaching. The Christian message not only needs to be proclaimed it needs to be explained. If we do not explain, we have no hope of proclamation that will change lives.
Close to the gift of teaching is that of exhortation. Exhortation should be encouraging, not frightening. For far too long, we have brought people to church out of fear. People were afraid they would go to hell, and so they came to church and did whatever the person in front told them to do. As one can imagine, this led to all sorts of abuse, not only physically but psychologically and theologically. Real exhortation aims not so much at dangling a person over the flames of hell as spurring them on to the joys that we find in our life with Christ.
Leadership is another of the gifts Paul mentions. If leadership is to be taken up, it is to be taken up with zeal. We all know that fewer and fewer people are stepping forward to lead in the church. It has been said that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people and that number is getting older and smaller each year. One of the roles of church leadership is to encourage, train, and equip the leaders of tomorrow. All of us in any leadership position should be looking for our replacement. We cannot wait for people to come forward; we need to seek them out.
In the end, Paul speaks of mercy, and we must show that mercy with gracious cheerfulness. If we must forgive, and you know how I feel about forgiveness, then we must remember that we are also in need of forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We must forgive as we would like to be forgiven. I have said this before; forgiveness is not for the other person; forgiveness is for us. By offering forgiveness, we take back power over our lives, and by withholding that forgiveness, we allow the other to have that control. But we must forgive with graciousness and not hold it over another’s head. If the body is to function correctly, then all of the bits must work together and function together. When one is struggling the others come and help. We all have our function, but if we function together, things work better.