This is the text of a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Ephesians 4:1-16.
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.
“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
That joke illustrates what I think is the key problem with our reading from the epistle today; because in fact, ancient Greek had no punctuation marks, and therefore when we translate it into English, decisions about where to put the commas are a judgement call on the part of the team of translators. And sometimes, a comma makes a big difference to the meaning.
Here’s the sentence where it happens in today’s reading. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
The way that it’s set out in the translation we usually use, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” is one clause, and as such it reads as if the work of ministry belongs to each and every one of us, and the job of those with particular leadership and teaching roles is to equip those around them. But it could be written with a comma after “to equip the saints,” so that it would read as if the work of ministry belongs to those with leadership and teaching roles, and the rest of the saints are more passive recipients of that ministry. Many, many people – consciously or unconsciously – read and hear this passage as if that comma is there, and as if the work of ministry belongs to a specialized elite within the church.
But I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think we should read it with an extra comma. I think the clear picture of the life and functioning of the church community emerging from the diverse New Testament documents is one in which ministry belongs to the whole community; to each of you as well as to me, and to all of us working together as a team.
In 1 Corinthians Paul wrote that “each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” There he was commenting on marriage and singleness, as each contribute to the life of the church in different and valuable ways. But the principle holds more broadly than whether or not you share your life intimately with someone else. Peter wrote similarly in his first epistle; “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”
Each person within the community receives at least one gift for the benefit of his or her fellows. But not all have the same gift. Paul insists that gifts were granted to individuals not primarily for their own enjoyment or ego gratification but rather for the edification, or building up, of the community. The basic principle that Paul lays down for the conduct of the church (which means much more than the conduct of gatherings for worship) is that “all things should be done for edification.” That’s the litmus test that should be applied to whether or not something is genuinely the work of ministry, no matter who does it.
So the lists of gifts – whether this one which mentions apostles, prophets and so on or the other lists sprinkled throughout the New Testament – are meant to be open-ended. They don’t exhaust the possibilities for spoken and practical ministry within the community. Any edifying contribution of a consistent nature from any member of the community would fall within the category of “gift” as Paul understood it.
And this points to the reality that ministry – edification of one another – can take place in a number of different, though ultimately complementary, ways. This becomes apparent when the various aspects of community life served by the gifts are identified.
Some gifts are primarily directed towards the community’s growth of understanding of God, the community itself, outsiders, the world. This intellectual aspect of the community’s life is particularly served through the exercise of prophecy, teaching, exhortation, discernment of spirits, and interpretation, though all of these also involve personal conviction and practical action, not just intellectual appreciation. Knowledge is as much about doing as thinking, as much commitment as reflection.
Some gifts are primarily directed towards the emotional wellbeing of the community and its group dynamics; that is, the integrity and harmony of the group and of its members. Important in this regard are the gifts that have a pastoral orientation, for example, practical help, acts of mercy, and pastoring itself. As these gifts are exercised, the psychological needs of the members are met and the social cohesion of the group sustained.
Some gifts are primarily directed towards the physical welfare of the community. The rendering of financial assistance, and gifts of hospitality, and administration. The body of Christ, or the gathering of the church, is not merely a communication of hearts, minds or souls but a fellowship of persons physically in contact with each other as well.
Lest this sound like a thinly disguised plea for more people to fill various rosters, let me give you a practical example. One of the very early church fathers was concerned about the phenomenon of very rich people in his flock, and how their wealth affected the life of the church and its patterns of contribution from everyone. The answer he came up with was that wealthy Christians should be prepared to give of their money to support poor ones; but in return the poor Christians should give of their time in praying for, and in sharing their wisdom and understanding with, the wealthy Christians. And he saw the ministry of the poor Christians in that partnership as by far the more important of the two!
So here’s my challenge to you. Have you ever asked yourself what your gifts are? Have you ever reflected on what God has given you, uniquely, to contribute to the life of this place? What steps have you taken to make use of those gifts? Is it time to revisit those questions?
You see, the thing about ministry is that the vicar and I can’t do it all by ourselves in this place; not even surrounded by other capable people in particular roles like the director of music and the parish administrator. The ministry of this parish will only be all that it can be when we each play our part. That’s what it’s going to take, says Paul, to come to the measure of the full stature of Christ. And that’s the goal, that’s what we’re meant to be aiming for.
So I leave that with you for something to think and pray about.
The Lord be with you.