Blessedly Different

Faces

1 Corinthians 12:4-6 “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”

Paul looks at our spiritual gifts in three different ways to help us understand why God doesn’t give us all exactly the same thing. First, “There are different kinds of gifts.” The word gifts here is a Greek word, charismata, from which we get our word “charismatic.” It emphasizes that the gift is something God gives us for free. Maybe that seems a little simple. Any gift that is truly a gift is free. But that reminds me that I really have nothing to complain about if my gift is different than someone else’s, or if their gift somehow seems more appealing. Also I have nothing to brag about if my gift seems better. They’re gifts, right? None of us earned them. We didn’t have them coming. We all have the big gift, which is Jesus. Anything beyond that is shear generosity and goodness on God’s part, and better than nothing at all. Would we really want to complain because God gave us something more?

All of his gifts serve a purpose. They accomplish a task. They get something done. So Paul continues, “There are different kinds of service.” The Lord set up his world, and his church, to need many different things to get done. It makes sense then, doesn’t it, that he would distribute many different abilities to many different people? We can’t all be doing the same one thing all the time. Imagine a world with no garbage collectors. Imagine a church with no cleaners. Eew! Who would want to be a part of that? So the Lord gives gifts that line up with all these many tasks that have to get done. Maybe like the Corinthians we would like to have some of the showier ones, the ones that seem more powerful or supernatural. But Paul tells them later that the Spirit’s power is just as much involved in making some people good teachers, administrators or simple helpers as he is involved in the miraculous ability to heal.

Finally, the Lord himself is active in all these gifts. “There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” The word behind “working” and “works” is the word from which we get “energy.” Paul is saying that the Lord himself energizes his people to do all these different things. He is the one moving hearts and minds, and hands and mouths and feet. If God himself enters people, and then uses them to perform all these different functions, what is left for us but to accept that our gifts are different as the Lord himself sees fit to give them.

In doing it this way, perhaps we could say that God is giving us another gift: the gift to be individuals, the gift to be me. He hasn’t created an army of clones that came rolling off an assembly line and all look and think and function the same. I am unique, and so are you. He redeemed us from our sins all the same. He loves us as his children all the same. But because he loves us, we aren’t all the same. Our gifts are different. That’s important for us to know if we are going to properly appreciate spiritual gifts.

Spiritual People

Pentecost Mosaic

1 Corinthians 12:1-3 “You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul wants to teach us about spiritual gifts. But before he gets to the gifts, he explains what it means to be spiritual. It is not a term that applies to unbelievers, at least not properly speaking. The majority of the Christians in Corinth were converts to the Christian faith. They had been pagans. They followed “mute idols.” There was nothing real there, no spiritual energy or power–at least nothing positive. People weren’t repenting. They weren’t turning from fear to faith. They didn’t know God and his love, because they didn’t know Jesus.

Here is Paul’s takeaway: Spiritual gifts aren’t mere matters of good morals or natural abilities. You can find both of those in the pagan religions. In most categories, perhaps, the most decorated athletes, the most creative artists, the savviest entrepreneurs and businessmen, the cleverest inventors are not Christians. These people may all be “gifted.” But theirs are not spiritual gifts.

Spiritual gifts are possessed only by people who have the Spirit of the true God. There is one sure-fire test of this: “…no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Paul is not talking about the ability to form these sounds with your mouth, the ability to pronounce the words “Jesus” and “is” and “Lord.” Any verbal person can do that. He is talking about people who say these words and sincerely mean them for themselves. If a person can’t or doesn’t do that, then the Holy Spirit is not present, and the individual has no spiritual gifts.

“Jesus is Lord” is a pregnant statement of faith. People hear the word “Lord,” and many minds think first of obedience. It is true that those who recognize Jesus as their Lord intend to live under him and follow his rules. But it is more than that.

A Lord is a person with authority, someone who has power and control. With Jesus, this is true of our entire life experience. It applies to everything about our relationship with him. “Jesus is Lord” means that Jesus is my Rescuer. I did not have the power or resources to deal with my sins myself. I couldn’t keep myself from committing them. I had nothing with which I could pay for them, no way to make amends for my guilt. So my Lord Jesus came to the rescue. My King fought his way to my side. He endured the elements of a hostile world to get to me. He took the brunt of the attacks evil villains and enemies of my soul launched at him on the way. And when he reached me, he died in my place to spare my life and set me free. He brought forgiveness for my sins and healing for my heart. He did it, not helpless me, because Jesus is my Lord, and he had the power to rescue me when I was powerless to help myself.

“Jesus is Lord” means that Jesus cares and provides for me. We are inclined to think about government and rulers as people who take money away from us. Complaints about taxes go all the way back to the “Robin Hood” legend. Farther than that, they go all the way back to ancient times, and even play a part in the story of Jesus and the people who surrounded him so many centuries ago.

But Jesus turns this all around. He is a different kind of Lord, a Ruler and King who gives his wealth away. He uses it to feed and clothe and care for the people he has claimed as his very own. Those who confess, “Jesus is Lord,” acknowledge this at every dinner prayer, as they bow their heads and ask Jesus to bless their food and thank him for giving it to them. “Jesus is Lord,” then, is the grateful appreciation of rescued people who are blessed by their gracious Master’s generosity every day. It is an understanding of Jesus that can only be worked by the Holy Spirit. And it is fundamental to the understanding of our spiritual gifts.

Pray Like Children

Dad-Son

Matthew 7:11 “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

The privilege of having God claim you as his own child is something he wants for everyone, but which is known to only a special few. Even now, after God has called us to faith and made us his children, we still don’t deserve such a distinction. Jesus says that you and I are “evil.”

Does that seem a little strong of him? We usually reserve the word “evil” for pathological criminals, the kind of twisted people who abuse children, or torture others, or display no conscience whatsoever. Jesus is speaking here to Christians! In fact, he is talking to the future Apostles of his church. We will admit nobody’s perfect. We can go along with being called sinners. But evil? God obviously considers even our sins a serious offense, while we are tempted to excuse or minimize them.

And yet, the wonder is that evil people like you and me can still call God our Father. How can this be? God has graciously adopted us as his children. When my children were little, we used the book Little Visits with God for our family devotions. One of the devotions told the story of a little boy named Jerry who had been adopted by his parents. When he found out he was adopted, he said to his father, “You love me a lot, don’t you?” “We do,” his father said, “but what makes you say that?” “Well,” said Jerry, “you made me your son even though I wasn’t really your son. You didn’t have to do that.”

So it is with us. God made us his children even though we weren’t really his children. He didn’t have to do that. And what makes our adoption so much more wonderful is the sacrifice our Father made in order to make us his children. Paul assures us in Galatians, “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those who were under law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:5-6, NKJV). God did have one Son who was a natural part of the family, his only-begotten Son Jesus. God so loved us, he so desired to adopt us as his children, that he was willing send his only Son to live and die to pay for the sins that kept us from being God’s children. And though Jesus himself had to sacrifice his life to make us part of God’s family, the author of Hebrews assures us even Jesus is not ashamed now to call us his brothers.

Our adoption was sealed when the Lord brought us to faith and gave us his Holy Spirit. Paul wrote the Romans, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

This truth was impressed upon former Jehovah’s Witness David Reed in a very moving way. Mr. Reed spent years having it pounded into his head that the only proper way to address God was as “Jehovah God.” After studying the Bible on his own, he came to realize that Jesus is God himself. He began to break away from his former faith. One morning as he began to pray to God in his car on his way to work, the name “Father” just came tumbling out of his mouth. It was then he remembered, “you have received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” He then realized what an intimate relationship we have with our heavenly Father because of Jesus!

Do you see what this has to do with our prayers? Since God himself has made us his children, since he invites us to call on him as our Father, we don’t have to be afraid to approach him in prayer. We ought to have the highest respect for him, this is true. He is still God, and he is not anyone for us to trifle with. But since we know that God is our heavenly Father, we have a child’s confidence in prayer.

A Glimpse

Peek

1 John 3:2 “Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

We don’t know everything about the future that is waiting for us on the other side of the grave. “What we will be has not yet been made known.” So what follows is just a glimpse, just a taste, based on what we know of our Jesus who lives again.

To be like Jesus is to be holy. That is the only way that we could stand to see him as he is. Otherwise, in all his heavenly glory, the sight of Jesus would destroy us.

Have you been itching to become holy? Holiness is one of those features of the life to come we might describe as an “acquired taste.” There aren’t any unbelievers seeking it. Generally, they want just the opposite. Is it something even we set our hearts on, something we strive for with all our might? “Lord, let me love each person perfectly, only serve others, be ever patient and never feel hurt or irritated by them, totally given over to helping everyone else.” If you are like me, such a desire has not consumed your every waking moment.

Even as faith warms our hearts to such an idea, we find it doesn’t come so easily to us now. When we are “like him,” then it won’t be a struggle, or a fight, or an effort to be so. Holiness will be as natural as breathing (even more so if you struggle from asthma or allergies now), or as natural as sleeping (even more so if you suffer from insomnia now).

If we are like Jesus, we will be powerful. That does not mean that we will be almighty like God is. In part, it means fully realizing the potential God built into human beings when he first designed us. It is said that we use only about 10 percent of our brains at the present time. The world’s great geniuses perhaps double that. Imagine what it would be like to have and use the whole thing.

Maybe there will be new powers. After he rose from the dead Jesus’ body could pass through walls. He could materialize and disappear from a place at will. Will getting around be different for us? So many of the pictures of Jesus in the book of Revelation depict him shining in his heavenly glory, illuminating heaven so that there is no need for the sun. The last chapter of Daniel promises that we will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and like the stars, forever and ever.

If we are like Jesus, then we know we will be immortal and imperishable. Since every pain or discomfort we suffer is a consequence of sin, a symptom of death, can you imagine what this will be like? To be sure, the great agony and torture and suffering will all be gone. But even the little discomforts and twinges will have all disappeared. You know that grogginess you feel in your head when you get up in the morning, and you didn’t get a great night’s sleep? Never again. Those sore eyes that are hard not to rub at the end of a long day. You will forget what that was like. You will drink something ice cold and refreshing, but never get brain freeze. If you eat something piping hot and delicious, you will never burn your tongue. Mosquito bites won’t itch, because I presume there won’t be mosquitoes, or if there are, they won’t bite. You won’t feel the ache that makes you want to stretch after you have been sitting or standing in one place too long. Before you start singing, you won’t have to clear your throat, and you will never have that little “tickle” that just won’t go away.

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list. It isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. It’s just a taste, a glimpse, of what we will be because we will be like him, the risen Jesus, and see him as he is.

And if it has whet our appetite, and given us a faith that hungers for more, then this gospel taste has done its work.

Bold to Speak

Microphone

Psalm 119:42-46 “May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word. Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts. I will speak of your statutes before kings and will not be put to shame” (Psalm 119:42-46).

When we consider that God has given us his grace and salvation, is it hard to understand why the psalmist says: “then I will answer the one who taunts me…” “Do not take our word of truth from my mouth…” “I will speak of your statutes before kings and not be put to shame…”? If God has done so much for me, doesn’t that give me courage to speak up for him?

A friend of mine visited members of another congregation some time ago. He attended church with them on Sunday but was not impressed with their pastor’s preaching. The pastor’s speaking skills were poor. The message seemed unorganized. My friend mentioned his criticisms to his hosts, and he was surprised by their passionate defense of their pastor.

These people pointed out that their pastor was a faithful shepherd of his flock. He visited his members regularly. He was not afraid to confront people with their sins, but he did so with a sincere desire to restore them, and he was quick to share the gospel, too. His people could trust him with their problems. When tragedy had struck this very family, the pastor spent long hours beside them in the hospital comforting them with God’s word. Since this family had received such love from the pastor, they were bold to speak up for him and defend him. If people are moved by such earthly service and love, how much more does our Savior’s grace make us bold to speak up for him!

Look at how closely Scripture connects faith and the mouth. Jesus says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I believed, therefore I have spoken” (2 Cor. 4:13). Paul writes in Romans, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). God’s grace makes me bold to speak!

This does not mean everyone will be a gifted preacher, missionary, or evangelist. Those are gifts that our Lord gives to specific people. But what does it say about our faith if we will not speak about him at all? Can such a faith be healthy? He has only one way of spreading the gospel to others: through the mouths of his people. If we will not preach his gospel and share his grace, then God may take it away from us and give it to a people who will.

The answer for cramped hearts and closed mouths that will not speak, the solution for our cowardice and lack of love, is found in the same grace that the psalmist so desired for himself. There we find the forgiveness that removes our guilt for Christ’s sake and restores our relationship with God. This sin, too, has been paid for at the cross. Then God’s grace fills our hearts with faith and love. I don’t need more advice about how to be a better witness. I need my heart to be overcome by the grace that makes me bold.

In 1530 the fathers of the Lutheran Church used the words of verse 46 to introduce their faith to the Holy Roman Emperor in the Augsburg Confession: “I will speak of your statutes before kings and will not be put to shame.” Whether we are speaking to kings or next door neighbors, may his grace make us so bold, too

God’s Love Makes Me Bold

Bold

Psalm 119:41-42 “May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word.

Psalm 119 is a meditation on the value and importance of God’s Word, but it isn’t an academic exercise. It is not a study for those who like ancient texts, or appreciate Hebrew poetry, or enjoy historical documents. The things it teaches us are more than theoretical positions we ought to defend. Here we come face to face with the living and enduring Word of God. What the psalmist wants is not just chapter and verse. He longs for, he prays for the grace and salvation we find in the Word. “May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise.”

Note the psalmist’s choice of words to describe God’s grace to us. There are two things his choice emphasizes. The English speaks of “love.” But the Hebrew term behind this word emphasizes that God’s grace or love is faithful, it will not change or end. The God whom we worship is not going to wake up in a bad mood some morning and grumble at us. He is not going to have a bad day at work, come home grumpy and direct his frustrations at us. Nothing can change his gracious and loving way of dealing with us because he is faithful.

What can we compare such grace and love to? Is there anything else so steady and changeless? We are so accustomed to people whose behavior toward us changes every day, sometimes hour by hour. They are unsteady and unreliable. We have accepted that our possessions are constantly wearing out and breaking. Our cars and homes require constant maintenance. There is nothing else like the unchanging, faithful love and grace of our Lord on which we can always depend.

The Hebrew word here also emphasizes that God’s grace and love is heartfelt. He does not treat us as he does because his grace is a cold principle of theology. It’s not just a law of the universe he is forced to follow. Our God is not a bookkeeper whose only interest is in how the numbers add up, whose only concern is making sure that we have kept our accounts with him paid up. Nor is he a government bureaucrat in a distant office writing welfare checks for people he doesn’t even know when he distributes his gifts to you and me.

Our God loves us from the heart. He cares for his children passionately. We know this best from the gift of his Son Jesus Christ that we have been given. What else would lead him to make the ultimate sacrifice, and give up his own Son, his only Son, the Son he loved in order to save us? What else would lead him to let his Son be falsely accused, and mocked and beaten, and crucified for the crimes that we have committed? The only reason he let this happen is that his heart desired to possess us as his very own. This gift, this grace, reveals my heavenly Father’s tender heart.

Is it hard to see why this changes our lives right now, not just how God regards us, not just our eternal future? Is it hard to see why God’s grace makes me bold? Siegbert Becker once described the powerful effect of God’s grace on our hearts this way:

“It is impossible to see ourselves as sinners deserving eternal damnation in hell, then to come to the conviction that the suffering and dying Christ has procured full and free forgiveness for us by taking our guilt upon himself and by giving us his own righteousness as a free gift of his love—it is impossible to come to that conviction without coming to love him who gave himself into death that we might have everlasting life. It is impossible to confess honestly that Jesus Christ has redeemed me, not with gold or silver but with his holy precious blood and his innocent sufferings and death, without realizing that this was done that I might be his own and live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness…. ‘To know him is to love him’ is more applicable to our Savior than to anyone else.’”

Once God’s grace has filled our hearts with such faith and love, it changes everything about our lives. In his introduction to the book of Romans, Luther discusses the change that faith born of God’s grace makes in our relationship to the people around us. “Faith is a living and daring confidence in God’s grace so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all his creatures.”

This confidence that God loves me, that his love is faithful, that his love is sincere and heartfelt, is why God’s love makes me bold.

For the Church

Congregation

Ephesians 1:22-23 “God has placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

Many things challenge our faith that Jesus has everything under his control, don’t they. Every day it seems as though the forces of evil are gaining the upper hand. Do any of us really believe we can reverse the moral decay that has taken hold of our country? Sometimes Christianity itself seems to be crumbling from the inside. Church after church caves in to our secular culture. They give up their Biblical heritage. Does that look like everything is under Jesus’ power? Can we really believe that Jesus has secured our little planet, much less the entire universe?

Add to that Paul’s description of Jesus’ as “head over everything,” and we find ourselves in a real quandary. God has “appointed him to be head over everything.” What does a head do? The head is the leader, isn’t it? The head calls the shots. If Jesus is the head, then he is the one who is running our world and making the events in my life happen the way that they do.

Here the challenges to our faith reaches its peak. It might be easier to believe that Jesus has all that power, if we could believe that he chooses not to get involved, or doesn’t care about the details and just lets things go their own way. But if Jesus is actively running the show as the head, and he claims that he loves me, would he let my kid land in the hospital and the starter on my car die in the same week when I have two big projects due at work and a family funeral to attend?

The answer to our trial of faith is not to be found in greater demonstrations of Jesus’ power. Power alone doesn’t win converts. Rather, we find our faith, our joy, our peace in his promises and in his love.

The Church over which Jesus is the head is not some impersonal institution he wants to succeed for reasons of personal pride, or to please the shareholders, or to pad his resume. This is his people. This is his family. This is you and I. For a moment, let’s look away from how he has been running our lives and look at how he ran his own.

Jesus has always been for the church, hasn’t he? Why did he leave heaven and become one of us? He wasn’t improving his own living conditions by doing so. He did it to save us. Why did he expend so much of his time and energy healing the sick? He didn’t do it to pad his own pockets like so many faith-healers today. He did it out of genuine compassion and mercy. Why did reach out to the outcast and the sinners and the poor? It didn’t improve his personal social standing. He did it because he sincerely wanted them to be his people, too. Why did he let his body be used as a punching bag, and let them rip the skin from his body with whips, and die an agonizing death on a cross? He owed no debt to society that needed to be paid. He did it because he loved us, the church, and gave himself up for her to make her holy so that he could present her to himself as a radiant church without any stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. Jesus has always been for his people.

That hasn’t changed now that he has returned to heaven and secured the universe under his power. God placed all things under his feet and appointed him head over everything for the church. Although it’s true that his own living conditions have improved immensely since he has returned to heaven, he hasn’t forgotten us. Just as he once gave it all up for his people, now he has taken it all back. But still does so for his people. He uses all that power on our behalf.

I may not understand why he runs the world the way he does. But then, I don’t have to. I don’t understand why he suffered hell so that an unappreciative, self-centered sinner like me wouldn’t have to, either. It is enough to know that whether he is making the ultimate sacrifice, or securing and running the universe, he does it for me and for you and for everyone else who belongs to him by faith.

Blankets and teddy bears, popular best friends and hefty bank accounts, well-equipped soldiers and a strong military can’t give us lasting security. But Jesus can. He has secured the entire universe under his power and that gives real security to the people who know his love.

Parting Instructions

Task list

Acts 1:4-11 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

As I think about my own departure, my last “goodbye” at the end of my life, there are two parts to preparing those I leave behind. One: I am leaving them a will. It determines how my gifts will be distributed. My remaining property will help to take care of the family that survives me.

Two: I have taken an interest in what my surviving children do with their own lives after I am gone. I have tried to model a Christian life. I have led them to the feet of the same Savior I follow. As much as I want them to be good citizens and contributing members of society, I want them to have faith and live a Christian life.

For three years Jesus taught the twelve men who followed him. He modeled for them what it means to live a life of love. He didn’t try to cram it all into the last few days. But as his last moments with them face to face were winding down, a few instructions rose to the top. In the last moments before he ascended, we hear parting instructions from his own lips.

Maybe the first thing we hear comes as a surprise: “Wait!” “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised….you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” Wait for the Spirit. Living life as a Christian isn’t all about frantic activity. It isn’t a life of constant motion, always doing, always moving, never pausing, never resting. There is a time to wait for the Spirit. For the men in front of Jesus on this day, of course, this was the ten-day wait until Pentecost, ten days spent in prayer and worship, until the Holy Spirit came pouring down out of heaven with fire and the sound of a rushing wind, and new courage and new words to preach the gospel to people of every language.

For us, it is the quieter, less dramatic Pentecost Jesus pours out on us when we gather around his word, or when we pause in our little room at home to read, to sing, to meditate on his word, and to pray. Streams of his Spirit still pour down on his quiet, listening people. He still gives them power for the things he wants them to do.

Only after this does Jesus tell them, “Go!” and “Speak!” “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus gives us the words and the power to speak. He gives us the entire population of planet earth as our audience. If that seems overwhelming, don’t start with the billions spread all across the globe. Start with the person nearest to you. Tell him about the good things God has done for you.

And know that the time we have is limited. Jesus wants us to remember that he has not said, “Goodbye,” forever. He is coming again. Expect his return.

On the one hand, that gives us a sense of urgency. We don’t know how much time we get to tell our friends. We don’t know how much time we have to send a missionary. The time to say something, the time to send someone, is now.

On the other hand, this gives us a sense of relief. It is hard to live as Jesus’ witnesses. Not everyone appreciates our words or Christian witness. Not everyone wants to tolerate us Christians at all. Don’t get discouraged. Jesus will return to take us home soon enough.

Until then, he has left each of us with something to say and work to do.

Parting Gifts

Gift-Wood

Ephesians 4:7-13 “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.  This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.’ (What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?  He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”

From time to time our family plays host to guests from around the nation and around our world. There was the seminary student from Germany who wanted to see the Southfork Ranch while he was in the United States. There was the theologian and his wife from Sweden who became my friends when I visited their country. They made the long drive to see me when they were visiting relatives in our country. There have been visiting pastors and professors who stayed in our home when they came to preach or lecture at some special service or seminar.

Many of our guests have had the practice of leaving behind a parting gift as a gesture of their thanks. They are generally nothing extravagant–maybe a little nick-knack or wood carving that reflects something of the art and tastes of their own culture. Maybe it is little jar or bottle of something with flavors unique to the place they come from. On my own travels I have also scattered little gifts around the United States and Northern Europe to thank my hosts for their hospitality.

The Apostle Paul says that when Jesus left us and returned to heaven, he also left us parting gifts. But Jesus’ gifts are no mere trinkets! He left us people, servants who feed us his word and build up our faith. “Apostles…prophets…evangelists…pastors…teachers” are the representative list Paul gives us in Ephesians chapter 4. Some of the titles, and the shapes of their ministries, might have changed over the last couple of thousand years, but this gift has never worn out or been used up. It is a gift that constantly reproduces itself, as each generation produces even more servants of the gospel.

What makes them gifts is not their pedigree, their personalities, nor the list of diplomas, awards, and accolades with which they come to us. It is the loving service they offer to the body of Christ. Paul says that through such people God is building us up to maturity. Christian faith and life is never a do-it-yourself project. It isn’t self-improvement. It may wound my pride to think that I haven’t reached maturity, or that I can’t just grow myself, but that is the biblical fact. The Savior doesn’t address us as “children of God” for nothing. Then let our pride be wounded, and let us hear the gospel our pastor’s preach, and the word our teachers teach. That gospel is the power of God for salvation, and that word planted in you can save your soul.

Salvation, spiritual safety, is nothing to take for granted or scoff at. We ignore the gifts of preachers and teachers Jesus left behind for us at our own peril. Every day our souls are battered by a spiritual hurricane of lies and temptations. Some blow at us from the outside, from a world with twisted ideas about God and what is right. That world knows no sin, and so it knows no Savior. Some storms whirl around inside my heart, which is not yet so mature that it likes only what God likes, and thinks only how God thinks. If you are sailing your ship through a hurricane, do you want to try to make it with a one-man crew? Can you man the rudder, secure the rigging, navigate the maps, and run the bilge pump all by yourself? Or will you take on board all the help you can get to steer your ship safely to the shore?

That is why, when Jesus ascended into heaven, he left behind his parting gifts. He left us messengers of his word who expose the dangers of sin, and who never let us lose sight of the beacon of God’s grace. It always beams, “Your sins are forgiven! Your sins are forgiven! Your sins are forgiven!” Then God is growing us up in our faith, growing us together in love, and leading us safely home.