“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” – John 12:20-33
A number of years ago Bob Dylan recorded a song called Gotta Serve Somebody. (Here’s Phil Keaggy & friends performing it live…)
The point of the song is that everybody ends up serving something or someone, sometime in our lives. We may serve a boss, we may serve our family or our church, we may serve our country. Some people serve themselves. The bottom line is, one way or another, all of us serve. The question then becomes: who are we going to serve?
This week is the fifth week in our Lenten series on A Disciple’s Path, and this week we look at the Path of Service. Just like last week when we were on the Path of Generosity and I promised not to talk about money, this week, on the Path of Service, I promise not to talk about volunteering more of your time!
What I’d like to look at instead are two things that go into making up Christian service: (1) God’s call and (2) God’s gifts. And then I’ll wrap up with a few notes on the scripture reading from John.
When God calls people, God calls us individually by name, and God calls us for a purpose. In scripture, God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God called David to be king over Israel. In the New Testament, God called Saul the Pharisee to become Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
Many of the examples of God’s calling in the Bible are calls to leadership or to prophecy (or both). But there are other kinds of calling. Jesus called the disciples to be ‘fishers of men’. Jesus called the woman at the well to become the first evangelist. When God calls everyday people like you and me, God usually calls us to everyday things like teaching or hospitality or encouragement. The thing to notice is that we are who we are, and we are called the way we are called, by God’s design.
This is what A Disciple’s Path talks about in the Path of Service. The focus in this chapter of the book is on discovering what gifts God has given each one of us, and then using what we discover about God’s plan for us. Speaking personally I have spent years studying this, and I’ve taught a course in it at the local community college. I believe passionately in discovering our personal gifts, and here’s why. According to a recent poll, somewhere between 50-70% of employees don’t like their jobs. And I believe that often comes from a mis-match between personal gifts and job requirements: people trying to do things they were never designed to do. Both in the work world and in the church, life’s joys come from living into God’s design. Those age-old questions of “who am I?” and “why am I here?” have answers, if we take the time to find them.
Hearing and following God’s call requires that we spend time with God. Otherwise we are in danger of either following our own agenda (instead of God’s) or of overworking and burning out. We are all familiar with the story of Mary and Martha. Jesus comes to their house, and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening and learning while Martha is in a fuss getting a meal ready. When she asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, Jesus answers, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things… Mary has chosen the better part.”
Time with Jesus needs to be our very first priority. I think that’s why A Disciples Path starts out talking about prayer and scripture reading and community before it talks about service. The priorities need to be in the right order.
So the Path of Service begins with prayer, bringing our questions and concerns to God, and putting what we have in God’s hands for God’s use. We also need to spend time listening to God, through Scripture, and in the silence of prayer, and in the words of fellow Christians who often notice our gifts before we do.
Secondly, when God calls us, God also gives us gifts to enable us to live into that calling. God’s gifts tend to fall into one of two categories, for lack of better terms: natural talents and spiritual gifts. Natural talents are gifts we’re born with, things we have a knack for: musical talent, for example, or artistic talent, or the ability to build things or fix things or analyze problems. Natural talents are skills that anyone can learn the basics of, but some just have the knack.
Spiritual gifts on the other hand are gifts God gives us when we become children of God (or sometimes later as needed). As it says in A Disciple’s Path, spiritual gifts are “gifts of grace” “different from, although not contradictory to, natural talents.”
So what exactly are spiritual gifts? Spiritual gifts are rooted in the Trinity. God calls us; Jesus sanctifies us; the Holy Spirit indwells us. Spiritual gifts are made possible by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. Spiritual gifts contain a touch of the supernatural. They have the fragrance of another world, metaphorically speaking. Spiritual gifts are just a wee bit beyond our natural-born abilities because they are gifts from God.
The apostle Paul lists spiritual gifts a number of times in the New Testament. None of the lists are exactly the same but here’s a sampling. From Romans 12:
“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ… We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy… ministry… teaching…; exhortation… generosity… diligence… compassion… cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:4-13, edited)
So this list of spiritual gifts includes prophecy, ministry (Greek diaconian, the word we get “deacon” from), teaching, exhorting (Greek paracaleon – related to the word for Holy Spirit (paraclete) which means ‘comforter’ – someone who “comes alongside” or “parallels” us as we walk the path of life), generosity, leadership, compassion, love, hope, patience, perseverance, hospitality.
In First Corinthians 12 Paul says this about the spiritual gifts:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord… To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge… to another faith… to another gifts of healing… to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (I Corinthians 12:4-11, edited)
So the gifts listed here include words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.
In Ephesians chapter four Paul adds to the list: apostles (which means ‘sent ones’), prophecy, evangelism, pastoring, teaching, equipping, and building up the church. In Ephesians Paul also includes the purpose of the spiritual gifts, which is to make Jesus known and to lead people to faith in him.
(I should also mention prophecy, which is included in most of Paul’s lists, does not mean ‘predicting the future’. It means ‘speaking God’s truth into a situation’. The best way to describe prophecy is to say it is closely related to the natural gift of intuition.)
At this point the question that often comes up is: are these gifts still relevant today? Does God still give them to people in our day and age? Most people agree that most of the gifts, like prophecy, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, faith, hope, love, are definitely still in use. The disagreement is over the so-called ‘miraculous’ gifts such as healing and speaking in tongues, and people in every denomination debate over these.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the miraculous gifts, because I think people make too much fuss over them. But I don’t want to ignore them either, because I hardly ever hear anyone talk about them from the pulpit. So I’ll just say this: John Wesley kept meticulous diaries during his fifty years of ministry. He wrote everything down that happened during those fifty years. (When his diaries were first published they filled 20 volumes!) One modern-day biographer took those diaries and read through them and compiled all the miracles Wesley witnessed, and the resulting book is over 200 pages long. Another biographer said this about Wesley: “Wesley neither sought nor denied the supernatural… He warned against regarding extraordinary circumstances as essential (in other words, we don’t need to have miracles to have faith)… and [he also warned] against condemning them… [as] a hindrance to God’s work. (in other words, we shouldn’t get worked up if miracles do happen).” Wesley was extremely balanced in his thinking about miracles – a balance that is typical of Wesley. Having read some of what he has written, his descriptions of miracles strike me as very matter-of-fact, almost like he’s not surprised by them when they happen. He just takes them in stride and goes on with what he’s doing.
So having said that, most of the time most of the spiritual gifts we receive are not the ‘miraculous’ kind. They are the everyday kind. Spiritual gifts, used in God’s way and in God’s timing, bring about God’s healing and wholeness in a broken world. And as the apostle Paul points out in I Corinthians 13, the greatest spiritual gift of all is love. I won’t read the whole chapter (it would take too long) but let me point out the capstones, the beginning and end of that chapter:
“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…” (I Cor 12:29-I Cor 13:1)
And Paul wraps up the passage saying:
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” (I Cor 13:13-I Cor 14:1)
Paul’s whole chapter on love is really talking about the spiritual gifts.
And love, the gift of love, brings us to our scripture for the day. In this passage, Jesus is facing into what he knows will be his last days on earth and he is preparing his disciples for what is coming. Jesus says he will be laying down his life for all of us. Scripture says “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus is inviting us as his servants to follow him. Jesus says “where I am, there will my servant be also” and “whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Three times in this passage Jesus mentions death and three times Jesus talks about glory. So here we in Lent, and even as we face into the Cross the light of Easter is already beginning to dawn. When Jesus is lifted up, he says, “I will draw all people to myself”. There is glory at the end of his suffering. There is praise for the faithful servant.
In the book of I Peter the apostle Peter, Jesus’ friend, writes to the early church to encourage them in their service, and he says this:
“By God’s great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:3-7, edited)
This ‘praise and glory and honor’ Peter talks about is promised by God not only for Jesus, but for all of us also who follow Jesus and serve him. This kingdom glory is where the Disciple’s Path leads.
So with this in mind, let us listen for God’s call in our lives, and use all the gifts God gives us, looking forward to the glory of God’s kingdom. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 3/22/15