In today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome, we’ve reached a point where the apostle is giving practical advice. While he travels the Mediterranean spreading the good news about Christ, Paul is often self-conscious of the fact that he has not spent as long in any one place as he might like. He does his best to set a good example and teach them about Christlike living while he is with them, but at some point he needs to move on. When those communities contact him with questions about how to live as Christians, Paul regularly gives extended theological commentary about the nature of Christ, salvation, and so on. Paul also tries to give practical advice, almost as if, after a long theological exposition, he can hear some of the people saying “So what does that have to do with me, here, today?”
In the case of the letter to the Romans, Paul hasn’t met them at all yet. The letter is to prepare them for his arrival in their city. A bit like an agenda with reports and material sent around before a parish vestry meeting. In the case of this letter, Paul is most concerned with the issues of justification and salvation. One of the consequences of our justification and salvation in and through Christ is that we will be transformed. Not only physically on the day of resurrection, but in our hearts, minds and spirits as well.
In today’s passage (Romans 12.1-8), Paul shares what some of these transformations mean and how they might appear in our communities. If we were to sum up this passage into one sentence, it might be something like “Take all that you do in each day and make it an offering to God.” When we think of offering to God, I hope that most of us first think of our offering of praise and thanksgiving in our prayers and especially on Sundays. (I suspect that many people also think of the alms basins we use to collect money, but that leads us to an entirely different sermon.)
Paul is encouraging Christians to consider their daily work with intention and to make all of it a holy work honouring God, whether it is a moment of prayer or washing up the dishes after dinner. Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century Carmelite monk in Paris, wrote a small book on how this practice creates a day filled with intimate moments of contact between the Christian and God. When every act, every conversation, every thought is approached as something holy, it should be unsurprising that we find more holiness, more Godliness, in our days.
Paul goes on to describe that, in these moment-to-moment offerings to God, each person also exhibits gifts. Every person has gifts, given to them by God. Not all gifts are the same but, if the community is willing to work together and share their gifts, they will be sufficient for the need. To paraphrase a popular workers’ rights slogan: Each contributes according to their gifts and each receives according to their needs. And, says St Paul, all of the giving and receiving should be known as a holy offering to God.
If we are to take this instruction seriously, there are a couple of steps we must take. The first is that we must work to know ourselves. We must learn and recognize the gifts we have been given. We must also learn and recognize our limitations. This latter category is difficult because we have been taught that limitations are a personal, usually moral failing. How many of us have been told that if we are unable to do something it’s only because we haven’t tried hard enough? Sometimes learning to use our gifts is hard work and perhaps we do need more practice. But much of the time, it is the case that the gift for that task is not one that we have. It is work meant for another.
The second step we must take is to learn to recognize the gifts of others. More difficult is that we must recognize the gifts of otherwise without envy. Instead, we are called to see another’s gifts and to encourage them. To rejoice in the blessing God has given them and to do what we can to support their use, development, and growth of that gift. Not every person can do every thing. After all, how does a gift for teaching glorify God if no one is ignorant? Or a gift for weaving if no one needs cloth?
In this work of recognizing and encouraging gifts as offering to God, we must remember that all of these gifts come from God. We use them to God’s glory, not our own. They are given to us not because of our merits or for ourselves, but given in trust. God gives us gifts and trusts us to use them for the benefit of all, not to hoard them or use to build ourselves up or, worst of all, to exploit and harm others.
Our parish has gone through enormous change in a few short years. We have survived a pandemic, we have learned of certain financial realities, about realities of the state of this building, we have buried some of our siblings and welcomed many new ones. We have tried, and sometimes succeeded, in making all of these experiences offerings to God.
Whether we wish it or not, the parish is in a time of discernment and self-discovery as we reimagine how we are to be the Body of Christ here and now. The gifts we thought we needed and the work we thought we must do may not be who we are called to be today. This fall season, there will be conversations and meetings for this congregation. Serious conversations about discerning our gifts, individual and communal, and discerning our limitations. Most importantly, conversations and decisions about the work we are called to through our lives in Christ and how we can employ our God-given gifts for the good of all.
We would not be here, together, if God had not called us. And if God has called us, then there is a good and holy way forward. Everybody has gifts. Each of you here, this morning, and this community as a whole. Together, we have the gifts and blessings that we need, if we are willing to discover and share them.
We have much hard work before us, of that there is no doubt. Our task over the coming months is one of discernment and prayer, of discovering and encouraging, of grieving some things gone and celebrating new things growing. Through it all, we would do well to consider St Paul’s advice to make each of these steps a holy offering to God.
After all, if we Christians are not first and foremost about God, then who are we?