Stewarding ourselves

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Today we begin a four-part series on stewardship. The notion of stewardship, albeit not named as such, comes from the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2. After God has invested tremendously in creating the heavens and earth, God entrusts God’s creation to humanity. In Genesis 1:28, we read,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

And in Genesis 2:15, after a detailed account of God’s creation of the Garden of Eden, we read:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

In both, narratives, the first thing God does after the creation of humanity, is to place humans in a position of responsibility to take care of what God has made. Later in this series we’ll talk more about taking care of the world itself, but these narratives are speaking not only about the earth, but about everything that God has created. And since everything that exists was created by God, stewardship is about everything!

During this series, we’ll look at four things God calls us to steward:

  1. Ourselves
  2. Our communion
  3. Our things
  4. Our world

Today we start with stewarding ourselves.

It might seem strange to think about stewarding ourselves, because we normally think about stewarding other things. But since we are God’s creation, we need to steward ourselves. A lovely passage that speaks about this is Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

The ’offering’ or ‘sacrificing’ of ourselves that Paul speaks about here is comparable to what we are calling ‘stewarding’. In a sense, we give ourselves to God. In this brief passage, Paul speaks about offering our bodies, offering our spirits and offering our minds. This aligns with the classic way of understanding the components of a person: body, mind and spirit. Paul is really saying that we need to steward the whole of ourselves.

Let me briefly suggest three ways that we can do this:

First, we can focus our mind, our emotions, our will or intention or purpose on God. All too often, we carry out the business of living our life as if God does not exist. We just live life, like any person who is not a follower of Christ. But stewarding ourselves means that we focus ourselves on God; in other words, we recognise that we exist because of God and that we exist to please God. God becomes central in our thinking and in our intentions. This is the sense of surrendering ourselves to God in a way that is ‘holy and pleasing to God’ that Paul speaks about in Romans 12.

Second, how can we put that first point into action, to take it from an idea to something tangible and practicable? Perhaps we can ask ourselves every morning as we wake up, “How will I serve God today?” Stewarding ourselves doesn’t just fall out of the sky; it’s not going to ‘just happen’. We have to choose to make it happen. Imagine if, before we did something, we asked ourselves, “Will this please God?” And imagine what our lives would be like if, having realised it would not please God, we chose to not do it or to change the way we do it – into a way that is pleasing to God. Or imagine if we asked ourselves, “Does what I’m doing now reveal the heart of God?” If our words and actions are not revealing who God is and what is most important to God, then we are not stewarding ourselves for God – we’re just doing what we feel like doing. But when we shape the way we behave so that it is pleasing to God and reveals the character of God, then we are stewarding ourselves.

Third, we can put the gifts that we have into God’s service. We all have gifts. Some people are friendly and find talking to strangers easy. (This is something I’m not good at.) Some people can cook or sing or fix things or manage money. These are (perhaps) what we could call natural gifts. And there are also what Paul calls spiritual gifts (e.g., 1 Cor 12) which are given to us by Holy Spirit when we make a personal commitment to Christ. These include some supernatural gifts like prophecy, tongues, healing and so on. But whatever gifts you have – whatever you are good at – are gifts that we can steward, by putting them to work in building God’s kingdom. Of course, as a church, we’d love you put these gifts to work in the church; but you can also put them to work anywhere and everywhere – at home, at work, in your community, in your family.

As we journey through this coming week, I encourage you to put a note up in a place where you’ll see it every day – perhaps on your mirror in the bedroom or bathroom, or next to your kettle. Write on a slip of paper, “How will I serve God today?” Make an effort to remember this little question and to keep looking for ways to serve God. It does not necessarily mean doing something extra; it usually means changing the way we do what would have done anyway.

When you do that, you’ll be stewarding yourself for God.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 39: The Spirit of Community

The vision that John receives of heaven is of a new community, of a place of whole and reconciled relationships, in which God dwells among the people in intimate fellowship:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Notice how John uses social metaphors and words to describe what he sees: a city, which is a place where people live together; a bridal couple, which reminds us of Genesis 2:24’s the two “will become one flesh”; dwelling together, emphasising God’s presence in the intimate places where people live; the mutual belonging, which reminds us of chesed (covenant-based loving-kindness); and the passing away of suffering. John’s vision of heaven is a vision of a community!

Right near the end of Revelation we have the great invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). Spirit is present with the Father and the Son in inviting us to this great banquet, the heavenly wedding feast, where God sets all things right. This is the future glory that we mentioned yesterday, when we reflected on groaning and hoping in Romans 8.

Paul had a good sense of this Holy City. And he understood that living in the Kingdom of God today means that we should experience some of what was revealed to John. The Holy City has not yet come – we continue to hope and persist until that great and glorious day – but we can and should experience at least some of it today. An appetiser. A foretaste of what is yet to come.

Paul writes most clearly about this in 1 Corinthians, where he speaks into a Christian community that did not look much like a Christian community. The Corinthian church did not embody what John saw in the Holy City, and Paul writes to help them actualise that vision. 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 are particularly illuminating for us, because here Paul writes about Holy Spirit and about love – the two themes that are central to our last reflections in Being God’s Beloved.

1 Corinthians 12 opens with, “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.” Apparently, the Corinthians were, in fact, ignorant! Paul wants to set them right. The rest of chapter 12 speaks to the topic of spiritual gifts – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. This is one of the key lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament.

It is clear from reading 1 Corinthians that these gifts were being exercised by the Corinthian Christians. However, it seems that they had misunderstood the purpose of these gifts. They were using them as status symbols, to raise their own egos and to boast their spiritual greatness. Paul needs to set things right. He makes five important points.

First, Paul emphasises the triunity of God, as the theological starting point for understanding gifts in the Christian community: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord [Christ]. There are different kinds of working, but the same God [Father] works all of them in all men” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). He writes this to emphasise at least three points:

  1. All spiritual gifts come from God, not from ourselves, as gifts of God. We must remember the origin of all things and the privilege of receiving them.
  2. All three persons of the trinity cooperate in the work of God. The triune God operates as a community – egalitarian, harmonious, in fellowship, sharing, as a partnership. So too should the church.
  3. The diversity of gifts come from the unity of the triune God. As much as there are many different kinds of gifts, they all come from the one God with one purpose.

Second, Paul reminds us of the purpose of the gifts: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Gifts are not for ourselves. They are for the community, and for the good of the community as a whole, as a collective. This is a sobering reminder that we, like Christ, are called to serve: gifted for others, not for ourselves.

Third, Paul emphasises that it is Spirit who distributes the gifts according to his own judgement of who needs what: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Corinthians 12:11). Gifts are not a free for all. Gifts are not given just because we want them. Rather, Holy Spirit assesses what gifts are required and who requires them, and dispenses them according to his own good judgement.

Fourth, Paul writes at length about the church as a body, having many parts, each with their own unique and invaluable functions, but operating as a unity with a common goal: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). This metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ is one of Paul’s great and profoundly insightful contributions to Christian faith and life. Every part of the body, even the “unpresentable” parts, has a vital role and place in the body. The body cannot operate without every part.

This is model of unity in diversity. It is a model of the trinity! As much as God is three-in-one, and as much as a married couple is two-in-one, the church is many-in-one. This theme echoes throughout the pages of scriptures. It is part of God’s eternal plan and vision that we should be diverse individuals united by a common purpose. And so Paul writes, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Corinthians 12:18). This is God’s vision because this is how God is: three-in-one.

Fifth, in the very next passage, we get the very well-known passage on love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Corinthians 13:4). We hear this so often at weddings that we often think that Paul is here writing about marriage. But while this certainly speaks meaningfully to marriages, in fact, Paul is here writing about the church!

He opens this chapter with the words, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). In a church where so many people are chasing after gifts, Paul seeks to remind the Corinthians that there is a much more important path to follow – the path of love. Half of chapter 13 says that gifts without love is worse than useless. The other half emphasises that gifts will pass away, but love never fails. Rather than chasing after gifts, we should chase after love. Rather than chasing after the gifts of the Spirit, we chase after Spirit himself. Rather than chasing after personal ambition, we should chase after loving relationships.

What we really need, says Paul, is the Spirit of Love. If we have him, then we have first prize. Second and third prizes go to faith and hope. But Love is the greatest prize. Love is the thing we should strive after more than anything else. Once we have Love, everything else will fall into place, including spiritual gifts.

Paul’s vision for the church is a community in which love is central, binding together diverse individuals into a united body, centred on Christ and enabled by Holy Spirit. This is also John’s vision of the Holy City. And this is also a vision of the triune God. This is what Spirit is so good at – bringing unity in diversity, cultivating loving fellowship, building communities. We really cannot do it in our own strength. But with Spirit, the Spirit of Love, it becomes possible.

Meditation for the Day

What are things like in your church or your home group? Is it a community that resembles the Trinity? If not, why not? What can you do to form the kind of Christian community that Paul and John write about?

Prayer for the Day

Spirit of Love, Spirit of Fellowship. Work among the members of my church to build us into a community that reflects the love and unity that we see in the triune God.

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