1 Corinthians 12 is part of a longer narrative from Paul about the church. Chapter 12 focuses specifically on the gifts of Holy Spirit. This seems particularly apt for our focus this week on Stewarding our Communion (that is the fellowship of our church – see Sunday’s message on this topic). Verse 7 reads:
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
Paul then goes on to list a variety of spiritual gifts (wisdom, knowledge, healing, and so on). And he concludes his paragraph, saying that “All these are the works of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.”
I want to make two quick, simple but vital points from verse 7:
…to each one… Paul is clear here, and throughout this chapter, that EVERY ONE receives a gift from Holy Spirit. It is not just a privileged few, or those who are ordained, or those who have an up-front public ministry who have received a gift from the Spirit. It is EACH ONE. That includes you! You have received a gift – at least one, perhaps more – from Holy Spirit. You may not recognise it, but you have received it.
…for the common good. The gifts are given to each one, but not for our own benefit. Rather, gifts are given for the collective – the common good – which I’ve been referring to as the COMMUNION. While gifts can be helpful in our personal spiritual life, their primary purpose is to build up the collective, to benefit all of us, to grow the church. When we horde the Spirit’s gift for ourselves, we are not stewarding it.
The challenge then is simple and direct:
What is your gift?
How are you putting it to work in the communion of the church?
Last Sunday we started a four-part series on stewardship, which I defined as taking care of the things that God has entrusted to each of us. Last week, we started with stewarding ourselves. Today, we reflect on stewarding our communion. And over the following two Sundays we’ll talk about stewarding our things and our world.
By stewarding our communion, I am meaning stewarding our church – particularly the local church of which you are member. I’ve deliberately used the term ‘communion’ rather than ‘church’, because ‘church’ too easily makes us think of the institution of the church – the denomination, its rules and statements of belief, its structures and hierarchies, and so on. While these are important, I’d like us to focus more on our fellowship, our community, our communion. Today, we reflect on how we create, nurture and sustain a communion of believers, focused on God and on God’s work.
Acts 2:42-47 provides a potent and familiar description of the early church:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
As you read this passage, and as we reflect on its themes, consider your own church and to what extent it evidences these four characteristics:
Fellowship. The early church was characterised by close fellowship between the believers. We see this in the following words from the text: fellowship, were together, meet together, and ate together.
Regularity. The members of the church fellowshipped together; not now and then, occasionally or sporadically, but regularly. Notice these words from the Acts passage: devoted, every day, and daily.
Inclusivity. The early church was one that welcomed everyone – doors were flung open and all members and newcomers were included. See these phrases: everyone, all the believers, everything, and added to their number those who were being saved.
Worship. And the early church focused on and cherished worship or liturgy – this was no social club, but a group focused on building the Kingdom of God. We see this in these phrases: apostles’ teaching, breaking of bread, prayer, wonders and signs, broke bread, and praising God.
How is your local church – your Christian communion, your fellowship – doing on these four characteristics? Covid-19, of course, has made a huge dent in these for many churches. Some have found ways of continuing to gather online. Others have not. Reflect on Covid’s impact on your communion and what this means for the future. But also reflect on how your communion was before Covid, so that we don’t blame Covid for everything.
What does your stewardship of your communion look like?
Perhaps your church is not doing great on these points. What could you do to strengthen this thing of God – the church communion – that God has entrusted into our care – your care? Let me suggest just three key things:
You choose to exercise your own stewardship of your communion. A communion is made up of individuals. You are one of them. Take responsibility for your own engagement with and stewardship of your communion. Too often we are waiting for the clergy or church leadership to do things. Let each of us take responsibility for our own stewarding of the church. If each of us did, we’d be a communion. As Joshua said in 24:15, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Talk to others in your communion: especially those on the edge, those who feel disillusioned, those who feel alienated, those who have lost hope. Build communion with them, one-on-one, and draw them back into the larger communion.
Pray. Pray without ceasing for your communion, for your church, the fellowship of believers. The communion is the Lord’s. He entrusts it to us for safekeeping and growth; but it is still the Lord’s. Ask the Lord to build the church.
In Luke 11:42-44, Jesus issues a series of ‘woes’ (or warnings) against the Pharisees, who were a group of highly religious, devout Jewish people. They were also religious leaders, so these woes are issued against both those who think of themselves as highly religious and against those who are occupy leadership positions in the church (including both clergy and laypeople).
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
Jesus draws a contrast between tithing (specifically tithing of food, but we can apply it equally to tithing of money) and justice (which can be considered the love of neighbour) and the love of God.
Jesus draws this contrast frequently in the Gospels. It is the contrast between the inner (heart) life and the outer (public) life. He repeatedly calls for alignment between these two, and he speaks out particularly harshly against those who emphasise the outer life and neglect the inner life.
The story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4 illustrates this very nicely:
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
While outwardly, the rich gave more money than the widow, they gave only a tiny percent of what they had, while the little she gave was all she had. The percentage of what is given is more important than the absolute amount that is given. The motivation for giving is more important than the absolute amount given. The external appearance of the money is not important; rather, the inner heart out of which the money is given is what is important to Jesus.
Jesus also emphasises social justice in this passage, as well as love of God. In Luke 10:27, Jesus answers the question about what we must do to inherit eternal life with the Great Commandment:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
This vertical and horizontal love is absolutely foundational to what it means to be an authentic Christian or follower of Christ. Jesus issues these woes against the Pharisees because they had neglected these fundamental expressions of authentic faith – they had neglected to love God and they had neglected social justice.
We would, however, be wrong to conclude that Jesus is saying the outward expression of faith is unimportant, and only the heart is important. NO! In fact, Jesus stresses that BOTH are important! He wraps up this verse:
You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
Tithing – giving of our material resources – remains important! He wants:
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:
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.
One of the impacts of COVID-19 has been to dramatically increase unemployment rates. We see this in both the developed world (e.g., the USA) and the developing world (e.g., South Africa). By ‘work’ I don’t necessarily mean employment (in the sense of being employed and paid by someone else) or even to have a job (in the sense of doing something that generates an income). ‘Work’ includes productive activities, such as volunteering or raising a family. So, I am using ‘work’ in an inclusive and flexible way.
Our current challenging context should prompt us to think about work from a Christian perspective. I suggest three key points about work.
We were created to work. The creation story in Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 emphasises work. God created humankind to work. Specifically, to work as labourers, gardeners, farm workers. Work is thus bound up in the DNA of humanity, and when we cannot work, this can create difficulties for us. This is part of the threat of the COVID lockdowns – it is not good for people not to work.
Work is about caring for (stewarding) the things of God. Genesis 2:15 emphasises that Adam was placed into the garden (probably the Garden of Eden, which can be thought of as the jewel of God’s natural creation) to tend and work it. We often refer to this as ‘stewardship’ – that the things of God are entrusted to us to (on loan) to care for. And to make productive. The garden is intended to be a well-cared for, creative and productive space.
We work for God, not people. In Ephesians 6:7, Paul says to workers, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” To be a Christian at work is not so much to publicise your faith, to hold prayer meetings or to evangelise, as much as it is to do your job with the exceptional devotion and energy that comes form working for God.
I encourage us to think about work at this present time and to:
Consider how we help people who are out of work to have work.
Do our own work – if we are blessed to be able to work – as if for God.
There is so much more I want to say about Christian perspectives on work! One day I will write a book!
Our reading for today (Luke 16:1-9) has to be one of the oddest of Jesus’ parables. Here it is in full:
1 “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “‘Three thousand liters of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifteen hundred.’
7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘Thirty tons of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it twenty-four.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Instead of preaching a sermon on this topic, I engaged a few of the parishioners in enacting the scene. This service took place at Irene Homes for intellectually disabled women, a ministry setting that brings me great joy. The ladies participated wholeheartedly in the acting out the story, as you can see in the video taken by someone in the congregation.
The moral of the story is that we should use what we have in life (what Jesus refers to as ‘worldly wealth’) to build positive relationships with people and to invest in the development of the world. While the people we invest in might not open their homes to us, as the dishonest manager in Jesus’ story hoped. But God will open his eternal home to us. And that’s a worthwhile investment!
Today we ask the question, Who am I? Or more specifically, What is my identity as a Christian? This is the first of five themes in a series on stewardship, where we reflect on our role in taking care of God’s business in the world.
In this audio message, I make the following points:
In John 15:1-10, the passage where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches, 11 times Jesus uses the term ‘remain’ (or ‘abide’ in the old Authorised Version): “Remain in me … and you will bear much fruit“. Here Jesus calls us to be rooted into him, to remain grafted into him. We recognise that without him, we can do nothing. So we depend on him.
In the same passage, Jesus also speaks of remaining in us: “Remain in me as I remain in you“. This suggests an interdependence between God and us, in which God binds himself to humanity. We this most strongly evident in four moments in cosmic history: creation, covenant, incarnation and Pentecost. In each of these, God in some way limits himself or enters into agreement with humanity, binding himself and his work to us.
Psalm 23 reminds us that God is both the source of our life (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”) and its destination (“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). In John 14:6, Jesus similarly emphasises that he is the way and the truth and the life. In other words, he is everything – there is nothing in our lives that falls outside of our connection to Christ.
Our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God. Sometimes the church gives us rules or procedures or recipes we’re supposed to follow in our relationship with God. But this relationship is like any other relationship in our life. It is unique, personal and authentic. It is different for each of us, because, though God is the same person, each of us different, so his relationship to each of us different. God meets us right where we are. Whatever you find works for you in your relationship with God, do more of that.
As much as our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God, it is also rooted in our relationships with each other. God did not create a single person (Adam or Eve); God created a couple (two people in loving relationship with each other), and immediately mandated them to procreate and become a family. 1 Peter 2:9-10 similarly emphasises that we are a community of people in relationship with other people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession … the people of God”. So, we have to invest not only in ourselves and our relationship with God, but also in our relationships in the church (however you want to define that) and the work of the church.
Finally, our readings today call for decisiveness. Moses, speaking just before the nation of Israel crosses into the promised land, calls them to a decision (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “This day I … set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose! Choose life! … For the Lord is your life”.
This banner, hanging at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Lyttleton, created by Eleanor Jappie.
September each year is ‘stewardship month’ in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, during which we focus intensively on the question of our contribution to God’s work in building the Kingdom of God in our midst. Traditionally, we focus on time, talents and treasures as the main focus areas of our contribution. This year, we’ve also focused on our stewardship of creation, particularly in response to the growing plastics threat.
This is the last of our stewardship messages this year, where I was led, by some difficult circumstances, to reflect on the meaning of stewardship. Using a set of six images, I show the multifacetedness of stewardship, and what it means to work as partners with God in transforming our world into the image of God. These images are:
The image of stewardship as parenthood emerged in a crisis with my son during this past week, where he was involved in a very serious car accident. Although he was not badly hurt, thankfully, his life was jeopardised, and this raised considerable distress for me as a parent. It led me to think of my role as parent as that of a steward of this young man, who is first and foremost God’s son, and only secondarily my son.
The image of stewardship as friendship emerged from John 15, where Jesus says that we are not servants, but friends; friends of Christ and friends of God. Friendship, I suggest, involves freedom, reciprocity (mutuality) and equality. And friendship is the ultimate foundation of stewardship.
It is against these images that I believe we are invited to be coworkers with Christ in his mission to redeem the cosmos.
Stewardship or dedicated giving is an important dimension of the life of most churches and most Christians. It is about pledging to invest our time, our abilities, our resources and our finances into the work of God through the local church. Stewardship, however, runs the risk of becoming an administrative process of ticking off some boxes to settle our dues with our church, without really touching us or the world at a deeper level.
In this message, I draw on two verses from the Gospels – Matthew 21:33-34 – and show how this text points us to a far deeper and broader understanding of the importance of stewardship:
“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.”
First, this passage echoes the creation narrative in Genesis 1, where we find God creating a world and placing people in it, with the task of taking care of that world, which is an expression of the love and being of God. This suggests that stewardship reaches right back into the very origins of humanity, and is rooted not just in some things we do, but in our identity. Being a steward (or gardener or farmer) is the foundational calling that God makes of all humanity. It means, among other things, that everything we do in life should champion and protect the environment.
Second, later in this parable (v43), Jesus reveals that the vineyard is, in fact, the Kingdom of God, which is the world under the loving rule of Christ, who reconciles all things together to himself. We, as his followers, are called to bring out the fruit of the Kingdom of God, or the fruit of the Gospel. This means, among other things, that everything we do should help to bring into being God’s Kingdom values, such as love, justice, mercy, equity, relationships, integrity and grace.
Stewardship, then, is not just about signing up to help make tea or work in a soup kitchen, nor is it just about pledging to donate money to the church on a monthly basis. It is an expression of our identity as people created to take care of creation and as people striving to transform the world into the Kingdom of God, through every breath we take, from rising until sleeping. In so doing, we let God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven.