In your senior year of seminary, you are given the privilege of preaching for the entire community. I remember the week I was to preach, I was sitting at lunch with some classmates and a professor and I confessed to the table that I was a little nervous. There is little worse than preaching to a room full of preachers; we tend to be a tough crowd. But I will never forget what my professor said in response to my anxiety. “Just remember what that old hymn says, Jennifer. ‘If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, “He died for all.”’” At the time, I remember thinking how reassuring his words were – all that mattered was I preached the gospel.
But sometime later, as I thought back to his comments, I had the distinct thought, “Wait a minute. Was he saying I was not going to be as good a preacher as Peter?” Suddenly I was confused by my professor’s words – was he trying to center me for preaching, or just trying to gently tell me not being a good preacher was okay. I felt the emotional whiplash that seems to be a unique gift of Southerners – a little akin to a solid, “Bless your heart.”
What the words of that professor unearthed in me was a fear we all experience. Our society tells us we need to be good at all the things – at being exceptional in our workplaces while also being an exceptional parent and spouse; at being a high-performing student and accomplished athlete (and musician, performer, and artist); at volunteering in so many places in retirement that we are working harder than we were working for compensation!
But that is not what Paul, or the person writing in the name of Paul,[i] tells the Christian community. Our epistle writer says, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[ii] Paul argues that mature Christians understand that they have been equipped with gifts for ministry. However, as scholar Clark-Soles says, Christians “do not need to imagine themselves as pan-gifted, and there is no reason to compete with one another. Our job is simply to recognize our particular gifts and use them for the development and augmentation of the body.”[iii]
Nine months ago, I began to sense God was asking me to live into the maturity of my gifts – perhaps being called to serve as a bishop in the church in a land called Iowa. The decision to be open to that process was not an easy one because my gifts have also been very much affirmed in this slice of heaven here called Hickory Neck. A day after the election, with the news that I will in fact not be serving as a bishop, I find myself singing that old tune again, “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul…”
But this time, the recollection of that hymn does not sting in the same way the song stung in seminary. Former bishop Porter Taylor says, “while the passage [in Ephesians] affirms the diversity of individual gifts, it asserts that these are always to be used for the good for the whole, ‘to equip the saints for ministry.’…To grow in one’s ministry, therefore, is to align oneself with God’s intentions, both individually and corporately…”[iv] What Bishop Porter, the epistle to the Ephesians, and even the election yesterday remind us all of is that God equips each one of us here to the work of ministry – sometimes as preachers, sometimes as evangelists, sometimes as pastors, sometimes as teachers, sometimes as bishops – but always for the good of the whole and of the greater community. Even though I was not elected yesterday, my hope is that the process was a good reminder for all of us that our work is to constantly be assessing what gifts God is giving us, how those gifts are evolving over time, and how we can use them for good. Our one baptism is an invitation, whether we are Peters or Pauls, to share the love of Jesus. The rest is in God’s hands. Amen.
[i] Paul V. Marshall, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 304.
[ii] Ephesians 4.11-13.
[iii] Jaime Clark-Soles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 305.
[iv] G. Porter Taylor, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 304.