"The Blessed Design"

Message preached January 21, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon 1 Corinthians 12

Order of Worship

Someone asked me after church last week if I was a Ravens fan. Apparently they wondered, seeing that I didnít say anything during worship about our hometown team in the playoffs. Our familyís resident "sports expert," Mitchell, who has been wearing his purple Ravens jersey every day to school lately for good luck, thought we should be praying for the Ravens in church. I meant to somehow include it last Sunday, but (as I sometimes do) I forgot.

If I had remembered, though, I doubt if Mitch wouldíve been satisfied with my attempt. My prayer would probably have been similar to how I approached tests in college. Something like: "Lord, help my mind to be clear and alert that I might remember what Iíve studied and apply it to the best of my ability." After all, I thought then, and still think now, if I didnít do the work preparing, was it right for God to let me fool myself with a grade I didnít deserve?

I came by this approach honestly. After my father died, we found a saying in his own handwriting that our family copied and framed, an example of his wisdom to be passed on to the next generation. It reads: "Success is that place in the road where preparation and opportunity meet. But too few people recognize it, because too often it comes disguised as hard work." ... Of course, there is an element of Godís grace amid our efforts, a gift none of us deserve. However, let me touch on that later.

Well, as you well know, the Ravens won last week, even without my prayer - a tribute to the hard work theyíve done up to this point, their leadership, and perhaps a bit of plain old luck. Something else should be mentioned, which ties into this morningís scripture, and that is their teamwork. Iím not the "sports expert" my son is, but I am aware of a defensive line that is second to none this year (so far). They seem to work together almost as if they were one man.

If you will, thatís how the apostle Paul described the church. When we are at the peak of our "season," itís like we are one body, functioning together toward a common goal. That doesnít mean weíre all alike, carbon copies of the same person, everyone thinking the same thoughts, behaving in exactly the same way. Itís more like weíre wearing the same color jersey. As Paul elsewhere wrote, we are to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 13:14), taking off some other harmful "stuff" in the process, things which get in the way of doing what we can do best. Paulís list of things that can prevent "playing" together to the best of our potential might not be the same as Ravens coach Brian Billeckís, but drunkenness, vulgarity, indecency, quarreling, and jealousy (Romans 13:13) sure are body-busters for the church. They get in the way of good teamwork.

On this team, we are each gifted in a particular way. Thatís where this thing we call "grace" enters in. The language in which the New Testament was originally written builds Godís grace into all aspects of the process. "There are many gifts," Paul said to the believers in Corinth. Now, the word "gift" in Greek is "charisma" or "charismata." At the heart of either is the root "charis," which we translate as "grace," as in Godís grace. But there is more. Within "charisma" as well as "charis" is the word "chara," which means "joy." A variation on the same theme can be found in the Greek word we sometimes use in the church today, mostly attached to the bread and cup communion of our Lord - "eucharist," which means "gratitude," or "thanksgiving."

Gift, grace, joy, gratitude, thanksgiving are all intricately woven together into the fabric of this "jersey" (if you will) that we wear together, this team we are on, this "body" of Christ called the "church." It's not just a matter of hard work. God freely gives to us what we need - each of us individually and all of us together. From God we receive that which we need to work as a team, to function as a body, to live together toward the goals to which God draws us.

Each one of us has a gift. Now, if youíve come to know my approach to things, you are aware that I see these gifts from God, of which every person who has put on this "jersey" of Christ has been given at least one, (I see them) as endowments which are not "factory parts." In saying this, I need to shift metaphors from a football team to an auto-repair shop. As I understand it, the best mechanics are the ones who really know what makes a car operate. Automobiles are all different, though there are some basics, which boil down to fire, fuel, and ... well, I forget the rest (Iím not a mechanic).

Iíve been told that lesser mechanics nowadays are basically installers of parts. The computer tells them which part is not functioning right and they replace it with a new one from the factory. Of course, sometimes (or maybe often) they have to make a judgement call as to what the problem is, for the computer doesnít say. The result can become costly, for they start replacing parts until they find the problem. The best mechanics, instead, are able to see the whole vehicle as a system, or as a unified functioning of systems. They "tinker" with rather than merely "replace" parts. The major focus is on the whole, rather than the parts.

These gifts each of us receive are not factory parts. Sometimes we approach them that way. I believe they differ from vehicle to vehicle, church to church, person to person. I also believe the list of them which Paul put on paper for the Corinthians was not exhaustive. This is not a catalog from which we order a part. In the first place, itís God who does the "ordering," the "designing." In the second place, different settings, different vehicles, different churches require different possibilities. Though some of the basics for how the vehicles function remain the same, there are significant differences from place to place, and person to person.

Now, there is a lot of tinkering that has to be done to get the vehicle to operate to the best of its design. Shifting back to the church and the gifts of God, we can approach figuring out and developing our individual gifts as if it were a catalog weíre working out of. Unfortunately ... Amend that, fortunately ... no, amend that, it is a blessing from God that it takes hard work to figure out and develop our gifts. If it were too easy, would we truly appreciate it? Godís grace itself often comes disguised as hard work. Furthermore, it is something we do together, not alone.  (see here for our website on "Discerning Spiritual Gifts.")

Forgive me for shifting metaphors once again. Recently I became aware of a unique musical ensemble in New York City. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is different in that it does not have an over-all conductor. This is not to say that there is a leadership vacuum in this organization. What happens is that leadership shifts from person to person. For each piece of music that they play,

"an elected committee of musicians (from the group) selects a concertmaster and each instrumental section chooses a representative. These chosen representatives develop an overall interpretive approach to the music before the entire orchestra comes together to rehearse. (They) also structure the rehearsal process... This provides clear leadership, while insuring that every member has a real stake in the artistic outcome of each piece performed by the orchestra." (see "The Orpheus Process")

Whatís even more interesting is that the business community is starting to look at how this orchestra operates as a model for doing business. Our corporate culture has for too long focused upon the leadership at the top, pulling in high powered CEOís who are supposed to make or break a company. The Orpheus suggests something different. In fact, they are now "Artists in Residence" at Baruch College. Students and business leaders pay to observe them in action. The psychology and the government departments of the college are doing the same thing.

This shouldnít be something new to us. After all, the process almost comes straight out of scripture. Granted, there are differences. However, for two long we have not followed Paulís analogy of the human body or, if we have, we have tended to order things in a way foreign to Paul and the human body.

"Who is in charge?" we keep asking, as if that were the most important question. From the very outset, Paul makes clear the question is already settled. The designer is! Beyond that, things happen organically. One part of the body doesnít say "Iím more important than you," or just the opposite. All parts function together as one body. We now know that a problem in one system of the human body puts a stress on the whole body. We also know that the various systems of the body adapt and come up with alternatives when there are problems. Itís built into the whole system by the master designer. Itís part of the blessed design. Thatís true of the human body, true as well of the church. The "grace" of it all is built in.

We donít need to be sports experts, or great mechanics, or trained classical musicians to understand this. Do note, however, that in each of those examples "success" - as my Dad would say - "is that place in the road where preparation and opportunity meet." The same is true for the church where we each are blessed by God with a special gift, equipped "for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ." (Ephesians 4:12)

One more thing, did I answer whether or not Iím a Ravens fan. That would be "yes," whether or not they win the Super Bowl. But Iím a bigger fan of the church and the One who came up with this "blessed design."

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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