August 17, 2020
The Proper 16A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 16:13-20 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 1:8-2:10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 138 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 12:1-8 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Matthew 16:13a is not important, right?
We can just skip to verse 13b, yes?
We can just start with the question “Who do people say that I am?” That’s the core if it all here, right?
We cannot skip the geographical marker in this incident. If we do, we miss the key piece of information that ends up informing what happens in this important exchange between Jesus and his disciples. Because where are they as this pericope opens?
Once upon a time it was known as the region of Naphtali. It was an Israelite place. A God place. A Promised Land place. But even as the Soviet communists could not stand to have a town named “Saint Petersburg” (and so changed it to “Leningrad”), so the Romans changed names when it suited them better.
The translation we have in Matthew 16:13-20 says it was “Caesarea Philippi,” but literally in the Greek it is “Caesarea of Philip.” That distinguished it from the older city of Caesarea, which was south and west of there a ways along the Mediterranean Sea. But it also pointed to the more immediate history of the place. Around 20 B.C. Augustus had given the town and its surrounding region to King Herod. Herod built up the city, including a temple of white marble that honored the cult of the Caesar. After Herod died in 4 B.C., the region passed to King Philip, who further built up the place and renamed it “Philip’s Caesarville” so as to flatter and honor his patron, Caesar Augustus.
In other words . . . this was a place that oozed the unctuous nature of politics as usual. It was a place that worshiped Augustus, a place filled with political patronage and a reveling in all things worldly. The very name of the town pointed to the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” give-and-take of the kingdoms of this world. Translated to a twenty-first century context, this would be a place that would be crawling with highly paid lobbyists in $1,000 suits earning $700 an hour to shill for AARP or the National Rifle Association or any number of high-octane single-interest groups that work the system for influence and manipulation.
So it was no coincidence that it was here that Jesus asked his famous question, “Who do people say that I am?”
Don’t skip verse 13a.
You see, to ask that particular question there, in the shadow of power politics and all that goes along with it, transforms the query from an idle question of curiosity into a loaded question bristling with implications. It would have been one thing for Jesus to ask this in some quiet village in Galilee, but it’s quite another matter to ask it in Caesarville. Even today, a question that sounds perfectly natural to ask in Pella, Iowa, would sound very different if it were asked in the well of the Senate.
Jesus’ famous question is fraught with background. So to ask it there in Caesarville only heightened the drama of it. When Peter gives his clarion confession that Jesus is the Christ, there was more than a touch of revolutionary zeal in what he said. Given where they were, that confession was like going to Washington D.C., standing outside the White House, and hoisting up a placard that declared, “Impeach the President!” There in King Philip’s city dedicated to Augustus, Peter’s saying that Jesus is the Christ was a shot across the Roman political bow.
For his part, Jesus knew deep in his heart that political pomp and circumstance, earthly splendor and glory were neither his destiny nor his goal. His warning to the disciples in verse 30 to keep his identity a secret did not stem from some fear that they’d be arrested for sedition. Jesus simply did not want to get swept up in a political campaign in which he did not want to be a candidate for secular office.
Still, it was good for Jesus to know that at least his disciples could get this right. And Peter’s having gotten it right resulted a huge set of promises from Jesus. True, and as is noted in the “Textual Points” in this set of Lectionary sermon starters, we probably err if we make this all about Peter. Jesus is establishing his entire Church as the place of forgiveness.
But what this incident makes clear is that whatever power the Church has to forgive sins or point out sins, it all stems from one thing alone: knowing who Jesus really is. If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as Peter said, then no matter how modest the church may look in any given time or place, no matter how imperfect the church always is, what we have at the core of it all is a power that outstrips the political powers that be in this world. We have a protecting force but also a gracious forgiving force that no one in the universe will ever be able to stop.
I wonder if we in the church—including those of us who preach each Sunday—appreciate how much flows out of that most basic Christian affirmation that “Jesus is Lord!” One of the simplest prayers of the church has for a long time been known as “The Jesus Prayer.” It goes like this:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
If Jesus is who he said he was and who Peter affirmed him to be, then that short prayer packs more power than the most eloquent sermon, the most lyric psalm, or the best hymn ever written. That is itself a point worth savoring!
Of course, there is then also that other half of this passage. We cannot ignore the immediate sequel to Peter’s grand confession when Peter takes it upon himself to teach his Master a little theology. I mean, if you’re going to take over the world, talk of death and sacrifice was a sure-fire ticket to the bottom. Nobody gets elected to office under the campaign slogan “Dead Man Walking” or “This Year, Vote for a Loser.”
We might be tempted to deal a bit harshly with Peter for his lack of understanding that comes on the heels of Jesus’ cross-shaped words (and those words were a sneak preview of coming events). But honestly, the Church today is often no better. We still want to utilize Jesus as a pawn in power politics, still want the church to receive some privileges and perks that are not accorded to other religious faiths, still think that we can legislate and strong-arm people into behaving better. To a lot of Christian people, America feels more and more like some kind of Caesarea Philippi, too, and we’re pretty sure we know how to deal with that kind of secular influence: through power!
We, too, need to hear Jesus say—especially in the Caesarvilles of life—that what is most important for the sake of the Gospel is that we do our Spirit-led best to keep in mind “the things of God” and not the things of business-as-usual politics.
As noted by Frederick Dale Bruner, in verse 18 the first-person singular subject of the sentence is key. Jesus says Peter is a rock but then says, “And on this rock I will build my church.” Our confession of Jesus as God’s Christ and our proclamation of Him invite people into the church and the kingdom, but it is finally ever and only Jesus who builds up the Church, not the rest of us who are his servants. There is no denying the gospel centrality of this passage: it serves as a kind of hinge point. As John Calvin wrote in his commentary, Peter’s “confession is short but it embraces all that is contained in our salvation.”
How vital, therefore, it may be to understand this correctly!
Since Jesus asked this famous question in the shadow of the elite powers-that-be in his day, here is a possible illustration to display how the gospel can look/appear/sound in a similarly high-end setting:
Frederick Buechner grew up among the elite of the very sophisticated East Coast. He rubbed elbows with very urbane people, many of whom fancied themselves too mature as modern-day folk to engage in anything resembling traditional pious talk about God or spirituality. Indeed, when as a young man Buechner mentioned at a high class dinner party that he was going to seminary to become a pastor, his hostess for the evening fixed Buechner in an incredulous gaze before asking, “A pastor? Really. Tell me, was this your own idea or were you ill-advised?”
Many years later, Buechner taught a semester at Wheaton College. At lunch one day, sitting with some students, he overheard one student very casually ask another, “What has God been doing in your life lately?” Buechner observed that if a question like that were asked in New York City, the ground would open up, buildings would crumble, and grown men would faint dead away.
Many times how a question sounds depends on where you are!
Author: Stan Mast
Our RCL reading for last week was a story of triumph, the surprising climax of the story of Joseph that ended the Patriarchal narrative with an Aha, a Whee, and a Yeah (you have to read it to get it). Our reading this week is a story of transition, the surprising beginning of the story of Moses that initiates the Exodus narrative with an Oops and an Ugh (again, turn back to last week’s Sermon Starter on this Excellence in Preaching website).
Genesis ends with God’s great gift of Shalom. God’s chosen people are safely settled in the richest area of Egypt with plenty of food in a time of famine. Father Jacob has been buried in Canaan. Joseph the great Savior of his family has been laid to rest after promising that God’s people will one day return to the Promised Land. All is well.
Indeed, the first verses of Exodus tell us that things are better than that. All of Jacob’s twelve sons have died, but over the course of succeeding generations, the seed of Jacob has grown like a weed. The 70 who went down to Egypt have multiplied miraculously. By the time of the Exodus there were over 600000 men, and that didn’t include women and children (Exodus 12:37). The command of Genesis 1:28 and the promise given to each of the Patriarchs have become a reality for God’s chosen people; “the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.”
But that divine blessing was viewed as a curse by the divine ruler of Egypt, the human god called Pharaoh, whom our text introduces with the classic Oops! “Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.” With that, we meet the first of the three main actors in the book of Exodus—Pharaoh, Moses, and Yahweh.
Pharaoh is a visionary; he sees what his fellow Egyptians don’t see. So, he says, “Look, the Israelites have become too numerous for us.” Don’t you see the problem? And he is a man of action. “Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
Now you would think that having the Israelites leave the country would be exactly what he wanted, because then they couldn’t join with Egypt’s enemies. But Pharaoh vision is more long term; he sees Israel’s Exodus as the loss of a massive source of free labor. Without the slave labor of the Israelites, Egypt’s economy could not thrive. (It doesn’t take a visionary to see a painful parallel in America’s shameful story of African American slavery.)
Thus, this visionary leader develops a shrewd two-fold plan to deal with the “resource” of Israel’s labor force. First, he will work them harder than ever, turning willing immigrant workers into virtual slaves “with slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” Work them so hard that they don’t have the time or energy to make babies. But that strategy didn’t work, perhaps because the Israelite men were as vigorous as their women (cf. verse 19). In fact, the “more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites….”
Note two words that recur in this segment of the story: “oppressed” and “ruthlessly.” In the current climate of racial discord in the United States (and, indeed, around the world), we hear a lot about systemic racism. Many white people don’t understand what that means, so they don’t see it. This story gives us a clear example of systemic oppression. Pharaoh developed a system that used Israelite labor to further his causes. That system oppressed Israelite men by working them ruthlessly, that is, with no regard to their welfare. It was all about Pharaoh and his economy. No matter how hard the Israelites worked, they could never flourish because the whole economic system was designed to exploit them. That system made their lives “bitter.”
That’s systemic oppression, and it was the reason that God dealt with Egypt “ruthlessly” in the Ten Plagues. And it was the reason that Israel ate “bitter herbs” in their Passover celebration of deliverance from “the house of bondage.”
That system was almost racist. It was certainly classist, that is, predicated on the designation of Jacob’s children as a lesser kind of human being. We see that in the term Pharaoh uses in verse 16 as he develops the second step in his shrewd plan to reduce the “threat” of Israel’s fruitfulness. He calls them Hebrews, which is the word “hapiru,” a word used around the ancient Middle East to describe a lower class of people who owned no land and had no social standing. Indeed, they were often thought of as bad people and treated as slaves. Sometimes they were seen as disruptors or even terrorists. It was a derogatory term for a lesser human being. Can you think of a modern-day equivalent?
That second step in Pharaoh’s ruthless plan to oppress Israel was murder, plain and simple, on a society wide scale. It was genocide by infanticide. Enlisting the help of the corps of Hebrew mid-wives led by Shiphrah and Puah, Pharaoh said, “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the birthing stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” If we can’t work them to death, let’s just kill them before they even get started in life and before they can become a military threat.
It was a diabolical plan, but God intervened. Actually, the text does not say that God intervened, anymore than we saw God explicitly at work in the story of Joseph until Genesis 45. Only later in Exodus do we hear God speak and act on behalf of his people. But we do find a crucial reference to God in verse 17, where we learn that these mid-wives “feared God.” God was so much at the center of their lives that they were emboldened to thwart Pharaoh’s plan. They feared God more than they feared Pharaoh, meaning that they trusted and obeyed God even more than the man who held their lives in his hands. This is a subtle preview of the role God will play in the rest of the story. The Ten Plagues reveal that the God of the Hebrews has the whole world, including the “gods” of the Egyptians, in his hands.
But the actual hands that we see at work in this story are the hands of women. First of all, the mid-wives use their hands to deliver and spare the lives the Israelite baby boys. When the mid-wives fabricate a story to explain why these boys are still alive, Pharaoh enlists the help of all Egyptians to do what these women refuse to do. “Every boy that is born [to these hapiru] must be thrown into the Nile….”
But along comes another woman, an unnamed Levite woman, who gives birth to a son so “fine” that she can’t bear to throw him into the Nile. Instead she hides him for 3 months and when he can’t be hidden anymore, she builds him a tiny ark and releases it into the reeds that grow along the banks of the Nile.
Then along comes another woman, not a Hebrew, but an Egyptian. Indeed, she is the daughter of the very man who has ordered this slaughter of the innocents. When she saw the basket floating in the Nile, she peeked in and saw the wailing baby. Even though it was clearly a circumcised Hebrew, she felt sorry for the little tyke.
Lo and behold, here comes another woman, or rather a girl, the sister of this baby. She just happens to be there. More accurately, she was stationed there by her mother to see what would happen to the baby. She offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse to take care of the child. Given permission to do so, the little girl immediately rushes to find her own mother. So, the baby ends up back in his mother’s arms.
To make it ever better, Pharaoh’s daughter offers to pay his mother to take care of him. When the little guy grew older, his mom delivered him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him into Pharaoh’s own house and named him Moses. The baby that was supposed to be thrown into the Nile to die is now living in Pharaoh’s household because the Princess of Egypt “drew him out of the water.”
What a set of fortunate coincidences! What great good luck! No, these women were all part of a plan that was designed to counter and conquer Pharaoh’s plan. We aren’t told that at the beginning, but as the story unfolds it is obvious that God is at work here to save his people. And it wasn’t accidental that God used women (who were called “the weaker sex” until history debunked that derogatory term) to accomplish that plan. Read the whole of redemptive history and you will find that pattern repeated, most significantly in a young woman named Mary. As Paul put it in I Corinthians 1, God has a way of using the weak and lowly and despised to do his magnificent work of redemption, so that we can give God the glory. “My soul magnifies the Lord….”
This is not simply a thrilling story about a wicked king and heroic women. It is an intensely relevant story for anyone living under an oppressive social system. Though it had its origins in the time of Moses, the final form of our story probably comes from the time of Israel’s Exile in Babylon. Like their ancient mothers and fathers, the children of Jacob were once again living in the house of bondage, where God seemed to be conspicuously absent. As they sat by the rivers of Babylon enduring tyranny, they read this story about a God who acted behind the scenes in unlikely ways to free his people. God’s invisibility does not mean God is inactive. God will raise up a Savior from unexpected sources and he will set his people free.
We can preach Christ from this text with complete integrity. Earlier I used the term “the slaughter of the innocents” to describe Pharaoh’s genocidal plan. That term is usually applied to Herod’s murder of all the male children under two years of age in the area of Bethlehem. Threatened by the birth of the “one born king of the Jews,” Herod tried to get rid of Israel’s Savior. But he failed, and Jesus set his people free from the worst form of bondage.
Again, what Pharaoh’s daughter did for little Moses, God has done for us. When we were in grave danger of drowning in the sea of sin and death, God drew us out of the water and set our feet on solid ground. Indeed, we get to live in the house of the King, raised as children of the King of Kings.
As a result of God’s saving work on behalf of Israel, that little band of “hapiru” became a holy people, “a community like none that had yet been—the recipient of God’s liberating power, practitioner of God’s sovereign law, partner in God’s ongoing covenant, and host of God’s awesome presence.” (from The New Interpreter’s Bible)
As the New Israel of God, the church has inherited those blessings and responsibilities from Israel. We are called to stand in a world filled with oppressed people and proclaim the Good News of the new Moses who has come to set his people free. And we must stand in the line of those Hebrew mid-wives who dared to defy the power of Pharaoh because they trusted the power and love of God more. Where are we being summoned to engage in their kind of creative civil disobedience to accomplish God’s purpose of liberation and life?
It’s no wonder that this story has inspired many oppressed people over the ages. Though the Bible was wrongly used to justify slavery in the Americas, many African American slaves took great solace in this story. Think of all the spirituals that draw heavily on the themes of bondage under Pharaoh, deliverance through Moses, and redemption by a hidden God who acts for those who trust him enough to defy the “Massah” who ruthlessly uses them.
When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.
Lord, help us all from bondage flee, let my people go,
And let us all in Christ be free, let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s only 8 verses long and yet Psalm 138 pulls off a pretty nifty feat: it encapsulates most of the major themes of the entire Hebrew Psalter! Let’s make a list of the kinds of prayers and motifs that get mentioned across these very few verses:
A vow to praise God continually
A vow to single out most especially God’s lovingkindness, his chesed, his grace
A thanksgiving for God’s having answered a cry for help
A plea for all the kings and all the nations to praise Israel’s one true God
A note that although lofty, God has a special place in his heart for the lowly and poor
A note that life is hard sometimes but God is asked to set his hand against the poet’s enemies
A closing praise that God’s faithfulness endures forever
Did Psalm 138 leave anything out? Praise, Thanksgiving, Lament, a hint of Imprecation, a singling out of God’s best and most praiseworthy traits, a universal Call to Praise Israel’s God. This really is The Book of Psalms in miniature.
Probably the very capaciousness of this short poem makes it a challenge for preachers. Let’s say you follow the rule that any given sermon should be finally about just ONE thing. Well, what does one do with a psalm that is about ten things? You could do a whole series on prayer using just Psalm 138, an eight-week series that would take just one verse at a time. I am not recommending spending two months in just one short psalm but the point is that there is enough material here you could seriously ponder the possibility.
What if we wanted to preach just one sermon on Psalm 138? How might a preacher accomplish that?
Well, we could take the big picture of this poem and talk about how this psalm—like the larger Book of Psalms of which it is a part—reminds us that the lives of every one of us are varied, textured, never just one mood or experience but an ongoing series of moods and experiences before God. True piety can never be captured by a single Hallmark card-like sentiment. You cannot transfer some upbeat Bible verse onto a counted-cross-stitch wall hanging and claim that no matter what your day may be like, just reflecting on these few happy words from Scripture will make all things well.
Life isn’t like that. We have days of high praises and days of dark valleys. We have good friends and we have enemies. What’s more, we are called to do different things that will inevitably lead to different experiences (some good, some not so good). We are called to witness and to call the whole world to join the choir in praising our one true God. That was not a popular thing to do in the Ancient Near East and it’s surely not a popular thing to do in most modern societies today but that is our vocation.
And we are called to imitate our great God in standing up for the lowly, the poor, the most vulnerable among us. God is regularly praised in the Psalter (Psalm 8, Psalm 113) for his marvelous ability to stoop low, to take notice of the same people that we human beings often fail to notice because they live on the margins of our awareness. God sees the very people we are often blind to (Jesus quite literally incarnated this kind of divine vision for the lowly when he came to this earth). Standing up for justice, calling out the kind of corruption that preys on the poor and marginalized may not always feel like the safest thing to do but, again, it is our vocation in imitation of God.
So the big picture of this small psalm points to both our varied experiences as followers of God and to the varied ways we are called to bear witness to that same God. What it all adds up to is that we are supposed to see connections to God everywhere we look. And when we are able to see the presence of God in all times and places, we have the chance to call attention to that divine presence and work as an act of witness. Living life, as the ancients used to say, Coram Deo or “before the face of God” is all-consuming. Or it is supposed to be.
But this runs contrary to the modern tendency to compartmentalize everything, especially religious faith. Most especially in free societies with religious freedom the idea of having a freedom OF religion translates for a lot of people to having freedom FROM religion in the sense of treating one’s faith as a weekend hobby that needs to remain home when you go to work or to school the other five or so days a week. That is not exactly the picture of the devoted life that Psalm 138 sketches, however.
Now to be clear: this does not mean in free societies that public schools should favor one faith over another by posting symbols of that faith in classrooms or that government buildings or courthouses have to privilege one set of religious symbols or monuments over all others. But it does mean that when people of faith work in such settings, their faith stays with them, their ability to see God at work remains alive and valid, and providing a quiet, non-coercive witness remains our vocation. At the very least we cannot talk or act in ways in the office that are completely at variance with how we talk and act in church. We cannot support approaches to the poor and vulnerable five or six days a week that are contrary to what we hear from Scripture on Sundays as to God’s attitudes toward those marginalized people. If our faith is not coloring how we view the news of the day, something has gone wrong with our discipleship.
Just how that works out for any given person in any given occupation or station in life will vary, and we preachers need to be careful not to give the impression that this is easy nor leave the impression that there is every and only ONE way to do this faithfully and here it is . . . We cannot give people struggling to lead faithful lives just the one round “peg” and insist they hammer it into their vocation no matter what the shape a given vocational “hole” may be. We always leave room for the Spirit to cultivate faithful (and creative) ways to get these things done. But Psalm 138 at the very least encourages us to keep up the struggle so that before “the gods” of also our age (to riff on Psalm 138:1) we bear witness to the true nature and character of our one true God through our Lord Jesus Christ who leads us along by Christ’s Holy Spirit.
Few writers of the late 20th century did a better job of connecting our everyday lives to our spiritual faith than Frederick Buechner. “Listen to your life” became a kind of leitmotif in his writing. Listen to your life because God is speaking to you everywhere. Or, to invoke another image once used by Buechner: Life is sometimes like the Hebrew alphabet: it’s all consonants and no vowels. All by itself, it’s all hard sounds that are impossible to vocalize. Of course, native Hebrew speakers/readers know instinctively which vowel sounds to supply in between which consonants to make the language speak-able and pronounceable.
And that is what faith does for all of us, Buechner said: it supplies the vowels that help our lives to make sense. Into the jumble of consonants that our lives throw at us, we are given by grace the vowels we need to make of it all something lovely after all.
I am not 100% sure this ties in with my take on Psalm 138 in this sermon starter but I think the psalm’s broad view of how all of life has something to do with God ties in with this.
Author: Scott Hoezee
“We have a cognitive bias to see ourselves in a more positive light than others see us.” So begins a provocative, insightful article published on April 26, 2004 on the Scientific American.com website.
The article refers to national surveys that suggest that most business people believe they are more moral than other business people. Psychologists who study moral intuition also think they are more moral than other psychologists.
In one College Entrance Exam Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, less than 1 percent rated themselves below average in their “ability to get along with others.” What’s more, 60 percent of those surveyed placed themselves in the top 10 percent.
In a study of Stanford University students, respondents rated themselves higher than their peers on personal qualities such as friendliness and selfishness. Surveyors then warned them about the “better than average bias” that suggests that we recognize biases in others more quickly than we recognize them in ourselves.
Yet even after that warning, 63% of the subjects still claimed that their initial evaluations were objective. In fact, 13% of them even claimed to be too modest in their initial assessment of themselves.
Frank Sulloway and Michael Shermer found similar results when surveying people about reasons for their belief in God. Most pointed to intellectual reasons such as the world’s good design and complexity for their faith in God. However, they also attributed others’ reasons for belief in God to emotional reasons such as that it’s comforting and that it gives meaning.
Such surveys suggest that people naturally tend to see ourselves more positively than others see us. They may also at least imply that we tend to see ourselves more positively than God, in some ways, does.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul says, “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought” (3). He understands that our thinking plays a role in our faithful response to God’s grace. After all, in the Greek, the apostle repeats the verb “to think” four times in this Lesson.
God has transformed our minds so that they’re able to recognize and follow God’s will. However, God also expects God’s adopted children to also use our renewed minds to evaluate our identity and gifts, as well as ourselves. So we need to know who we are. Christians need an accurate, balanced and realistic self-image.
So Romans 12’s proclaimers might ask ourselves how we think about ourselves. We all know people who have extreme views of themselves. Scientists admit, however, that it’s very difficult to objectively determine exactly what kinds of self-esteem people have.
Numbers of people seem to have improperly low self-images. Some even appear to try to mask those feelings of inferiority with claims of superiority. Others seem to feel inherently superior to most of the people around them.
Against all of this, Paul reminds us to avoid both too high an estimate of ourselves and, he might have added, too low an estimate. Instead, Jesus’ followers want to develop what he calls “sober judgment.”
Such sober judgment does not rest on others’ judgment of us. It rests, instead, on God’s view of God’s people. Those who think of ourselves with “sober judgment” learn to look at people, including ourselves, as God looks at us.
Experts offer all sorts of suggestions on how to develop a proper self-esteem. Paul, however, calls us to develop such a “sober judgment” of ourselves by contemplating our faith and our gifts.
We must, first, he says, evaluate “the measure of faith God has given” us. Now some think this phrase refers to the varying amounts of faith God gives to various Christians. They suggest that since God gives more faith to some (translation: themselves) than to others, gifted people must remain humble.
It may be more likely, however, that “measure of faith” refers to the faith that God graciously gives to all of God’s adopted sons and daughters. That “measure” that Christians have, then, is simply God’s gift of faith that receives God grace.
Understanding that only God’s grace that we receive with this “measure of faith” saves us provides a wonderful remedy for improper self-esteem. God’s adopted children don’t think too highly of ourselves when we remember that we aren’t good enough to save ourselves.
Christians also maintain a proper view of ourselves when we remember that we aren’t even saved by the quality of our faith. Any faith that we have is, after all, only and always a gift from God.
On the other hand, we don’t think too poorly of ourselves either when we remember that God graciously gave us this gift of faith. God, after all, didn’t just love God’s people deeply enough to send God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, to live, die and rise for us. God also graciously gave us the “measure of faith” by which we receive Christ’s work on our behalf.
So it would seem that a good way to think “soberly” of ourselves is to remember that we’re both naturally unlovely and graciously loved by God. Jesus’ followers consider the paradox that we’re both naturally faithless and gifted with faith by God.
However, if God’s gracious gift of faith is the first standard by which we evaluate ourselves, the second is God’s gifts to God’s beloved people. To help Jesus’ adopted siblings see that, Paul draws an analogy between the human body and the Christian community.
“Each of us has one body with many members,” he writes in verse 4, “and these members do not all have the same function…” God has created most of people with things like eyes and ears, noses and kneecaps. Though they don’t have the same functions, each is important for the well-being of our whole persons.
In a similar way, writes Paul, each of God’s adopted sons and daughters has unique functions and places within the body that is the Church of Jesus Christ. “In Christ,” after all, “we who are many form one body” (5). Yet each of Jesus’ followers is also necessary to the well being that is the Church. “Each member,” in fact, “belongs to all the others.”
So Jesus’ followers don’t think too highly of ourselves when we remember that we’re not independent entities. We deeply depend on each other in the Church. After all, Christians, who may be kinds of eyes or noses, can’t function in Christ’s church all by ourselves. We need the ears and elbows that are other members of Christ’s church.
At the same time, we don’t think too poorly of ourselves when we remember how much Christ’s church needs us. After all, while Jesus’ followers may not be independent entities, we’re also not useless appendages. The people who are, for instance, the church’s “feet and fingers” need Christians who are its “eyes and ears.”
So within the church, you and I desperately need and depend on each other. What’s more, the diverse gifts and personalities God has given God’s children enrich and enhance our Christian fellowship and bring glory to God.
Further, as we think of the gifts and talents we have, an accurate self-esteem grows out of our awareness that God gave them to us in the first place. While God’s adopted children may have worked to develop and cultivate our talents, they are, first of all, a gift from God.
Those gifts, of course, take different shapes. They include the “prophesying” that is speaking for God under God’s inspiration. God has gifted some of God’s people with the ability to speak about God’s word as well as the world in which we live.
Some Christians think of the other gifts Paul lists in Romans 12 as “ordinary.” The apostle, however, makes no such distinction. He simply insists that just as God gifts some for prophesying, God also gifts others for serving and teaching. Others God gifts with abilities like encouraging, giving to the needs of others, leading and showing mercy.
God gives all of these gifts not to make Jesus’ followers proud of ourselves, but to build up God’s church and bless our neighbors. God uses these talents to bring glory to himself and spread God’s gospel throughout the world.
Some Christians seem to focus on supernatural spiritual gifts like tongues, prophesying, healing and doing miracles. Here, however, Paul actually seems to spotlight practical and even mundane gifts. He insists that God, after all, brings honor to himself and builds up God’s church and kingdom through the wide variety of talents God lavishly showers on God’s people.
Christ’s Church often ordains Jesus’ followers for specialized ministries such as parish ministry and missionary work. Yet even as we commission people like worship coordinators and deacons for such service, we also remember that God has gifted each one of God’s dearly beloved people.
So while we thank God for those who, for example, use God’s gifts to teach people on Sundays and repair our churches’ leaky faucets, we remember that we aren’t all teachers or plumbers. While we thank God for the encouragement God has provided us through many of God’s adopted children, not all Christians have special gifts for, for example, encouragement. While we thank God for the great generosity of some entire churches, God hasn’t gifted all of us with extraordinary resources.
Yet God has gifted each one of God’s adopted sons and daughters with some gift or talent. That’s why though it seems rather pedestrian to some, some churches make discovering and using those gifts as one of their main goals.
After all, if some Christians aren’t using the gifts God has given us, the Church and churches become like a body without a vital organ. Those bodies may function without, for instance, an eye that is an accompanist or an ear that is an elder. They won’t, however, function as well as they might. The Church won’t bring the entire honor to God it could if less than all of its members know and humbly use the gifts God has given us.
In a March 28, 2010 article entitled “On Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect,” Scott Dalrymple writes, “One has only to go into a prison, or at least a prison of the kind in which I used to work, to see the most revoltingly high self-esteem among a group of people (the young thugs) who had brought nothing but misery to those around them, largely because they conceived of themselves as so important that they could do no wrong …
“With the coyness of someone revealing a bizarre sexual taste, my patients would often say to me, ‘Doctor, I think I’m suffering from low self-esteem.’ This, they believed, was at the root of their problem, whatever it was, for there is hardly any undesirable behavior or experience that has not been attributed, in the press and on the air, in books and in private conversations, to low self-esteem, from eating too much to mass murder … Self-esteem, it appears, is like money or health: you can’t have too much of it.”