This is a sermon that was originally preached on November 8, 1992 at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama. It was the final Sunday of a multi-week Stewardship emphasis. The sermon was originally entitled “Laboring Saints” and has been edited for clarity.
Ephesians 4:1-8, 11-13 (Revised Standard Version)
4:1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7 But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”…
11 And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;…
Matthew 9:35-10:1 (Revised Standard Version)
35 And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
A pastor friend told me recently of an interesting experience he had not too long ago, which I think is worth sharing. In order to do so, though, first I need to tell you a little about his church. The church is located in a town where they get lots of “snowbirds” during the cooler months. My friend’s church has about 500 members and averages around 400 in attendance on Sundays, though that number actually swells during winter, when many retirees come south to get away from colder weather up north.
In order to serve that many people my friend’s church has a fairly large staff. In addition to the senior pastor they have an Associate Pastor, a Director of Christian Education, two full-time secretaries, a part-time choir director, and a part-time organist. This past year their Session [that’s the elder board in a Presbyterian Church] also decided to add two more part-time positions: a youth director and someone to start an ongoing ministry with the poor in their community.
Well, about 18 months ago their Associate Pastor of seven years left, leaving that position open, and one of their secretaries retired. Therefore, including the two new positions, there was a period of many months when their staff was short four people from what it was supposed to have.
Does that sound familiar at all? Can you remember a time not too long ago in our congregation when there were search committees for Music and Christian Ed. positions working simultaneously? Then after those were filled we began the search for our second Associate Pastor. It’s only been recently that we’ve come to have a full staff again.
The same has been true in my friend’s church. After having several positions vacant for many months, they now have a full staff again. My friend says that for him personally, as well as for the congregation as a whole, it’s a real blessing. However, he tells me that a woman in his congregation came up to him recently and said, “I’m really glad we have a full staff again, as well as the two new people. That means the congregation won’t have to worry about doing any of the work anymore.”
I tell this story because it illustrates very clearly an attitude that’s all too common — an attitude which runs counter to the understanding of ministry set forth in today’s reading from Ephesians, but which is still very prevalent in many churches today. Let me explain what I mean.
In our relatively affluent society we’re accustomed to being able to pay people to do work for us which we don’t have time to do, don’t know how to do, or just don’t like to do. I don’t know anything about cars, so if it’s anything more than checking the fluid levels, I take my car to a mechanic. We go to restaurants to get a meal that’s already been prepared so we don’t have to cook. Many of you have maids, housekeepers, gardeners or other lawn people. We appreciate “paid professionals” who know what they’re doing and are able to get things done to free us from having to worry about them.
I think some people look at the work of the church in a similar way. There’s plenty of work that needs to be done for the Lord, plenty of service that needs to be done in and by the church. Do we think of the church staff as “paid professionals” hired by the congregation to do the spiritual work? This certainly appears to be what the woman in my pastor friend’s church thought.
Today’s scripture passage from Ephesians conveys a very different idea of ministry. Let’s read verses 11 and 12 again and examine them a bit more closely.
And his [that is, Christ’s] gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry…
These verses speak of basically two groups of people in the church. One group consists of what the writer calls “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers;” and the other group is referred to simply as “the saints.” Let’s begin an in-depth study of these verses by taking a brief look at each of these two groups, starting with the first group Paul mentions.
The different terms used to describe the people in the first group — apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers — are simply titles used in the early church to speak of different types of leaders in the churches. These five kinds of church leaders are sometimes referred to as “the five-fold ministry.” Let’s take a moment to consider each of these five sets of leaders.
The apostles were, as we know, those who had been with Christ and were commissioned by him to go into the world making disciples of all people. They were the founders of the Church, and exercised a special kind of oversight in the church. Prophets were those inspired by God’s Spirit to speak God’s word to his people in particular situations. Evangelists were Christians especially gifted by God to tell the good news of Jesus Christ to those who had never heard it before.
Because of a particular construction in the Greek, some bible scholars think the words “pastors and teachers” at the end of the list really go together to describe a single category of people: “pastor-teachers.” The Greek word which the Revised Standard Version translates “pastors” literally means “shepherds.” So it’s believed that the phrase “pastors and teachers” was meant to refer to those in the church who watched over and cared for the people and also taught them about spiritual things, much like pastors do today. In this case we might speak of the “four-fold ministry” rather than the five-fold ministry.
But regardless of whether it’s a four-fold ministry or a five-fold ministry, as you can see, almost all the different types of work done by these early church leaders are tasks which are now expected of ordained ministers today. Preachers today have to function much like the apostles, starting new churches and overseeing God’s people. Likewise they function as prophets, speaking God’s word. Ordained ministers also serve as pastors and teachers, and often as evangelists, too, in that they’re expected to grow the church. So it would seem that today’s pastors are the ones in the church who fulfill the duties that were once given to four different categories of people (or five, depending on how you count it).
[Added in 2018: Since this sermon was given, thankfully there’s been a rediscovery of the five-fold ministry in some segments of the church.]
The second group of people Paul refers to in Ephesians 4 is “the saints.” In the pastor’s sermon last week we learned about the meaning of the word “saint.” We discovered that sainthood is not something we earn through good works or miraculous events occurring in our lives — though at one time it was the practice of the historic Church to confer sainthood upon especially pious individuals. Rather, biblically speaking, “saint” is a title bestowed by God on all who trust in Christ. We are called saints because of the salvation, justification, and sanctification which Christ made ours by faith through his death and resurrection. So it’s not just the very best Christians who earn the right to be called “saints;” but instead, by grace through faith, all Christians are saints.
So when Paul speaks of the “saints” in Ephesians 4, he’s talking about all Christians — people like you, and you, and you (pointing into the congregation). And what does Paul say about the saints? Let’s read it again:
And [Christ’s] gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry… (emphasis added).
People often think it’s the pastors who are supposed to do the ministry of the church; but this verse makes it clear that the task of pastors is to equip the congregation to do the actual work of ministry in the body of Christ. This is actually good news, for think how little ministry three pastors can get done, as compared to what might be accomplished if all 1100 of us in this church are working together to serve Christ!
For this reason, some churches have stopped using the word “minister” to refer to their ordained clergy. Instead they use only the term “pastor,” since every Christian is called to some form of ministry; and therefore, every Christian is in one sense a “minister.”
It’s all semantics, I know; but it’s something to think about. Each of you is a minister; Shep, Sally and I are merely your pastors. Our task–what we’ve been called here to do–is to equip you to do ministry for Christ, both here in the church and in the world. We are to train you, both spiritually and practically, so that you can be Christ’s ministers.
I realize the idea that you have the opportunity to be a minister for Jesus Christ can be both exciting and intimidating at the same time. What an honor and a privilege it is to be called a minister of Jesus Christ! And yet what a responsibility, as well! The good news is that when God calls us to a task he’s always faithful to give us the resources to accomplish it.
In addition to the fact that you have us, your pastors, to help prepare you for your service to God, the scriptures also say in several places that God has given each of us gifts by which he has made it possible for us to serve him. For example, listen to these words from Romans 12, in which Paul writes:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness (Romans 12: 6-8, RSV).
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul mentions more gifts God gives us for service. These include wisdom, knowledge, faith, teaching, helping, administration, gifts of healing, and others. Each of you is given one or more gifts for the strengthening of the body and for serving God.
Some of your gifts may be talents you were born with which you can use in God’s service. Others are gifts given to you by God’s Spirit especially to be used in the church. All of us are gifted in some way, in order that we may truly serve God as his ministers. Sometimes our gifts coincide with our interests, things we like to do the best, or things we feel we’re fairly good at. Whatever those things may be for you, those are areas in which you can serve God. One person may have a particular interest in teaching, while another may not feel comfortable with teaching at all but would really like to be involved in hands-on service projects. Occasionally God’s call may be to serve in an area you never would’ve imagined, but in that case you can be certain He will provide the gifts needed for the task. Every form of ministry is important. No matter what your gifts, each of you is equally necessary for the accomplishment of God’s work in the world.
Today marks the climax of our Stewardship Season. Yet this morning I’ve refrained from speaking about money, for two reasons. First, the other pastors have already given us some fine sermons over the last few weeks which have hopefully reminded us of the responsibilities we have before God regarding our finances.
Second, though, I haven’t talked about money today because I wanted us to remember that money isn’t the only thing Stewardship Season is about. Not only are we called to give our money; we’re also called to be good stewards of our time and talents, and to offer them to God in service. That’s what being one of God’s ministers is all about.
The stereotypical line often put in the mouths of robbers or muggers is “Your money or your life!” In the church, though, God asks us to give our money and our lives, because it all belongs to him in the first place. We may be tempted to feel that as long as we’re giving our money we’re doing our part. But in reality, we haven’t really given all until we’ve given a little sweat, too.
There are plenty of ways to do this in our church. You can be a Sunday School teacher, or help lead one of our Sunday night children’s or youth groups; or if you don’t feel comfortable in those capacities, you can serve on the Education Committee, which oversees those ministries of our church. And the Education Committee is just one of many committees on which you can serve.
These committees and the people who serve on them do important things in the life of the church. There are also lots of opportunities available for hands-on service through organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, the Mobile Soup Van, CASA (a local organization that builds wheelchair ramps for the elderly), LIFT Housing, the Meadow Hills Initiative, various service projects, and out-of-town mission trips. I haven’t even mentioned the Stephen Ministry, which trains individuals to become lay-caregivers in the church.
But it’s not just in the church that we can and should serve God. You can also serve God at your workplace, in your neighborhood, wherever you are. How can we serve God outside the walls of the church? By loving people. By telling them the good news of Jesus Christ. By being there for our coworkers or neighbors in their time of need. By sharing our testimonies with them. There are plenty of ways to be involved in ministry, both inside and outside the church.
In addition to pledge cards, these baskets next to me on the chancel steps contain all the time and talent cards which have been received up to this point. On these cards you’ve indicated areas in the life of the church in which you’d be willing to serve. When someone calls you to serve in one of those areas, please prayerfully consider doing so. And if for some reason you don’t get called, then give us a call. The elders and the staff of this church will be more than happy to put you to work for the Lord.
Saints, there’s plenty of work to be done, but there aren’t always enough people to do it — as Jesus said in our gospel reading this morning. “The harvest is plentiful” but sometimes the laborers are few. Won’t you answer God’s call on your life and become one of his laboring saints? I hope so. Amen.