In Romans 12, Paul is taking upon himself a formidable challenge. He is trying to tell people who have obvious talents and abilities that they should handle their talents in two ways. First, they should handle their talents with humility. They should recognize that whatever talents they have were given to them by God. And they should recognize that there are many other talented people around them. They may not have the precise same talent or ability, but they possess something that is of equal value to the life of the church.
Second, Paul wants to remind them that nothing great can happen for the Kingdom of God if people with talents are operating separately and in isolation from one another. We are all members of one body, and all of the body parts are meant to work together. Yes, you may have great ability, but you need somebody else working alongside you or the task cannot be done.
Have you ever considered what it takes to have a world-class symphony orchestra such as we have here in Cleveland? At one point, Time magazine named the Cleveland Orchestra the best orchestra in this country, and perhaps the best orchestra in the world. Now what is required in order to make that happen? It does not require a stage full of nothing but string players. As beautiful as the sound of violins, violas, cellos and basses might be, they alone do not account for a world-class orchestra. You need some woodwinds to contribute; clarinets, bassoons, flutes and piccolos. But that is not all that you need.
Somebody better be able to play the music assigned to the brass section; you will need some trumpets, French horns, trombones, tubas and cornets. But can you imagine a truly great orchestra without the sound of the deep timpani drums, the cymbals, and all the other percussion instruments. All of them are needed, and without any of those sections you could not have a symphony orchestra.
The conductor’s job is not just to wave his hands while the musicians play whatever they want. His or her job is to select a single piece of music, make sure that each section knows its part, and then blend all of the sections into a beautiful symphony of music. Everybody on the stage has talent. Everybody on the stage is good at what they do. And there may be some on the stage who really believe that what they do is more important than the role performed by anybody else. What the conductor has to do is transform a large group of extremely talented musicians into a symphony orchestra. When that task has been accomplished, the sound is something worth hearing. But it does not happen without work on everyone’s part.
That is what Paul is saying about how the church has to work. Everybody in the church has talent. There is nobody here today who cannot do something for the Lord that really needs to be done. There are no talent-less Christians. There are Christians with differing talents, but each of them and the work they do are important. And in the church, as with an orchestra, we have to learn how to acknowledge our own talent, appreciate the talent that is within others, and then blend all of our talents together into a common effort to build up the kingdom of God.
The first lesson we must learn today, is the lesson of humility. No matter how good you are with the talent that you have, don’t get carried away with it. God can save the world without you on any given day. And God also has somebody else who can do exactly what you can do, and can probably do it better than you or me. Humility is an important lesson to learn, but it is usually a painful lesson as well.
I have often reflected on a day in my life back in 1978 or 1979, when I was pastoring in New Jersey, and woke up one morning with a fever of 104 degrees. I was so sick, I was trembling. I could not see straight. I could not stand upright. My wife said to me: “Shall I call the church and tell them that you are sick and will not be able to come today?” My response was “No!” I told her that I had to get up and go to church, because I was the pastor, and they needed me. They could not have church without me. I had to be there, because they could not get along without my gifts.
I went to church, even though I was too weak to sing the songs, too weak to share in the readings, and too weak to stand for the doxology. I called it conserving energy for the sermon, because if I did not preach, what would the church do? When the time for the sermon came, I stood up and got out maybe one or two words. I then collapsed across the pulpit, and the deacons had to carry me out feet first. For the next two weeks, I could not return to work, due to ill health.
The obvious problem that this posed for the kingdom of God, was that I was on the sick-list. How could the universal church of Jesus Christ carry on with me on the sick-list? You see what the absence of Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek did to the Dallas Cowboys? My arrogance and vanity, led me to believe that the results for the church would be doubly bad for as long as I was out of action.
The deacons came by my house to discuss who should preach while I was sick. They proposed a certain Rev. So and So. I immediately balked at that choice. Why, he had not been to Princeton. He did not serve on all of the important civic boards and committees. How could he possibly fill in for me? The deacons told me that I was too sick to do anything about it, and that Rev. So and So was going to preach whether I liked it or not. When that preacher got through preaching that next Sunday, thirteen people came forward and gave their lives to Jesus Christ. I had never had thirteen people respond to any of my sermons.
I learned a lesson of humility that day. There are other people in God’s service who can do what I car do, and can do it better. Whenever I am not able to function, God is not handicapped. He always has people with other talents who can carry on.
According to Paul in Romans 12, there are seven separate areas of work and service in the church, and each one of them is as important as the other, and within each of them, God has more than one person who can do the job, so nobody can hold hostage the work of Christ.
Consider these seven areas of service. Paul calls them prophecy, which involves the forthright declaration of the will and word of God to a sinful church and a sinful world. The next is ministry, which carries the sense of service freely given to assist in whatever area has a need. The third is teaching, which involves all of the people in Sunday School and in Bible classes, and in Vacation Bible School, and in any other setting in which the faith is taught, the Bible examined, and growth is helped to occur.
Fourth is the work of exhortation, which involves those who publicly and regularly declare their faith and challenge others to share it. This is not reserved to the members of the clergy. Any one of us can and should exhort others to live by the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Fifth is giving, and stewardship of money is what is meant here. Paul is reminding us of the importance of financial support for the church. For as long as 20% of the members of this church provide 80% of the financial support, we have a long way to go in our life as a church.
Sixth is the gift of rule or responsibility for the administration of the life of the congregation. Somebody has to provide governance for the church. Somebody has to pay the bills, order the supplies, maintain the building and grounds, and do all of that with the money that the church makes available. That is the work of rule or governance, and it is an important work indeed. Finally, there is the work of mercy. These are the people with soft and tender hearts who freely respond to the needs of “the least of these.” These are the people who give time and money to help those who are hungry, sick, homeless, or unemployed. This too is a part of the essential work of the church.
Now the lesson of humility works with all seven of these areas of service. God has given everybody a gift, so none can act as if they are the only talented people in the church. More importantly, whichever gift you or I may have, we need to remember that other people have that same gift as well, and if we choose not to use ours then God has somebody else who can step right in and carry on. We are not essential to the work of the kingdom of God. The only essential One is God who gives the gifts and judges us based upon how we use them.
What is especially interesting to note is that God Himself is best understood in terms of this same concept of many members and one body. In fact, the only way that our finite minds can comprehend God in all of His fullness and grandeur and glory, is by imagining God in the three member parts that constitute the God-head. We know them as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We have come to understand God through these three separate entities, because we can only understand God when we break the concept down into smaller pieces.
How else could I ever explain to you the nature of God? How could I explain someone who is from everlasting to everlasting? How could I explain to anyone a power that is able to “speak” the whole world into existence, and then sustain that world through the untold generations of time? How could my mind comprehend such a term as God?
I suppose I could use the phrase coined by Thomas Anselm when he tried to define the nature of God. Anselm said: “God is that than which nothing greater can even be conceived.” What Anselm said is completely true. God is that power in the universe who is bigger, and stronger, and wiser, and older, and more glorious than anything that the mind of men and women could ever even imagine. But as true as that statement is, it is still hard to understand that as the straightest route to an understanding of God.
I could use the far more graphic language of our slave ancestors who sang about God’s greatness in these terms:
My Lord is so high, you can’t get over him.
So low you can’t get under him.
So wide, you can’t get around him.
You must come in, by, and through the door.
However, God is not content either with Anselm’s statement or our ancestors’ song. God gives us another way to understand Him; many members but one body: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now ask yourself, with which of those three parts of God could the church do without? And which one is more important than the other? And when did you ever see any of those three members contesting with any other one for attention? God in His three-fold nature reflects for us how the church should be structured and how it should work.
I need to know and be assured about God as Father. I need to know that there is a loving and benevolent God who holds the whole world in His hands, who stands behind the universe as the source of all life, and who is able to work out His will and purposes in the world even when I cannot see how any good can come from the sin and trouble that surround us.
However, I also need to know God as Son. At this level, God comes to us in the form of Jesus Christ. We call this the incarnation. God Himself takes on human form, comes into our world, takes upon Himself the sins of the whole world, and by His death and suffering on the cross of Calvary wipes away the stain of our sins from before the eyes of God forever. I need to know about God as the Son. I need a Savior who cares enough about me to die for me. I need to know about God as Son. I need a Lord with a loving touch and a helping hand. I need to know God as Son. In knowing about God as Son, I am better able to understand the nature and activity of God. He is the Creator of the world and the savior of all humanity.
Finally, I need to know about God as Holy Spirit. This is that part of God who has promised never to leave us alone, but to be with us always, even to the end of the world. This is the part of God that was poured out on the Day of Pentecost and gave power to the church. This is the part of God that moves upon the hearts of those who hear the Gospel with the ear and then help them believe it in their heart. This is the part of God that escorts us into sick rooms and onto operating tables. This is the part of God that consoles us when grief seems overwhelming. This is the part of God that sticks closer than any brother. This is the part of God that David had in mind when he said:
Whither shall I flee from thy presence,
and where can I go from thy spirit?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there.
If I make my bed in the depths of Hell,
Thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there thy hand shall lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me.
Now, which part of this God of many members would you be willing to live without? Do you want to live without the sustaining power of God the Father? Do you want to live without the intervening grace and love of God the Son? Do you want to try and live in this wicked world without the comforting and guiding presence of God the Holy Spirit?
Or do you want to have many members but one body as your way of comprehending the nature and activity of God? That is what the songwriter would have us to do:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

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About The Author

Marvin A. McMickle is the president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. A pastor for more than 30 years, he has also taught preaching at New York, New Brunswick and Princeton Theological Seminaries. From 1987-2011 he was Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church of Cleveland, Ohio. He was the Professor of Homiletics at Ashland Theological Seminary from 1996-2011. Upon leaving Ashland he was voted by his faculty colleagues to be Professor Emeritus. He is a member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He was elected to be the 12th President of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in 2011.

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