Grace, Grandmothers and That Measure of Faith
Motherís Day Sermon, 1998 based on Romans 12:3-9
God is merciful. Again God has brought me to a place in Romans wherein the battle between the specific occasion and the particular passage have fallen into perfect harmony. By this I do not mean that Romans 12:3-9 is about Motherís Dayóitís not! What is wonderful is that in this passage there is specific word for those who function in our midst as spiritual mothers, who are separated out by grace, station in life, experience, position in the church and a measure of faith, to fill a specific office and to perform certain vital duties. I am speaking of the ministry of mercy, an office which, in diverse places in Scripture, seems to be specifically given to older women, especially worthy widows.
I hold that what we have here is permissive but not proscriptive: we may have all seven offices alluded to here, but we do not necessarily have to have each gift expressed in a particular office, with a designated officer.
When Paul writes, "For I say, through the grace given me," he is putting his apostolic gift and authority (his office) forward. This is a key reason for my extending that sense of grace and office to the gifts that follow! The grace given us is real, but limited and particularly defined. Only Jesus Christ possessed unlimited grace, or grace in its absolute fullness. Furthermore, we are distinguished one from another by "a measure of faith." While it is clear that every believer has a measure of faith, we should acknowledge that faith is not the peculiar possession of every human being. Believers have faith and unbelievers do not! God, in His Sovereign, Good Pleasure has assigned both grace and faith strategically: these things are given so as to accomplish Godís purposes. God did not create persons as equal and interchangeable, or according to the egalitarian plan some find so compelling.
It follows that we are all different, and we are arranged in rank order. Only a few are given the grace to lead in the body, and only those called are granted the measure of faith appropriate to the office for which they have been designed. Paul writes, "all the members do not have the same function/office." The arrangement between the members of the body is orderly, and functionally hierarchical. Elsewhere Paul expresses this truth in a homey fashion (1 Cor.12:12-31, a passage about unity and diversity in the body) "the body is not one member but many. . .If the foot should say, íBecause I am not a hand, I an not of the body,í is it therefore not of the body?" And, again, "But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleases." (v.18) "And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues." (v.28) It is clear that Paul did share our consternation over sign gifts and offices as he freely mixed them together in this list and in other lists as if each should have its specific and continued influence in the ongoing life of the church. Please note the plain hierarchical pattern set forth in 1 Cor. 12! The same sense of order pertains in Rom. 12.
So what about those grandmothers?! Yes, indeed. Kiss that retirement goodbye. It would appear that in the early church, sometimes called the primitive church, and in the larger churches in the first years of the churchís existence, widows were a challenge. Please note that I didnít say a problem. I didnít say a problem because that would be misleading. In the church everyone has work to do. Everyone by grace and measure of faith. I Tim. 5:1-16 separates older women from younger women (v.2). They are to be regarded as mothers and sisters, respectively, in all purity. And this had certain implications for those women who were "widows," especially those who are truly "widows." So Paul is writing Timothy about matters pertaining to single women, divided into two age categories: those under 60, and those over 60. (Thatís how grandmothers got into my sermon title!) Paul urges that true widows of any age be cared for, and not left destitute or defenseless. But we need to focus in on the older women, our spiritual mothers. It was to these persons that the work of mercy seems to have been generally, but not exclusively entrusted. It was plainly a ministry and an office. These ladies were set aside to pay special attention to the sick, the strangers, other widows/widowers and those in prison. By life and by divine equipping they possessed, it was rightly perceived, the qualifications best suited to the office of mercy. That ministry was their function in the body, their place and position in the body was secured by divine appointment and by common sense. Not all older widows were qualified to attain this office, but enough were so that church practice included recognition of worthy widows. Phoebe and Dorcas, or Tabitha, seem to fit this description. Only the tried and true were to be leaders in this office. We have Titus 2:3-5 detailing the spiritual maturity of older women in general and these certainly pertain to those who would serve in the office of mercy. It is also recognized in Romans 12: 8 that this work of mercy is challenging and that cheerfulness is enjoined shows that those who work with the sick, sore, cross and peevish (those who really need mercy) will require both patience and cheerfulness. Mercy is one of the most profoundly nurturing functions of the body and all should be encouraged to pray for those who step forward to accomplish it. This serves the double benefit of making the ministry itself more easy and pleasant, as well as more pleasing to God. Truly, there is a need for mercy in the body, and that need puts us in touch with the difficult, ingratitude that can be harbored by those who need mercy most.
Mercy and intercession are largely connected. The heart of intercession being Godís interest in another person. The merciful, filled with emotional sympathy for those who are suffering, can, if they are not careful stumble over their preconceived notions and biases when it comes to what is ultimately healthful in another personís life. We should endeavor in our prayer life to stay aligned with Godís will for God plainly allows suffering to occur along the pathways to salvation and deliverance. God may even reveal that an increase of sorrows ("what one must suffer") is in store for those we love and care for.
A beautiful side benefit of intercessory prayer is that it takes away from us time we might otherwise spend pampering our "sad, pitiful self." Genuine intercession is terrifyingly humbling. We learn so much about our own selves that needs amendment as we earnestly pray for others.
By their peace, and through their tranquillity, the worthy widows, and with them our older sisters in the Lord, demonstrate that they know these things. They have weathered so much of life, its sorrows and its losses, as well as lifeís rewards and true values, that they are prepared to be there. They are the ones who comfort us with "relax, this too shall pass," and they are the ones who value relationships above being vindicated, or insisting on being right or wrong! And a church without these servants is imbalanced, prone to vacillation and excess, disturbances and conflict. Life has made them sober-minded and encouraging; they are a great blessing. To use a mechanical metaphor, they are like a fine lubricant injected into moving parts of equipment, their cheerful patience and compassion find their way into all the moving joints of a working church!
Now what Iíve preached about the office of mercy may be extended to each office named in Romans 12. We are not to reach beyond our expertise, or knowledge; that is our measure of faith, our anointing, or our calling. It is best to find our proper place and unwise to reach after the position, or office of another. The good of the whole demands this! We are not to exercise ourselves in things too high for us (Ps 131:1,2); nor to insist on things weíve not seen (Col. 2:18); nor to involve ourselves in secret things that donít belong to us (Deut. 29:29). Yes, we need a degree of sobriety to keep us in our place and station. Philippians 2:1-11 urges unity in mind and humility in spirit and in 3:15-16 we read:
Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you
think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that
we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.
We must remember that whatever good we have, God has dealt it to us. (James 1:17) And we submit ourselves to the truth that by grace the faith He gives us is in specific measure so that what we do and what we have are determined by faith and empowered by grace always. Amongst believers all are gifted, we need each other and every one. Authority and ability for ministerial work are both gifts of God for what it is appointed for you to do. That is what is so awful about ambition, pride and usurpation in the body. It is rejection of divine provision. Too many of us are faithless and wickedly evade our responsibilities by coveting anotherís position, or place. Let us recall that it is "grace that appoints the office." No one can take your anointing and you are forbidden to touch the anointing of another! Grace qualifies, inclines the person and works both to will and to do, both for you and for your brothers and sisters.
In the divine order of the church, preaching has first place. It is the highest office. Therefore preaching is a terrifying obligation and the pulpit is no casual place to stand. That is because the Word comes forth from the preacher and from the pulpit. Preachers above all need to reverence the position and the place. What is spoken from the pulpit to rightly held and regarded must first take residence in the preacherís heart. However, the measure of the preacherís faith is established solely for the preacher, and must not be used as a rule, or expectation for anyone else. This holds true for each and every office: the hand is not to chasten the foot for itís failure to function as a hand. Biblical preaching is to be carefully put forth, precept upon precept, with the well known helping to explain the less known, the simple the more complex, all in line with the law of non-contradiction. The preacher is to both teach and to exhort. The preaching is thereby distinguished from teaching. Preaching requires both a clear head, and a warm heart.
The second office of teacher entails explanation and plain proving of scriptural doctrine, and gospel truth. Frequent, constant and diligent teaching must occur if spiritual health is to prevail. (1 Tim. 4:15-16) The teacher, like all the others in each specific office, is to "wait on his work"óthat is, to bestow upon it oneís best time and effort, to seize eagerly opportunities for it and to study to excel at it. This office is frequently joined with the prophetic office to define the pastoral role. This is possible, but not necessary.
The third office is that of the deacon. The deacons function primarily as the wardens/overseers of the poor and the needy. They attend to the outward roles imperative to the business of the church such as distributing foods, clothing and managing housing. They are to be men of integrity and good repute.
The fourth office is that of exhortation. Sadly there is a tendency in many churches to limit this office to the work of the pastor/teacher. However, the level of exhortation needed to keep a church healthy cannot be met by the pulpit ministry alone. Exhortation is the strong side of mercy, a balance so to speak. Exhortation is the stick and mercy the carrot of Christian encouragement. Exhortation means persuasive talk about righteousness, perseverance and purity in the body by which means the body is built up and disciplined on a consistent, albeit informal level.
Fifthly, there is the office of giving. Stewardship is a function that we recognize by either having a stewardship committee, or by delegating that role to the church council as a Finance Committee. Those who work in this arena are to be models of liberality, sincerity and integrity. Free from corruption, extortion and greed. People are to put their trust in those equipped by God to serve the church in the churchís financial concerns. Some of this function is undertaken by the Trustees.
The office of rulers is the sixth in this sequence. In some churches, there are "ruling elders" who govern the church. This is not what is in view here. Rather we are looking at administrators, or governors with a tiny "g." These are persons equipped of God to service the whole body. They find what is amiss, work to reduce the number of those who go astray (calling and visitation), reprove and admonish those who are in rebellion, or who have fallen so that the church may be kept pure. We tend to underestimate Godís concern with the purity of the body. Yes, we discipline to express love, and to seek restoration, but we also discipline to maintain purity, a godly reputation. These rulers are appointed by the church to handle relationships within the body, bringing peace and resolution quickly before a little problem becomes a massive one! They operate on an informal level, quietly and only turn to formal processes when circumstances require it. Moses appointed "governors" when he appointed worthy men as administrators over groups of ten: small scale, effective and everywhere. Weíve discussed this concept before as house group leaders, under-shepherds and so on.
Iíve touched on all seven offices mentioned in Romans 12: preaching, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and mercy! Now I want to explain why I included v.9. I did this because all our duties can be summed up in one word: love. Please note, we occupy our offices out of love, not out of a hunger for power, prestige or position. Each officer, no matter how high, or low in the order of things at church is a servant: nothing more, nothing less. Love must prevail as the foundation of all our mutual duties. And that love is to be pure, unfeigned, without pretense or ulterior motive. How unlike the deceitful kisses of an enemy who pretending to serve us really despises us! We are to be wholly personal and personally engaged in loving one another for the glory of God. And in it all, as in all godly duty, we are to be rejoicing that God has made us both worthy and capable of demonstrating the sincerity of our love before all. Our love is to be expressed concretely, just as Paul did when he urged the Corinthians to step up to the plate and give generously to the beleaguered saints in Jerusalem just as their poorer cousins in Macedonia had already!
I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love
by the diligence of others. (2 Cor. 8:8)
Real love can stand the test of real life comparisons. We do what we are called to do for the sake of all, in the presence of all. May God receive the praise.