Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
I always get a little uneasy when I see lists that people have made of spiritual gifts and they include things like love, grace and mercy. Are those really specialized gifts and abilities for just a few people? Growing up in church it was exciting to hear for the first time about spiritual gifts and the idea that the Holy Spirit inhabits each of us in unique and empowering ways. I still believe that, but I’m not so enamored of being enamored anymore.
A downside to the spiritual gifts frenzy is a downplaying of the shared calling we each have in our lives as followers of Christ. Ephesians 4 is an example of Paul laying out in very specific terms one of our shared callings… we are called to encourage and “build up” others by our words. It’s not the job for a specialist or a select few.
That’s why it worries me when grace, mercy and even humility pop up on the gifts list, as if some will have them and others not. Being called to build others up by speaking to their needs is a shared responsibility in which we all participate. The idea that I might not have to worry about this because I’m talented or gifted in another area of life runs counter to scriptural witness.
Jesus didn’t say some of his disciples would be identifiable by their love (John 13:34-35) while others would be known by their shirts, stickers, bracelets or other “Christian” merchandise, or even their awesome doctrines, sermons or uncanny abilities. He said said that his disciples would be recognized by their love for one another. We need to not let our enthusiasm for our various individual gifts outpace our fundamental shared calling to be people builders.
Why keep such a firm hold on the basics? Because we tend as people to let specialization, authority and power isolate us from others. The accessible nature of Jesus confuses us and doesn’t always make sense. The passage in John 13 is a classic moment of Jesus presenting this to his disciples… in verses 13-17 he makes a point of connecting his lordship and authority with service. He says that “Yes, I am your teacher and Lord, I’m your authority in very way, and so I demand that you build others up as I’m building you up in love and service “ (Yeah, that’s my paraphrase.)
Who doesn’t love the recent stories of Pope Francis and his humble way of touching people and ministering among those who are social outcasts for various reasons? He excites us because he’s breaking the trend of letting power and authority isolate him from others. Just like the heart warming stories of the Pope touching his neighbors, you and I can warm hearts and have the same effect in our circles of influence. It’s something we all share in common, this calling to see the needs in the people around us and then speak and work to meet those needs.
We’re people builders, you and I. Popes, preachers and pew warmers, we’re all in the family business with a shared call to build people up. This basic, shared calling will by necessity preclude much of the incivility that might separate us and tear others down. It runs counter to the divisive, judgmental language we might choose when we’ve chosen a different marker for our discipleship, like personal piety, doctrinal correctness or hermeneutical purity. This is where our Savior leads… as always the question is whether I will follow.