Denny’s maternal grandfather was a farmer in southwest Minnesota. Albert Kersten was the oldest of 12 children born on that farm more than a century ago and he lived in the same house from birth until he retired from farming. When he retired, he and Denny’s grandma bought a house in Springfield and moved into town. Denny’s grandma, Ella, did ceramics and she knitted and she baked and she had lots of things to occupy her time. But Albert had never done anything but farm—he wasn’t a guy who liked to sit around and do nothing, so he had to find some new ways to occupy his time.
There was a golf course in town, so he decided to learn to play golf. He did—and it turned out that he was really good at it. He was well into his nineties when he scored his last hole in one—the last of several.
Denny’s grandma played the piano and so Albert decided that he’d learn to play the piano. He did—and it turned out that was really good at it. So then he bought a small organ and learned to play that—and it turned out that he was really good at that, too. They had an organ and a piano in the living room and would often play duets—just like Kirby and Bonnie.
Albert had discovered that he loved music—so he bought a violin and learned to play it—and it turned out that he was really good at that, too.
Who knew? So… did Albert Kersten just suddenly develop these athletic skills and this musical talent when he quit farming? Of course not. He’d had those talents all along—maybe there was something inside of him all along urging him to bring forth his musical talent, his athletic ability. I don’t know—but until he retired from farming, no one knew that this man had these gifts inside of him. Gift that, for the first 65 or 70 years of his life, he didn’t use. Maybe didn’t even know that they were there.
The Bible tells us that each one of us receives spiritual gifts when we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Albert’s gifts were talents—and we’re all born with certain talents, too. Things that we’re naturally good at. Things that we’re inclined to want to do. Things that bring us great satisfaction, that we really enjoy.
We understand talents—most of us, I’ve come to realize, don’t understand spiritual gifts at all. And unlike talents, apparently most of us have no idea what our spiritual gifts are.
Yet in some ways, they’re not really that different from talents—sometimes our spiritual gift is simply an enhancement of a natural talent. Or something that helps us to use a natural talent in a new way.
The most important thing to know about spiritual gifts is that, unlike natural talents, we never receive them for our own benefit—they’re always for the purpose of benefiting others. Always.
In our first reading this morning, Isaiah said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1). The key word here is because. God sent the Spirit of the Lord upon Isaiah because he had a job for Isaiah to do. Isaiah’s job was to preach good news, to minister to those in need.
We receive spiritual gifts because God has a job for us to do. John 15:16-17 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
Jesus chose Peter and John and James and Andrew and the rest of the apostles—He chose them for a purpose. Chose them to “go and bear fruit.” There are lots of different kinds of fruit—we all know that. And there are lots of different kinds of spiritual gifts because none of use are called to do exactly the same things.
Peter was a fisherman—fishing was what he was good at. He had a talent for fishing. And so when Jesus called Peter, He said, “Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men” (Mark 1:17). Jesus called Andrew and James and John at the same time—they were all fishermen.
And Jesus knew that He was going to need a lot of fishermen.
Peter is happy to follow Jesus—but he really doesn’t understand what he’s there for. We see when he pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest when they come to arrest Jesus that Peter thinks his job is to protect Jesus, to defend Jesus. But then later that night he denies Jesus three times and realizes that it’s not Jesus who needs Peter, but Peter who needs Jesus. He realizes that he’s helpless to protect Jesus—and he goes away brokenhearted, thinking that he’s of no use to Jesus.
Jesus dies on the cross the next day—but on Sunday, He rises from the dead. Peter’s awed and amazed—but because he failed Jesus, he still thinks that he’s no good anymore. He goes back to fishing, only to discover that he’s no good at that anymore either—until Jesus shows up. Shows up and tells him to “cast the net on the right side of the boat” (John 21:6). Peter does—and immediately his net filled with fish, 153 of them.
Peter can still fish—if Jesus is there to help him. And so, a few weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, having been filled with the Spirit of Jesus, Peter goes outside and preaches the gospel to the crowd. And, we’re told in Acts 2:41, that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Jesus had promised the day Peter met him that He would make Peter “a fisher of men.” Peter didn’t understand what that meant—until now.
On the night before He died, Jesus told the disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14).
Peter didn’t understand these words when Jesus spoke them. But a few weeks later, on the Day of Pentecost, they became clear to him. Peter went out and preached the gospel—and 3000 souls were added that day to the brand new Church here on earth, to the body of Christ.
Jesus preached a lot of sermons while He was on earth—and never once did 3000 people make a commitment to follow Him. The response to Peter’s sermon is the “greater works” that Jesus talked about. Peter had asked for people to follow Jesus—and they did. Jesus said, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it”—Peter knew now that Jesus wasn’t talking about asking for material things, for a new house or a new car or even a new job. Jesus was talking about asking for the kingdom of God to grow—he was talking about asking God to use him to point others to Jesus and to the Father.
Peter also understood what Jesus meant when He said in John 16:32, “I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” He understood that Jesus was able to do the things He did because He was never alone—the Father was always with Him. Jesus had said this repeatedly:
John 14:23 “Jesus said, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
Peter understood—and his heart was no longer troubled. He understood that Jesus had called him to be a fisher of men. This man who almost every time he opened his mouth, stuck his foot in it, was now able to preach the gospel in a way that caused thousands of people to come to Jesus.
God took Peter’s natural talents—clearly Peter loved to talk, he had a natural gift for leadership, and he knew how to fish. God took these talents and began to use them in a new way, a way that would bring many people—thousands of people, thousands of souls—into the family of God during the rest of Peter’s lifetime here on earth.
On the night before He died, Jesus told His disciples, in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
A short time later, in 15:12, Jesus said again, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus’ purpose in calling His disciples was to plant the seeds that would grow into His Church. Do you realize that Jesus spent more time preparing a community of disciples than He did to proclaiming the good news? Do you realize how much time Jesus spent teaching the disciples to love one another and to love people in general?
If you do, then surely you must realize just how important community is to Jesus, how important community is to the proclamation of the gospel.
What happened to those 3000 new believers on Pentecost? Acts 2:42-43 says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.”
They became a community—we can see how important it was for them to become a community. They were doing what Paul talked about in Ephesians—Jesus had given Peter and John and the rest to lead and guide the community. Paul wrote, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and the teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood.”
This hasn’t changed. Community is still incredibly important for the individual believer. And yet today I think that all too often, we see the church as simply a collection of saved souls who show up occasionally in the same sanctuary to worship God. Saved souls who think that as long as they turn to God now and then, it doesn’t really matter all that much if they’re together with others or if they’re just gathered with their own family or even all by themselves.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, from the very beginning, everything Jesus did was about community. Because His intention for His Church was that it be a community of interacting personalities. Too often in our culture we have placed individual Christian growth as our emphasis, rather than focusing on building a community of the Spirit. This despite the fact that Scripture repeatedly speaks about the whole concept of the people of God, despite the model that Jesus showed us through His relationship with the Twelve, despite the example of the early church, despite the explicit teachings of Jesus and His apostles.
We don’t know much about spiritual gifts because spiritual gifts don’t matter if we’re only concerned about ourselves. Somehow in our do-it-yourself, self-help culture, we think that we can equip ourselves for ministry, that we can attain the knowledge we need on our own. We can listen to TV evangelists or on-line preaching—we fail to understand that it’s not just about listening to preaching.
John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” How do we love one another if we don’t even know one another? If we’re not in relationship with one another?
We’re given spiritual gifts in order to serve one another, to equip one another. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples on the night before He died and then said to them, “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Serve one another. Take care of one another. Care about one another.
How are we doing at that?
This is what it means to be the body of Christ. To be connected, to be “held together by every joint with which it (the body) is equipped, when each part it working properly, [to] make the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16).
We are to grow up in our gifts. We receive our spiritual gifts in baptism, but that doesn’t mean that they’re immediately apparent. Babies grow into toddlers and then into preschoolers and then into boys and girls who grow into men and women. Their skills and talents develop as they grow. This is a picture of what Jesus expects in our spiritual life as well. We’re to grow up—to build up and strengthen our spiritual bodies just as we build up and strengthen our physical bodies.
We’re to use our gifts for the glory of God. When we really understand how this works, it becomes clear to us what our gifts are. I have loved to read and study for my entire life. So it makes sense that God would call me to be a preacher—because preachers have to spend a lot of time reading and studying.
God takes what we already love to do and shows us how to use this for His glory.
He took Peter’s love of fishing and showed him how to fish for men. We see this throughout Scripture.
And God’s plan has always been that we do this to benefit one another even as we bring Him glory.
Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David—when David offered to fight Goliath, Saul told him, “You’re only a boy.” But David wasn’t alone—he had the Lord with him.
We can’t be sideliners. We have to live—church was never intended to be a spectator sport. I know you’re busy—everybody’s busy.
Mr. Incredible was busy, too. He’s so overweight he can barely get his superhero belt on. He and his wife have superhero fights. He’s distracted. He slips on skateboards. He breaks doorknobs and car windows.
But he doesn’t let any of that keep him on the sidelines.
Could it be that God’s greatest frustration with His Church is all the gifts He’s given us that remain unwrapped? All the gifts that we fail to use because we don’t really love one another—or because we think it’s someone else’s job to worry about them.
Do you really understand that the same God we worship is the God of Abraham and Moses and David? Look how God used them.
And they didn’t have the Holy Spirit living inside them.
Look what Peter and John and Paul and the others did when they received the Holy Spirit.
Bonhoeffer in Life Together: “Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ.”
Luther: “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer the fellowship suffers with me.”
We were made to be Incredibles—to be a people who use the gifts of the Holy Spirit to bring others into the fellowship of believers.
Look around you. Do you love the person next to you? In front of you? Behind you? Do you know them?
Look around you. Who’s not here that’s usually here? That we haven’t seen for a while? Do you miss them? Do you care about them?
Look around you—and ask God what He wants you to do.
John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
If we begin to be the community that Jesus calls us to be, we’ll know what our spiritual gifts are. We’ll know how He intends us to serve.
Let us pray.