Empowered to Share: Gifts from the King

May 21, 2017
Brian Keepers
Ephesians 4:1-16

            I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

Let’s just think about these words for a minute: lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. What calling? To be Christ’s witnesses—those empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus.

Paul says live a life that is worthy of that calling. In other words, live a life that fits with that calling as a witness—so that the way you live lines up with who you are in Christ. And when the way we live lines up with our identity and calling in Christ, then we grow into maturity; we are living lives of integrity.

Chapter 4 of Ephesians, and the next couple chapters that finish out the letter, deal specifically with how we can live a life worthy of our calling as Christ’s witnesses. This is a familiar passage to many of us.

There’s so much I want to say about this marvelous text today, especially as it pertains to this idea of getting our living and God’s calling to fit together. I’m going to restrain myself to focus on a couple verses that tend to get overlooked. So often we focus on this wonderful beginning where Paul issues this call to unity, reminding us of our one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Or we jump ahead to Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts and their importance in building up the body of Christ in love. But not much is ever done with this odd verse that is the linchpin between these two sections:

When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; and he gave gifts to his people.

Why in the world does Paul seem to interrupt the flow of his writing with this odd sentence? And where does it come from? Well, it’s actually taken from Psalm 68, which is a vigorous psalm of celebration all about God’s magnificent acts of salvation in Hebrew history. Not only does the Psalm recall past events, but it anticipates God’s future victory as the one true King of the whole world.

The psalm begins with these words: “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered.” It then goes on to recount the ways that God goes on a salvation march across the country, taking his enemies captive along the way. The psalm culminates with God ascending the high mountain, and all people, friends and foes alike, gathering around the mountain to worship and bear gifts.

Verses 17-20 provide the material from which Paul draws for this sentence in Ephesians:

With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand,
Thousands upon thousands, the Lord came from Sinai in the holy place.
You ascended the high mount,
leading captives in your train
and receiving gifts from your people,
even from those who rebel
against the Lord God’s abiding there
.

Paul is not being haphazard by inserting this stanza of Psalm 68 here. As always, Paul is very intentional as both a theologian and a pastor, cutting out and stitching these verses together with the steady hand of a surgeon, so that he might shape our imaginations as to what this new life in Christ looks like.

Okay, so why is this stanza from Psalm 68 so important? Paul is using it in reference to Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father. Notice that Paul does not translate Psalm 68 literally but he condenses it and adapts it to find its fulfillment in Jesus. He does this specifically in two ways. The first I just mentioned. Rather than saying “God ascends” Paul writes that “he [Jesus] ascends.” Paul does this sort of thing all the time—equating Jesus with God (YHWH).

I’ll get to the other way in which Paul adapts the text from Psalm 68 in just a minute, but first, I want to linger a bit longer on this key truth that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ Ascension may be one of the most overlooked and under-celebrated events in the church’s life. We know how to celebrate Jesus’ birth (our whole society gets in on it, even if only in a secular way). We throw a good party for Easter. Even Pentecost gets made into a big deal (as it should). But Christ’s ascension is largely forgotten. Part of this reason is because Ascension Day always lands on a Thursday, never on a Sunday, and so it doesn’t get a whole worship service devoted to it.

But Jesus’ ascension must never be separated from his death and resurrection. The ascension is God’s exclamation point on the cross and the empty tomb! The ascension of Jesus is God’s vindication of the injustice and humility of the cross—the one who bore the sins and the shame of the world is now exalted to his rightful place, next to the Father in heaven, where he is crowned King of all creation and rules from on high.

Many years ago, when Emma and Abby were younger, my brother and his wife were babysitting our girls. Our oldest, Emma (6 years old at the time), decided she wanted to watch a movie. As they scavenged through all our DVDs, my brother asked Emma, “What would you like to watch?”

“Oh, I don’t really care,” she said. “Just not one of those Jesus movies!” (By “Jesus movies” she meant our DVD’s that are animated Bible stories. She wasn’t interested in watching any of those! How’s that for a ‘PK?”)

“Why not?” my brother asked her. “What’s wrong with the Jesus movies?”

“Oh, you know, they’re not very for real,” Emma answered. “They make Jesus way too small!”

I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul would agree! Yes, Jesus made himself so small as to fit cradled in the womb of a teenage girl. That’s what Paul means when he says, “The one who ascended also descended to the lowest parts of the earth.” He’s talking about the incarnation. Paul goes on to exclaim: “But the one who descended also ascended far above the highest heavens, so that he might fill all things!” It is the Ascension that announces God’s ultimate victory over sin and death and all the principalities and powers of darkness. And it is the Ascension that makes Jesus larger than life! We have a tendency to make Jesus too small!

It is the Ascension that also makes it possible for the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon God’s people, gathering us together, and empowering us for ministry in Jesus’ name. Paul is not calling us to try harder and to give more effort on our own strength. No, he knows that living a life worthy of our calling, that growing up in Christ, is only possible because Jesus sits on the throne and, through the Holy Spirit, pours out his strength and power.

Beyond the gift of the Holy Spirit, Paul tells us that the enthroned King Jesus also hands out other gifts to his people; gifts of grace that are given according to Christ’s measure. And here is where Paul makes another key adaption to Psalm 68. You may recall that Psalm 68 talks about how all the people, friends and foes alike, brought gifts to God to acknowledge his kingship. And of course we do this every time we worship. We come bearing gifts, not just our tithes and offerings but our talents and our praise and our very selves, offered on the altar to the King who is worthy of far more than we could ever give.

But it’s critical to what Paul is doing here to see why he makes this change. Paul did not make a translation error. His memory is not fading. Paul wants us to see Jesus, the ascended king at the right hand of the Father, not simply as the king who receives our gifts but as the king who graciously gives gifts.

If we are going to get our walking to fit with God’s calling and be built up together as Christ’s body to join God’s mission in the world, then it will only happen if we are fully equipped. And Jesus sees to this. He gives us gifts of grace from his hands.

Every single one of us gets a gift. Some of us get more than one. But we don’t choose the gifts. We don’t apply for them. We don’t somehow merit them. They are given according to Christ’s determination and purpose, and they are never given simply for ourselves! They are given for the purpose of serving others, for building up the body of Christ, for doing the work of ministry together. Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

“Each gift is an invitation and provides the means to participate in the work of Jesus. These are not gifts to be placed on the mantle like a vase of flowers. They are not gifts to be used for our convenience like, say, a cell phone. These are not gifts to divert or entertain us, like a gift of tickets to the symphony. These are not gifts of appreciation like an anniversary ruby necklace or a retirement Rolex. These are gifts that equip us to work alongside of and in company with Jesus—“the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” We are being invited into a working relationship in the operations of the Trinity.”[1]

These gifts are given so that each of us might get in on the work of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the life of the Christian community and in mission in the world. None of us is insignificant. We all play a part. Every part matters. You’ve been given a gift. And with that gift you have an assignment. Do you know what gift/gifts you’ve been given? How are you using your gifts to build up Christ’s body?

Paul loves to list the various gifts. He lists a few here, and many others in places like 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. British theologian John Stott identifies at least twenty-eight distinctive gifts that Paul mentions. But not even that combined list is meant to be exhaustive. Paul’s point is that we all have been given gifts from the king’s hands, and therefore called into the king’s service.

In his great poem on the church, titled “The Rock,” T.S. Eliot captures the essence of Paul’s insight on the nature and place of the gifts of grace that have been given us from the king’s hands:

There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

One of our primary goals here at Fellowship Church is to be creating a culture where we joyfully celebrate the diversity of our gifts and recognize how much we really do need each other. We have a tradition of designating one Sunday in the month of May to let down our hair, cut loose and celebrate our work together and the God who calls us to this work. We call it “Kudos Day,” taken from the Greek word “kudos” which means “to appreciate” or “to give credit.”

And so in a minute our children and Sunday School teachers will be flooding into the sanctuary to help us celebrate right, Pastor Nate and Betsy Bruins will come forward to lead us in a time of giving thanks! But first, let us pray together, asking Jesus our king to give us his strength and power from on high so that we might continue to grow up in every way into Christ our Head and get our everyday walking in step with God’s glorious calling.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Ibid, p.47

Click HERE for the Spiritual Gifts Assessment.

Renee Krueger