‘A man has to know his limitations’ – 27th August, 11th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Romans 12:1-8.

Tonight I’d like to preach on our reading from Romans.  When I started preparing the sermon, two things immediately came to mind. You will have almost certainly heard the words from verse 1, entreating us to offer our bodies as ‘living sacrifices’, at the end of our Eucharist services.

And the second thing that came to mind was a quotation “A man has to know his limitations.” To save anyone looking it up, it isn’t something from one of the normal theological thinkers or philosophers.  It’s a line from one of the ‘Dirty Harry’ films, starring Clint Eastwood, that were quite popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

“A man has to know his limitations.” I’ll come back to this…

In tonight’s reading, Paul, looking back over his previous words in Romans, and is looking at how we might practical use of his words.  If you get the opportunity, take a look at the whole of Chapter 12 – it’s not a big read – probably no more than 5 minutes tops. Chapter 12 is where Paul starts to pull the earlier parts of Romans together , showing how Jesus Christ needs to be Lord of all aspects of our lives for us to be true Christians.

Tonight I’m just focussing on the first section of Chapter 12, what we might call Paul’s introduction to practical theology.  And in these first 8 verses he focuses on not what we need to do, but what we need to be like.

In Verse 1 we are urged to offer our bodies as ‘living sacrifices’ – this is in direct contrast to the dead animal sacrifices that would be familiar to Paul’s listeners. There is also here the suggestion that we have new life to offer in the form of that given to us by the Holy Spirit.  And this is a transformation in us; we’re to look away from the restraints and expectations of the day to day world in which we live, and engage with it in a new way.

Paul then goes on to tell us how we should look at ourselves; “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement.”  This is exceptionally good advice for anyone – Christian or not.  I think we all ‘big ourselves up’ sometimes – whether to make ourselves feel better or to impress other people. But it really isn’t necessary, and isn’t useful – particularly for us Christians; if we can’t be honest about ourselves, what can we be honest about? And if we can’t be honest about ourselves, are we forgetting that as part of the body of Christ, by lying about ourselves are we not turning away from our God-given self?

We’re reminded in Verse 6 that we all have different gifts – in the Greek text ‘charismata’ – given to us by God’s grace.  These gifts are freely given to us by God to meet the needs of the body of Christ – we’re being equipped for the job of Kingdom building with the skills required.  And these gifts are all of great value. We’re also told that if people have these gifts, we should let them – no, encourage them – to use them.  Sometimes we may not realise what our gifts are – we occasionally have to try a few things out until we get to that place where we feel ‘at home’.  We may be graced with practical gifts of teaching or leadership, or gifts of character like generosity, mercy and compassion. All are needed. We might wonder why God doesn’t give EVERYONE ALL of these gifts so that we can all multi-task; but that would make it even easier than it is now for us to think that these gifts are something that we should be inordinately proud of, rather than something we should be thankful to God for.  And it would also make us less likely to collaborate and come together as a body.

But there is to be no FALSE modesty in acknowledging and using these gifts; If we have them, there is an expectation that we should use them, and, indeed, use these gifts with joy – see how Paul comments that in showing mercy, we’re to do it cheerfully.  We may end up with a couple of these gifts; indeed, the ‘Reader’ ministry is often referred to as the ‘Teaching and Preaching’ ministry, so I might be expected to be at least gifted by grace with abilities in these areas, having been licensed in to my ministry.  I like to think that I have SOME gifts here – but only others can be sure!

But like most people I know more about what I DON’T have.

“A man has to know his limitations.”  There, I told you that I would get back to this!  We’re given gifts by the grace of God – those gifts, when used properly, allow us to further the work of the Kingdom of Heaven. We know from our daily lives that people have different skills and gifts – even in my professional life, surrounded by software writers, we ‘in the business’ differ in the precise nature of our knowledge and skills, and in how we apply those gifts.

I often turn work away when it’s not something I’m an expert in; I know at least SOME of my limitations! Working on something without the proper skills would potentially cause the customer to spend more money with me than they would with a real expert; or they might lose confidence in me if I failed. Or I might make such a mess that nothing ever works again.

Why might I choose to work outside of my area of expertise or giftedness? Well, there’s greed. But also, and more relevant to tonight’s reading, there is pride. We might try to operate outside of our gifts because we are proud of ourselves, and thing that because we have been given one particular gift by God’s grace, we automatically have others ‘tacked on’ the side. That is flawed thinking; we think of ourselves as smarter than we actually are, and we disregard our limitations.

CS Lewis commented:

“When the subject is sacred, proud and clever men may come to think that the outsiders who don’t know it are not merely inferior to them in skill but lower in God’s eyes; as the priests said, ‘All that rabble who are not experts in the Torah are accursed.’

Elsewhere he writes:

There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. […] There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.[…]The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility.”

I think that this is why Paul starts with this focus on ourselves in Chapter 12; he wants to bang it in to our heads that whatever gifts of the spirit we have, we have been given them.  And that the gifts of the spirit that others possess are as valuable as those that we possess. And that we need them all to work together to allow the body of Christ – that is, us – to work properly.

“A man has to know his limitations.” And by knowing them, we will show right and proper humility before God as we use the gifts we have been given to further the Kingdom.


Reader Joe Pritchard