Last week, I had the privilege of visiting the Diocese of New Jersey. On one of the days, I met with lay leaders from various congregations to talk about spiritual growth. Then I met with clergy to explore the same topic. In some ways, a different audience. On the other hand, I was struck with common purpose.
At both gatherings, I was made mindful of what our tradition says about the ministry of the church. In the Prayer Book (p. 845ff.), there’s a section called “The Outline of the Faith”, a.k.a, the Catechism, FAQs about faith. When it comes to questions about the ministry, the Prayer Book says we are all the ministers of the church: lay people, bishops, priests and deacons. I’m curious whether you think of yourself as a minister.
There are questions about each of those four orders. For each of the four orders (lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons), there’s a job description which begins the same way. Each are called to represent Christ and the church in the world. So what does that look like? How are we Christians, clergy and lay people, doing with that job description? Truth be told, the best that can be said is that we get mixed reviews.
Mahatma Gandhi spent his life in proximity to Christians, many of whom encouraged him to convert. He resisted, mindful of the discrimination he personally experienced from good upstanding, religious folk. Gandhi said: “I like your Christ but not your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”
Recent surveys indicate that when people are asked for associations with the word “Christian”, common words that come to mind are judgmental, hypocritical, exclusive. In the first days of the church, people outside the church looked at people inside the church and said, “See how they love one another.” These days, not so much.
Again, there’s nothing new about this. The liturgy for Morning Prayer includes a prayer attributed to St. Chrysostom, an early saint. I say the prayer most mornings. The prayer book fails to note that St. Chrysostom was virulent in anti-semitic preaching. We just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We don’t always note the hatred spewed by Martin Luther towards Jewish people. When I was in middle-school Sunday School, I remember receiving a youth magazine that included an article written by J. Edgar Hoover in which he attacked Martin Luther King, labeling him an immoral communist. Why were they giving that out in Sunday School? In our own time, ardent Bible-reading Christians proclaim a gospel that, in my humble opinion, seems to have nothing to do with Jesus.
A good look in the mirror lands me solidly in the company of folks who fall short. Resentment, pride, envy, hypocrisy, disdain, indifference, withheld forgiveness often grab hold of my heart. It all challenges my faith, causing me to wonder why my life doesn’t look a bit more redeemed. All of it calls us to rely solely on the mercy of the Lord, which is not just forgiveness, but also power to better represent Christ and Christ’s church.
Take this week to think of folks who represent Christ for you. In my own life, I’m mindful of a woman widowed in her 90’s after 60 years of marriage. She wondered what God was calling her to do with the next chapter of her life. I think of a friend suddenly disabled who navigates that challenge with hope. I think of a family who faithfully supports him. I think of a minister who works with teenagers, and shows them God’s unconditional love in creative and caring ways. I think of a priest in Honduras who, at great personal risk, ministers to people with AIDS when other faith traditions in his country shun those folks. In a week devoted to thanksgiving, I give thanks for those representatives.
Then think about what it might mean for you to represent Christ and his church. Take this Monday morning to think about one way you might grow in this area this week. We are each and all ministers in the church. Representing Christ is what we’re called to do.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
-II Corinthians 5
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me, O God of Israel.
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