Some readers of this blog will find it helpful to know that five of my recent books are now Kindle books. This is particularly helpful for international readers. You can find the list through Amazon Kindle:
"The Church as Learning Community"
"Transforming Leadership" (with Craig Nessan)
"Open the Doors and See All the People"
"Christian Education as Evangelism"
"The Difficult But Indispensable Church"
In addition, some of these are also available as electronic books through Barnes & Noble.
In this post I am going to share the first part of a forthcoming article for "Dialog" journal. I will post the remainder of the article in subsequent blogs.
The Church’s Vocation in Society through the Ministry of the Laity in the Languages of Their Daily Lives
The people of God are set apart in order to be sent back into the world. What does the gathered people of God need in order to carry out their vocations in society? How will they be the transformed, equipped, empowered people of God serving in the world through their ministries in daily life? How are their skills for ministry and leadership in the congregation being strengthened? And as we move beyond the church doors, do we know the ministries in daily life to which each other is being called? How will we walk with one another in those varied arenas, any and all of which are places for potential ministry and for working toward a more just and peaceable world? And what about the people whose lives the congregation members touch? What does daily transformation of the body of Christ mean in the lives of those people? How can we really make a difference in the world?
These questions are at the core of what it means to be church in the world. Actually, they reach to the core of the Gospel itself because when we begin in the midst of the human predicament, we realize that in order for the Good News of Jesus Christ to be real in people’s lives, it must speak to that specific human condition. The content of this article is based on material originally published in "Christian Education as Evangelism" (Fortress Press, 2007)and "Transforming Leadership"(Fortress Press, 2008) where I explore further these issues as they relate to Christian community and outreach.
To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that God is the Creator of the whole world, that Christ is and continues to be incarnate in that world, and to claim the Spirit’s power. As leaders walk with the laity, listen to and engage the theological questions people raise from being involved in the world, ministerial leadership becomes more interesting, more vital, more theologically challenging and alive. And ministry is multiplied.
Those who have been called to faith in Jesus Christ have been faithfully ministering in the world in each generation. Full recognition of this ministry and these ministers by the church is the issue. In that regard we have a transformation waiting to happen, an unfinished reformation and a community poised for mission.
Terms: A Variety of Images
A number of terms describe this radical reformation concept, the church’s vocation in society. Each term contains its own wisdom:
The Priesthood of all believers. By God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Spirit creates the priesthood we all share. Christ became the faithful high priest, not only to make a sacrifice for the people, but to become the sacrifice (Hebrews 2:17-18; 7:26-27; 9:14). Patriarchal hierarchies historically have reserved the bestowing and assurance of salvation to priests. Rather, all Christians are called to be a royal priesthood to “proclaim the mighty acts” of the one who called us out of darkness into light (1 Pet. 2: 5-9). The word is plural: “priesthood.” Within the priesthood of all believers some are called and ordained to Word and sacrament ministry and to Word and Service ministry.
Through faith Christians are transformed by the Spirit and called to pursue peace, to show hospitality to strangers, to remember those in prison (Hebrews 12 and 13). Because Jesus, our high priest died not on an altar, but “outside the city” (Heb. 13:12), the priesthood of all believers is called to go with him “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13) and be willing to praise God, to do good and to share what we have (Heb. 13: 15-16). We need distinct offices and roles within the church but together as the priesthood of all believers we are transformed to be the church in the world, proclaiming the grace of God and living out ministry “outside the camp.”
Ministry of the baptized We do not baptize ourselves. By the power of the Spirit in water and word, we are liberated from sin and death through being joined together in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “By water and the Word God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ” Christians often feel unclean. We need the washing clean of forgiveness and the refreshment of the daily remembrance of baptism, otherwise the sins and struggles of the day would overwhelm us.
How is our baptism linked to Christ’s baptism and what does that have to do with ministry? And, for that matter, why was Christ, who was not sinful, baptized? Mark’s Gospel dramatically begins with Jesus being baptized by John in the River Jordan. In Mark 10:38, Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus was baptized into his ministry of servanthood, death and resurrection; Christian disciples are baptized into Christ. Jesus said, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark l0:43b-45). The congregation says to the newly baptized, “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to wall the world.”
Laos in ministry All of us are part of the laos, the “people” of God. By virtue of Creation all peoples are God’s people; we need to take care that “people of God” language not sound exclusionary in a pluralistic world. Although we need to be clear on roles to which we have been called, it is not helpful to separate people in artificial or ultimate ways. We use the original Greek word “laos” because “lay” in the English carries the connotations of “not clergy” or in general, of someone who is not very knowledgable in a certain field. Such hierarchical distinctions can lead some pastors to simply delegating to laity work they themselves do not like to do. Just as worship is the “work of the people” so, too, ministry is the work of the laos.
In Hosea, a child is named, “Not my people” to signal the unfaithfulness of the people of God: “you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hos. 1:9). And, yet, in the very next verses we hear God’s covenant faithfulness, “…in the place where it was said to them. ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (Hos. 1:10). That Hosea passage is recalled in First Peter,
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
But now you are God’s people:
Once you had not received mercy,
But now you have received mercy.
Through God’s mercy a redeemed people is called to live ministries of mercy.
Ministry of the Whole People of God The ministry of the Church in the world belongs to the whole people. Wholeness, however, is not a matter of health or perfection. Individual Christians are not totally capable or experienced, or well. Congregations may be broken in conflict. In the midst of this reality Christ imputes wholeness and salvation. It is a matter of believing that the church is whole even while it is broken.
The Body of Christ is not whole unless all are a part of using their gifts to serve in the world. In Ephesians 4 Paul urges the Ephesians saying, “I… beg you [plural] to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (v.1). This calls for humility, gentleness, patience and bearing with each other. That’s hard. Paul writes there is one body, one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, and one “hope of your calling” (vs. 4-6). Then Paul describes the variety of gifts (vs. 11-13), just as he does in Roman 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. But note that the lists of gifts are not closed and the roles are not ranked. The purpose of the gifts of people is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v. 12).
When the “whole” people of God are in pain, when the body is actually torn apart, Christ heals and grows the body: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”(vs. 15-16).
Ministry in Daily Life Each of us is called. Each of us has a daily life. Although our lives may be long or short, each person has a 24-hour day. Not everything we do is automatically ministry, but everything we do carries the potential for ministry. Einar Billing wrote in "Our Calling" (Augustana Press, 1958)that “Call” is an “everyday word, with a splendor of holy day about it, but its holy day splendor would disappear the moment it ceased to be a rather prosaic everyday word.” “Calling” also means Christians being called by grace to faith. “When it began to dawn on Luther that just as certainly as the call to God’s kingdom seeks to lift us infinitely above everything that our everyday duties by themselves could give us, just that certainly the call does not take us away from these duties, but more deeply into them, then work became calling...”
To Luther “call is primarily gift, and only in second or third place a duty.” Our roles and relationships in daily life are transformed in Christ; even though they seem mundane or problematic, in Christ’s cross we can now receive our work and each other not as burden but as gift. Calling for Luther was rooted in forgiveness of sins, the ultimate transformation. “In the degree that our life becomes a life of forgiveness of sins, to that degree we receive a calling.” “Life organized around the forgiveness of sins, that is Luther’s idea of the call.”
These reformation breakthroughs provided radical new possibilities for all people to serve in the church and to make significant vocational contributions to society. There was a break from reliance on authority in a person’s determining what to think and what to do in the world. People were able to read the Scriptures for themselves. But what more needs to happen? Freedom from is freedom for. It’s the “freedom for” that is left not fully realized. The power of the priesthood of all believers has, even these many years later, not fully been unleashed. Why?
Vocatio Rooted in the Forgiveness of Sins
If our calling (our vocatio) is rooted in the forgiveness of sins, what does that mean for the real ways people live? What does forgiveness mean? How are we freed for ministry? These are core questions for living out our new life together in the Spirit. Each of the baptized who are members together of the priesthood of all believers needs to hear the Gospel, God’s grace, in terms of their own specific situation. Theologian Letty Russell wrote in "Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective: A Theology (Westminster, 1974)that Jesus did not say to the blind person, “You can walk,” nor to the person who could not walk, “You can see.” Christ met people on the road in the midst of their lives and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus cared about people and also about the societal problems related to human need in the world in which they lived.
We who have been transformed by the power of the Spirit each meet Jesus in our own need, and in the midst of society’s need. If the human problem is brokenness, the good news is that Jesus makes us whole. If the human problem is alienation, the good news is God reconciles and restores relationships. If the human problem is guilt, the good news is that God through Jesus Christ forgives. If the human problem is being lost, the good news is that the Good Shepherd looks for and finds the lost. If the human problem is death, Jesus Christ has brought new life. If the human problem is judgment, the good news in Jesus Christ is unconditional acceptance. If the human problem is being overwhelmed by the stress and demands of daily life, Jesus invites the weary to come to him and to rest in the caring arms of God. If the human problem is bondage, the good news is that Jesus brings freedom.
The second part of what Russell said is not to be forgotten. If the human problem is hunger, the good news is that God feeds the hungry. God needs people working in society to carry out that gospel action of feeding the hungry. Likewise, if the human problem is injustice, God will need whole societies working together for justice for all.
Luther’s concept of ministry is linked with his definition of the church as the communion of saints. The naked and the hungry are our neighbors. Every Christian is a priest in the sense of servant; all of the baptized, including children, are called to minister to the neighbor. Martin Luther did not begin his reform of the church on the basis of pious leaders, but through a transformed concept of the church itself. Therefore not just priests, but the one who bakes bread or serves in civic government, or cleans a house is part of the priesthood and called to ministry in that very place of service.
Our neighbors are everywhere. Luther wrote about our “stations” and “vocations.” We today might think about “stations” as the whole range of roles and relationships of our daily lives and our “vocations” as our callings to ministry to the neighbor. We sit beside a “neighbor” at our work “station” or school desk. This neighbor is the person right here next to us and also people on the other side of the world. We may just sit there and do nothing to serve the neighbor, thereby missing our calling. But if we regard the other as one also made in the image of God, as one for whom Christ died, then, by the power of the Spirit, whatever the service we do, it is our ministry.
When we deeply believe that all of our ministries are rooted in the forgiveness of sins, then we will submit our roles and relationships to Christ in confession, knowing that through the cross and resurrection we are freed for powerful servanthood. Such ministries make a difference in people’s real lives. In order to do this daily we will need spiritual guidance and faithful conversation with a trusted brother or sister in the faith.
It is helpful to take some time to quietly make a list of our roles and relationships (stations), asking who is my neighbor there? Some may be ongoing, such as relationship of parent and child, but even those constantly change throughout the life cycle. There may be new roles: a different job, a new colleague, an invitation to a volunteer position in the community, a global challenge. What is the potential for ministry there? We will need the caring guidance of a friend in Christ to help us discern our calling. What are the challenges and barriers? What are our own dilemmas in that relationship?
Is there alienation in the family? Alienation need not be permanent. When our vocation is rooted in the forgiveness of sins, we know we live already reconciled in Christ with the potential for restored relationships. We are then freed to engage in the work of reconciliation, within ourselves and within our family. Is there guilt about the thousands who die of hunger each day? Poor people do not need our guilt. They need food and shelter. When our vocation is rooted in the forgiveness of sins, we are freed to minister to not only help poor people but to work for change in systems which keep people in bondage to poverty. We are freed in Christ for powerful serving ministry. How might we reflect on our other roles and relationships? Who might help us hear God’s Word of Law and Gospel? What are some of the challenges for a faith community as they seek to become empowered and equipped for their vocations in daily life?