“Come, follow me.” They heard it said to them, to each of them. Individually. They were called by name, and they followed the Master. “Come, follow me.” We hear it still, softly, gently, clearly calling each of us by name to take the yoke of service and follow Him. You heard it. I heard it. Who but God knows why and for what mission any one of us is called? Who but God can explain why someone like Peter or Paul or Mary Magdalene or Mary of Egypt or Martin Luther or Thomas Merton or you or me might be called? We respond to the call to follow, to seek God and God alone, and to carry the good news of God’s mighty love to others without realising how exactly we are to do that. It is in the seeking, and the striving, in the risking and the being of our lives that we hope to find wisdom, clarity of purpose, and the love of God.
Our response, our hopeful, tentative, unbelieving yet believing “yes” to God’s call often follows years of rejection, denial, and alienation. And just as often, our “yes” is accompanied by tremendous fear of failure, ridicule, and shame. Our “yes” frequently carries considerable risk, and as we persevere in ministry the risks and doubts persevere with us, and perhaps that’s a signal to us that we’re following the right path, for as Paul noted, Jesus was not “yes” and “no.” He was entirely “yes” to His heavenly Father; and he risked everything for the sake of the Kingdom, and the reward for His hard work meant crucifixion, abandonment, and failure. Judas betrayed Him, and despaired. Peter denied Him, but repented. Seized and overcome by despair and panic, all the rest fled, and hid, and cowered. Still, He persisted, and returned, and patiently listened and reminded them of His love for them. And the Church -- all too human in its expression -- continues in all seasons to persevere, and grow, and extend, and fail, and continues to follow the Lord’s command to carry on, to carry the Good News of Salvation to all the nations, and all for the sake of love.
It starts right there, you see, with the Lord’s injunction to “Love one another;” and from our response to that injunction comes the strength for each of us to make our way, in fits and starts, toward Him. The spiritual truth here has more to do with being the human instruments of God’s peace than it has to do with building congregations. For in serving Him we serve as beacons of hope to thousands upon thousands, and we show publicly our commitment to the Gospel message of love and compassion, and we risk our reputations and financial security for the sake of the kingdom. Each and every Christian is called to the ministry of shepherd, and prophet, and teacher, and preacher. Each and every Christian is called to witness the kingdom, to priesthood, to martyrdom. And finally, to come home to God.
Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that our response to the Lord’s instruction to “go and make disciples of all nations” is being successfully and innovatively accomplished. In more and more jurisdictions, it is possible for men and women of good character, with leadership abilities, theological inclination, and zeal for the Gospel, to enter ordained service to God’s people in the Church.
Some years ago, and long before the Second Vatican Council, the conversation in some churches came round to the question of the priesthood associated with the Baptismal Covenant, and contrasted it with the Sacramental Priesthood. Certainly, both involve the sacerdotal functions of offering, sacrifice, and community leadership; and yet there persists an understanding that each is distinct and sui generis, each with its own specific charism and locus, and each with its own self-understanding. Many wonder whether, in a post-Christian age, the nature of the ordained priesthood has become anachronistic. Vocations in some denominations are diminishing at an alarming rate, and some parishes have no ordained clergy at all. In some places, the concept of “shared ministry” has taken the form of paraliturgical communion services led by members of the congregation. Perhaps a more fundamental change is necessary, a shift in our age-old paradigms and understanding of how ministry can best be accomplished.
People in our culture change careers and career direction some three to five times during adult life. We grow tired and frustrated with the “same old thing” day after day and year after year, and we accomplish our “frustration management” by enabling change. Moreover, many people seem to resist the old hierarchical structures and seek to find ways to share in the ministry of the Church without necessarily making a lifelong full-time commitment, and without necessarily assenting to the difficulties, temptations, and errors or inviting the alienation associated with a hetero-patriarchal, stratified business or political system. The question comes clearer in Orthodoxy, and particularly in our autonomous jurisdictions, for so often we find that we have more clergy and smaller congregations than in the so-called ‘mainstream’ and denominational churches, and so we are led to wonder what to make of this state of affairs.
One possible response is evidenced in the independent churches. We are often criticised, and we clergy often invite and experience guilt because it sometimes seems that we outnumber our “flocks.” Sometimes, we have two or three clergy and only one or two in the “congregation,” and we wonder how we have failed in our mission. We wonder if we have sought our own good -- often masquerading as the “good of the Church,” or the “good of the community” -- hoping for some tangible or intangible, earthly or spiritual reward. We’re inclined to measure success by the size of the parish, when we should rather rejoice in the fervor and faithfulness of the worship, and be grateful for our own conversion and vocation. It may become more important to justify one’s ordination with results, rather than to seek the good of others and praise God for having chosen each one of us for His very own beloved, ordained daughter or son, to fulfil some aspect of His vast eternal plan. In this connection, a friend in recovery related that in the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the members held meetings on his own: went every night, made coffee, brought snacks, and did everything he could to make a successful meeting. When he complained to his wife that he felt like a failure because nobody stayed sober, she reminded him that he had stayed sober. For us too, in all of our work and striving to bring the gospel to others, we bring it to one another, and serve one another, and minister to one another. Even if others depart, we are constant, we are present. Adsum.
Were it not for the grace of ordination, and the empowerment and grace of the Holy Spirit, it might be that many of us would not be doing the good work we now do, with the support and confidence of the bishops, the “pastors of the pastors.” Here, indeed, is one of the revolutionary marks of our following of the Gospel. Weak and weak-willed, were it not for the strength of the Holy Spirit, conferred on us at ordination and sustaining us now day by day, we could never hope to live any form of Christian life or Christian service. As it has evolved, we see that the paradigm has shifted or is shifting. More and more the reality of church, of discipleship, of Christianity is that of a gathering in community of well-educated, professional Christians, strengthened and inspired by the Holy Spirit, all working to support each other and to keep alive the fire of faith.
By ourselves we have not even the strength to think to resist evil; but with the grace of the love of God, we weak and ineffectual disciples are transformed in some way and at some level into the good and faithful servants God can use for God's inscrutable purposes.
In the Orthodox Catholic Church of America, we now see many deacons and priests with their bishops, all participating fully and sacramentally in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries. Concurrent with and emerging from all that, we see the return to the notion of the “house church:” to the idea of family as the “first church,” manifesting as a community of love centered in the dynamic experience of the life of Christ.
The point seems clear: for us to fulfil His Word, we must continue with the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, with the prayers, and with the breaking of bread. We must continue to keep the door open to all, understanding that God’s call to the sacraments of life and worship is God’s gift and not ours; not without prudence, certainly, but without undue or irrational regard for life circumstances. Not exclusion any more, but inclusion. There is no doubt that this concept of community and shared ministry is one of our great contributions to the quality of life in the Churches. Let us pray that our example may energise and inspire a re-examination of attitudes, traditions and prejudices throughout Christendom. Let us pray that as we grow and prosper, we may see the windows of our souls and lives open again, that a fresh breath, a fresh wind, the breath of God, may return to enliven and awaken the Churches.
© 1999 Lynn E. Walker
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