"The church as a seminary"

February 5, 1995 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (etc.)

Regardless of what you think about whatís happening in Washington D.C. these days, there is a clear message that has been spoken by both President and Speaker of the House. The changes in our nationís capital of recent are not just about "reinventing government." They about "reinventing citizenship." (Newsweek, 2/6/95, p. 16)

The truth of the matter is that if things are to change in our country, this change needs to begin with Joe and Joanna Citizen. For too long we have viewed ourselves as consumers rather than participants. Consumers receive (whether this be welfare or the produce of modern technology). Participants give, as well as receive. Unfortunately, (or fortunately!), government cannot change people. Making laws, or even removing laws; spending money, or even not spending money, all this will not transform consumers to participants.

To participate in a common life with other people, believing that my fate is connected to yours, that we are in this together and not individually - thatís what the word "community" is all about. Government cannot generate "community." As Christians, we have a marvelous jewel to offer. You see, our faith is intimately wrapped up in this thing called "Community," what in the language of the New Testament is "Koinonia."

Community is much more than talking around a cup of coffee, but thatís often a good place to begin. Community is caring about others, about what happens to them, placing their lives next to your own. Itís a missing element in our present society. Itís also at the heart of what "ministry" is all about.

We have this wonderful line in our bulletin week after week. It says that the ministers of this church are the people. Do you take this line seriously? What does it mean? Does it imply that everyone is the Pastor? I hope not. I must admit, though, that many of the functions I have been trained to perform are better handled by others. That line about every member being a minister does emphasize that the church is a team effort, not a one-man or woman show.

You know, donít you, that "ministry" is more than what happens within our fellowship. It involves taking the church beyond the confines of these walls out into the world in which we live. As Christians all of us have a vocation, a calling to ministry in some fashion. That ministry may be within this community of faith, or it may involve extending this community into our society. No matter how this ministry happens, what form it takes, it involves reaching across barriers to other people.

Itís always a struggle discovering exactly what our vocation is as a follower of Jesus Christ. Itís easy to say "Iím a minister," but the specifics are a bit harder to figure. Furthermore, we may not feel adequate to the task, whether what we mean by "adequacy" is competence or worthiness: "What can I do?" or "Who am I to do something?"

This morning weíve touched on three Bible stories about individuals struggling with their vocation. The given in each one is that there is a vocation, a calling to ministry of some sort. Isaiah was called to be a prophet. You read his initial response earlier in worship. "I am a man of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6:1-8).... Simon Peter was called to "fish for people." "Go away from me," he said to Jesus, "for I am a sinful man." (Luke 5:1-11).

Actually these responses of both Isaiah and Peter came prior to their specific calling by God, but I believe they could read the writing on the wall. Like many of us, they did not consider themselves worthy of being called to ministry. Of course, Isaiah went on to become one of Israelís greatest prophets, and Peter developed into a rock of a guy, a key leader in the earlier church. Thatís not your or my calling. Then again, maybe it is - who am I to say? But can we associate with their struggle?

Is this how you feel when it comes to that line in our bulletin - "the ministers are the people of this church"? Again, Iím not talking about only what happens in here. Do you feel unworthy to be a minister of Jesus Christ in here or out there? In a way, none of us should feel worthy of our calling. I am no more worthy of my vocation than anyone else. I am not pastor of this congregation by virtue of my virtue. There are so many times that I could affirm right along with the apostle Paul that I am chief among sinners. Could you say the same?

Paulís story echoes both Peterís and Isaiahís. Thereís a common thread thatís woven through us all. None of us are worthy of being a minister of Christ. Funny thing is, God calls us anyway. Remember that. Itís God who makes us worthy, just as surely as itís God who makes us competent. Worthy for what? Competent for what? For ministry!

Each of us has a vocation in Christ, a calling, a ministry. For some of us, that vocation may be our career. For others, our job may only be the place where our vocation happens. Or it may provide the income for our ministry to happen elsewhere. There are so many possibilities. My purpose today is not to get into specifics, but to emphasize that each of us has a calling, and to encourage you to ponder once again, what yours might be? God moves us beyond our unworthiness.

For Isaiah, in a dream, a vision, it involved the image of a coal from the fire of the heavenly altar touching his unclean lips and making them clean. That image may actually be a very helpful one to many of us. Words that destroy, that separate, that hurt, that defile, may find our lips familiar territory. Can we come to the point of using them to say "Here I am, send me!" when God calls? Only if God touches us. God moves us beyond our unworthiness.

For Simon Peter it involved Jesus casting out his fear, as freely as Peter cast out his net into the waters of Galilee. "Donít be afraid," he said, "from now on you will be catching people." Again, these are words many of us need to hear, even if we havenít got a clue as to what "catching people" is to be all about for us. Maybe there are some boats we need to leave behind when we follow Jesus. "Donít be afraid," he said. God moves us beyond our unworthiness.

For the apostle Paul it involved a blinding light on the road to Damascus, and the outstretched hand of someone who once would have been an enemy. It was the touch of Ananias which moved Paul beyond his unworthiness to become a minister of Jesus Christ. Many of us need to be empowered to say, along with Paul, "by the grace of God I am what I am." In fact, letís do it now: "by the grace of God I am what I am." (repeat) Now, those words are not meant to be an excuse for an unworthy life, as many in this day and age might say them. They are words of grace that move us past unworthiness and toward Godís calling.

I like how Eugene Peterson translates the passage: "Because God was so gracious, so very gracious, here I am. And Iím not about to let his grace go to waste." Itís easy to waste Godís grace, to not step into it and take up our calling, our ministry, whatever that may be for each one of us. If we were alone in this, all might become a wasteland. But weíre not.

You may have noticed the title for my sermon: "The Church as a Seminary." A seminary is a place where people are trained for ministry, where a seed is planted and grows to give off fruit. A seminary is not just some educational institution off in a distant state. This congregation is a seminary. Itís a place for reinventing citizenship - citizenship in the Kingdom of God, a citizenship which will give flavor to the society around us.

Our land needs people who donít just consume. It needs persons who participate, who care about others, who believe that weíre in this together, not individually, who connect themselves up with others and share Godís community. In other words: ministers. How can we grow, as a congregation, in better becoming a seminary for training each of us for ministry? Letís not waste Godís grace - as individuals or as a "community" of faith.

for more on this subject see "Lighting the Match,"
part of the "Congregational Megatrends" series.

©1995, Peter L. Haynes

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