Knowing our "so that..."
A sermon on John 17:20-26 and Acts 16:16-34
[for an audio recording of this photo, click here]
A couple of years ago, not long after I began serving here, at Abiding Peace, I had an unexpected interaction with a casual friend. Our families socialize pretty regularly, so he was aware of my recent career change and we had had a few conversations about it. He and his family are members of a Reformed church, so he was interested in learning the similarities and differences with Lutheran practice.
This particular evening, he approached me with an excited smile, and asked me if I had “heard the news.” “We are going to be colleagues!” He said, “I was just asked to serve on the Session at my church. I’m going to be an elder! We are both going to be ministers!”
It was a bid for connection. He was eager to share his excitement about how he was being called into a new role and a new commitment to the work of Jesus… but I have to admit, I missed it. I was thrown by his use of the words “colleagues” and “ministers.” After a twenty-six year journey from the time when I first felt called to serve the church until I was finally being named as a “minister” – his words felt like a devaluation of all the work I had done, and all the distance I had travelled to overcome prejudice and patriarchy, to become a pastor, as a woman.
So, instead of hearing his celebration, and his desire to have someone in his life who could relate to his sense of being called into ministry, I got hung up on my own ego. My desire to differentiate my ministry, from his “volunteer leadership role.” I didn’t say any of that to him, of course. I was politely encouraging. But I didn’t really affirm him. I didn’t really celebrate the co-ministry that he had accurately named.
That failure on my part is one of the reasons that I am so insistent now on describing our work here at the church as co-ministry. Because my friend was right, and I was wrong. And I never again want to let my ego distract me from my purpose as a minister… from my “so that.”
Let me explain what I mean by that phrase: “so that.” In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is praying that, after he leaves them, his followers will be equipped for the work that he is leaving with them, and his prayer has a very particular cadence… one grounded in understanding that everything he is asking of God, and everything he is proclaiming, is moving toward a particular purpose. He is offering his prayer “so that…”:
“may they be in us, so that the world may believe… (John 17:21)
“(I have given them glory), so that they may be one…” (Jophn 17:22)
“(may they) become completely one, so that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them…” (John 17:23)
“I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26)
Jesus was praying for his disciples – all of his disciples, all of us included – that we would be equipped with understanding, and with glory, and with the presence of God… but not just for our own benefit. It was always so that we could do our ministry. Our ministry of love for each other and outreach to the world.
But when I got caught up in my own ego needs to have my hard work and my status recognized and differentiated from other ministry… I lost sight of the “so that” that Jesus prayed for me, and for all of us. It’s humbling to admit, but at least I know I’m not alone. Even the Apostle Paul got hung up on his own issues sometimes.
We see a rather petty example of Paul’s fallibility in today’s reading from Acts.
In this story, Paul is working to build the new ministry in Philippi – the one we heard about last week in the story of Lydia and her household. He is seeing the fruit of his preaching, and all is going well… except there is this annoying slave girl following them around proclaiming the truth about their ministry. How Dare She! The truth – by the way - that’s it’s not about them at all. They are slaves to God, as much as she is a slave to her masters. The power of their preaching is about God’s way of salvation…
Now, there are all kinds of things that COULD have grabbed Paul’s attention about this situation.
He could have rejoiced that God’s salvation was being affirmed and proclaimed by a disinterested third party who was trusted in the city.
Or, He could have noticed that this girl was a slave. A young girl being used by her masters for their profit, with no regard to the ethics of child labor practices, or the dangers she was facing. A prophet of God could have had plenty to say about the evils of slavery in the Roman Empire.
And then there is the matter of her spiritual enslavement – possession by a spirit that robbed her of her control even over her own words. Jesus consistently reached out to people suffering possession and sought to not only free them from their condition, but also restore them to wholeness and community. Paul could have sought her genuine healing.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, he got irritated. Well, actually at first he just ignored her. Her vulnerability and demon possession didn’t warrant his attention. But after several days of her incessant truth-telling he got annoyed. And so, he cast the demon out in a fit of pique, and then turned his back on her. She wasn’t a bother anymore. So what if his action left the poor girl worse off, still the slave of now-angry masters who may put her to worse uses?
I think it’s fair to say that Paul had lost sight of his “so that.” He had forgotten what it meant to be a minister of God called to love the world as God does.
Of course, one of the great things about God is that God never forgets the “so that.” And another great thing is that God doesn’t give up on us when we do.
So, after the powers of this world had had their say in response to Paul’s unintended but effective assault on the sanctity of economic gain at the expense of the powerless. After Paul and Silas had been stripped, beaten, and imprisoned, and maybe in the process been jarred out of their limited and self-absorbed focus, God gave them another chance to remember their “so that.” God broke open their prison doors and chains with an act of divine power, and thus confronted them with a choice about what to do with their freedom.
They could have interpreted this divine intervention as being for their own benefit.
They could have praised God for this saving act as they fled the jail and the city in search of a more favorable context for ministry.
But instead, they stayed. They let go of their egos and even their own comfort and safety, and they remembered that they had received grace so that the world may know about Jesus, and the love he offers… so that the world might be changed.
And that’s what happened! Their jailer and his whole household heard the message of God’s love poured out through Jesus and they believed it. They were changed by it.
The jailer tended the wounds and fed the hungry bellies of his captives. And the text tells us that his whole household rejoiced that he had become a believer, which suggests to me that they saw a change that they could immediately recognize as good.
That kind of transformation is the “so that” of the work of ministry to which we are all called… all, not just the Apostles like Paul, and not just the pastor. All.
Because my friend was right. We ARE ministers together. Everyone for whom Jesus offered the prayer that we heard read from the gospel today. Jesus prayed on behalf of those there with him, and also "on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20)… That’s all of us.
Now, it is my hope and prayer that none of us will have the occasion to get thrown into prison in the course of our ministry – but I don’t think that either the prison stay or the prison break are actually the point of the story. The point is the mission. The point is knowing the purpose to which they – and we – are called. Knowing that we all experience grace not only for ourselves, but also so that the love of God may be in us, and so that that love may do the work of transforming the world through us.
That’s all it means to be a minister of God. You don’t have to go to seminary, or wear a fancy stole, or be able to quote scripture at the drop of a hat. You just have to recognize that the faith you have been given is meant to be shared. You just have to let the love of God flow through you.
After the service today, Abiding Peace will be holding our first annual Time & Talent’s Fair. It’s meant as a chance to grow in our co-ministry together. To make sure that the whole community of Abiding Peace has opportunities to share the grace that we have been given in ways that match the skills and the resources of time and energy that God has given us. This isn’t a hard sell. No one is going to be stripped, beaten and thrown into prison if they don’t come to the fair, or sign-up for something new! But I hope that everyone here will hear the call to the so that of Jesus’s prayer, and that everyone here will seek the guidance of God’s Spirit to ask how God has equipped you to share in the ministry of all believers.
Because ministry isn’t an obligation, it is an opportunity, and more than that it is an identity. The identity of "minister." The identity of being one with Christ, and sent with him into the world God so loves.
Thanks be to God