Last Monday marked the 34th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry. June 14, 1987 was a hot summer day in suburban Chicago. I drove to church early that Sunday morning and the bank sign informed me that it was 78 degrees at 7:30AM! The ordination service to ceremonially authorize Garrett and me for ministry was in the afternoon. We wore our robes in a sanctuary that was not air conditioned. I sat upright for much of the ceremony, feeling the sweat literally drip down my back! My dad, a career U.C.C. minister, gave the charge to Garrett and me. He said that there was a fairy tale element to serving in Jesus’ name. Princesses have to kiss frogs without knowing that there’s a fair prince mysteriously inside that green body. Likewise, we disciples of Christ are called to embrace lots of toads trusting that their inner beauty can shine forth.
Denominational leaders laid hands on us. The congregation stood so that they, too, were linked to our two kneeling bodies through a web of prayerful touch. At the close of the service, I was able to put my newly-ordained status into immediate practice by baptizing my two-month-old daughter, Lisa. Wearing a baptismal gown that her father and grandfather had both worn at their baptisms, we welcomed her into the family of Christ. All four of our parents and seven siblings were present to celebrate her place in our extended family. The Holy Spirit transformed the First Church of Lombard into holy ground for us. After being feted with cake and hot coffee at a reception, we headed home to our duplex where fourteen of us sat around a ping pong table in an unfinished basement, eating steamy lasagna and garlic bread. Like the Pentecost fire, the Holy Spirit blessed our gathering!
Just as a couple standing starry-eyed at the altar, it’s impossible to know where our vows will take us. Pastor Paul, knocked off his horse while persecuting members of the early church, could have not known where Christ would lead him as the church-planter-extraordinaire! In 2 Corinthians 6, we read a portion of a letter Paul wrote to one of his beloved congregations that gave him much angst! In this thick theological correspondence, Paul is blunt and vulnerable. The theme of the letter is reconciliation with a divided, distracted community. We know that this letter follows another that was lost. He references that letter in 2:4: “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” Scholars refer to the lost document as the “severe letter” or “letter of tears.” In this follow-up letter, Paul attempts to guide this fledgling Christian community into a spirit of genuine Christian service rather than heated disagreement. He wants them to understand that faithful living is not the absence of hardship. Rather than running from hot debates, Paul exhorts them to know God’s grace within that hardship. This is a lesson every generation of believers has struggled to embrace.
On the eighth anniversary of my ordination, I found myself at a camp situated in the Mayan jungle. I led a youth group on a mission trip to Belize where we were immersed in a new culture while facing the challenges of living together as a community. My experience with week-long mission trips is that the initial excitement wears off after three or four days of hard work and minimal sleep. Add extreme tropical heat and humidity to the mix and “my kids” were not at all happy with each other that Wednesday night. Facing off with angry words in the community room, my heart was heavy as I tried to move them from frustrated animosity to unified service. Through tears I told them how sad I was that they succumbed to divisive tension when they had worked so hard for this tremendous Christian adventure in beautiful Belize. I hugged each one of the angry teenagers and left the room. As I wandered the darkened campus, illumined by moonlight and amplified with insect sounds, I realized that I was honoring my ordination vows in that moment. By the end of the week the group had forgiven each other their irritating behaviors and grieved the conclusion of our mission trip. Perhaps my tearful message helped to reshape the way we related to each other. Perhaps we understood anew that true Christian community is not forged out of an absence of hardship but through God’s grace while living those trials. Whether in the jungles of Belize, the crush of school hallways, or the tension of crowded offices, we can expect heated moments when only our faith will enable us to emerge as friends.
Peter Hawkins (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 159), a commentator on this text, writes this about Paul: “In essence, he is writing his own letter of recommendation to a church he planted, loves, and feels betrayed by.” Two other leaders in the Corinthian congregation became inflated by their elevated positions and turned the members against Paul. Not being physically present to them, Paul had to defend himself in this letter so that the congregants wouldn’t be led astray by Cephas and Apollos. He worried that these two men were dividing the church family while advancing their own status. Paul reminds them of the call to be servants on behalf of Jesus and subservient to each other’s needs. He points to himself as a good example for discipleship. He doesn’t do this to receive kudos. He fervently tries to convict them of Christ-like behavior. He names the many ways he suffered to point them toward their baptismal calling: be willing to die to self for the sake of others. Paul is at his most vulnerable in this letter as he voices his deep love for them.
Three years ago Garrett and I spent our ordination anniversary touring my favorite place in Paris, Sacred Heart Basilica. I spent a semester in France while in college but was too poor to take tours of significant places. So I was happy to learn much about this beloved church and the surrounding area 39 years later. I didn’t realize that the Church of St. Peter, a much earlier structure, sits right next to the grand basilica that dwarfs it.
As we toured through that tenth century church, our guide told us that St. Peter’s had been built on the site of a Roman temple to the god, Mars. Later it became a sacred spot for Druid worship. Many ancient church buildings are built atop the ruins of pagan altars in a sort of archaeological game of “King of the Mountain.” Conquering groups feel superior when they are able to move into the space of the vanquished and use it for their own purposes. But remnants of the past remind us that we take our cues from previous believers, whether by imitation or differentiation. Two immense Roman columns that date back nearly 2000 years stand in the nave of the Church of St. Peter. I touched one of them, thinking of believers who worshiped in a sanctuary whose structural support relied on these massive posts. Human-made structures have a lifespan. Every now and then, they survive for generations, serving as reminders of our transiency, like those pillars erected to bring praise to a Roman god. On our roots tour to Europe, I was humbled to learn of the sacrifice of my Christian forebears so that I could stand firm today as an ordained Christian pastor in a congregation that dates back to 1847. Like our forebears, the congregation and I honor our commitment to this community as the very first Christian congregation who gathered to worship. Some of you sit in the same sacred space where your grandparents and great grandparents worshiped. Each generation faces trials but must learn to persevere by God’s grace. Their suffering teaches us what it means to carry the torch of faith in our time.
Paul’s leadership was hotly contested. He was unafraid to name sin because his allegiance was to God and not to any human conventions. Often pastoral leadership shifts away from bold proclamation in a futile effort to keep everyone happy. Paul didn’t concern himself with that. (He might have benefitted from a Pastor/Parish Support Committee in Corinth!) On occasion, I’ve had to stick up for this bold apostle when folks in our bible studies tell me that they’re not a fan! What we witness in this letter is that Paul loves each congregation deeply and suffers repeatedly for the sake of the Gospel. Our existence as a Christian congregation owes Paul and other ancient messengers of the faith a debt of gratitude for their courageous witness that went against the grain of their time.
Last year I marked my ordination anniversary by welcoming a class of confirmation students into church membership. We were in the thick of the quarantine so we had to get creative about how to hold our final class session. Each student brought a beach towel and sat apart from one another on the side yard of the church building. They worked on their statements of faith as a final expression of their desire to be confirmed into the Church. Most had no recollection of their baptism. Their parents took vows to raise them in the faith and now it was their turn to make a commitment to follow Jesus. At an outdoor service in our parking lot that was limited only to immediate family, twelve young people, wearing masks, read their statements of faith. Family members laid hands on them as we prayed over their commitment. No hugs. Cupcakes individually packaged from a bakery. A group picture of 12 kids standing at a distance from each other. Different form for a confirmation ceremony but as rich as ever. Those of us who have traveled a few miles as Christians know, like the Apostle Paul, that it is not an easy journey. Our faith does not insulate us from problems. But we also learn that Christ walks with us every step of our journey, giving us a holy perspective on suffering. Paul, almost as an aside, tells this beloved congregation that he is speaking to them as he would to his own children. Hawkins writes of this passage, “Nothing else in the rest of his correspondence approaches this level of self-disclosure.”
Paul urges these church members to follow his example. “Open wide your hearts,” he begs of them. In other words, accept the grace of God. Don’t waste your life complaining about inevitable hardships. Accept your brokenness and invite Christ to transform it into areas for powerful ministry. Earlier in this letter he used the image of fragile pottery: “We have this treasure in clay jars.” Unable to carry the burdens of this life on our own, we entrust ourselves to God. We are baptized, confirmed, and ordained into Christian service so that the light of Christ will shine through the cracks of our fragile lives to inspire others. Paul tells this divided, distracted congregation that the time is NOW! The Greek word used is KAIROS: God’s favorable time. Now is the opportune moment to open wide our hearts to the presence of Christ who accompanies us on our pilgrimage. Each moment we live confronts us with certain demands and opportunities. The best we can do is to point beyond ourselves to the only One who keeps us upright. In the powerful name of Jesus, Paul gives himself away to this congregation. He pours himself out for the many individuals who met Christ through his sacrificial evangelism.
Having celebrated the privilege of 34 years of ordained ministry last week, I give God thanks for the courageous testimony of Paul. I am thankful for ancestors who handed the torch of faith to me so that I was led to this particularly rewarding vocation. I am so grateful for the congregations that have embraced my family and me, for churches that have opened wide their hearts so that Jesus is powerfully experienced among us!