The Gospel Charge

This was originally written as a Charge to the Candidate for a dear friend, but I have come to realize that it is, for me, the best and only charge I can give to any candidate for ordination. It is also my most succinct statement of the gospel and over our obligation as ministers of word and sacrament.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, the Apostle reminds Timothy of the day of his ordination. Starting in verse 6 of chapter 1, Paul writes:

Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel….Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

“Rekindle the power you received in the laying on of hands.” That’s dangerous language in the modern Church for several reasons. “Power” for instance has been abused by so many religious leaders that a seminary education these days is as much a course in surrendering pastoral authority as anything. On top of that, talking about conferring some sort of “powerful spirit” sounds a little too Pentecostal for high church, mainline Protestants like us. We’d be much more likely to talk about what the laying on of hands symbolizes rather than what the laying on of hands does.

Yet Paul is very clear here. In laying our hands upon you we are endowing you with a fire, a powerful flame. There is only one source of that fire, the gospel, and we entrust it to you as it was entrusted to us. You have a choice. You can either use that power to set the world on fire, or you can keep it bottled up inside. As part of my charge to you, hear my warning very clearly: if you ignore or deny the power of the gospel, it will either die out inside you or it will constantly burn you up from the inside until you let it out.

I don’t see that in your future, and so I charge you with one thing and one thing only: the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news that, though we are broken sinners living in a broken world, merciful God loves us enough to die for us in the. The good news, that in dying for us Jesus, his body raised from the tomb, destroyed death itself and offered us life without fear.

Our own sinfulness and God’s mercy, the reality of our fears and the absolute reality of God’s overcoming them: that is the gospel. If you believe the gospel, live the gospel, and preach the gospel, then you will set the world on fire. I am not speaking hypothetically or exaggerating. In this place you are being entrusted with the same good news that led St. Francis to surrender his armor and his wealth and preach a gospel of peace. You are being entrusted with the same good news that led Clarence Jordan to found Koinonia Farm and Millard Fuller to found Habitat for Humanity. You are being entrusted with the same good news that led Julian of Norwich into a life of prayer, that brought Frederick Buechner to tears when first he heard it, and which relentlessly hounded Hildegard of Bingen until she would pick up her pen and write it down.

The simple good news of God’s mercy and Jesus’ victory over death is so powerful that knowing it and it alone, without seminary educations or even the ability to read, thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands were willing to die, to give up their very lives, rather than compromise it even the tiniest bit. If we, having been entrusted with that same gospel, fail it, then their blood is on our hands as well.

How do we avoid failing the gospel? First and foremost we must believe it. That can be harder than it seems as a pastor. We have all the education we need to interpret away things we don’t like. We have the credentials and self-assurance to convince ourselves that we don’t need anyone. But to preach the gospel, we have to live it first, and that means coming to terms with our own sinfulness, our own brokenness, and our own weakness.

When we finally come to terms with our own sin, we then face an even harder task – we must accept God’s mercy. My friend, the day will come when you feel like you’re a failure in ministry. Let me tell you in advance so that, when that day comes, you can remember it. Dear one, God knows all about it and God forgives you. God loves you.

It is in that moment, when you realize what a sweet and generous gift forgiveness is, that you will be able to truly preach the gospel. But remember when you do that you must preach all of it. You must remind us of our sinfulness and brokenness. It is those fragile, painful, scary parts of our lives that is the territory of a pastor. And when you come to those places, you must never fail to offer us the tangible hope of God’s mercy – available to every single one of us, male, female, gay, straight, liberal, conservative. You must find ways to remind the people whom you love that we are sinners, and you must find ways to offer God’s grace to the people whom you cannot stand. If you shortchange either group, the gospel loses its power.

But if you can find a way to preach the gospel, then you can find a way to live the gospel. You will have to determine for yourself what shape your professional goals will need to have for you to live the gospel, but I can point to a few characteristics to shoot for. The gospel leads to healing, it leads to unity, it leads to hope, and it leads us away from the transitory concerns of our mortal lives and focuses us on the holy and the eternal. With your gifts and talents you have so many options open to you. Choose the ones that will honor the power entrusted in you, the power to change the world, to draw us away from our petty problems and into the radical claims of the gospel.

You are worthy of our trust, and you will be wise in how you spread the fire of the gospel. You will not use it to burn and scar as some have. Instead, you will use it to bring light and warmth. You will not shirk from its strength as some have. Instead, you will burn away the thorns and weeds that threaten to choke out the eternal life within us. You will bear the trust of the apostles well, and so I close with the words of Scripture rather than my own:

For I [hand] on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. [I Corinthians 15:3-4]

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Lacking Basis, Christians Fight Abortion

This originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 20, 2006.

Those who seek to outlaw abortion often use the rhetoric of “protecting the most vulnerable and helpless” in our communities. Many of them are Christians who see their opposition to abortion rights as inextricably linked with their faith and their understanding of Christian ethics. After all, wouldn’t a God of love and life want us to protect life wherever we found it?

If only it were that simple. In practice, there are other questions we must ask. Does a God of love and life ever support war? Does such a God understand that some innocent civilians will die when we fight to protect our freedoms? In other words, does God approve when we make the decision to kill other people to protect our quality of life? What about when we kill to prevent genocide? Does God have a holy balancing scale that weighs intangibles like “intent” and “the greater good,” or one that compares the number of innocent lives lost against the number of innocent lives saved?

We do not know. For every Christian with a “God Bless Our Troops” sticker on their bumper there is another with “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” on their rear windshield.

If my experience as a pastor is any indication, it is unlikely that the driver of either car would be making their point from the kind of complex theological arguments I learned in seminary. In practice, our upbringings and our biases and our circumstances have much more to do with what we believe God thinks; and we are often inconsistent. How else could we re-interpret Jesus’ teachings, which were widely regarded as purely pacifistic in the Early Church, as an argument for violence in some cases and an argument against it in others? How else could we spend millions of dollars to oppose abortion – despite no clear biblical argument for or against it – and ignore the overwhelming number of biblical texts that explicitly command us to care for the poor.

For the vast majority of Christians, it is not about consistency – it is about convenience. Even those of us who speak passionately about protecting the weak often forget that our willingness to purchase cheap goods produced by exploited workers sentences children to poverty, disease, violence and death. The cars that we drive, the food that we allow to be marketed to children, the tax breaks we support or oppose, they all have a life-or-death impact on the most vulnerable among us. It is not only in war that we make decisions to value one life over another. Consciously or not, we do it every time we go to the supermarket.

The issue of abortion is not about whether life starts at conception. There are convincing arguments either way. The issue is which carries more weight: the life that may be in the embryo or the life and needs of the woman in whose body that embryo was conceived?

After spending time in women’s health clinics, I have come to realize that the “most vulnerable and helpless” who need our active protection are the women and couples who are faced with the agonizingly difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. As a Christian pastor, I strongly support protecting the right of women to make this decision. Other Christian pastors have chosen otherwise, and our division on this issue is proof that there is no Christian consensus here.

The far-right, however, has been able to set the issue of abortion apart from all of the other controversial, life-or-death decisions we make every day. Abortion is not a special case; and I pray that the guardians of our Constitution will continue to protect our freedom to choose our own priorities in all of these weighty matters. The beliefs or prejudices of some, regardless of who has a majority, should not be used to take the choice out of the hands of the woman who will be the main bearer, perhaps the only bearer, of the consequences of her decision.

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