When Jesus Calls

Gospel of John, KJVToday we gather for our annual meeting with a fresh and unfamiliar format of worshipful work. But within the framework you’ll recognize the familiar dynamic of remembering the past, and anticipating the future. The document you’ve received contains the reports of various church officers, all expressing one way or another how we are embodying our mission to be Christ for the world today.

If you are a perfectionist, then I beg your pardon for the messiness of our ministry. I think our newly formatted “worshipful work” document turned out pretty well, but I’m sure that you will find a spelling error here, a formatting error there. You’ll find the hymns numbered according to the blue hymnal that was in the book racks this past Sunday, and not the new purple hymnal that replaced it on Friday night. As you read some reports, especially mine (pages 15-17), you’ll see struggles reflected about worship, stewardship, and the meaning of change and adaptation. The week leading up to our annual meeting had a greater-than-average number of meetings, phone calls, e-mail, and office visits. When, in an already busy week, certain things happen, there is a disjointed quality to ministry that runs counter to my Germanic genetics.

  • When a homeless person demands money,
  • and you’re invited to an unexpected committee meeting in St. Louis,
  • and an attorney calls about the details of a contract,
  • and a developer phones about the Ridge View property,
  • and the building is leaking,
  • and you’re helping a family make difficult decisions in a crisis,
  • and friends are praying for a car accident victim in another state,
  • and news arrives about the death of a beloved church member,
  • and when you go home for respite and there’s a problem with the washer, and the dog throws up at your feet,

then the week’s ministry seems to qualify as “messiness.”

On Friday afternoon, I heard a voice say, “Tell them it’s just perfect,” and it’s going to take a few minutes to explain what I think that voice meant. I think the voice was saying that our experience of life’s messiness shows the need for our theology, and our theology proves itself perfectly valid for our experience. I think the voice wants me to ask you to think theologically about messiness. If you don’t believe in the voice, then blame this part of the sermon on the professors at the Presbyterian seminary who occasionally scolded me for not thinking theologically enough.

Early in Church history, a way of thinking about Jesus’ nature grew popular enough to merit serious discussion, a way of thinking that is given the general label “Docetism.” The word Docetism is related to the Greek verb dokein meaning “to seem” or “to appear,” and the noun dókēsis, meaning “apparition” or “ghost.” Docetism was defined by its denial of Jesus’ humanity. A Docetist could believe that Jesus was God. But what troubled the Docetist was the notion that the Creator and Lord of the universe could be confined to a human body and die a horrible death on a cross.  When scripture tells us that Jesus died on the cross, the Docetist might interpret the text by saying, “It only appeared that Jesus died on the cross, because God in Christ did not have a physical body like you and me, and could not possibly suffer.”

Now, from the perspective of someone living in our 21st-century, North-American, religiously diverse culture, Docetism may seem rather tame. But to the great theologians of the early Church, it was inconsistent with the biblical witness. Gregory of Nazianzus put it concisely in a sentence often translated this way: “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”[1] Only a Christ who had all the elements of human nature could redeem all of man.[2]

The passage of scripture that was uppermost in the minds of the great theologians was the first chapter of John’s gospel. And the way that we could say today what they said then is that if Jesus doesn’t descend into the human messiness of our schedule, our ministry, and our lives, then He is no God worth worshipping.  Life in a community of faith isn’t so much about escaping messiness by saying that it is only an illusion, or by pretending that we are above it, but rather by inviting Jesus into our messiness, and asking him to do something about it. The good news of the gospel is that “the Word became flesh and lived among us …” And we, who give ourselves to be God’s enfleshed voice, hands, and feet, are Christ for the world today.

This is the first way I relate today’s worshipful work to scripture: the Word who became flesh did so because he cares about our material, fleshly problems of ministry, and money, and mortar, and wants to us to trust Him to do something about our messiness.

The day’s events also form the context in which we hear words from later in the first chapter of John, in the cutting suggested by the revised common lectionary for this second Sunday after Epiphany. The text has moved beyond Jesus’ birth and earliest years to the time when he begins to assemble his ministry team. As I read the text again and again, it suggested to me a second way to relate the text to today’s worshipful work, that is to explain our ministry in terms of Jesus’ call. When Jesus calls, things happen.

When I say “things happen,” I don’t mean just in our psyche. I don’t mean just that we think new thoughts, or feel new emotions, or understand new values, or set new priorities, though it certainly means those things. The Word who became flesh makes fleshly things happen.

In the messiness of human existence, Christ changes the material world in ways that history confirms. We’re here today in an annual meeting, but just yesterday we were here for a meal and fellowship with the family of Dorothy S., 100 years old, who died early on Wednesday. We laid her fleshly body to rest; we ate a meal to sustain our human flesh. In the funeral, we remembered that Dorothy herself was sustained flesh-and-blood people like those who presented her confirmation Bible here on a March Day 88 years ago, her Sunday school teacher J. Shafer and her Pastor A. Smith.

Five generations previous, it was Elizabeth Smith and Salmon Giddings, who followed God’s call to form a church in Edwardsville that would serve fleshly needs for the rites of marriage and funeral and instruction in moral values for a frontier community. Go back another ten generations to Reformers like Calvin, during his ministry in Geneva calling Christians to pay dutiful attention to the material concerns of the vulnerable. Go back further to the time of the early Church, when Christians did what respectable Romans would not by attending to the fleshly needs of the dying, and fleshly need for burial preparation. Eventually, in this Greatest Story Ever Told, you get back to that early group of disciples and apostles who were changed, and forever changed the world, not simply through the power of a thought, or a feeling, or a philosophy. They changed the material world with fleshly action because they were changed by the Word who became flesh and lived among them, and called them to follow him into ministry.

Where is Jesus calling us now? It seems to me that Jesus is calling us to work through at least a couple of material challenges. One of them is decision-making about the bricks and mortar that house our ministries, and the reports of John B. and Bob T. will speak to that work. Another challenge involves reforming the way we share the fleshly work of ministry. As I mentioned last week, generational preferences and the rise of two-career households are making the old committee structure increasingly obsolete. Since I’m called upon to staff twelve committees and task groups, plus moderate the session, and serve key leadership roles in our regional presbytery, there is tremendous opportunity for elders and deacons to step in to lead where I cannot, to venture into the messiness of ministry, and discover new ways to be Christ for the world today.

When Jesus calls, things happen.  Our history as a congregation confirms it. The good news of the gospel proclaims it. The Word became flesh and lived among us, and through his people lives among us today. May his voice continue to sound strong and clear, and may we tune our ears to listen.


[1] Gregory of Nazianzus, Critique of Apollinarius and Apollinarianism.

[2] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity.

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~ by JohnH1962 on January 19, 2014.

3 Responses to “When Jesus Calls”

  1. “Docetism may seem rather tame.” — agreed, and would adding the phrase, “and familiar?” be appropriate in light of the “things happen” message in part 2 of sermon? Given my acceptance of Christ’s full humanity experience (the Nazianzus quote was new to me and thus a refreshing statement of Grace), might I still lean toward a ‘Docetic’ view in believing that Grace only applies to my spiritual life — not a call to help things happen?
    Your powerful message that without our response to “call” there is not a full realization of Christ’s humanity in our world today is also a complete message, yes maybe even ordered messiness. Thank you!

  2. Scott, “familiar” probably is a good modifier, too, though I wouldn’t use this particular label for today as much as the more general label “Gnostic.” Others like Tom Long, Barbara Brown Taylor, and poet Scott Cairns have written some things that have caught my attention about this subject. As Cairns says, “Matter matters.”

  3. Good Timing —— thank you Pastor John. Gail

    Date: Sun, 19 Jan 2014 20:00:47 +0000
    To: gail_steve@msn.com

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