September 23, 2008 — 9:52 AM
You want me to do what, Lord?
This account in Acts of Paul's arrival at Corinth and the beginning of his ministry there reads much like a perfunctory travelogue. He finished up his time in Athens and moved on. And here's the way that moving on happened.
Coming from the pen of the master storyteller, Luke, I am surprised that there aren't more details and flourishes. We do get a bit of intrigue with Paul's declaration to the Jews in the synagogue that "Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." At which point Paul shakes the dust from his clothes and walks off. That's a vivid picture.
But we aren't given much beyond the basics - Paul went here. Then he did this. Then he did that. That didn't work out so he went somewhere else. Yada yada.
I'm left wanting more. So, please indulge me...
Imagine this: Paul walks into the Office of Vocational Formation and Placement in Corinth to engage in a conversation with the Director about his calling and ministry opportunities.
Upon learning Paul's desires, the Director pulls Paul's file and says, "I see that your education is top-notch. You were the top of your class in Hebrew School. And you went on for extended studies in Jewish Law. It appears that you have the academic requirements taken care of. As for ministry experience, I see that you took the law so seriously that you felt the need to persecute those who were spreading the word that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah. That is, until you felt that you had an encounter with the risen Lord and had a change of heart. That's quite a background. What do you feel like you are being called to do?"
Paul leans back in his seat, rubs his chin, and replies, "Well, I really thought that, through my encounter with Jesus Christ, God was calling me to go back to my fellow Jews - ones who are where I used to be: fervent in their love of God and truly desiring to follow God's law - and share with them my experience so that they could see what I have learned and accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah that we have long prayed for."
[Director:]"But something is holding you back from this calling."
[Paul:] "The Jews are! They don't seem to be listening to me. I mean, I go to the synagogue every day and very carefully lay out the Scriptures and show how they all point to Jesus being the Christ. And yet, they resist my message. They even accuse me of blasphemy. Can you believe that?"
"And it's not just me they won't listen to. They won't listen to my co-workers Silas and Timothy either. They just scoff at all of us. I'm so confused. I really thought I had this whole call thing worked out. I was sure that this was where I was meant to be in ministry. Look at my background. Look at my skills of reasoning and debate. How can my call be to something other than this?"
[Director:] "And yet, something in you feels that God would have you do otherwise. Something in the reaction from your fellow Jews is causing you to question your sense of call. This is not a bad thing. Be open to hearing God speak through the words and actions of those around you. Be open to the new thing that God wants to do in and through you. Let go of your certainty of your call and be willing to see things in a new light."
[Paul:] "Okay. But I have to say, this isn't easy. My sense of call on the Damascus road was so strong. It's hard to say that wasn't real."
[Director:] "Oh, well, I'm not saying it wasn't real, Paul. I'm just saying that you've entered a new season in your ministry. Maybe God is calling you to move into a new arena. Can you imagine where God might be calling you to go?"
[Paul:] "Well, I have been thinking a lot about the Gentiles around here who seem so open to hearing the message about our God and how God has acted through Jesus the Christ to save and redeem all of creation. Maybe God wants me to take the message to these people."
[Director:] "Good. Good, Paul. Now what would that type of ministry look like?"
[Paul:] "Well, since this is all new to them, they don't already have established places or communities of worship. I guess I would have to help them get those started. But that also means that they have no money to support a minister. I think that means I would have to do work on the side to pay my own bills. I wouldn't want the community of believers to fail just because I was taking all of the money for my own well-being."
"Although, I really was hoping to put this whole tent-making business behind me. You know, it's really hard work. And it takes away from the time I am able to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with my new Gentile friends. That's a bummer. I've got some friends who are in a similar situation that I have been staying with - Priscilla and Aquila. They are tent-makers too and so I've been staying with them so we can all work on building tents together."
"It kind of seems unfair though. I see other disciples and apostles going off, preaching in different communities, and not having to pay their own way as they go. They're getting help from the local churches to preach and to take the message abroad. It would make such a huge difference if I could devote all of my time to just sharing the Good News with folks."
[Director:] "It sounds like you are living in the very real tension of not wanting to tax the resources of an up-and-coming worshipping community but also feeling distracted from your true calling by the work that you need to do to support yourself, Paul. All I can do is encourage you to be in prayer to God and really be open to seeing how God will provide for you in this season. It may be that you need to stay in this tension for a while or God may provide a new way. Be attentive and open to the possibilities God presents to you."
[Paul:] "That's what I've been trying to do. But I'll try some more. I'll let you know how it goes."
Paul leaves and returns a few weeks later.
[Paul:] "Hi Director. You'll never guess what happened! So I went back to the synagogue and told my fellow Jews who were resisting me, 'Fine. If you're going to be that way, I'll go to people who want to hear the message I bring. You're on your own.' And I left and started preaching to Gentiles."
"Boy, they are so much more receptive to my message. So much so that one of their rich leaders took me in and is basically funding my whole endeavor. And, an official in the synagogue has a great circle of people who he brought in with him. All of them believed in Jesus as the Christ and they have all been baptized. Wow! I never would have guessed all of that could happen. God really works in amazing and mysterious ways!"
"Thanks for your help Director. You really helped me to get some clarity on my calling from God."
Okay. So obviously I'm dreaming here about the importance of Directors of Vocational Formation and Placement (all one of them that I know). But a fundamental truth for me is that God does work in amazing and mysterious ways. And I feel that part of my calling at SFTS is to ask this community similar questions. Where is God calling us as individuals to be in ministry? And, where is God calling us as the big "C" Church to go?
It is easy to become so focused on one specific calling that we close off the possibility of seeing that God is calling us in a new or different direction. Are we as individuals and as a Church so focused on the way things have always been that we fail to see the new thing that God is trying to do in and through us?
There is much lamenting in mainline churches about the loss in membership and the need to do something new, but have we really stepped out of the mold that is comfortable and known? Have we really embraced the idea of turning in a whole new direction? Maybe God is telling us to turn our focus away from our own so that we can see a whole new group of people who are eagerly awaiting our attention.
As Paul attested, it's not easy to do this. It's actually downright scary at times. But that is the invitation Jesus gives to his followers - leave behind all that is familiar and walk towards the future. A future in which the only thing that is known is the abundant, reconciling love of God that we are called to share with our hurting world.
Trust that love and know that God will supply for all your needs. And be ready to hear when God is calling you to do a new thing.