Many years ago, when I was finishing up my seminary studies, I wanted to do more graduate work in Old Testament. So, I made appointments with my professors, in order to ask them which doctoral programs I should apply to (not sure if any of those programs would accept me, of course, but wanting to at least try).
All of my professors provided good advice, though I remember one in particular who said of an academic at another school, “Well, he’s a good teacher.” His tone made it clear that he didn’t consider that a compliment.
My last appointment was with another professor, my favorite one. After giving me advice on particular doctoral programs, she also said something like this:
“Some people get into the field of academic theology for their own egos,” she said. “They want to be important, to build their own reputation, to have others look up to them. That is not a good reason to get a doctorate in Bible or theology, and it is not a good reason to teach Bible in a university or seminary. The only good reason to teach theology and Bible is to build up the body of Christ.”
Whether consciously or not, my teacher was alluding to our Epistle lesson for this week, Ephesians 4, where Paul1 writes, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
Now, these many years later, I put that verse at the top of all of my syllabi, to remind myself why I do what I do—teaching and preaching and writing in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Not for building up my own ego, not for becoming a bigger fish in a rather small pond, but for building up the body of Christ.
Because, here’s the thing: Though the tasks of ministry are sometimes thankless and the frustrations many, the role of a pastor, preacher, or teacher does involve some ego (as my husband regularly reminds me). There are not many other professions where a person claims—implicitly or explicitly—to speak for God. There are not many other professions where a group of people voluntarily sit and listen to you speak for an extended period of time every single week. And there are not many other professions where you are immediately expected to take leadership of a group of strangers, many of whom may be older, wiser, and more experienced than you are.
In other words, dear Working Preachers, your job, like mine, does involve some ego. And so, Paul’s admonishment to humility may be a helpful reminder to us all.
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Our Gospel lessons for the last two weeks painted for us a stark contrast between two styles of leadership. Herod abandons any pretense at principles, and closes out his dinner party with a particularly gruesome dish. Jesus, on the other hand, even though he is weary and pressed on all sides, has compassion on those who follow him, because they are “like sheep without a shepherd.”
Now, this week, Paul urges his readers “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Here, then, are three other necessary characteristics of a Christian leader: humility, love, and striving for unity.
Humility, of course, is derived from the same Latin root as “humus”—the soil. Humble people are people who are grounded, profoundly earthed. Comfortable in their own skin, we sometimes say—knowing themselves, both their strengths and their weaknesses, so they feel no need to boast, to draw attention to themselves, to claim the limelight.
Humility is a radical way of life, particularly in our age when social media allows us to magnify ourselves to the whole world, or at least to anyone willing to read our blogs or follow our Twitter feeds or view our Instagram account. Narcissism is rampant, fed by the endless clatter of “likes” on our photos or status updates. We can build our “brand” (as if we were a product), make ourselves into whatever image we like.
Paul calls us to a different path, to humility, to love, and to unity, “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
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If humility is in short supply these days, so are love and unity. We are a nation divided, in so many ways, even over something as simple as getting a life-saving vaccine. We have our “tribe,” and we too often consider those in another tribe to be our enemies.
And, unfortunately, the church does not seem to be a witness to love and to unity in the face of such division. Mainline Protestants and evangelical Christians too often treat one another with disdain. If we cannot speak to those with whom we share a common Christian faith, then we are not a witness to Christian love or to Christian unity in a world that desperately needs both.
Where is that unity to be found? In our common calling and our common proclamation: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
That is the foundation of our identity. Our truest and deepest identity comes from outside ourselves. We are children of God, not because of anything we’ve done, not because of an image that we’ve so carefully constructed for ourselves. We are children of God because Christ has claimed us as such.
And so, we are unified not because we agree on everything, but because we have been called into this family of God together, united by this common witness: Jesus is Lord.
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I am reminded of one of my students in Ethiopia, where I taught several years ago. Kassahun as a young man became involved in the occult for many years, and then one day, he had a vision of a cross and of Christ speaking to him, and he has spent the rest of his life proclaiming this Gospel message: Jesus Christ is Lord.
Now, the church in Ethiopia, as here, is divided. In Ethiopia, that division often manifests itself as tribal loyalty (which has in part given rise to the conflicts we’ve seen in Ethiopia in recent months). Kassahun talked with me about this division:
“I am nothing without Christ. Christ is all. Bekah (a word meaning, “finished, enough”). What does being Oromo or Amhara or Tigray matter? It doesn’t matter. There is only Christ. He took me out from following the occult. He saved me. His mercy is great. I don’t deserve it. What did I do to deserve such mercy? Nothing. Christ is all. Bekah.”
Christ is all.
So much for ego. So much for building ourselves up. Instead, we are called as Christian leaders to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
It is not an easy task, God knows, but it is how we live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
Thank you for all you do to equip the saints for the work of ministry, dear Working Preachers. May God give you joy in that calling.
- Yes, I know that the Pauline authorship of Ephesians is disputed, but for the sake of simplicity, I am going to refer to the author of the epistle as “Paul.”