A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Offices of the Church, Part II
July 19, 2018
Last week I introduced the idea that the “offices” of Jesus – Prophet, Priest, and King – shape the church’s identity and ministry as it continues his ministry in all places and times. I closed with an introductory consideration of the church’s “prophetic office.”
What does it mean to be “prophetic”? It can signify many things, from foretelling the future, to ecstatic utterances, to confronting authorities with charges of corruption in their administration of justice.
Jesus owned the mantle of “prophet” from the beginning of his ministry, when he was rebuffed by his home town over what they took to be his comeuppance. He responded that prophets are routinely rejected by those closest to them, while strangers embrace them. (Mark 6:1-16) Later on, as he braced himself for his final trip to Jerusalem, Jesus aligned himself with the succession of prophets who lost their lives for speaking the Word of the Lord. (Luke 13:31-35)
Jesus’ exercise of his prophetic office had little to do with foretelling the future, and even less to do with ecstatic utterances. The heart of his prophetic ministry was declaring the Word of the Lord in favor of the broken and dispossessed, and against authorities who subvert justice. It spoke hard truths to those who prospered through duplicity. Truthfulness mattered greatly for Jesus, something that should sober us in a time when even faith leaders justify unrighteousness in halls of power because (they say) it serves righteous ends.
At its heart, Jesus’ prophetic work is to bring to light what has been concealed in darkness. This forms a significant thread throughout his ministry. Jesus urges his followers not to soften the Gospel’s light under protective shades, but to shine its full brightness into our darkened world. He warns that nothing can stay hidden forever, that light inevitably prevails over darkness. This is the first role of Jesus’ prophetic ministry – disclosing things as they really are, exposing things hidden under cover of darkness.
The prophetic church applies the same standards of transparency to itself that it demands of secular powers. One of the church’s core values is a prophetic disposition – transparent truthfulness in who we are, what we say, what we do, and what we expect of the powers in the world around us. I often speak of transparency as one of our core values as a presbytery, and it is exactly in this sense that I do so.
To be truly “prophetic,” we must be prepared to lay down our life for the sake of the world into which we are sent. This is why the prophetic calling is resisted by nearly all the biblical prophets. Who wants a vocation that requires us to be martyrs? In his classic book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out that when Jesus calls us to follow him, he bids us, “Come and die.”To be a prophet in Jesus’ way is to be ready lay down our life.
Prophetic ministry is something thrust upon those whom God calls. It is rooted not in our indignation (no matter how righteous it may be), but in God’s calling. Self-appointed prophets have no place in Scripture.
Paul numbers prophecy among the gifts of the Spirit for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:10) A prophet’s calling is to build up, as well as to tear down, to plant as well as to pluck up. (Jeremiah 1:10) In Jesus’ prophetic ministry, the Word of the Lord both comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. When it is fulfilling its prophetic office, the church does exactly what Jesus did: It turns the world upside down, just as the early church did. (Acts 17:6)
Jesus’ prophetic words unrelentingly railed against hypocrisy. When the church declares one thing but lives another, it comes under Jesus’ prophetic judgment. When the church seeks to curry the favor of corrupt systems and leaders rather than exposing them, it abdicates its prophetic identity. When the church sides with those in places of privilege and against those on the bottom or on the margins, it repudiates its prophetic calling.
John Calvin kept his office not in the church where he preached, or in the auditorium where he lectured, but in City Hall, where he could speak directly to public concerns. This is the church as prophet – fully engaged with the world around us, exposing darkness wherever it may lie, shining the same light of exposure within itself as it shines beyond itself. How are we doing with our prophetic calling?
Yours in captivity to the Word,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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