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Conferring a Name: Giving Witness to the Spiritual Identity of a Congregation

David Rohr :: December 17, 2012

Recently, I came through a season where I was between churches. Having left one position without a call to another church, I was in that uncomfortable limbo of waiting and listening for a call. Yet that is such a "spiritual" way describe it, and frankly it really doesn't do it justice. So let's just come clean and say, I was looking for a job. Or perhaps we can even use an earthier metaphor and say that I had broken up and was looking for a new relationship. In my denomination, congregations who are looking for a pastor compose and circulate something called a Congregational Information Form (CIF) that describes who they are and what qualities they hope their new pastor will have. For the most part these narratives present structural and programmatic descriptions of a congregation along with a statement of theological positions on the ecclesiastical issues of the day. Reading these CIFs began to make me feel like the single guy looking for his partner on eHarmony or Match.com. It occurred to me more than once that I was engaged in the ecclesiastical equivalent of the on-line discovery process that is the prelude to an actual date.

As I read about the number of children in the Sunday School, or the mission projects that had been taken on, or the annual Christmas Festival I found myself asking, "Yes, but who are you?" It's nice to know how long you have been on that corner and that your building is on the National Historic Registry. I'm glad to read about the number of staff you have and what the typical Sunday program schedule looks like. I'm interested in your positions on the ecclesiastical hot buttons of the day. Yet as valuable as it is to gain a sense of the structures and instruments that provide the framework and occasion for you getting together with one another, what I really want to know is who you are. Tell me a little more about you. What are your longings? What's going on among you that gives you cause to celebrate? What's scaring you right now? How do you sustain hope?

But I didn't see much of that. As with Match and eHarmony the typical CIF seeks to put its best foot forward and of course I, for my part of this dance (which is called a PIF, Personal Information Form), am always tempted to do the same. O how I longed to read, and for that matter write, something akin to what the resurrected Christ says when he confers identities upon the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3. How refreshing it would have been to read: We here at Christ Church have the name of being alive and yet we are dead. Or perhaps, the Lord has set before us an open door, but we're so beaten down that we're afraid to walk through it. Or maybe, we think we are rich, that we have prospered and need nothing, but actually we are just unaware of the ways in which we are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.

Now those names tell me something. They cut through to an essential identity that speaks to all that is and isn't. They tell the truth and so they have the effect of conferring both the freedom to face reality and the challenge of accepting an invitation to grow into something new. If congregations and pastors could live taking the risk of this kind of honesty, then my guess is that the church would be a very different place than the warmly lit structures we see in Thomas Kinkade paintings or the quaint communities we read about in fictional settings like Mitford. Freed by the truth, we might grow into and act out of a God given identity rather than hide behind the bland names we choose to affix to ourselves.

Yet in order for this to happen, someone has to take a risk. Someone has to be vulnerable enough to get the ball rolling by telling the truth. And dare I say it… that person is often the pastor. The pastor as prophet is charged with the task of giving witness to the truth. This is the work of describing what is, conferring a name, declaring to people who they are in Christ and inviting them to live into this identity. This is what congregations both pay us pastors to do and also get mad at us for doing. We help people to hear and adopt a God-given name that both convicts them and encourages them. A name that describes their experience and also invites them to consider a life that is beyond their wildest dreams. An identity that puts them at odds with their world and at the same time invites them to reach out in love those around them.

One of the pastoral mentors of the New Testament who has taught me about this work is the Apostle Peter. In his first epistle, Peter confers a name on his congregation that helps them to navigate the discipleship journey. Peter knows himself to be the pastor of "the chosen exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1 Pt. 1:1). Chosen Exiles. It is a theological identity that helps them to cope with their worldly identity. It is a name that reflects the two realities in which the people to whom he ministers live. They are those chosen by God who for the time being are living in a place that is not their home. They are a people who are living a contradiction. On the one hand they are the special people of God. On the other hand they are a marginalized people who live under the thumb of Rome. What Peter is doing here is classic pastoral work; he is giving his congregation theological categories to help them understand their experience. He does so by putting those two seemingly contradictory things together in a way that suggests there is no conflict. For Peter the discomfort of this contradiction is mitigated by an overriding relationship with the one who is the foundation of all of life.

So Peter writes to these chosen exiles with the invitation: "Come to him, the Living Stone, and like living stones let yourselves be built up into a spiritual house (I Pt. 2:4, 5)." In other words, build your life on the one who not only gives meaning to your individual lives but also builds you a place to reside. In the face of your exile, your isolation and marginalization, let this one who is both the foundation and a master mason, build you into a significant structure which will give you both a name and a mission in this world that thinks you have neither. This Living Stone, says Peter, is the chosen and precious cornerstone of life and if your life is built on him you "will not be put to shame." In other words, let your life be built on and built by this Living Stone and you will have a place, an identity, legitimacy, value.

Yet in issuing this affirmation Peter is also honest about the truth of what it means to take up residence in this Spiritual House when it is set in a world where the ascendant culture sees it as nothing more than a pile of rubble. Peter tells the truth that this Living Stone upon which he calls people to build their lives is a scandal over which the majority culture trips. "To you then who believe he is precious; but for those who do not believe," he is a "stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall." (2:7, 8) In short, this identity of yours, this One on whom you build your lives, is not just foreign to the ones among whom you live as exiles, but also someone who could set you at odds with them. Building your life on this One in this world may make your life in this world more difficult.

Chosen Exile. It's a name that tells both sides of the truth: the welcome truth that celebrates the invaluable resource of a God given identity, and the difficult truth of marginalization by an ascendant foreign culture that does not recognize the value of this name. Thus it is a name that both instills confidence in and issues a challenge to those who bear it. And as Peter brings his words in 2:4-10 to a crescendo, this dual function of the name becomes clear:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. One you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Be who you are and do what this name calls you to do. Live into this name and so proclaim the mighty acts of God, the works of God's light, in a world that has only known darkness.

Peter's sermon points to the truth that identity gives birth to purpose and receiving mercy is in and of itself a call to be merciful. In this list of names (chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, God's own people) that build on and explain one another, Peter inextricably weds identity with ministry. He links the indicative with the imperative to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. He takes these two things out of a linear if/then construction and tacitly asks his readers the rhetorical question: how can you be anyone else but who you are? He in essence repeats Jesus' question in Mark 4:21, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?" Then finally in an allusion to a poignant story of God's mercy in the life of the prophet Hosea (2:21-23), Peter in effect invites his audience to both rest in and become dispensers of God's mercy. You are chosen, you have been called out of darkness, you have received mercy, how can you not also be about the work of giving witness to the mighty acts of this One who has ushered you into a brand new life?

Thus the followers of Jesus, the living stones who comprise the spiritual house, are told by the Apostle to simply be who they are. His encouragement and admonition is clear: In the face of cultural misrepresentation and marginalization, claim and rest in your identity in Christ. Identify with this one who is the Living Stone and let him build you into a new community which gives witness to him even as you live in the midst of others who reject him. It may be that you, like the lamenters who hung up their harps on the trees by the waters of Babylon, feel you have a song to sing but no place to sing it. But sing it nevertheless. For you have been called out of obscurity and into relationship. You have been called out of darkness and into God's light.

In the world of the Bible the act of conferring a name has the power to bless or curse, to commission or discourage, to equip or destroy. As pastors, if we are going to engage in this work, we need to be sure that we are careful to do the former rather than the latter. And the way we can do this is to make sure we are only giving witness to the name which God has already assigned. This is certainly what is exemplified in Peter's pastoral work among those in the congregations of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. The name he confers seems born of a careful exegesis of the situation in which they were living as well as a faithful exegesis of the text of Scripture. It is a name therefore that embodies both a grand commission and an honest look at reality. It is a name that both comforts with the assurance of belonging and startles with the acknowledgment of not belonging. It is both a warm embrace and cold water thrown in the face. It is big enough to inspire and challenge one to live into the hope to which we are called, and humble enough to confess the daily invitations to despair that greet us in the present.

Every time the people of a congregation gather for worship they come with the need to re-center their lives around their true identity in Christ. They come fresh from experience in a world of conflicting identities that produce the potential for conflicting loyalties. Thus that pastoral reminder of both our true name in Christ and the way it is at odds with the names the world assigns to us, is one of the greatest gifts we can give a congregation. It isn't flashy work. It doesn't, at first glance at least, seem all that profound and insightful. It is the work of simply noticing and describing the "way things are." It's the work Peter did when he reminded people that they were Chosen Exiles: The blessed recipients of God's favor and the all but unnoticed plebians who lived out their lives under the thumb of an indifferent power. Yet in that name there was more than a label. There was also a mission. There was the challenge to live honorably among the Gentiles and to give witness to the hope that was within them always and forever trusting that they were something more than the name ascribed to them by those who did not know their God-given name.