Where Are Your Credentials? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3C
1 Kings 17:8-24
Where Are Your Credentials?
A person of influence in the first congregation I served as pastor suggested that I might want to get career counseling. Why? Because it was clear to her that I didn’t have what it takes to be a pastor. I never did go see the career counselor, though after I left that congregation I did look at other possible career paths (including the one I had set out upon prior to taking up full-time pastoral ministry – teaching). The fact is, eleven years or so later, I’m still a pastor. So, who decides who should be called to pastoral ministry? Who gives out the credentials?
Determining whether one has heard a call to ministry is an important task. Rarely does one have a vision like the ones described in Isaiah 6 or Jeremiah 1. Rarely does one have a Damascus Road experience. We may think God is calling us to do this or do that, but how do we know that we’ve heard correctly? We may not be the best judges as to whether we have the proper gifts that go along with such a calling. And for many, the question of call haunts long after beginning the trek.
Being part of a mainline Protestant denomination that has specific guidelines for ordination, including educational expectations (a M.Div. is often a prerequisite), I recognize the value of the guidance that a commission on the ministry (or whatever the body is called in your denomination). If they do their job well, they can help people discern whether they are a good fit for congregational leadership. But does such a body have the final say? What if the basis for their judgment is incorrect or unjust?
Quite a few Christian traditions limit ordination to males. Why? Tradition, biblical interpretation, the belief that since God is male God’s representatives should be male. Many traditions deny ordination to gays and lesbians – though exceptions might be made if one chooses to be celibate. There are those who would judge such restrictions to be unjust and not in accord with God’s directives. So, who gets to give out the credentials?
There are a variety of ways to read these three lectionary readings from 1 Kings, Galatians, and Luke, but one thread that seems to link them is that sense of call. What makes Elijah a “man of God?” How does Jesus demonstrate to the people that he is a prophet of God? And if Paul wasn’t credentialed by Jerusalem, how do we know that his calling to take the gospel to the Gentiles is a valid one?
The reading from 1 Kings offers two stories that concern Elijah’s relationship to the Widow of Zarephath. One concerns God’s ongoing provision of bread for this family that welcomes the prophet into their home. The second concerns the raising of the widow’s son from the dead. Taken together they raise the question of call. Elijah must have been questioning God’s call after having to flee Israel; even though God seems to have intervened on Mt. Carmel. Now, he has to find refuge with this widow who lives in a small village near Sidon. Obviously Ahab and Jezebel didn’t accept Elijah’s activity on the mountain to be sufficient evidence of his call as a prophet. He remained a troublemaker needing to be silenced. Having ended up in Zarephath, he requests that a widow provide for his needs, even though she had reached the end of her supplies. Fortunately, God provides and the family can live on – due to the blessing of showing hospitality to this prophet of God.
Things change a bit when the widow’s son falls ill and then dies. The widow, obviously distraught over this event in her life, turns to Elijah and tells him: What’s gone wrong between us, man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my sin and kill my son?” (vs. 17, CEB). What had led to this change of fortune? But in the midst of the question comes a word of affirmation. Ahab might not recognize Elijah to be a man of God, but the widow does. And, she perceives the death of her son as a sign of divine displeasure. Obviously God was displeased. Elijah, however, isn’t satisfied with this idea. So he takes the boy and cries out to God, seeking restoration. He asks God why God had brought such evil on the widow. Does this sound familiar? Do you ever accuse God of acting unbecomingly toward you? I expect not – but Elijah isn’t afraid to make such charges against God. And then Elijah demands restoration of the boy back to life, and ultimately the Lord listens and does as Elijah asks.
After the widow receives her son back, she declares – “Now I know that you really are a man of God . . . and that the Lord’s word is truly in your mouth” (vs. 24 CEB). How does she know? Did she receive a letter from Jerusalem or Shiloh? No, it was the way in which God had used Elijah. It was clear to her that God had responded and blessed Elijah’s prayer. God’s presence in Elijah’s life was seen in the nature of his ministry.
In Luke 7 it’s Jesus who restores a widow’s son to his mother. There are dramatic parallels between this story and that in 1 Kings. Both restore a son who has died to the grieving mother. One might ask why this was important. Why might Jesus or Elijah feel compelled to restore an only son to his widowed mother? In seeking to answer the question, one mustn’t forget that in that era a child, especially a son, was the only form of social security available to a widow. Without family, she was liable to end up on the street and dying of starvation. With a son, she had a future. What is interesting to note about this story is that no one approaches Jesus asking for his assistance. In this case he acts on his own volition. He sees the funeral procession, hears that it’s the only son of a widow, and filled with compassion he reaches out and restores the man to his mother. Whereas it appears that the son in 1 Kings is still rather young, in Luke the son appears to be an adult, capable of caring for his mother.
As the crowd witnesses this powerful act of kindness – the restoration of life to the mother’s son – they’re awestruck and they offer praise to God for this one who comes into their midst as a “great prophet.” They see in Jesus one sent from God to “help his people.” And the word spread around the region about Jesus’ great act of compassion. So, how did they know Jesus was a prophet? It wasn’t a letter from the higher ups at the Jerusalem Temple. It was Jesus’ act of compassion itself – the healing, the raising to life of the man.
Most of us who serve as pastors lack such a dramatic form of credentialing. I’ve prayed for a goodly number of people, but no one has ever returned to life as a result. For most of us the evidence is a bit less dramatic.
In Galatians 1, Paul finds it necessary to defend his ministry against those who question its validity. There are those who seem to be raising questions about his credentials. Though we can’t know for sure, it seems as if the questioners come from Jerusalem. They have questions about Paul’s relationship, or lack thereof, with the leadership in Jerusalem. Not only are they troubled by Paul’s seeming disregard of key elements of Jewish faith and practice, but they’re also troubled by his seeming independence from the authorities in Jerusalem.
Paul responds to this challenge by telling the Galatian church that his call came directly from Jesus. He didn’t act on the basis of human authority. In our day, such a claim would be received with a great deal of skepticism. After all, isn’t that what Joseph Smith said about his calling? He had asked God which religion was correct and God told him that they were all wrong and that he should restore the true church to earth. Then there are characters like Jim Jones who claimed to be a prophet of God (though he did happen to have credentials from my denomination). So, isn’t Paul being a bit bold, even arrogant, in making his claim? Shouldn’t we expect that his call would be investigated and substantiated by some kind of credentialing board?
Paul doesn’t seem to think that this is necessary. In fact, he seeks to distance himself from the Jerusalem church and the apostolic leadership that resided there. Perhaps that’s because the parties challenging his leadership claimed to represent the leaders in Jerusalem. Paul does acknowledge having visited with Peter and James, but that came three years after he began preaching. Instead of heading to Jerusalem to get a license to preach, he went off into the desert of Arabia and then returned to Damascus. He doesn’t even think that most of the people in Judea and Samaria even knew who he was, and those who did were glad to know that he’d given up chasing down believers so he could begin preaching. But obviously not everyone was happy!
So how does one know whether a call is legitimate? I have no problem and actually support the idea of having ecclesial bodies provide credentials for church leadership. It’s helpful to congregations to know that leaders have been vetted. I believe that it’s a good idea for church leaders to have a good education and have been tested in some form– the manner of the testing can vary – so that a candidate for ministry has the opportunity to reflect on the nature of God’s call. And yet, there are important exceptions. Sometimes church bodies aren’t adept at hearing the voice of God – at least no better than the candidates themselves.
Consider for a moment the story of William Carey, one of the early English missionaries. When he told the religious authorities that he wanted to go to China, his church, which took a rather rigid Calvinist view of salvation, told him that if God chose to convert the heathen God could do it without this young man’s help. Carey apparently went anyway, and a new era of missions began (with all the complications that went with that movement).
So when does one’s own sense of call trump the desires of religious bodies? On what basis do such decisions get made? Often we rely on tradition – this is the way we’ve done it or this is the way we understand Scripture – but when should we attend to a more personal revelation from God? Song Bok Jon reminds us that when tradition proves oppressive, then one must raise questions about this tradition, and thus rely on a different form of revelation.
However, when tradition is oppressive to certain groups – women, ethnic minorities, or homosexuals, for example – regarding them as inferior, Paul tells us that one must appeal to one’s experience of God’s revelation as the legitimate affirmation of any call to ministry.[i]
Discernment of call is not easy. Scripture (Tradition) may be normative. It may offer foundational truths to use as we discern God’s direction for our lives, but it is not the only voice. As Luke Timothy Johnson points out, “the real business of tradition is not the securing of the past, but the ensuring of the future.”[ii]
[i] Song Bok Jon, “Proper 5 ,” in Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, eds., (WJK Press, 2012), p. 274.
[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church, (Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 29.