Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Who Am I? Who Are We?

“Who am I to speak out for God? I'm not even all that good at speaking up for myself!”

It was forty years ago when I first heard the question. It came from a seminary classmate, and together we were trying to come to terms with the demands of the ministries we would shortly assume.

It's a question I've heard since from Sunday school teachers, youth group advisors, deacons, student ministers, neighboring pastors and others wrestling with the implications of their faith. It is a common question this time of year, when many churches are holding annual meetings and electing officers and board members for the year ahead. Who am I, with all my warts and shortcomings, to presume to do anything for God?

It's a question I periodically ask myself; for it centers on the reality that none of us is perfected in the Christian faith, and none of us is worthy to speak on behalf of the God who is Perfection. Asking whether we ought to act in God's name can be healthy, evidence of humility. It can keep things in perspective. We are not God, and must always bear that in mind. And yet, throughout the ages the witness of our faith is that God chooses to call us to service.

The prophet Isaiah met the question head-on. His experience, recorded in Isaiah 6:1-8, begins at the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, where he is serving as a priest. There he has an overpowering vision of God, and of an angelic being, which seems to fill the Temple, and break beyond its very walls.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots of the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And the seraph touched my mouth with it, and said: "Now that this has touched your lips; your guilt has departed, and your sin is taken away." And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."

We, no less than Isaiah, look at the majesty and perfection of God, and declare ourselves unworthy. We, like Isaiah, dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, and we know our own lips will not pass inspection either. We, like Isaiah, need to be cleansed, but unlike Isaiah that cleansing has already been accomplished for us in the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus Christ, who calls us into new lives of love and imparts to us the grace of the Holy Spirit freeing us for service in spite of our shortcomings.

Unworthy? Of course! That's the whole point. As Paul put it, God has chosen the foolish, the weak and the despised to bear witness in the world so that we couldn't boast, so the world would know that the power is His. (1 Corinthians 1:29). Therefore, let us relate to the church and the world in confidence and hope, knowing that God will provide us the strength, wisdom and energy to be Christ's very Body in this place and time.

Howard MacMullen
© January 2011

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