Just a few weeks ago, the world and the Christian world were shocked to hear of the murder of 10 Christian workers in Afghanistan. They were with the International Assistance Mission and their presence in Afghanistan was neither recent or naive. They had gone to care for the bodies of Afghan people with beautiful souls who God loves, and somehow in their service to show, with their hands and feet, the love of God. One of them, Glen Lapp, wrote on his blog before he was killed, “I’m just trying to be a little bit of Christ in this part of the world.” Whether Glen had pondered Teresa of Avila 500 years ago-“Christ has no hands on earth but yours”-I don’t know, but it’s the same truth. Jesus does his work through the flesh and blood hands and feet and heads and hearts of his people. And when God makes it clear to us what form that is to take, that’s vocation, whatever the form. Vocation is less about the details of what we do and more about knowing that it is God who has called us to it.
Recently I had the opportunity to offer a prayer and communion service for the senior staff of the International Justice Mission. By now, IJM is well known for its work for justice around the world, particularly dealing in places where the world’s systems of justice have completely broken down. It’s a good work, and a hard work, dealing daily to free women forced into sexual slavery, or children forced into bonded labor, or with those whose meager belongings have been wrongly taken from them. The people of IJM too are those who are simply “trying to be a little bit of Christ in the world.”
By some standards, IJM has been able to be a little bit of Christ in the world a lot! Begun in 1995, they now have 17 offices in 13 countries, including India, Kenya, Thailand and Bolivia, with more than 360 staff globally, and more than 90 at their headquarters near Washington DC. In 1995 there was no budget, and this coming year they willl raise over $25 million to put a dent in the injustice that plagues the world. But by other standards, and these leaders would tell you this– for them it is too easy to know that their efforts seem at times to be, well, little. The ocean of injustice is just so vast. The world is just so broken, with manifestations in the lives of so many victims millions of times a day. And yet, the people of IJM do their work from a sense of vocation, from that deep sense that “God has called me to this.” Of course he has.
God is just, therefore he calls all his people to pursue justice, to make incarnate his character. God calls all of us, every human being and every follower of Christ to incarnate his character. We are all called to be people of justice and love, of compassion and holiness, of mercy and truth. We are all called to be “a little bit of Christ in the world” wherever we are, whatever we do, and regardless of what form it takes. It is a truth working itself out through lawyers working for justice, doctors healing, mothers raising their children, business folk working for something other than the bottom line as their base-line for success, politicians making equitable policy, and even preachers preaching.
We are all “a little bit of Christ in the world.” It is the vocation for all of us. We are all called, each one of us, to this, and it is a truth is at the same time deeply humbling and profoundly dignifying.
It is dignifying because we are invited to something almost inconceivable were it not revealed to us in Scripture. God has made people an indispensable part of his plan for the Tikkun Olam-the repair of the world. Each one of us is indeed offered the opportunity to play a part in bringing the Kingdom of God to bear in places and people that are broken. Each one of us is indeed a vicar of the redeemer of the world. Did you go to work this morning with that solidly in mind and firing your heart? As Pope Benedict XVI challenged the young people of Scotland recently, “Learn of your own dignity!”
And yet, that we are to be a little bit of Christ in the world is at the same time humbling, for whatever we see accomplished in or through our efforts across our lifetime, we will not see the full fruition of those labors unless Jesus himself happens to come while we’re still breathing. In other words, the great redeeming work of Christ will not be completed until he himself comes and completes it.
Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador, puts it right in insights attributed to him. “It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives include everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
We are not the Messiah, yet we are agents of the Messiah. The good archbishop had read the Apostle Paul, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants or the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth…for we are God’s fellow workers.” (1 Corinthians 3.6-9) And there it is at the same time, our dignification and humiliation. We are nothing, but we are everything. This humbles the most exalted careers and accomplishments, and exalts the least. Or to be more accurate, there is no great work, or small work…there is only faithfulness to the work God has called us to do, and therein is real and eternal significance. The degree to which our work matters is the degree to which we are faithful to our call from God to do it.
When we understand this and this posture becomes our own, a strange thing happens. We experience at the same time restfulness and earnestness, quiet peace while we work and deep passion for our work. Jesus has laid on us all the glad and real burden of being his ongoing presence in the world, and yet as he says, “My burden is easy, my yoke is light.”
Knowing that we are to be “a little bit of Christ in the world” grants us rest because we know that whatever we’re setting our shoulder to won’t ultimately be accomplished until God finishes the work. We do what we can and for those things we can’t we truly entrust it God, to his power and wisdom and providence. It grants us quiet peace because even though we can’t see it all done, we know it will be done. This is Romero, “We cannot do everything, but there is a sense of liberation in this. The enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”
The ‘doing our part very well’ is where the earnestness comes in. Ultimately, while it God’s work to do, some of it he does through me and my efforts. While his work transcends me, it includes me. Wow. Should not this inspire deep passion in my work while I work, whatever my work today is, to know that while I do that, God is incarnating his will and desires through me, for the good and very redemption of the world?
There’s an old story about a rabbi who would keep two pieces of paper in his pants pocket, one in each. On one it was written, “I am worm”, and when he was feeling particularly proud of himself, he would pull out that piece and read it. In the other pocket was the piece of paper on which was written, “I am a son of God”, and when he was particularly discouraged, that’s the one he would pull out and read.
Let’s massage that a little bit. Two pieces of paper, one in each pocket, one reads “I am a little bit of Christ in the world”, and the other reads, “I am a little bit of Christ in the world!” Which one do you (and I) need to pull out and read?
Rev. Bill Haley is the Director of Formation at The Washington Institute and Associate rector at The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia.