IN THE NAME OF CHRIST?
Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It has been our delight to have the Moderators of the South African Synod of the United Congregational Church here at Volmoed this week. The use of the term moderator for a church leader may be unfamiliar to some of you, so let me clarify. Moderators are not necessarily moderate fellows, though usually they are, and they are not in the business of moderating examinations for clergy! They can be compared to bishops, but they are not, and their functions vary from one Reformed church to the next. In the United Congregational Church, moderators are ministers elected by their colleagues to serve for several years as "pastors to the pastors." Whatever else they do, they are primarily ministerial caregivers. This is a critical task, for being an ordained minister is often a very lonely and demanding one in which you are always giving yourself to others. So it is vital that there are people who are their caregivers. How good it is, then, that we here at Volmoed have been able, for a few days at least, to care for ministerial caregivers and to share with them in this service of Holy Communion as they bring their sessions to an end.
The text chosen by them for reflection today is Paul's injunction to the Colossians that we Christians should do everything we do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. But, of course, we know only too well that not everything done by Christians in the name of Jesus Christ is always good or praiseworthy. It is often quite the contrary. In fact, not everything done in the name of God or religion, not to mention Jesus Christ, is good or praiseworthy. We have only to think about Christian crusades and inquisitions, about going to war under the banner of the cross, about the persecution of so-called heretics, about witch hunts, the subjugation of women, the abuse of children by priests, and homophobia, of the conflicts of the centuries between Protestants and Catholics, or between Hindus and Muslims, or Shiite and Sunni Muslims, to know that this is so. Yes, we must surely agree with modern-day critics that Christianity and religion more generally has a lot to answer for. There are too many things done in the name of Jesus and God that are out of character. So when St. Paul tells the Christians at Colossae that whatever they do, whether in word or deed, they should do it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must pause and think again about what he means. For not everything done in the name of Christ is worthy of him.
The word "name" is often used in the Bible to describe the character of someone. So when we pray "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name," we are not just praising the name "God" -- we are praising and therefore expressing gratitude for who God is, for the character of God as loving, compassionate, or to use Jesus' metaphor, as our "Father." So doing everything "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" means that we seek to express the character of Jesus through our actions. In other words, we seek to represent Christ in terms of who he is, rather than using his name to justify our own attitudes and actions. Everything we do is meant to express the character of Christ, not to abuse his name. And we should only use his name when we do so.
I mentioned at the beginning, that the task of moderators is above all to be care-givers for ministers and pastors. The word "care" comes from the Latin "caritas" from which, in turn, comes our word "charity," and charity properly understood means self-giving love. Such love, expressed in truly caring for others, is above all other virtues, and lies at the heart of Christian faith in action. So to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ means caring for others, especially those in need, the poor, the oppressed, the victims and vulnerable. Read again the words that come before our text and you will soon get the message of what Paul meant. And, of course, in his first letter to the Corinthians he tells us categorically that though we speak like angels, or have prophetic powers, understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, or be be able to move mountains, if we do not truly care about and for others, we are nothing. So we do well to recall the words of Jesus:
On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; go away from me you evildoers." (Matthew 7:22)
We must also acknowledge that many things that are not done specifically in the name of Jesus Christ, many things done by people of other faiths or none at all, sometimes put us Christians to shame in expressing the character of Jesus. Consider the work of the South Africa Muslim organisation "Gift of the Givers," or "Medicine without Frontiers," or Aids carers and hospice workers who do not claim to be Christian though many are. Christians don't have a monopoly on good deeds worthy of Jesus whether we use his name or not! Recall some other words of Jesus, this time in response to John the disciple:
Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. But Jesus said, "do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us if for us. (9:38-41)
Yes, indeed, there are many people who do not belong to our circle, our church, our denomination, our religion, who are for Christ not against him. They may not use the name of Christ but they do what he commanded us all to do.
At the end of every Eucharist here at Volmoed and elsewhere, the minister says: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord." And the congregation responds: "We go in the name of Christ. Amen!" This is not just a formula we use to conclude our worship. It is a renewal of our commitment to love and serve Christ through so in caring for and loving others.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 19 June 2014