I remember the moment when I first put on the mantle of the profession of psychotherapy. It was not when I graduated and got my degree, nor was it when I successfully completed my internship. It was after I had started my own private practice in a town hundreds of miles away from school and peers. More specifically, it was during my first hour with a client who was in a lot of trouble.
As I listened to this person, I remember thinking to myself, “Boy, this guy could really use a good psychotherapist.” And then I remember the split-second feeling of free-fall when it dawned on me that the therapist he needed was me.
This was when I realized that the buck stops here. While I could get help and advice from others, I was the one in charge. All that I had learned and practiced up until that point suddenly rearranged itself within me. Rather than being a list of things I had accomplished for the approval of the Masters, the people who were handing out grades and credentials, it became my bag of tools, with which I would now perform a job that was uniquely my own.
Here at the end of Luke’s Gospel, that same sort of transformation is staring Jesus’ followers in the face. Jesus has just left his disciples for the final time. What will they do now? Will they take possession of Christ’s words and example, letting these things become their bag of tools in ministries that could only be performed uniquely by each of them? Or will they quit and go home? Each disciple will make that choice for themselves. Each will accept or reject the mantle of their own authority, stay and follow the Way of Jesus or go back to whatever it was they were doing before.
The church is now in our hands as it was then in theirs. Who makes or breaks a congregation? It is not the clergy. Some priests are better church leaders than others, true. Some motivate and some quell. But it is really the people in the pews, the people who stay through all the seasons of upheaval and stasis, conflict and peace – who stay because they have put on the mantle handed to the disciples by Christ – who make a church thrive.
That is especially true in the 21st Century. We are coming into an era in which the locus of authority for spiritual understanding and commitment is to be found not in an outside figure sanctified by the institution, but in each of us, in our own hearts in relationship with the living God. I am hoping that eventually this will make for a much healthier Church. Our clergy will be able to partner with us in shared ministry, bringing their talents and expertise to groups of people who have already accepted the challenge and responsibility of being Christ’s hands and heart in the world.
In the catechism of the Episcopal Church the ministry of the laity is expressed in one sentence, and it is a statement that sounds a whole lot like the Great Commission at the end of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. “The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” (BCP pg. 855) What tools do we need in order to live into this ministry? How can we help one another and keep each other accountable? In what new forms might the Body of Christ manifest in our world today, and how do we become agents of necessary change?
Here is the mantle of Christian ministry. Put it on; it was made just for you.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.
Image: “Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia e8 087-0” by Unknown Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons