Monday, September 12, 2011

Rock Star Priest?

This past weekend, a friend and fellow-priest showed me his prayer book. It’s a well-worn book with crinkled and stained pages. In fact, he’s had it so long, he even went to the trouble of having it recovered. Like a favorite old sofa, this prayer book seems to have invited a special attachment to him. He showed me why.

Inside the book, written in tiny penciled script, are names and dates. On the pages for the Burial of the Dead, there are many, many names, dates, and causes of death—each a reminder of a relationship from the past. On the pages in the marriage service, there are a number of names, and each one of them represents a different love story. On the baptismal pages, wrinkled and crinkled because of accidental splashes, there is a fairly long list of names—mostly those of babies but also several of adults—and each one of them holds such promise as they represent the beginning of a Christian life.

In today’s epistle lesson (1 Corinthians 1:1-19), Paul recalls (sort of) the names of those people whom he baptized in Corinth. Mainly, however, he’s recalling all those people he didn’t baptize. Apparently, some distinctions and contentions had arisen in the Corinthian community about who was baptized by whom. Having experienced regularly parishioners who cross the aisle to receive Communion from a different priest, I can imagine what sort of arguments broke out in the nascent church in Corinth: “I was baptized by Paul,” brags one convert. “Yeah? Well, Apollos dunked me, and everyone knows he was the real evangelist here.” Silly? Maybe…maybe not.

We often develop attachments to the people ministering to us. I have a favorite Sunday school teacher from my childhood. (I certainly have least favorites.) Some of my youth ministers were more compelling than others. Some of my seminary professors inspired me, while others seemed to weigh me down. That’s fine. We can have favorites. But we can’t allow ministry to become about the minister.

Also, this weekend I had a chance to watch a few of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos. I love the format and the content. I also love Rob Bell—his voice, his hair, his image. But can I hear the good news of Jesus Christ if I’m obsessing about the guy who’s preaching it? I’m supposed to fall in love with the message—with God—and not with the person delivering that message. That’s the classic case of the mega-church pastor (cf. Rob Bell’s own career path), the small-church youth minister, or even the average-church priest.
There’s a danger that ministers of the gospel become too popular. And there’s a danger that we allow ourselves to focus too much on the preacher. Paul’s experience in Corinth suggested that we are supposed to build relationships…but only to the extent that those relationships point others to the gospel. In other words, I’m allowed to make friends in my ministry, but I need to remember and to remind others that I’m only a stand-in for someone more important.

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