A brother asked a hermit, “Tell me something good that I may do it and live by it.” The hermit said, “God alone knows what is good. But I have heard that one of the hermits asked the great Nesteros, who was a friend of Antony, ‘What good work shall I do?’ and he replied, ‘Surely all works please God equally? Scripture says, Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him.’ So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God’s will, do it and let your heart be at peace.”
Both the Charismatic Movement and modern management theory have given attention to St. Paul’s admonition on spiritual gifts. St. Paul offers a vision in the 12th chapter of First Corinthians of the diversity of gifts within the Body of Christ and their place within the spiritual life. His simple point (and he may have meant nothing more) was to note that there are varying gifts within the Body of Christ, just as a body has many parts, and that each of them is of value. His excursus on the gifts finds its summary in his chapter on love (chapter 13), for his concern was not to give a manual for the use of spiritual gifts, but to heal the divisive and competitive character of a dysfunctional Church.
Those few chapters became a central text for the various manifestations of the Pentecostal Movement. For some, the presence of the gifts described in those chapters served as proofs of the presence of the Holy Spirit and signs that the New Testament Church was being restored in a new movement of the Holy Spirit. In more subtle ways (and occasionally not so subtle ways), Pentecostalism made its way into mainstream denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church (the few examples of this same movement within Orthodoxy have largely disappeared). In a wide variety of ways various aspects of the Pentecostal Movement have left indelible marks on mainstream Protestantism, and, perhaps, Roman Catholicism.
Many “Church Management” workshops (in the Protestant world) use the model of diversity offered in St. Paul’s Corinthian passage as the model of the healthy parish. I have long suspected that there were problems hidden within the assumptions behind this use of what is, after all, a small excursus by the Apostle offered to a Church in trouble. The observations offered within 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 may have little to do with a “healthy” parish. On the other hand, I am certain that 1 Corinthians 13 is essential to the whole of Christian living.
Our modern culture, driven by varying market models, tends to teach us that everyone must have a job or a career in order to be “fulfilled.” Human beings are all too easily defined by their place within the economy. The same psychology is often carried over into the Church with people thinking of their place within the Church as defined by “what they do.” In such a context, “my ministry,” is an important question to people. The weakness of this question is its tendency to transform the Church from the “Ark of Salvation” to the “Spiritual Manufacturing Center.”
The question, “What is my place in the Church?” seems to me to be a question whose origin is to be found more in the culture of our modern economy and its view of the human than it is to be found anywhere within the pages of Holy Scripture. The small story from the desert fathers, offered above, is an illustration of the proper question for our lives – a question too often ignored. “What good thing must I do to be saved?” This is not a question (in its original meaning) of “what must I do in order to earn my salvation?” There is no question of merit whatsoever.
“What must I do to be saved?” is one of the primary questions asked within the pages of the gospel. Christ directs the rich young ruler to the commandments within the Law. When pressed, He answers the young man more directly, “Sell what you have, give to the poor and come and follow me.” The young man goes away sad. Today the young man might say, “But what will be my role within the Church?”
Our role within the Church is to seek our salvation – to follow Christ. We may indeed have gifts that differ (how can we not?) but our gifting is not about ourselves but about our service to others. And our service to others is not about ourselves (watching ourselves “do ministry”). All ministry is simply the act of love – whatever form it takes. And if it is not love, it is not the ministry which Christ gives.
The failure to seek salvation – always and at all times – is a failure which is a distraction. We are too easily distracted by our “ministry,” when that ministry is about our own “role.” A Reader “sees” himself reading instead of simply praying to read well for the benefit of others. A priest becomes aware of his “place” within the Church rather than simply doing those things which a priest must do.
Of course, we are fallen creatures and our life within the Church is easily corrupted. But it will be less corrupted if we do not import into that life the false images created by our economy. For the vision offered by our economic life is itself false: “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25). Our existence is not defined by our job titles nor our careers. Nor is our life in the Church defined by our job title – even though the title may sound spiritual.
Our life within the Church is lived towards salvation when it is the life of Christ lived in us. That life is manifest when it is consistently laid aside for others. It is the shape of love at work within us.
And so the great Nesteros could say:
Surely all works please God equally? Scripture says, ‘Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him.’ So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God’s will, do it and let your heart be at peace.
Every good work to which love draws us will work for our salvation and the salvation of those around us. It is the fullness of St. Paul’s admonition:
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:6-18).