The extraordinary ordinary

Homily preached at the Lutheran Women’s League of Great Britain Workshop at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
9 November 2013
Text: Romans 16:1‒16; Luke 8:1‒3; 10:38‒42

The lists of names in the final greetings of the New Testament Epistles tend to pass us by in our daily reading. When I first started reading the Bible regularly as a teenager, I was very keen, so I read everything. But after a few years, I began to skip about, to leave out certain bits. And the first thing to go were the lists of names. They just didn’t seem to have any spiritual value, nothing in them for me. Later, at university I learned that they were not entirely without worth: scholars of the New Testament use these lists to cross-reference names in different books to try and get a sense of what was written when, who knew whom, and so forth. Very interesting, if you are into that sort of thing. But still, hardly heart-lifting spiritual edification.

Are you with me?

Well, I hope you are not, because I was just plain wrong. These lists, these names of people about most of whom we know nothing at all except that Paul knew them—they are you and me. Ordinary Christians who were known to the apostle, who had sat in the services where he preached and been members of the churches he had planted. Some of them had served him, or served the churches in various capacities. Others were fellow-preachers, tasked with proclaiming the same apostolic and prophetic message that had been entrusted to the apostles.

People very much like Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza and Susanna, and the many unnamed others. People like Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Ordinary disciples of Jesus Christ, some of whom happen to have their names recorded in God’s word, but most of whom go unnamed, some of whom are mentioned in passing, but most of whom get no mention at all. Yet we know that they were there, just as we are here today. Some of us have been called to preach the apostolic and prophetic word. Some of us perform acts of hospitality. Some serve with their prayers, or their wisdom, or their kindness and consideration, or with their ovens and pots and pans. Some are well-known in the church and would get a mention if the apostle Paul was writing a letter to the churches that are at Plympton or at Cardiff or at Ruislip or at East Kilbride or at Fareham. Others are not. Yes, but for the accidents of birth and of geography, those lists might be a list of many of the people gathered here today.

So this is the first comfort we can take from reading and hearing names of these unknown saints of long ago: it is a roll-call of ordinary sinners, men and women, who were called just as you and I are called, to serve God’s people in their time and their place. There was nothing remarkable about them to human eyes then, as there is nothing remarkable about us. Not many of us will find ourselves mentioned in the history books of future years. And yet, their very ordinary lives are recorded in the Book of Books itself, because their ordinary callings were anything but ordinary, because it was the sanctified work of members of the body of Christ. Likewise, our very ordinary lives are precious in the eyes of the Lord. His angels rejoiced when each of you was called out of the darkness of sin into the light of righteousness and holiness. And while the world thinks nothing of the words spoken by you to one another or to the heavenly Father, of the cups of tea and cakes prepared by you, forms filled and cheques written and cashed, and all the other mundane tasks performed in the Lord’s vineyard, it is the most remarkable service the world has experienced: because it is work that is holy to the Lord, as members of Christ’s body serve one another and the world.

But wonderful as it is to know that when we serve one another, we are serving the Lord, we must avoid the sin of Martha: of judging our worth by our service. Yes, we are called to serve, and we ought to serve—serve the Lord and, in His name, one another and others outside our fellowship. We are followers of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. That is our calling as those who bear the name of Christ.

However, when we do work in our vocations in the church, at home, in society, at work, another word of Jesus needs to ring in our ears: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
One calling trumps all the others: only one thing is necessary, and woe to us the day we become too busy in our work to attend to that one thing. By the Word of the Lord, the heavens and the earth were made. It is that Word alone that has made us what we are, children of God, and it is only by His Word that we live and that we shall live. The Church is what she is not by virtue of what she does but what she receives. That is why church services are best called Divine Services rather than worship services: because we come to be served by the Lord with His word and sacraments. Jesus still prefers serving to being served. As He gave His body and shed His blood for the life of the world, he continues to give His body and His blood for the life of the world now.

So, when it comes to being a member of the Church, ask not what you ought to be doing. That is not necessary. Moreover, ask not what you should be allowed to be doing. The Divine Service is a feast where you are the guest, there not to work but to be fed.

Having thus been fed and nourished, you will be strengthened for service—the poor you will always have with you, and all manner of tasks that need our attention.

And should it happen that, by another accident of time and geography, your name should also appear on some hallowed page as an example of one who served the Lord by serving His saints, rejoice not in such recognition. But rejoice that your names are written in heaven, in the Lamb’s book of life. In that book, there are no anonymous saints, no forgotten names. And so it is that one day, you will join your voices with Prisca and Aquila, Epaenetus, Andronicus and Junia, Ampliatus, Urbanus and Stachys, Apelles, the family of Aristobulus, Herodion, the family of Narcissus, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus and his mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, Susanna, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all the saints who have gone before us in receiving the Lord’s pure gifts and worshipping Him before His throne to all eternity!

In the Holy name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.

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