“8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” – Romans 1:8-12
These words from St. Paul reflect his pastoral heart. The apostle says to his parish, “I am longing to see you”.
At the center of the pastoral vocation is a deep longing. It is a longing to be in relationship: to bear witness to the presence and activity of Christ in the people with whom I do ministry.
When people ask to see me, they often say at the end of our meeting, “I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time.” I want to say back, “Are you kidding me?! This is the best part of my job! If I could just do this all day, I would.”
The pastor’s first job is to be in relationship with God’s people: not to be “professionally religious”, not to solve their problems, not to entertain them, not to teach theology or correct bad behavior, and certainly not to maintain buildings and manage institutions. All of the above are important and necessary parts of ordained ministry, but they are not the heart of the pastoral vocation. The heart is the relationship: the “longing to see you” that Paul wrote about.
To be sure, there is an exchange of something that happens in this relationship: Paul says that he wants to “share some spiritual gift” in order to “strengthen” his people. But he goes on to say that the exchange is a two-way street: “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Every relationship is a matter of simultaneous giving and taking. All of us are constantly being both filled and emptied by love in the relational network of the Trinity, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17).
As Christians, we believe that we are saved by a relationship. The Incarnation is a relationship in which God “takes on flesh” and “moves into the neighborhood”, as Eugene Peterson put it. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel: “God with us.” Each Sunday, we further celebrate the Real Presence of Christ in our celebration of the Eucharist. By faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our very selves.
If we, as Christians, truly want to bear witness to the saving activity of our Incarnate Deity, then our action must mirror God’s in its relational nature. We must follow that deep, inner longing to be with one another in the flesh, as God is with us. When our fellow human beings come to believe that they are loved, that they are not alone, then can we say that we have truly done our job as witnesses of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is the longing to be in relationship that brought God from heaven to earth in the person of Jesus Christ; it is that same longing that fuels the pastoral vocation. It is the longing to be in relationship that draws the Church together in covenant community; it is that same longing that sends us out into the world as witnesses of the Gospel.
“I saw the person before I saw his or her poverty. And I realized that the person who is hungry, abandoned or in need is first of all a heart who needs to find another heart; someone who will listen, understand and love. People who are poor and discouraged need to hear someone say to them, “I love you. I have confidence in you. You are beautiful. You can give life to others.” This helps them find confidence in themselves, new strength, new hope. The poor do not need to hear a lot of words, not even pious words. They may need people who will do things for them. Above all they need friendship: friends who love them and are willing to do things with them. This will help them grow and develop both humanly and spiritually.” – Jean Vanier