Contemporary people often think of prophets as those people in the Bible who would call out leaders for their hypocrisies and sinful ways. And there are many examples of biblical prophets doing that, beginning in Genesis and continuing throughout scripture. Yet, prophets did not cease to exist with the last word printed in Revelation.
There have been many prophets since biblical times including the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life and ministry we celebrate today. Dr. King, as the many prophets before him, called out those in leadership for their hypocrisies and pointed a spotlight at the grievous wrongs in society. The protests, discussions, and debates of the past year have demonstrated that there is still a need for a prophetic voice that continues shining the spotlight on the wrongs in society and calls us to act for reconciliation and healing.
A fundamental role of the church is to provide a prophetic witness to the world. It is part of our DNA and our shared family history as Christians. Each of us is called to lift up the wrongs that we see and point a very bright spotlight on them. We are called to work for social healing and reconciliation.
The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) spells it out clearly when it says that congregations through the leadership of the session are to “provide that the Word of God may be truly preached and heard. … [and shall include] planning and leading ministries of social healing and reconciliation in the community in accordance with the prophetic witness of Jesus Christ.” (BOO G-3.0201a) And a version of the call to prophetic witness is repeated in the description of all four types of council (session, presbytery, synod, and general assembly).
In light of recent headlines, it can seem daunting and overwhelming to be a prophet. To speak up in the face of confrontation, to call for change when it makes people uncomfortable, and to put ourselves at risk of opposition and possibly even physical harm.
Yet, we are called to action. We are called to follow the example of Jesus who taught his followers to care for their neighbors as they would themselves. And for Jesus, neighbors were not limited to the people who live next door to you. Throughout his ministry Jesus demonstrated that the definition of neighbor should be expanded to include those who think differently than we do, look different than we do, speak a different language than we do, and even those who strike us on the cheek.
This means our calling is to help our very broadly defined neighbor when they are being hurt or discriminated against. Our call is to work to heal the wounds and to bring about reconciliation. As Dr. King lifted up, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” (Strength to Love, 1963)
Each of us has a role to play in this healing and reconciliation. Sometimes we are working close to home as we learn about those who are different from us and gather to break bread together as we remove the barriers that have been built between us. Other times we are part of larger steps that reach across boundaries as we join with thousands or tens of thousands or even millions of others so that Jesus’s message of healing and reconciliation can be heard and seen in all corners.
Amid this broken world, let us boldly go forth as a prophetic witness of the love of Jesus Christ.
Grace and peace, Bill Rev. William "Bill" McLean, II Presbyter for Congregational Care Presbytery of Southeastern Illinois