Monday, October 19, 2009

Ministry in Community: Forging a Corporate Relationship with Jesus

Ministry in Community
Greenville College Chapel
Monday, October 19, 2009

Eugene Peterson tells a wonderful story of growing up in Montana which I believe is worth retelling—particularly if you were one of those kids like me who refused to fight and usually wound up pummeled by the school bully. Peterson had a similar experience in the depression-era West, being accused by Garrison Johns, his local tyrant, of being a “Jesus-sissy.” Like most of us, he tried “finding alternate ways home by making detours through alleys, but he stalked me,” Peterson says, “and always found me out. I arrived home every afternoon, bruised and humiliated. My mother told me that this had always been the way of Christians in the world and that I had better get used to it,” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 135).

But, one day, something unexpected happened and little Eugene turned into a Christian soldier: “For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. . . I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. . . At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again—blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on. ‘Black his eyes! Bust his teeth!’ A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them. . . I hit him again. More blood. More cheering. Now the audience was bringing the best out of me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, ‘Say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”’ And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert,” (Peterson, 136).

Now, although we might like to think otherwise from this narrative, many of us might even go so far as to defend Peterson’s pugilistic activity because, after all, in the end his actions produced the all-important salvific outcome in his victim. “Doubtless you have heard the saying,” South African theologian, Michael Battle, suggests, “that, in order to be a Christian, you must have a personal relationship with your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And surely you have heard it preached that, if you were the only one alive, God would still come and die for you. You have heard these things—but these ways of naming Christian life are individualistic and unintelligible to the way that Jesus taught his disciples to live,” (Placher, Essentials of Christian Theology, 281-282). That is, that which we have dared to label the sine qua none of evangelical Christianity is, at best, a mistranslation, and, at worst, a bastardization, of the faith delivered to the saints. The result, Battle claims, is what he calls “baseball spirituality,” a belief that “as long as you can verbalize the formula of Christian salvation, then all requirements of the Christian life are accomplished.”

The dangers of such reductionistic, privatistic thinking are all around us in Western culture and pervade the sub-culture of generic American evangelicalism. We have so distorted Christ’s call to death and discipleship, that “many people practice a form of spirituality in which there is no conceptual space to confess that there is someone who is and should be greater than one’s self,” (Battle, 290). “What we often call a personal relationship with God is shorthand for my own version of God,” and, “instead of seeing ourselves made in the image of God, we, like the great sociologist Emil Durkheim, see that God is made in our image,” (291). This “fulfillment of personal salvation” makes itself manifest in a variety of ways, from an overemphasis on the theory of Christ’s vicarious atonement to our conception of heaven as some kind of individual, existential bliss. What kind of theology is this that transposes the New Testament vision of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom into some kind of idiosyncratic “get out of hell, get into heaven” ticket?

Perhaps, Battle maintains, we should begin by asking one another, “Do you have a communal relationship with Jesus Christ?” I would like to propose that what we need is nothing less than a radical reorientation in the way we think about God, so that we can begin to break out of our cultural conceptions of the person and work of Jesus which are so separated from any understanding of the importance of relationship. Because, in the Kingdom of God the great mystery which confronts us, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains, is that we need others in order to know both God and ourselves. We discover God only in and through the community of faith and, in order to minister, we must be taught important lessons through that community. This morning I want to outline briefly the seven important ministries which we are called upon to carry out in the community and without which we are at a loss to become truly Christian and to have a communal relationship with Christ. And, I want to say to those of you who know me all too well that I am preaching as much to myself this day as to any of you.

(1.) The first calling is to what Bonhoeffer calls, “the ministry of holding one’s tongue.” There is something about giving voice to our most evil thoughts that sets them loose upon the entire community. During the last World War there was a famous motto which was plastered on walls along with war bond sales: “Loose lips sink ships.” And, no one who has been paying attention to the political battles brewing in Washington over the last few years can deny the power of a word spoken against one of our comrades. Bonhoeffer’s words fit all too well the experience of many of us when he says: “to speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when it is seeking to create mischief,” (Life Together, 92).

Christian community demands that we see each person as an absolutely indispensable link in a chain and, “only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable,” (94). One of the huge dangers that exists in the popular culture is the way we create an artificial hierarchy in our community and tend to de-value the work of some and over-value the work of others. This results in constant scrutiny of one another, a judging and condemnation so that we can gain ascendancy over that brother or sister. Learning to reserve judgment of the other and keeping our tongues in check allows us to embrace the other as a child of God given as a gift to the entire community. It also teaches us, as individuals, that we can never know beforehand how God’s image can and should appear in another.

(2.) Our second calling is to meekness, a word that is often misunderstood in a culture committed to brute force as a means of gaining power. The word came early into middle English as an attempt to make sense of its Greek counterpart. Particularly as applied to one in a position of power, it means to be free from haughtiness and self-will, piously humble and submissive, one who is patient and unresentful even when injured or reproached (Oxford OED, 1761). Thomas a Kempis puts it this way: “This is the highest and most profitable lesson, truly to know and to despise ourselves. To have no opinion of ourselves, and to think always well and highly of others, is great wisdom and perfection.” I don’t know about you, but I find this calling particularly challenging. As a person who early on learned the power of words, I discovered that when all else failed I could always cut and sting with a rhetorical rapier and no one was in greater danger than some one who had dared to make fun of me.

Henri Nouwen in his little, In the Name of Jesus, has helped me to understand why this is particularly true amongst Christian leaders: “It is precisely the men and women who are dedicated to spiritual leadership who are easily subject to very raw carnality. The reason for this is that they do not know how to live the truth of the Incarnation. They separate themselves from their own concrete community, try to deal with their needs by ignoring them or satisfying them in distant or anonymous places, and then experience an increasing split between their own most private inner world and the good news they announce,” (67). Bonhoeffer maintains that the way to call ourselves to meekness is by always remembering that we are sinners, ourselves, in need of forgiveness: “To forego self-conceit and to associate with the lowly means, in all soberness and without mincing the matter, to consider oneself the greatest of sinners,” (96). Meekness requires me to understand that, “my sin is of necessity the worst, the most grievous, the most reprehensible. Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever.”

(3.) Our third calling is an extension of that recognition of our own inherent sinfulness: the ministry of listening. Perhaps observing what has taken place regarding public debate in our culture might be helpful here. Our airwaves are constantly filled with invective and conversation has largely become something of a blood sport with the goal being to wound your opponent mortally. And, if this cannot be accomplished through traditional methods, wielding words as battering rams and refusing to listen to one’s conversation partner, all the while destroying his character through cheap ad hominem argument, has become the order of the day. I won’t recognize those celebrities in our culture who have made their fame and fortune in such a manner, but we all know who they are: assassins on both the left and the right who take great pride in shutting others up through a combination of bluster and bravado.

In contrast, Bonhoeffer says that the very first service that we owe to one another in community is listening to them (97). And, particularly for those of you heading into ministry, it is important to remember that the greatest service you have to offer are not your words, but your ears. Listening to one another is extraordinarily important because, Bonhoeffer claims, “he who can no longer listen to his sister will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too,” (98). In the Scriptures, one of the most prominent metaphors for leadership is that of the shepherd and, every time this image is trotted out, there is a reminder that the shepherd must always have his ears pricked up to hear what is going on around him. Learning to recognize the voice of the sheep is absolutely essential to protecting and caring for them. As Bonhoeffer says at the close of this section: “We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God,” (99).

(4.) The fourth calling is that of active helpfulness, oftentimes consisting of simple assistance in trifling, external matters. I have a number of colleagues here who teach me about this on an almost daily basis. There is Joe who makes his truck available whenever I need it and treats me to a sweet roll with my coffee. There is Jeff, who always comes to my rescue when planning worship with music that is heaven-sent. There is Christina, whose skills at data collection and departmental organization saw me through the last departmental review and who regularly reminds me of what I might be if I only had a bit more humility and were willing to be even more transparent. And then there is Ruth, whose boisterous personality and culinary skills bring riotous laughter to our household and splendiferous joy to my taste buds. In fact, there are many, many others—too numerous to mention. These are people who are true gifts from God: those who are willing to allow themselves to be interrupted and, though they have their own agendas full, are willing to take on additional tasks in order to help a sister or brother. They have come to understand what Bonhoeffer says, that “it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God,” (99).

In the monastery, monks take vows of obedience which means that their time is not their own—they are responsible to obey the Abbot’s voice. We, on the other hand, are free to offer our service to our brothers and sisters because we have not taken on such a vow. Our unwillingness to do so only marks out our belief that we are more important than others; that our time is more precious than that of others. The opposite, I would maintain, of this ministry of helpfulness is the tendency to fill up our schedules as a badge of importance to somehow prove our own worth by virtue of the fact that we are busier and more in demand. We need to be reminded that, “only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of god’s love and mercy,” (100).

(5.) Our fifth calling is to the ministry of bearing, which means learning to forbear and to sustain another. The earliest Christians read the life of Jesus through the lens of Isaiah: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows. . . the chastisement of our peace was upon him,” (53:4-5). This led to the invitation to see the Christian life as one of bearing the cross of Christ—what my friend, Mike Gorman, characterizes as living the cruciform life. As Bonhoeffer claims: “It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ,” (101).

I have been fortunate throughout my life to have others who have borne my burdens. There was a nurse who raced from Oklahoma City to the hospital in Stillwater when my baby daughter died. She helped us to hold her, take pictures with her, take a lock of hair from her head, and embrace our pain. She helped us do the hard things involved in grief then, so that we could move on later. When I was in the midst of trying to complete my dissertation, there was a whole host of people here who covered for me so that I could get done what needed to be done. In fact, I remember one day almost collapsing in Lori Gaffner’s office up the hill and dumping on her my own impending sense of doom and failure.

What marks out the Christian community is our willingness to bear with and for one another. In the larger culture such a thing is sometimes seen as weakness. As Bonhoeffer remarks: “For the pagan the other person never becomes a burden at all. He simply sidesteps every burden that others may impose upon him,” (100). This “dog-eat-dog” attitude can penetrate and permeate the Christian community as well, creating a vicious atmosphere. We must always be on guard against it and our best defense is by engagement in the ministry of forebearance. This can take place daily as we enter our closets of prayer. And, as we do so, come to recognize that, “he who is bearing others is himself being borne,” (103).

(6.) Where all of these exist, we can begin to move into the sixth ministry, that of proclamation. This is not something that is confined to those who are ordained ministers. Instead, each of us has the responsibility to speak words of both comfort and affliction to our brothers and sisters. Because we live in a false community most often, we instead settle for an atmosphere of “niceness.” Niceness is the enemy of community because it does not allow for authenticity and honesty. Now, I am not particularly a fan of confrontation. In fact, I tend to flee from it. But there have been times when it was absolutely necessary. I remember, in particular, one instance where I had to go to a member of the pastoral staff, confront him with evidence, and ask for his resignation. It was a particularly painful event. This person had overcome a severe disability, had begun to flourish in ministry, was beloved by the entire congregation, but had a dark side that had threatened to engulf the entire church.

Bonhoeffer tells us that “reproof is unavoidable. God’s Word demands it when a brother falls into open sin,” (107). The danger with the ministry of proclamation, though, is when it is severed from the qualities we have already mentioned—meekness, helpfulness, and forbearance. Holding one another up in times of need creates a sense of trust between people so that when admonishment is called for we can hear the other without giving way to feeling aggrieved. The willingness to both give and receive such a word, however, requires close attention to the Word of God alone. We must be willing to speak that word, and that word alone.

(7.) Finally, we are called to the ministry of authority which is predicated on all of the ministries which have gone before. As we think of those who are called to leadership, we must be careful about using a secular model which emphasizes the cult of personality and is impressed by the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another. The reality is that the “genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive,” (108) and, most often, those who make the best leaders are the ones who tend to flee from it. In the early church there are even stories of overnight ordinations where the most promising leaders were lured into a situation from whence they could not flee in order to make of them preachers of the gospel. The desire to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful, which Nouwen warns us of, continue to pervade the church and the academy and to warp our perspective.

Jesus, on the other hand, “made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service,” (108). “Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister,” (Mark 10:43). Near the end of In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen comments: “Formation in the mind of Christ, who did not cling to power but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, is not what most seminaries are about. Everything in our competitive and ambitious world militates against it. But to the degree that such formation is being sought for and realized, there is hope for the church of the twenty-first century,” (90). That is why, quite frankly, I remain somewhat concerned about a language of leadership that has more in common with Madison Avenue than with Calvary. There are some of you here today whose gifts are greatly needed by the community and by the church, who would never think of yourself in such a way. As Bonhoeffer reminds us: “The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus. Not in the former but in the latter is the lack,” (109).

I want to close this morning by asking you to pause for a few moments to reflect upon this counter-cultural call to ministry which Bonhoeffer suggests to us in his Life Together. It can be somewhat overwhelming to be hit with all seven of these qualities—much like hearing the Beatitudes read off to us and recognizing our own inability to measure up. In order to begin applying them, I want to challenge you to do three things. First, I want you to commit to praying for someone today from whom you may feel estranged. It may be a roommate, a friend back home, or someone who has hurt you recently. Second, I want you to consider sharing a commitment to one of these qualities with someone you trust—your R.C., a good friend, a professor or staff member. And, third, I want to challenge you to begin to isolate what it is that is preventing you from becoming a full member of this community. What is holding you back from commitment to Christ in the concrete time and place in which you find yourself? If you are willing to begin to come to terms with that impediment, you may want to share that with a trusted friend as well and ask for the prayer of whatever small group or groups you are a part. By so doing, you will begin to experience the joy of both ministering and being ministered to. And, in the end, I hope that you can respond affirmatively if and when someone asks you, “Do you have a communal relationship with Jesus Christ?”