Tag Archives: Ministry

Scripture on Sunday – 2 Corinthians 5:14

In the opening chapters of 2 Corinthians Paul is defending himself against some at Corinth who are questioning his motives and ministry, and perhaps accusing him to others in the church, evidently seeking to ingratiate themselves to the Corinthians in Paul’s place. Paul’s previous visit to the Corinthians had been a painful affair, and his last letter to them—almost certainly not 1 Corinthians but another letter (2:3, 9)—had been an endeavour to sort through the difficulties experienced in the visit; it does not appear to have worked.

One issue surfacing several times in these chapters is a concern that Paul is “commending himself” to the Corinthians (see 3:1 – Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?; 5:12 – We are not again commending ourselves to you…; cf. 4:5 – For we do not preach ourselves). Paul insists that he needs no “letters of commendation” for the Corinthians themselves are his “letter of commendation,” the work of the Spirit as the fruit of his ministry (3:2-3). Yet Paul does want to commend himself to the Corinthians’ consciences (4:2; 5:11). He wants to give the Corinthians an opportunity to be proud of him and his associates, and to have answers that they can give to those who might question them about Paul, or accuse him to them (5:12).

Part of the issue, clear from 1 Corinthians 1-4, is the manner of Paul’s ministry in the way of the cross. There is nothing “impressive” about Paul in terms of his personal bearing, rhetorical ability, and so on. He doesn’t even have anyone to commend him! His opponents on the other hand, seem to be very impressive in their ministries, to have such commendations, and argue that they are superior to Paul and therefore worthy of the Corinthians’ allegiance. Paul, however, suggests that they take “pride in appearance and not in heart” (5:12).

Paul’s entire argument in these opening chapters of the letter is a sustained response to these kinds of concerns and accusations. Something particularly notable are the theological underpinnings of his argument. Paul lives and ministers as he does as an application of theological convictions concerning the distinctiveness of the new covenant in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit in contrast to the “ministry of condemnation”—his characterisation of Moses’ ministry of the law, and of those in his own day who would seek to follow Moses rather than Christ. The old covenant was a “ministry of death,” a “letter that kills,” whereas Paul’s ministry is a “ministry of righteousness,” “of the Spirit” in place of the letter, a ministry of life, liberation, and transformation in Christ and by the Spirit (ch. 3).

Further, his ministry takes place in the way of the cross—a way of ministry conformed to the way of Jesus Christ in the world, a cruciform life in which his “weakness” and suffering, his afflictions and brokenness are the means by which the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” shines in his “earthen vessel.” In spite of all these afflictions, however, he is sustained in his ministry so that although the “death of Jesus” is evident in his life, the life of Jesus is manifested in and for the Corinthians (ch. 4).

Paul is sustained in the cruciform life by the eschatological hope with which he is possessed. His sufferings now are “working” an eternal weight of glory for him. He is convinced that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so believers have awaiting them, a new body in the heavens. Paul is no Platonist; he is not seeking to be “unburdened” of the body (although he does “groan” due to its present affliction), but to be “clothed” anew with the new body of the resurrection. Given this living hope he endures all things for the Corinthians, and for their faith (4:15).

Is Paul mad? If they think so, then he is mad due to his faith in and obedience to God. Is he of “sound mind”? Then the Corinthians should know and recognise that all that he does and suffers is for them (5:13). Note that one can only think of Paul as being of “sound mind” if one accepts the theological presuppositions that he sets forth: the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God by which salvation for all has become a reality.

This is a gospel-shaped vision, a gospel-shaped life, and a gospel-shaped way of ministry.

“For the love of Christ controls us…” Here we hit the bedrock of Paul’s ministry ethos, and that which distinguishes him from those that question or accuse him. Ministry, for Paul, is a participation in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, a cruciform life in his steps, one taken captive by him and following in his train (2:14-18). Just as Jesus Christ gave himself for us and for all, just as Jesus Christ offered himself to God for us and for all, and just as Jesus Christ went to his death so that others might live, so Paul would give himself even unto death so that others might hear and know the message of Christ. His life and ministry would become an echo of the love of the Christ who gave himself for us. Paul would do this—could do this—because of the living hope of the resurrection from the dead. As he shares the sufferings of Christ, so he will share in the glory of his resurrection.

Paul’s ministry motive is the love of Christ. Therefore he will not “peddle” the word of God, nor use manipulation or deception, nor harbour hidden agendas or impure motives, nor seek his own advantage, prominence, or fame. He ministers not for his own benefit but for the glory of God and for the sake of those who would hear. He will proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and himself as their servant. He will aim to make the truth of God plain, and commend himself to their consciences.

Paul’s own life has become part of the message: the way of Christ and the love of Christ are embodied in him, visible in him, and so congruent with the message that he proclaims.

“The love of Christ controls us . . . And we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God, and not of ourselves.”

“Slow Conversion”

A brief article I wrote has been published in the Western Australian Churches of Christ journal On Mission Journal. My article is on the idea of Slow Conversion, based on the Patristic practice of the catechumenate, and is a ‘practical’ adaption of my longer recent article on baptism in the Pacific Journal of Theological Research.

I am also happy to report that at least three other articles in the issue are written by Vose Seminary graduates or students, Amit Khaira, Molly Lewin and Terry Nightingale.

An Ethos of Pastoral Care – Gerard Manley Hopkins

In a class on pastoral care yesterday, we read and discussed Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “In the Valley of the Elwy.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest in nineteenth-century England seized with a deep sense of missionary vocation, and, after his early death, regarded as an outstanding poet. Porter and Porter note that Hopkins later confessed that this poem was “not about the Elwy at all, but about the Watsons of Shooter’s Hill.”

The linking of two separate things—a place he loved and a home that had been hospitable—gives the poem a universality that is intentional, rather than it being a record of a single unique time and place (Porter & Porter, ‘Over the Bent World’: Poems and Images from Gerard Manley Hopkins, 78).

I used the poem not so much to highlight Hopkins’ missionary concern, but to help us reflect on the ethos of pastoral care. The poem has the form of a classical sonnet, and so we used the first stanza to explore Hopkins’ experience as a way into thinking about what pastoral care might look like, and the second stanza to reflect on the fundamental impulse or ethos of pastoral care.

I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.

“I remember a house…” Here Hopkins experienced a welcoming hospitality, filled with warmth and nurturing shelter, a safe and comforting place where fragile new shoots might take root and grow, or new life burst forth under the ‘mothering wing.’ The good air of the place made as it were a ‘hood’ for the people under which he too could find a place, though in fact he recognised that he deserved none of their kindness.

The Welsh countryside, lovely in every respect, is the recipient of this same ‘air’ which, in fact, builds the world of Wales. Yet…

And here Hopkins slips in a different note: “Only the inmate does not correspond.” The class discussed whether the term ‘inmate’ should be read generally as inhabitant, or whether it might carry the sense it does today of one confined, perhaps imprisoned. We did not really reach a conclusion. Perhaps Hopkins was using it in a similar way as we do today with a hint that humanity generally is confined with sickness, imprisoned in all kinds of fears and vice. The class also discussed whether Hopkins was here referring to himself or to the people of Wales more generally. He lived in Wales for three years and was gripped with a concern for the spiritual well-being of the country he loved. Perhaps the more general sense is best.

The people of this ‘cordial air’ are somehow out of step with the beauty and goodness of the natural order, and of the One who is over all. And so in the final three verses Hopkins prays, to a God with ‘considerate scales,’ and pleads with this ‘lover of souls’ to “Complete thy creature dear – O where it fails.” It is a prayer for restoration, for rebuilding from this God who is not merely a mighty master, but a ‘father and fond.’ He prays that the father might with a mothering wing shelter and nurture these wayward souls, perhaps in hope that they too might be a world built in the beauty and goodness intended for them.

There is much to consider here with respect to pastoral care: the welcome and warmth, the nurturing shelter, the primacy of divine love with scales tipped toward considerateness, the place of prayer, the ideals of beauty and goodness, of corresponding to the creational order, and probably more besides. It is a beautiful poem celebrating the beauty of God and the beauty of his creation, and not least, the beauty of all the ‘souls’ – the real people needy and broken – that he loves.

Luther@500: The Pastoral Luther

Almost ten years ago, internationally regarded Luther scholar Timothy Wengert said,

As Luther fans the world over are already gearing up for the celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of their posting [i.e. the Ninety-Five Theses] on 31 October 1517, too often the celebrations will focus on Luther’s break with Rome or his Reformation breakthrough rather than on Luther’s own stated reason for the dispute: pastoral care for his flock in Wittenberg (“Introducing the Pastoral Luther” in Wengert (ed.), The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology (Lutheran Quarterly Books; Eerdmans, p. 5).

Vose Seminary will commemorate this anniversary with a mini-Conference on The Pastoral Luther. Conducted on October 30, four papers will be presented as follows:

  1. Dr Peter Elliott (Perth Bible College): The Pastoral Roots of Luther’s Reformation
  2. Dr Michael O’Neil (Vose Seminary): Freeing Salvation: Luther’s Pastoral Theology
  3. Ps Matthew Bishop (Bethlehem Lutheran Church Morley): Of Good Comfort: Luther’s Pastoral Letters to the Depressed
  4. Dr Brian Harris (Vose Seminary): Luther as Leader

I am very much looking forward to this event. If you are in Perth, perhaps you can make it along.

For details and registration, go to:
https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=321641  

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

On Retreat

17-SEP-Open_Leeroy-Todd-Sleepy-Eyes-740x500For a couple of days I am on retreat with the West Australian Baptist pastors. These retreats are always a quite restful and fun few days, as we catch up with old friends, enjoy some meals together and receive some input from the Conference speaker. This year’s speaker is Allan Demond, an inspirational Baptist pastor from Melbourne.

Allan is like a breath of fresh air, bringing a simple message on the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the busy life of a pastor. He began his sessions by telling of coming to Australia from Canada in 1995 to take up pastoral leadership of the church where he continues to serve. Early in his ministry he was asked by another pastor whether he served in the ‘charismatic’ or ‘anti-charismatic’ church in his suburb. He bristled at the characterisation. He rejected the fundamental premise that his ministry and the church should be captured in so limiting a label. Yet, upon researching the history of his new congregation, he found that the church had earned a reputation for opposing certain works and activity of the Holy Spirit, and so determined to explore this issue and ‘hold open a space’ in which the church could enter into dialogue around what it means to be the people of God. “Who can be anti-charismatic,” he asks, “Anti-gift?”

And so began a decades long endeavour to ‘live out of a quiet and surrendered centre,’ to nurture a ‘deep and rich spirituality’ in his own life and in the congregation, and to learn the ways of the Paraclete, as he leads the church into the ways and ministry of Jesus. He discovered to his deep surprise and amazement, that the Spirit continues to author the ministry of God’s people in unique and powerful ways, speaking to and leading his people. His advice to the pastors: become aware of and recognise how the Spirit continues to be present and speak in your own life and context, and own it, and grow it. That is, thank God for his presence and gift and ask him for more.

Refreshing stuff from a humble guide.

Socrates, Nestorius, and the “Hard Work” of Theology

Socrates Bk vThe ancient church historian and contemporary of Nestorius, Socrates of Constantinople, evidently did not think much of Nestorius, despite his defence of Nestorius’s orthodoxy.

What sort of a disposition he was of in other respects, those who possessed any discernment were able to perceive from his first sermon. … [those] did not fail to detect his levity of mind, and violent and vainglorious temperament, inasmuch as he had burst forth into such vehemence without being able to contain himself for even the shortest space of time; and to use the proverbial phrase, “before he had tasted the water of the city,” showed himself a furious persecutor.[1]

Nestorius had been appointed as bishop of Constantinople by the Emperor in 428AD, chosen for his “excellent voice and fluency of speech.” Nevertheless it seems controversy dogged his episcopate from the start, and he eventually was condemned for his christological views at the Council of Ephesus in 431. It seems Socrates believes this was an unfair judgement:

Having myself perused the writings of Nestorius, I have found him an unlearned man and shall candidly express the conviction of my own mind concerning him; … I cannot then concede that he was either a follower of [known heretics] Paul of Samosata or of Photinus, or that he denied the divinity of Christ … He does not assert Christ to be a mere man, as Photinus did or Paul of Samosata, his own published homilies fully demonstrate. In these discourses he nowhere destroys the proper personality (hypostasis) of the Word of God; but on the contrary invariably maintains that he has an essential and distinct personality and existence. Nor does he ever deny his subsistence… Such in fact I find Nestorius, both from having myself read his own works, and from the assurances of his admirers. But this idle contention of his has produced no slight ferment in the religious world (171).

How was it, then, that this gifted and charismatic speaker occupying one of the most prestigious pulpits in the empire caused such an uproar? Socrates is blunt:

He seemed scared of the term Theotocos [sic; i.e. “God-bearer,” or “mother of God”], as though it were some terrible phantom. The fact is, the causeless alarm he manifested on this subject just exposed his extreme ignorance: for being a man of natural fluency as a speaker, he was considered well educated, but in reality he was disgracefully illiterate. In fact he contemned the drudgery of an accurate examination of the ancient expositors; and, puffed up with his readiness of expression, he did not give his attention to the ancients, but thought himself the greatest of all (171).

Alister McGrath translates that last sentence: “In fact he had no time for the hard work which an accurate examination of the ancient expositors would have involved…”[2]

Theological work can be hard. Yet this observation from the early fifth century is just as relevant today. Some pastors, leaders, teachers and others rely on their excellent gifts, charisma and charm to carry their ministry, dismissing the work of those who have gone before as though it were of no value or benefit. In their pride they may become arrogant, and may even, as Nestorius did, cause great dissention in the body of Christ. The work may be difficult, may even be “drudgery,” but it is necessary work, especially for those charged with the responsibility of shepherding the people of God.

*****

[1] Scholasticus, Socrates, “The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Second Series) Volume 2: Socrates, Sozomenos: Church Histories ed. Schaff, Philip & Henry Wace, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1890; reprint, 1995), 169.

[2] McGrath, Alister E., ed. The Christian Theology Reader, Third ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 273, emphasis added.

Baptism in Gilead

Marilynne RobinsonIn 2005 Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her magnificent Gilead. It is a gentle, beautifully-written story, the memoirs of the elderly Reverend John Ames, written for his seven-year old son, retelling his life, his beliefs, his fears, his hopes. This is a deeply human story of life in a slower time (the 1950s, but recalling a family history extending to the mid-nineteenth century). But slower does not mean simpler, for issues of war and slavery, courage, sickness, and family difficulty loom large.

So do matters of love, friendship, faith, ministry, and theology. As a reader I was caught by Robinson’s theological vision woven throughout the book, but in such a way that it does not overwhelm the story. Using the story, she reflects on all the issues mentioned above and more besides. See, for example, her meditations on the value being human:

There is nothing more astonishing than a human face … Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it… (75)

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? (141)

So, too, Robinson’s meditations on baptism and the Lord’s Supper surface from time to time. For instance:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running … It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth … it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing… (31-32)

It may be that “blessing” is Robinson’s primary word for describing the action of grace in the sacraments, and indeed the entire function of ministry. We minister in order to impart blessing (cf. Rom. 1:11). Baptism and blessing belong together in Robinson’s luminous world, and come together in a particularly humorous passage:

We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were. It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress – there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unswaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained…

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing… (26-27)

For other, better accounts of this book, see the reviews by Nathan Hobby and Ben Myers.