Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Life and Death of Christ in True Ministry

I remember having conversations in seminary with people who were going to become pastors. Their idea of the pastorate was one with which I was well familiar. It was an easier job, a job that required only some study and sermon preparation, along with the occasional bit of counseling. Beyond that, it was filled with golf, relaxation, and prestige. Indeed, there are many pastors who have worked hard to mold their ministries in this image. Such a pastor usually is in great health and well kept, since his life is that of a star; but this is not the nature of genuine ministry.

Genuine ministry is an incarnation of Christ. One of the many metaphors used to describe the church is "the body of Christ." Those who work hard at preaching and teaching will themselves embody Christ's ministry on earth, but that ministry isn't one filled with lemonade and golf balls, but of sweat, blood, and death.

What the minister of a real ministry soon realizes is that the ministry is the worst job on earth. It will consume your time, your energy, your health, and your dignity. In essence, it will lead you down the same path that Christ upon the earth must always go down in a fallen world: to crucifixion.

If the call of Christ to every believer is to come and die, His call to every preacher is to come show everyone what I mean when I say "die." First, you must die to your pursuit of an easier life, that life that everyone in our culture seeks by looking for easier ways to do this or that, die to making money in order to make finances easier, die to the life of leisure you dreamed of. Then, you must die to the idea that you will have honor in this life, the respect that every man desires to have. You simply cannot give such foreign truths that demand obedience and love from its subjects to hearts that are, in part or in whole, rebellious toward God, and expect that you will be honored for it. You must die to the idea that your time is your own. It will no longer belong to you but to God and to others. If it's a matter between helping a person in need and golfing, someone else will be teeing off that day. In essence, you must die to the life you wanted, because Christ died to the life He could have had as well.

In fact, it reminds me of the film, "The Last Temptation of Christ." I remember that when this film came out it was covered in a blanket of controversy, and for that reason, I stayed away from it, that is, until one day I was challenged to watch it. I decided, however, because of some of the images I heard were in it, just to watch parts of it, but especially made a point to watch the end. I was deeply moved by the film more than any other film about Christ I had ever seen, simply because I got the point it was trying to make.

You see, the film shows Christ indulging in all sorts of pleasures in life. He becomes rich, prestigious, and fulfills the desires of His humanity even in romance. He essentially has every pleasure and desire He could think of. Then, in the end of the film, the world we have just witnessed, the world where Christ indulges in the life everyone would dream of, slowly slips away as the camera pans out from that world. Moving further and further out, we see an eye, and then a face, and then Christ Himself hanging on the cross. And then we realize that the world we have just witnessed in the movie was the last temptation of Christ. It was the devil saying, "You can have all of this, all that you desire. This pain can end. This shame can end. You deserve a better life than this. Just come down and it will be done. Why die when you can live?" And yet, He who with one word can come down and take over all of the armies of the earth, stays there. He who with one word can end all of His suffering and take all of the pleasures of the world to which He alone is due remains to die. And He stays there for one reason only: love. His love to glorify the Father and save us from the coming wrath. The last temptation was his call to disregard love, as Adam had disregarded it, and to indulge in pleasure instead, but He would not be eating that fruit today. He would be dying instead.

And this is what we are to do in ministry. We are to die. We don't tell people truths we know they will pat us on the back for at the end of the sermon. We won't be liked by everyone. Was Christ liked by everyone, or did you fail to notice that He was crucified by His own people? We will be loved by some and hated by others. We will be polarizing figures, as Christ was, not because we love division, but because we love unity in the truth that glorifies God and binds His people together. Christ caused division, and indeed, He says that this is the very reason He came. Hence, it is the very reason He remains through us in the body of Christ. Division is the nature of His ministry through us.

Such division leads to turmoil, not peace. The ministry isn't a picture of Christ sitting by the quiet streams on a warm, inviting summer day, but Christ standing on a violent sea in the midst of a hurricane calling out to His disciples. The ministry is not about winning people. It's about winning souls, and we must understand the difference between the two if we are to participate in a genuine ministry that exalts the word of Christ over the storm and those who wish to serve it rather than Christ.

Ministry will upset your life, not establish it. It will cost you everything you are and everything you hoped to be. Still want to sign up? If you are looking for ease and prestige, probably not. If you are looking to exalt God in love for Him and His people, then I know you'll still sign on the bottom line. That's because real ministry is only for real Christians. It's not for the "religion is my backup" crowd. It exists to call everyone to come and die, and as such, those who enter it must display that death in their delivery of the truth and the sacrifice of the lives they had always wanted.

Ministry after all is ministry, i.e., service, and through it we give our lives over to our Master to do what He will with them. I'm not saying you won't have time for golf balls in ministry, but only that you may have quite a few thrown at you as well. It will be the most stressful job you'll always want to leave and never will, as long as you're there for the right reasons. Someone once said that around 50-60% of those who enter ministry leave it each year. I don't know how accurate that is, but if so many enter it with false hopes, I can see that happening. To be sure, a big part of that deception is what it "looks like" from the outside. The average parishioner has no clue the weight that is placed upon the shoulders of the minister, and as such, they get the sense that it's an easy job--and if you're there to tickle the ears of people, it is. If you're there to glorify Christ by not only lifting Him up in word, but by being lifted up upon the cross yourself in both word and deed, then it's the hardest job on earth. What other job description do you know of that requires you to definitely die to everything you hoped to be (and to perhaps literally die) without even receiving the honor one might think would accompany such a noble commitment?

If ministry is Christ preaching through us, then it will be surrounded by some disciples with a whole lot of Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, mockers, and even a Judas or two. This isn't abnormal. If you're getting this, this is what you signed up for. You wanted the ministry of Christ and so here it is. Did you think it would all be people gazing at you in awe, receiving your every word, baking you cupcakes?

I'm essentially trying to keep you from becoming bitter, because the soil in which bitterness takes root is false hope that stems from misunderstanding what was promised to you. You have been promised a life of picking up your cross, suffering, and dying, because it is only through such a life that the gospel can be preached both in word and deed. The life of Christ is lived out through your ministry, and that life did not end with parties and the good life. It was on the other side of death that such life exists. It is through dying that we are reborn into the images of God we were always meant to be, and the minister must display this as an example more than anyone else. Thus, he must suffer more than anyone else.

What I wish to tell every young seminarian is that, although many Christians die in persecutions, the main people who are consistently executed throughout are the ministers. The unbelieving government always wants to make examples of them in one way, and so does God in another. I want to tell them this because it serves as a great example of what ministry is really all about.

So the next time you're thinking of not saying what you need to say, or feeling as though you've given enough already, or even find yourself becoming bitter because you think the people around you should have responded more positively toward your sacrifice for them, simply remember that such is not why you're in ministry. You're there to die, and that is exactly what's supposed to happen. So you might as well post a sign above your office door, "Entering Golgotha. Leave golf balls at the door."

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