A Pauline Foundation for the Pastoral Vocation

In 1 Corinthians 4 and 2 Corinthians 5 Paul describes the ministerial vocation in four ways: a servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4), and an ambassador for Christ and minister of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5).  Together, these “job descriptions” provide pastors and other ministers with a helpful foundation for understanding and practicing their vocation.

Servant of Christ (1 Cor. 4:1)

Rather than the expected “doulos” (slave) which Paul uses often as a self-identification at the opening of his letters, here he employs “hupareteo” (helper).  The word conveys the idea of one who serves, hence the common translation “servant,” but not in the profound sense of servitude that doulos carries (bondservant or slave).  We could perhaps translate Paul’s phrase here as “helper” or “assistant to Christ.”  Our ministry assists his ministry.  People often use the language “your ministry” when speaking to me.  “How is your ministry going?” or “How is your church?” they inquire.  This subtly shifts emphasis away from my participation in the ministry of Jesus and stresses my personal ministry in some kind of self-established, self-possessed way.  It is no more my ministry than it is my church.  Both the ministry and the church wherein the ministry takes place have their source in Jesus Christ.

Hence, Paul’s carefully chosen wording can help pastors remember the true nature of their ministry: they are those who work alongside Christ to fulfill his purposes.  This awareness may prevent us from lazily or arrogantly presuming that our ministry needs only the support of the congregation and the ingenuity and resources attainable within ourselves and our network of association.  At the core, ministry is participation in what God is doing in Jesus Christ.  This language of serving (or helping, assisting) indeed fosters humility.  We are not first the church’s leaders, but Christ’s servants.  Ministers must remember and practice this personal discipleship in all aspects of life, embodying the serving nature of the Lord Jesus, who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

Moreover we are servants of Christ.  It is easy to believe that we serve the needs and wishes of the church constituency, and the more that the American pastorate mimics corporate culture, the more this paradigm of ministry that caters to the religious demands of church members spreads.  We become more like Aaron with the Golden Calf, giving people what they want, than Moses with the Ten Commandments, bringing people God’s word. Pastors first serve Christ and his church, not the individual people and families who clamor for attention just as they would the customer service counter at a local retail store.  We are not shopkeepers or clerks, but servants of Christ.  As we serve him, we will sometimes not give people what they want, hopefully reminding them of the One they need.

Steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1)

In this rich multiple-genitive phrase Paul describes the minister as one entrusted with the mysteries of God.  The word rendered steward refers to the manager of a household.  Pastors manage the household of faith.  Moreover, this administration in the church has to do with divine mysteries.  Many are uncomfortable with mystery, including many ministers.  We want a job description that clearly defines our role and function so that we can measure the results and have a greater sense of effectiveness and self-worth.  We want clear, measurable metrics to know whether or not we’re “winning.” But Paul reminds us that we’re working in mysteries.  We don’t always know what we’re doing, what we’re saying, where we’re going.  And this admission, this confession, is liberating and orienting towards truly helpful ministry.

Like Moses on Mount Sinai, we stand between a congregation of unholy worshipers and the holy God.  We work in the space between the mountains of Sunday worship and the valleys of Monday rebellion.  We live and study and converse on the border of these two realms: earth and heaven, human and divine, commonplace and supernatural, and we find them constantly overlapping in new and surprising ways.  Our work is to steward this interchange, this holy communication that takes place in the everyday lives of people that work long hours, raise unruly children, and fight terminal illnesses.  We manage these divine mysteries not by figuring out, cataloguing, and explaining, but by entering, sharing, and encountering the mind-shattering, heart-shuttering work of the Holy Spirit with everyday people in everyday life.

Ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20)

This is perhaps the hardest of the four phrases under consideration to translate; at least it is the one with the most possibilities.  “Presbia” refers to one who is a representative of another, thus “ambassador,” is a fitting translation.  The preposition “huper” can be translated simply as “for” or may have the sense of divine initiative and appointment, thus, “specially assigned by Christ” may convey Paul’s intention well.  The simple point is that ministers have been appointed by Christ to represent Christ to others.  This is no small responsibility, neither is it one that we can accomplish only on Sundays.  This is a life-consuming vocation of representing Christ to all people at all times in all places and things.

Seasoned pastor David Hanson, in his book, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers” speaks of the pastor as “a parable of Jesus Christ.”  We want our lives to reveal Christ to people.  Pastoring in a small, rural community (roughly 7,500 people) has impressed on me the importance of representing Christ between Sundays.  No matter where I go, whether to the store for groceries or the park for recreation, people know me as “pastor.”  I cannot shake this identity: it is with me wherever I am.  Consequently, I have had to pay more attention to cultivating Christ-likeness in everyday habits.  People need to see Jesus not only when I preach and pray, but when I shop and play.  We always represent him, and thus those who minister must stay alert at all times to the nature of their witness.

Minister of Reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18)

Paul writes that God, “through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18b).  This is the heart of pastoral work and the heart of the church’s ministry: to work with God in Christ towards the reconciliation (new creation) of all things to the God (creator), in which “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).  Reconciliation is the work of new creation, which is the overarching desire of God’s heart and the purpose he has to accomplish through Christ and the church.  Those who serve in ministry must never forget this guiding purpose of reconciliation.

So much in daily church ministry can pull us away from this center of ministry as reconciliation.  Budgets and business meetings, facilities and frustrations, all converge upon pastors, making them more attentive to maintaining the institution and less attentive to furthering the mission.  Through prayer, study, and service, and in every way possible, ministers need to cultivate God’s heart of reconciliation.  This purposes guides, motivates, and shapes our work.  Furthermore, we again remember that we participate in what God has already started: “All this is from God” (2 Cor. 5:18a).

Conclusion

Servants of Christ, stewards of the mysteries of God, ambassadors of Christ, and ministers of reconciliation—these are the foundational identities the apostle Paul provides to those who called to serve in ministry (at least, so far as the Corinthian correspondences are concerned).  American business culture lures us into corporate leadership paradigms through the ability to chart and measure our success and grow the church through smart programs and pragmatic strategies.  Hollywood celebrity culture seduces us into showy leadership that promises to build our reputation and image and grow the church through entertainment value.  Paul protects us from both abdications of true ministry by rooting our work in what God is already doing in Christ to reconcile the world to God, and by calling us to daily faithfulness in our personal lives as well as our public leadership in worship.  Above all, he reminds us that we are servants before we are leaders, and that even as we lead, we serve—neither ourselves nor those who pay our salaries—but Christ, into whose fellowship we were called (1 Cor. 1:9).

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Call to Worship: Psalm 25

Here’s a call to worship based on Psalm 25 with two options for the last congregational statement.

In worship today, we offer our lives to you, Lord.

Our God, we trust in you.

In worship today, make your ways known to us, Lord; teach us your paths.

Lead us in your truth—teach it to us—because you are the God who saves.  We put our hope in you always.

In worship today, show us your compassion and faithful love.

Forgive our sins, and teach us the way we should go—the way of justice, love, and faithfulness.

In worship today, we want to honor you.

Show us the way of your heart.

(or…)

For you alone are worthy.

Going Deeper – 2 Sam. 22

“With My God” – 2 Sam. 22

Questions for discussion/reflection:

  • The Hebrew conjunction in v 30, which is the source of the message title, can be rendered as “with” or “by.” What different sense does each word convey?  What do you think best fits with this chapter and with what you’ve learned of David’s life?
  • Identify the metaphors David uses to describe God in vv 2-3. What do they word pictures convey?  In what ways do you identify with any of these?  How does it help you to think of God these terms?
  • While David touts his own integrity in vv 21-25, we know that he was far from morally perfect. There is place in our life with God for both the pursuit of moral living and the need for divine mercy.
    • How do you keep these two things—personal morality and divine mercy—in tension, each having a proper place in your life?
    • Peter quotes God’s words from Lev.19:2 in a way that allows for them to be construed as a command or promise: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). How can both of these possibilities be true?  How does help with the above tension?
  • David exuberantly expresses confidence that with his God he can overcome anything. What is the basis for this confidence?  Where do you need this confidence in your life?  What would help you receive this confidence right now?

Going Deeper – 2 Sam. 16-18

“Seasons of Suffering” – 2 Sam. 16-18; Pss. 3, 55

Questions for discussion/reflection:

  • Make a list of your life’s “seasons of suffering,” times when you went through a particularly tough trial. How did each trial test your faith?—build your faith?
  • In what aspects of his life was he tested in these chapters (e.g., as a king, father, believer, etc.)? In what ways did he suffer?  How did he respond?  Read and reflect on Psalms 3 and 55, a couple of his prayers in relation to these events, as you consider his response.
  • One way David responded to his trials was to pray. In prayer, David’s relationship with God grew stronger and he found strength to walk through hard times.
    • When hard times drive us to God in prayer, what positive outcomes may happen in our lives? (Consider David as an example).
    • In seasons of suffering, we may be tempted to cope through bad habits (e.g., drugs, heavy drinking, sexual sins, or simply evasion through excessive entertainment, etc.). Why are these ultimately dead ends?  What does prayer do that nothing else can?
  • David becomes a humbler, more compassionate person through his season of great suffering. What was it about David’s attitude in suffering that enabled him to grow personally and spiritually?  How can his example encourage and challenge you?

Going Deeper – 2 Sam. 11-12, Ps. 51

“Felix Culpa!” – 2 Sam. 11-12, Ps. 51

Questions for discussion/reflection:

  • The narrative text in 2 Samuel and the corresponding prayer in Psalm 51 both express themes of sin, confession, forgiveness, and salvation. How do these texts affect you?  In what ways do you relate to these themes in David’s experience?
  • Augustine’s Latin expression, “Felix culpa!” means “O happy sin!” How does David’s great sin become an occasion for happiness?  How have you experienced pain regarding your own sin?  Have you also experienced joy in God’s forgiveness and salvation?
  • Nathan’s creative pastoral confrontation of David’s sin through the use of parable underscores David’s hypocrisy: he’s outraged at a sin in a hypothetical other while blind to that very sin in himself until directly exposed. Jesus speaks to this phenomenon in Matt. 7:1ff; Paul speaks to it in Rom. 2:1ff.  What sins are you especially critical of in others?  Could these be an issue in your own life?
  • Nathan confronts David’s sin personally and directly: “You are that man!” (12:7). David responds personally and simply: “I’ve sinned against the Lord” (12:13). How will you take personal responsibility for your sin?
  • Paul’s proclamation, “Where sin increased, grace multiplied even more” (Rom. 5:20) expresses the reality for David and us all. Take some time this week to identify your sin (ask the Holy Spirit to reveal it to you; see Ps. 139:23-24), confess it to God, and receive his gracious forgiveness and saving love!  Make Psalm 51:10-12 a daily prayer.

Going Deeper – 2 Sam. 9

“True Love” – 2 Sam. 9

Questions for discussion/reflection:

  • David doesn’t act like a typical political leader: rather than eliminating the threat to his power, he shows Mephibosheth kindness.
    • What was the key factor that guided David toward kindness over hostility?
    • What leads you to show uncommon, unexpected kindness?
    • How might your commitment to Jesus and his way of life move you to show kindness to others?
  • Reflect on this episode from Mephibosheth’s perspective. How do you think he felt when David sought him out?—when David treated him with kindness, dignity, and generosity?  How might God have used this circumstance to work in his life?
  • David’s demonstration of love toward Mephibosheth wasn’t accidental, but intentional: he went looking for someone to bless, ironically from among his enemy’s house (v 1). This is what God did for us (Rom. 5:6-8).  Prayerfully reflect:
    • Is there an enemy to whom you can show God’s love? What might this look like?
    • To whom else is God calling you to show loving-kindness?
    • To whom have you made a commitment to love that you have neglected or failed to live up to? How can you show renewed commitment to love them?

Going Deeper – 2 Sam. 7:18-29

“A Model Prayer” – 2 Sam. 7:18-29

Questions for Discussion and/or Reflection:

  • Imagine your prayer life as a dinner plate, filled with various foods (kinds of prayer, including praise and thanksgiving, petition and intercession, confession, etc.).
    • What kind of prayer is your main course? What are your side dishes?
    • Do you have a well-rounded prayer diet? What might be missing or out of balance?
  • What’s the significance of approaching God with a deferential attitude, acknowledging your weakness and God’s greatness? How might such an approach change the way you pray?
  • Even when we have a need to bring to God, David models prayer that gives God praise before expressing our petitions, both in this passage and in many of the psalms. What effect does it have to place our petitions in the broader context of praise?
  • A common biblical form of petition, here demonstrated by David, is to hold God to his promises (e.g., Ps. 119:49). Do you ever pray this way?  What is the value in such petitions?  Is there a divine promise you want to remind God of today?

Call to Worship: 2 Sam. 24:24

Here’s a contemplative call to worship based on David’s words in 2 Sam. 24:24 (CEB) that invites worshipers to consider worship as costly and sacrificial.  The moment of silent reflection is optional but I recommend it.

Consider these words of David in 2 Sam. 24:24: “I won’t offer up to the Lord my God entirely burned offerings that cost me nothing.”

(Silence)

Lord, worship is sacrifice.  It can be no other way.  When we worship you we aren’t looking to get something from you but to give something to you.  Help us to understand today, as we prepare for this service of worship, that you call us to lay ourselves down before you, to give ourselves over to you, to offer the sacrifice of praise.  And in our feeble attempts to give you what you’re due, accept what we have to offer, our lives humble and broken, and transform us into living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to you.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Call to Worship: Spirit and Truth

Here’s a contemplative call to worship that invites worshippers to approach God and engage in worship with both heart and mind.  The biblical texts used (CEB) are 1 Cor. 14:15 and John 4:23-24.

Reflect on the words of the Apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 14:15: “What should I do? I’ll pray in the Spirit, but I’ll pray with my mind too; I’ll sing a psalm in the Spirit, but I’ll sing the psalm with my mind too.”

(Silence)

Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Perhaps we’ve joined this assembly today because we desire that our hearts be stirred by your Spirit; help us also to be open to the renewal of our minds by your Word.

Perhaps we’ve come to this place with the expectation that we will experience your presence through music that touches our hearts; help us also to be open to a divine encounter through thoughtful engagement with every aspect of worship, even those that don’t particularly “move” us.

Jesus told us, “But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”  And so today we desire to worship you in our spirits and with our minds—truly, to know you and love you with all that we are and all that we have.  We bring you our hearts: touch them.  We bring you our minds: transform them—all this by your Spirit and your Word, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Going Deeper – 2 Cor. 13:14

Title and Text: “Grace, Love, Fellowship” – 2 Cor. 13:14

Questions for Discussion and/or Reflection:

  • Paul’s benediction in 2 Cor. 13:14 is Trinitarian, referring to all three persons of God’s Self: Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit. What does the doctrine of the Trinity mean to you?  What does it matter to you?
  • Paul pairs particular nouns with each person of the Trinity: grace (Jesus), love (the Father), and fellowship (Spirit). In what ways do you associate these qualities with the corresponding members of the Trinity?
  • What is the significance of referring to Jesus as “the Lord” and “Christ” here? What about referring to the Spirit as “holy”?
  • Is there a sense in which these blessings of God are linked to participation in the body of believers?
  • In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates, “The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you.” Peterson adds adjectives to the nouns.  What adjectives would you choose?  Write your own version of the verse below.  Read it each morning and evening this week at the conclusion of your prayers.