Only Where Graves Are

The past three years have been a time, among others things, of learning the nature and art of pastoral ministry.  I entered this work without a clear idea of what a pastor is or does.  Even three years later I don’t even pretend to have all the answers.  But I’m coming closer to a workable understanding of the person and work of a pastor—of myself as a pastor.  Several things have contributed to this construction of a pastoral identity: being a husband, and more recently, a father; extensive reading, particularly the works of Eugene Peterson, whom I consider to be the wisest American pastor of his generation; scripture, in particular one verse I’ll share with you in a moment; and my congregation, Word of Light Fellowship.

During my third year pastoring I preached through the gospel of John—37 sermons in all.  I found John’s gospel shaping me as it drenched me in the ministry and teaching of Jesus, from incarnation to crucifixion and resurrection.  The Fourth Gospel dominated my meditations for over a year, as I prepared and then preached through it.  And one text in particular crystallized something essential to my pastoral vocation: John 12, in particular, verse 24.

John 12 is the pivot point in the gospel, the hinge on which John constructs his theological telling of the Jesus story.  In the first half of the gospel, signs are prevalent: Jesus turns water into wine, heals a long-term invalid, feeds 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish, gives sight to a man born blind, and even raises a friend from the dead.  But the gospel isn’t all signs and wonders.  There’s a shift in chapter 12 as Jesus teaches about his approaching suffering and death.   I titled my sermon on John 12:20-50 “Cruciform Glory,” as Jesus describes the path to his glorification coming through crucifixion.

He encapsulates this principle in a short but significant illustration, after he first notes that the time for his glorification has come (v 23): “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v 24).   Life will come through death and glory through humiliation.  This verse spoke to me like the voice of the Lord in thin silence spoke to Elijah: softly yet unmistakably.  I have to die.  Part of becoming a pastor would involve a death in the desert (I’ve written about this here before).  As the Israelites complained that God had brought them into the wilderness to die, so I have complained to the Lord about why he brought me here, to this place.  And he has answered me with the words of Jesus in John 12:24: I brought you here to plant you, to bury you, even to bring you to the death of your ambitions and pride, so that you can truly live, so that your ministry will be fruitful, so that I can give life to and through you.

The renowned German theologian Karl Barth insightfully noted: “Only where graves are is there resurrection.”  If my work is be fruitful in the final resurrection, there needs to be a grave—my own, even perhaps to a degree, the church’s; for only if we die, will we truly live.  I’m blessed to be part of this congregation in Winnemucca, this band of disciples willing to journey into our own death, or rather, into sharing in the death of Christ, so that we might truly live and share that abundant life with our community.

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