Acts 13:16-25 – The Motivation of Ministry

Paul speaking in the synagogue, a 12th century Byzantine mosaic

Paul got up. He motioned with his hand and said:

People of Israel, and everyone else who worships God, listen! The God of Israel chose our ancestors, and he let our people prosper while they were living in Egypt. Then with his mighty power he led them out, and for about forty years he took care of them in the desert. He destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan and gave their land to our people. All this happened in about 450 years.

Then God gave our people judges until the time of the prophet Samuel, but the people demanded a king. So, for forty years God gave them King Saul, the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin. Later, God removed Saul and let David rule in his place. God said about him, “David the son of Jesse is the kind of person who pleases me most! He does everything I want him to do.”

God promised that someone from David’s family would come to save the people of Israel, and that one is Jesus. But before Jesus came, John was telling everyone in Israel to turn back to God and be baptized. Then, when John’s work was almost done, he said, “Who do you people think I am? Do you think I am the Promised One? He will come later, and I am not good enough to untie his sandals.” (CEV)

In the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas had the practice of traveling from city to city and attending the local synagogue services. It was customary to have a time in the worship when a word of encouragement could be offered from folks in the congregation. Paul consistently took those opportunities to talk of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” 

Søren Kierkegaard

Paul’s conversion to Christianity totally altered his motivation. Jesus was everything to him. Jesus is what got him up in the morning. Jesus is who sustained him through his days. Jesus was who Paul thought about when he went to sleep at night. Paul was unabashedly Christo-centric in all he said and did.

As for me, the spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life. As a Christian, I believe all spiritual care begins and ends with Jesus. The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting the divine in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).

Therefore, all persons on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. So, my identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care. 

What is more, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus. As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him. For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver. Christ entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and the power of touch.  Christ was able to listen to others because he first listened to the Father. Jesus was present to others because he was present with the Father. Jesus Christ gave love to others with the love he enjoyed with the Father and the Spirit. 

By the wounds of Christ, we are healed. Paul knew this firsthand. He needed a boatload of emotional and spiritual healing from his guilt and shame as a persecutor of faith before his conversion. Paul discovered in Christ the grace of healing, both body and soul.  

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. The Apostle Paul had a doozy of a life story to tell. Coupled with his keen intellect and training, Paul could be very persuasive. Paul’s ministry, emulating the life of Christ, was not to force the gospel obnoxiously and belligerently onto others but to pastorally respond to everyone he encountered. Both Paul and Jesus confronted and confounded folks with incredible love.

The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.

karl barth

Every person, without exception, is precious and carries within them the image of God. The personal journey and discovery of Godlikeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking. One of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from mutual seeing and being seen, reciprocal speaking and listening, granting one another mutual assistance, and doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people – which is why Paul was intensely personal and relational in his missionary ministry. Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey. Paul always traveled with others.

Christian ministry is a symbiotic relationship between the servant and the served, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift. This is the reason why I do what I do, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ, and I have a hunch it was the same for Paul.

Loving God, the One who cares and saves, enable me, like your servant Paul, to speak peace, be hospitable, heal the sick, proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, not take rejection personally, and let you do your work of changing lives and bringing them into the dance of the Trinity with Christ and your Spirit. Amen.

Advent

Annunciation by Chinese artist He Qi

I began my pastoral career several decades ago, paying little attention toward the season of Advent. It seems I needed to discover for myself that Advent is a special season anticipating the arrival of the Lord Jesus. So now, for the past many years, I have thoroughly embraced the season. I will tell you why Advent is of such significance to me.

I found in Advent a solution to the problem of secular Christmas vs. spiritual Christmas. Well, really, I did not find it because it was always there, recognized and celebrated by the Church for two thousand years. Christians recognize that Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is a holiday focusing on the meaning of the Incarnation. Yet, given the secular traditions of Christmas, we spend much of our time preparing, not for a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but for fulfilling the demands of the holidays.

We buy lots of presents for lots of people and make sure they are all wrapped and delivered. We attend and host holiday parties. We have relatives who come to visit, and/or we are the relatives who go elsewhere to visit.  Christmas cards need to get out, and the annual Christmas letter often turns into a project for next year. Our holiday season requires lots of planning and energy, and it can end up being downright exhausting. If we have younger children, we may very well spend hours trying to assemble gifts on Christmas Day that come with sketchy instructions which need to be read over more than once.

Christ can, ironically, get pushed out of Christmas, not by unchurched non-Christians, but by Christians themselves. It is Advent which helps us come back to God and put our focus and our delight where it rightly belongs in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Embedded within the season of Advent are a message and a mission. The Gospel of John begins with the great proclamation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  God entered human history in the person of Jesus.  It is a message of grace and hope, completely centering around Christ.  It is a story – the greatest ever told – of God loving humanity so much as to become one of them.  This redemption narrative gives shape to our own witness.  We simply observe and tell the story of God’s love to humanity through the sending of the Son, Jesus, to deliver us from sin, death, and hell and bringing us into a kingdom full of grace, joy, wholeness, and love.

So, how, then, do we keep our focus where it needs to be during the month of December and observe the Advent season?  We might (virtually) attend Advent services. In our observance, we can pay attention to the Advent Wreath and candles, the special readings, and all the heightened awareness of Christ’s coming. 

Another way to focus on Jesus is by enjoying Advent music. This sounds easy, yet not so much. There are hundreds of popular Christmas songs and carols, played everywhere during Advent, from churches, to gas stations and shopping centers. There are comparatively few Advent songs, though many songs and carols do touch upon Advent themes of waiting, hoping, and yearning for God. 

Other ideas for Advent may include putting together an Advent Wreath at home and/or using a Nativity scene with lots of pieces as an Advent Calendar, adding one character to the scene every day.

A practical way, in years past, I discovered in remembering Advent is standing in the long lines of stores during the holidays. I realize this year will likely not have this experience. We are more likely to have a long wait on the phone – much longer than a physical line in a store. A few years back I was going nuts waiting in a crazy long line with a cashier who was clearly seasonal help.  As my frustration mounted, God did what God often does with me, and asked a question.

“Tim, why are you so upset?” “Duh, God! This stupid line and slow cashier!” “Tim, what is my Advent really all about?”  Busted. As a Pastor, I tell others about the time of waiting and anticipation, but here I was selfishly impatient.

Go ahead and try it out this season.  Let the inevitable times of waiting on a customer service person, or even a family member, be a reminder that Advent is about patiently anticipating the coming of the Lord Jesus. 

Honestly, we already know we are going to have times of waiting, whether we like it, or not. If by God’s grace we avoid some long wait, we will probably end up in holiday traffic moving at a snail’s pace. But you and I have a choice.  Either the wait will form us for naught or for good. So, let us allow the time of waiting to bring a fresh Advent spirit into our lives this season so that our Christmas will be a glorious one.

Mark 2:18-22 – Structuring for Mission

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (NIV)

The late newspaper columnist, Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby,” made famous the phrase, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s to remind, reorient, and reframe our call in this world and our charge for the church. Christ’s Church does not exist on this earth primarily for the healthy Christian’s benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the welfare of doctors or insurance companies.

The Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom in both word and deed. Jesus came to restore lost sinners, redeem wayward sons and daughters, renew bodies and souls, and reform calcified religion with grace and truth.

Physical, spiritual, and emotional sickness is ubiquitous throughout the world and even the church. Many people are just not healthy. Some are sick because of destructive coping strategies; some are brokenhearted and dispirited; others are plain sick and tired of being sick and tired. Jesus is the source of healing and change and he invites us to admit our needs and come to him. Conversely, others are healthy, spiritually alive, and well. For those folks, now is the time to roll up our sleeves and participate fully in the mission of Jesus for the church and the world.

Jesus came to this earth to set up a new structure that could embrace his mission. Christ used the occasion of John the Baptist’s disciples asking him about fasting to communicate that his mission of reaching people through mercy and forgiveness will need a significant structural change. 

Jesus was letting his followers know that after he leaves this earth, things will need to change for the mission to continue. For example, when my wife and I raised our girls, our family dynamic was a certain way because we had them in the house. But when the empty nest phase of our lives finally came, I can tell you there was plenty of fasting that went on in our home. We live differently now, just the two of us. Our daily life structures have changed significantly.

The two illustrations Jesus used, of cloth and of wineskins, emphasize that old and new wineskins are incompatible – old and new pieces of cloth do not go together. I frame it this way with my own metaphor: You don’t put a new collar on a dead dog.

The incarnation of Christ was neither about perpetuating the status quo, nor to make a few cosmetic changes and minor adjustments to what was already going on. Instead, Christ came to fulfill the old and do something new so that it could accommodate his mission on this earth.

The perspective from the New Testament book of Hebrews is that the entire sacrificial system and ritual laws of the Old Testament were:

“…superficial regulations that are only about food, drink, and various ritual ways to wash with water. They are regulations that have been imposed until the time of the new order.” (Hebrews 9:10, CEB)

“Because Christ offered himself to God, he is able to bring a new promise from God. Through his death he paid the price to set people free from the sins they committed under the first promise. He did this so that those who are called can be guaranteed an inheritance that will last forever.” (Hebrews 9:15, GW)

First, Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). Then he said, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. (Hebrews 10:8-9, NLT)

“When it says new, it makes the first obsolete. And if something is old and outdated, it’s close to disappearing.” (Hebrews 8:13, CEB)

The following three activities are necessary for Christians if the mission of Jesus is to occur:

  1. Develop intimacy with Jesus. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading, and meditating on Holy Scripture puts us in a position to know Christ better and affords the ability to know and respond to what is important to Jesus.
  2. Establish relationships with one another. That is, relations which avoid shallow interactions and instead help each other to spiritually grow, thrive, and flourish by holding one another accountable for the mission of Jesus.
  3. Build new relationships with those on the rim of society. People on the outside of power structures and lacking any leverage toward advancing their own needs could use some connections. Our world and our communities are filled with sick, underprivileged, hurting, lonely, oppressed, forgotten, and unhealthy persons. They don’t need slight alterations to their lives but the kind of radical change that comes from the strong meat-and-potatoes of God’s gospel of grace working through a wild bunch of sold-out-to-Jesus Christians. 

Are there any structural things we need to let go so that mission and care can happen in this world? How might the structure of our prayers change if we were to focus on what is important to Christ’s mission? In what ways will we work toward a structurally just and right society which champions the common good of all persons?

Gracious God of all creation, create generations of people transformed into wholehearted lovers of God, encountered by the living Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Contend with those who oppress others and multiply the good and the beautiful in us all. Bring the fullness of your benevolent rule and reign to this world. May we exist for the purpose of enjoying God, loving others, and joining Jesus in the restoration of all things. Amen.

1 Peter 5:1-5, 12-14 – Humble Leadership

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble….”

With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.

She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with a kiss of love.

Peace to all of you who are in Christ. (NIV)

Humility is the consummate virtue of the believer in Jesus. Apart from humility there is only a lack of authenticity and integrity. With humility there is a recognition of our need for God’s grace, guidance, and peace. Humility opens to us the wide vistas of God’s love and mercy. 

A humble spirit:

  • Makes leadership both possible and bearable (God is in control, not us). 
  • Helps relieve the anxious worries that wash over us (God cares for us).
  • Enables us to resist evil and remain strong in faith (God protects us).
  • Fortifies us to remain steady through suffering (God comforts us).

Genuine spiritual humility places us securely in the merciful arms of God. Furthermore, humility and meekness are what this old fallen world needs, as well, and to which we must reinforce in all our church leadership appointments, national and local political elections, and work staff hires. An abundance of smarts and grit cannot compensate for a lack of humility. God is always in control, and so, syncing our lives with divine providence and care will enable us to be better off.

Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas to embrace God’s agenda:

God blesses those people who depend only on him. They belong to the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 5:3, CEV)

Jesus said, “The truth is, you must change your thinking and become like little children. If you don’t do this, you will never enter God’s kingdom. (Matthew 18:3, ERV)

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3, CEB)

To be a humble leader means to have the intention, focus, and action of seeking God’s will and way in everything. Then, to have the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.

Therefore, our task as spiritual leaders is to pursue hard after God’s direction rather than relying solely upon our base instincts, pragmatic desires, and personal views. Humility provides us a radical openness to God. A meek and gentle spirit enables us to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading. The Lord is up to something and has plans for our world, our locales, and our faith communities.

We also need to recognize that not everyone is open to God. If our focus is primarily on molding a group of people to be what we want them to be, then we may have become closed to what God wants. This closed spirit comes out in a couple of different ways:

  1. Maintaining tradition at all costs. Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for some leaders, so they stick close to the status quo. Like Abraham, however, we are called to move and change without always knowing where we are going. (Genesis 12:1-5)
  • Getting rid of tradition like there is no tomorrow. To get what they want some leaders focus solely on their own needs and desires without considering those they are called to lead. Like Timothy, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around. (1 Timothy 6:20-21; 2 Timothy 1:13-14)

Humility-based leadership continually consults the divine will and others’ wisdom in a concerted effort to be collaboratively open to God. A humble spirit enables and empowers leaders:

  • To lead from a position of faith, not fear.
  • To seek divine help and resources through a posture of listening. 
  • To practice love in all things to all persons.
  • To make prayer and discernment the foundation of planning.
  • To read Holy Scripture as if life depended on it.
  • To consult and collaborate with others who are like-minded.
  • To honor and respect tradition while holding it with open hands, not closed fists.

If we cultivate a humble attitude and a deep openness to God, along with a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen. Let our prayer together be this: 

I am yours, wise God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be.  I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power and guidance of your Holy Spirit. Amen.