Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Two-tiered Witness?

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians has been holding me for weeks.  I’ve blogged already about Paul’s vulnerable, transparent witness: “You are our letters of commendation,” he says to the Corinthians (chapter 3).  Paul has no structural, organizational props for his ministry, just the effective witness of a life lived before others that he can point to it and say, “See here?  This [my life] is visible proof of God’s transforming work.”  I like it.  Or do I?

Then I read chapter 6: “We have commended [there’s that word again] ourselves in every way…” and then a long list of sufferings: “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,beatings, imprisonments,” and on and on.  Now, I’m not liking it.

Which prompted this thought: is there a qualitative difference between the witness of “regular” Christians and people called to full-time ministry and then, by extension, even more so for people in apostolic-like ministries of the sort that Paul had?  My question is too long, so let me try again.  Is there one set of witness/lifestyle expectations for regular Christians and another set for people in full-time ministry?

The standard Protestant answer is no.  We like to tout the priesthood of all believers, which I believe myself.  But then I start thinking about how a middle-class American guy with a wife and kids and job and other such commitments reads and hears Paul’s testimony.  What is God’s Word for that guy when he reads 2 Corinthians 6?  By the way, we evangelicals love 2 Cor. 6:2, “…now is the acceptable time [for salvation].”  It really preaches well in evangelistic settings.  But immediately following is this “commendation.”  Paul is challenging the Corinthians: “Look at my life.”  So, “now is the day of salvation” is connected to “look at my life.”

Maybe that is it.  Maybe the key is, “Look at my life.”  I live within a particular set of circumstances.  Am I a transparent Christian there, in that context?  Paul’s calling was his and mine is mine.  Different time, different circumstances, different callings.  Of course, it is true.  But then I start to worry a little that I am too-easily letting myself off the hook.  I’m not an apostle, after all.  I’m just a regular Christian.  God doesn’t expect that sort of witness from me.  Or you.

What did we just do to our reading of the Bible?  On the one hand, we should read carefully and not just woodenly lift “life principles” out of the text in some mechanistic way.  On the other hand, I’m concerned about how the trajectory of this sort of “interpretation” always seems to soften the call.

I think, in practical ways, we do have a two-tiered witness among even Protestant Christians.  We love reading about the Jim Elliotts and the Amy Carmichaels.  We are inspired by their passion for the Kingdom of God and their sacrificial commitments.  But…we wouldn’t do it ourselves.  So, when we read Paul talking about his sufferings, do we blunt God’s Word  to us by putting Paul in a different category?  He’s an apostle and we’re just regular Christians, after all.

Is there a de facto two-tiered witness among all Christians?  Is it OK that there is such, if there is?

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August 5, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

From One Heart to Another

In 2 Corinthians, Paul is put in the position of defending his ministry.  “Are we beginning to commend ourselves?” he asks the Corinthians.  “You are our letters [of commendation],” he reminds them.  Paul’s “defense” of the authenticity of his work is the strong, open, vulnerable witness he has lived amont these people.  “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves…” (4:2)  

The open statement of the truth is delivered by means of a transparent witness, by the work of Christ in the hearts of the ministers.  Paul says that the light of God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” (4:6)  This treasure is carried about in jars of clay, so that the glory may redound to God and not to the vessel (4:7).  

The Gospel goes from one heart to another.  The transparent witness of one Christ-follower lights up the knowledge of God in another person.  Grace “extends to more and more people…” (4:15)  

I’m struck by the lack of standard supports for ministerial authority in Paul’s situation.  I just re-read John Wesley’s sermon entitled, “The Ministerial Office,” which serves as an apologia for Methodism and an exhortation for Methodists to keep to their station.  He upholds lay preaching, for example, but he criticizes Methodist preachers for trying to administer the sacraments.  The purpose of lay preaching was evangelism, which does not need the standard support of ordination.  The purpose of Methodism was spiritual renewal – for the light and love of Jesus Christ to shine in the hearts of Methodists so that others could see the glory of God.  

I find here an irreducible core to Christian ministry.  Ultimately, ministry is not training or skill, though both are crucially important.  Ministry is heart to heart, whether lay or ordained.  In some fundamental sense, ministry is nothing more than witness.  And “witness” means that something is happening to me, to my heart, which becomes visible in my actions.

I don’t know about you, but as United Methodist annual conferences meet and tally the votes on the Constitutional amendments, these thoughts keep me oriented.  I am not pitting “heart” against external, organizational matters, as if the organization does not matter.  It does.  And people in favor of and against the structual changes care deeply about mission.  

But the ground of confidence in Methodism or any other church or movement ultimately is not in the structures.  It is not in the various kinds of standard supports we build to enhance the organization’s effectiveness.  The ground of our confidence lies in the glory of God shining in our faces; the grace of Christ extending to more and more people; the treasure of the Gospel embodied in these earthen vessels.  

I take comfort in these thoughts.  When I had to vote at annual conference last week, I struggled with the pros and cons of opinions about the amendments.  I voted my conscience.  At the end of the day, however, no matter how the structure changes or remains the same,  the Gospel still goes from one heart to another.   I need always to remember this one thing.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Living the New Creation Reality

The Thursday before Easter I presided at a funeral of a man I did not really know.  I had presided over his grandson’s funeral several years ago.  I then had his daughter’s funeral (the mother of the boy who had died).  Three years ago, he put me down as the pastor to do his funeral.

At the graveside, among the scripture readings that I used, I read these words from 1 Corinthians: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam] so we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

Christians believe a really weird claim.  Not only did Jesus rise from the dead to live in a completely new order, a new creation, but so will his followers.  “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound…and we will be changed.”  

In John 20:19ff., the text says that the disciples were gathered together in the room and the door was locked for fear of what the religious authorities might do to them and (poof?) Jesus appears among them and says “Peace be with you.”  How did Jesus get in if the door was locked?  He just appeared.  

But not as a ghost or something; not a mere apparition.  The text then says that he showed them his hands and side, as if to say, “Yep, it’s really me.”  

Christians believe some weird stuff and the resurrection is probably the weirdest.  Maybe this is why, after we have had our nice little Easter celebrations, we go back to living and acting like nothing is different.  

I do it.  I sometimes refer to myself, somewhat disparagingly, as a “professional  Christian.”  In other words, it’s my job to pray (especially publicly at ceremonial gatherings) and to help lead a religious community in various ways.  It’s my job to have some kind of answer when spiritual or religious questions arise.  It’s my job to oversee certain ceremonies at certain times in people’s lives and deaths.  And I get paid to do these things.  I’m a professional Christian.  It’s easy, after Easter, to settle back into “normal.”  

But if am I a true believer, I can’t settle back into “normal.”  Am I a true believer?  When I say those words over the grave, words about rersurrection to new life, do I believe them?  

I do.  Still, sometimes I wonder, because belief in the resurrection is weird.  Sometimes I ask myself, “Do I really believe it?”  I do.  And I know that it’s weird.  

Therefore, I (we) do not have the luxury to live as if there is no new creation.  If I (we) believe in the resurrection of Jesus and that his resurrection is the first fruits of the New Creation, then today, tomorrow, and every day – then right now – we live in the New Creation.

As my Dad used to say, “I don’t understand all I know about this matter.”  The resurrection hope is just weird.  But I believe it.  And I want to see it and live it, daily.  

May Paul’s words set the course for us: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord [in the New Creation reality] your labor is not in vain.”  May we followers of Jesus demonstrate by our lives the New Creation reality.

April 17, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 2 Comments