Archive for January, 2013

An Inside Look at the Call to Ministry

This is the sermon I shared with our seminary community here in Zambia at chapel this morning. Hopefully parts of it can speak beyond this context.

Our passage for today is 2 Corinthians 4:5-12. Remember, our theme for this term is the pastor’s calling. 2 Corinthians focuses on Paul’s experience of ministry. 2 Corinthins 4 is a difficult passage, but it’s also deep, and practical. And it includes such relevant topics as suffering, power, perseverance, witness, true prosperity, and avoiding discouragement. Focusing on the whole chapter would take more time than we have; verses 5 to 12 give us a chance to get an in-depth look at our calling to ministry. The passage gives us an inside look at the light and treasure we have received, the life of ministry we live, and the light and message we have to share.

Let’s focus first on verses 5-6. In verse 5 Paul mentions what we preachers don’t do and what we do: We don’t preach ourselves, and we do preach Jesus Christ. But then he backs up and gives a basis in verse 6 for what he has said in verse 5. God has shown light into our hearts. This is a picture of conversion, but it’s also a picture of a call. In the book of Acts, Paul tells the story of seeing a light (Acts 9, 12, 26). Jesus spoke to him. And then he was told what he was to do. I think the book of Isaiah played a huge role in Paul’s mind, in how he interpreted his experience of this light. Paul saw a light, and then, in the words of Isaiah, he saw himself as called to be a light to the nations (see Is 42:6; 49: 6; Acts 9:3; 13:47). We’re not that different from Paul: God has shown a light in our hearts – we’ve experienced that ourselves – and ever since, and from now on, we have light to share.

Let’s look at the end of verse 6. God has made his light shine in our hearts, but then the NIV says, “to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ”. The words “to give us” are not there in the Greek text, and other translations are closer to the original when they say, “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (NRSV, ESV).  No mention there of us as the object of the light. In other words: We’re illuminated, not just for our sake, but to become illuminators: we’re illuminated in order to go forth and illuminate others. God has shown forth in our hearts, so that we can go forth and reveal, Paul says, the face of Christ.

What a high calling we have. What dignity God has given you and me, that not only would he shine his light into our lives but also give us the task of illuminating others with the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

And so that’s the basis of what Paul says in verse 5: “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Jesus.” We don’t preach ourselves, because the message is not about us. We preach to help others encounter the face of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, we who are called to reveal the light sometimes get confused and lose our way. We begin to get the idea that the ministry is actually about us and our own success. We look around at who seems to be doing well in ministry. We see the nice car. Maybe we see preachers on TV. And something in our hearts says, “That’s where it’s at. You need to think big. You need a big voice, a big personality, a big house, big buildings. You need to see your picture on a big sign. You need a big name.” So our ambition grows. And before we know it what we really want is that others will encounter not the face of Jesus, but our own face. We preach ourselves, not Jesus Christ. And the light that came to our hearts falls dim.

But our passage presents a different picture. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Servants for Jesus’ sake. We’re not trying to become masters here on earth; the only master is the Lord Jesus Christ.

As servant-preachers, the picture we want to leave with people is the face of Jesus. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” And this happens best if the image of ourselves is a picture of serving. We serve the church for Jesus’ sake.

Next, let’s look at verses 7-9. “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” Paul sometimes used common objects as symbols. In chapter 5, he will say our bodies are like tents. Here in 4:7, we believers are like clay jars, earthen vessels, with a treasure inside. Now a clay jar is a practical thing to have. It’s fragile, but it’s useful because things can be put inside it. One could even put a treasure inside, like precious gems or gold.

Paul is using a symbol to say important things about our calling. We are jars of clay. But not just any clay jars. We are distinguished because of what we carry. Based on verse 6, the treasure we carry is the illumination, the making known, of God in Christ. Verse 5 is also clarifying: the message we carry is not how special we are, but Jesus Christ. The treasure is the message of Jesus Christ.

Let’s think more about this treasure we have. Here in Africa, there’s a lot of talk among believers these days about prosperity. I don’t think we can really get to the bottom of how the Bible speaks to that topic without looking at the whole canon of Scripture. But this passage does speak to it: 2 Corinthians says, we who carry Jesus Christ inside us have treasure.

I wonder, who in our lives gets to define what success and prosperity mean? Do we let the billboards along the highway tell us what success is? Do we let what’s on television tell us what prosperity and success are? Do we swallow those messages? That we won’t be a success, and we won’t be content, until we have every last object on those billboards? If we swallow this message ourselves, how much more might the people in our congregations swallow it!

Maybe we need to listen to 2 Corinthians: We have prosperity already, because we have a treasure already, because we have Christ and the light of the gospel inside us. Paul knew he had a treasure; he had genuine prosperity, and it was something that no circumstance and no person could take away. He still worked with his hands to meet his needs, but he already had contentment that no one could take away. He says in Philippians 4:12-13  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

These things may seem easy for me to say, since I grew up in a rich country. But when we allow what’s on TV and what’s on the big signs to define success for us, we can miss the real contentment that is freely ours to enjoy through the treasure of Jesus Christ already living inside us. Let’s be careful about who gets to define true prosperity and success in our life of ministry.

We are common clay, but we carry something very special inside, something extraordinary. Our calling is not about us; it’s about the treasure inside, the message we carry and have to share. We are here for something larger, more beautiful, more precious, and more important than ourselves and our own success. Christ is the message, the light, and the treasure. Our calling is to something bigger than what the world calls success and prosperity.

Verse 8 says, “We are hard pressed on every side.”  What happens when a clay jar is hard pressed on every side? It’s crushed. But the jars of clay in our passage are different. Despite being hard pressed on every side, they are not crushed. This says something about perseverance. We’re exposed to risk, because we’re made of common clay. But we’re also resilient, uncommonly resilient. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Verses 8-9 raise the question: What keeps us from being crushed and destroyed? There is something about the light that has shown in our hearts, and there is something about the treasure inside us, that make us tough, resilient, and durable. Christian leaders take heat sometimes. We may take heat, and sometimes in our minds we may fantasize about hiding, and running away from the ministry.

But our passage says: we can take heat. We can be hard pressed, and we can handle it. Verse 1 says that even as we have received mercy (even as we have received the light), we do not lose heart. And later verse 16 will say, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Inwardly – that’s where the treasure is. There’s something about having that light and treasure inside us that gives us power to persevere. And verse 7 even speaks of “surpassing power”. It’s not from us – we’re clay jars – but it is inside us. It’s from God, yet we derive a benefit. So even though we are clay, clay that gets hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed or destroyed. We have access to surpassing power.

In Paul’s mind, having Christ in our lives simultaneously subjects us to vulnerability AND makes us strong to withstand vulnerability. Since we’re not living first for ourselves, since we realize there’s something larger at stake than our own success, we do put ourselves at risk. We risk what is good for us for the sake of a larger good. That’s why we often say yes when we get the call to some task or some place that looks difficult. Maybe it’s not the village you would have chosen for yourself. Maybe it doesn’t look like a place for personal advance. But if we’re there, then the light, and the treasure, will also be there, because it goes with us.

We get exposed to hardship because our purpose is to live not for our own welfare but for proclamation. We live to illuminate, to help people see the face of Jesus. That’s what leads to God’s glory, as verse 15 will say. But living for something larger than ourselves also makes us vulnerable. God gets glorified. But that can also get us into situations where we’re at risk. Yet let’s take courage: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Let’s move on to 4:10-12. These verses build on what Paul has been saying about suffering, and about revealing Jesus Christ, but they take it further.

The first half of each of these three verses use symbolic language to speak of hardship we go through in a life of ministry. All three verses use the word death to describe the life of ministry. Paul is using symbolic language to try and describe how difficult true ministry is. Each one of these statements doesn’t necessarily mean a literal death but rather the suffering that we keep going through as we minister.

The symbolism of the first half of each verse is a little difficult: For all of us who carry the treasure of Christ, we have a strong relationship with the death and life of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says our relationship with Christ’s death is so strong that his sufferings flow over into our lives. And here in 4:10-12, Paul says the hardships which we go through in a life of ministry are actually a carrying around of his death in our bodies. When Paul uses the word “body”, he’s emphasizing that these hardships affect our whole being. It’s not just a spiritual thing but something that involves the whole of our lives.

The second half of each of these three verses, 10 to 12, is a little easier to understand. Each second half states the result of these hardships we go through, and each speaks about the larger purpose of a life of ministry. Namely, the life of Jesus is revealed, and that life (the life of Jesus) is at work in those to whom we minister. No matter how difficult the things are that we walk through, we can take courage because the life of Jesus gets revealed to others through these hardships.

Just to explain it again: Paul says, we who minister always go through hardship. And these difficulties are a result of us being in a special relationship to Jesus and his death. But the result of the hardship we go through is that the very life of Jesus gets revealed. The ministry brings difficulties, no doubt.  But through these things, we become revealers of the life of Jesus.

It’s like what Paul said earlier: We are illuminated, and we become illuminators, except here it’s clarified that the suffering we go through plays a big role in our becoming people who illuminate others.

Verse 12 states the message differently, but it’s the same message. For those called to a life of ministry, death is at work in us (that is, we go through adversity), but for those we minister to – they receive life (Christ’s life).

I’m sure we’ve known people who have both walked through difficult things and yet have also revealed Christ to us. And the difficulties we know about in their lives, the hard things they’ve walked through, just make their witness shine brighter. That’s what verses 10 to 12 are about. The things that make our lives difficult also bring out the light and life of Christ.

If we’re preaching not ourselves but Jesus Christ, if we’re doing genuine ministry, we encounter hardship. But our difficulties serve a higher purpose. They help people realize we’re not the message — Christ is. Our difficulties transform us to become people who reveal the life and power of Christ.

 

To conclude: God has shown us mercy by shining forth in our hearts. He has illuminated us, and he’s called us to be illuminators. We’ve given ourselves to something larger and more precious than our personal welfare and success. And so we don’t preach ourselves; we preach so people will encounter the face of Jesus. We are like clay jars carrying a treasure. And we don’t just preach with words. We preach by who we are. Even our hardships preach Jesus. People see that the power in our life comes not from us but from God. We’re knocked down, but we get up. We’re hard pressed, but we’re not crushed. All these things point to a greater reality: Jesus becomes manifest. The face of Jesus becomes visible through our words, and through our lives, to the glory of God. Amen.

My concerns with the prosperity gospel in Africa

This is the introduction to an essay I’ve written on the prosperity gospel:

The gospel of health and wealth proclaims that God promises physical healing and financial prosperity in this lifetime to those who trust and follow God’s ways. This message is powerfully alluring for Zambia and surrounding countries, where people face poverty and sickness beyond what much of the world has ever seen. From what one observes at the grassroots level, the gospel of health and wealth may be becoming the most popular and core message of the Christian faith, so that the prosperity gospel becomes the gospel of this part of Africa.

This situation may seem alarming or hard to believe for Christians in Europe and North America, but it must be remembered that a large chasm lies between the daily experience of most Africans and most Westerners. Zambians are hungry for development, progress, and success; in comparison, most Americans and Europeans have already experienced these things. Europeans and North Americans tend to take it for granted that their physical needs will normally be met, so they hardly connect the meeting of these basic needs with their life of faith. In contrast, Africans tend not to take it for granted that they will have access to such basic needs as food, medical care, and education, and they connect the obtaining of their needs with their newfound Christian faith. Sufficient access to food, health, and education has tended to elude Africans, but they are beginning to believe that it is possible to flourish, and that God cares to give them what they need to be able to do so. Africans have long observed the relative wealth of Westerners living in their countries, and many Africans have also grown wealthy in recent years as their nations’ economies have grown. These realities stir curiosity about just how much success God might wish to provide.  In such an environment, striking the right balance between the belief that God cares for their well-being, and the belief that believers’ prosperity is the point and promise of the Christian life, is a considerable challenge. To serve the ongoing dialogue toward teaching truth in the African church, what follows will address two major concerns regarding the prosperity gospel.

One concern is that the message of prosperity does not reflect what Scripture really teaches, and that most believers’ level of skill in reading the Bible for themselves does not equip them to recognize this problem. Unfortunately, the debate regarding whether or not the message of prosperity is biblical tends to remain at the level of each side lining up proof texts for its own point of view and hurling them at the other side. This article seeks to take the debate to a higher level by inviting believers to look not just at proof texts but also at the main aims, themes, and lines of thought of biblical books and of the canon of Scripture as a whole. The wider literary context of biblical verses clarifies their meaning and places responsible limitations on their use. This article will propose that the prosperity gospel must come to terms with, and be greatly adjusted by, Scripture’s key themes, aims, and lines of thought, both within individual biblical books and, more broadly, in the biblical canon as a whole. Training African believers to read the Bible in its own literary context, so as to recognize the main themes and lines of thought, will help them to see weaknesses in the prosperity gospel and come to a balanced view of what Scripture teaches about suffering and flourishing.

The other concern is that, in its reliance on proof texts for its point of view, the prosperity gospel neglects a theme which is absolutely central for the Christian life: believers’ union with Christ and the impact of Jesus’ death on the Christian life which results from this union. Christ’s death brings a union between Christ and believers that leads believers to follow Christ’s own pattern of life, and that pattern tends to involve suffering and self-renunciation. In its teaching on the Christian life, the prosperity gospel fails to take the cross of Christ into account. This essay points to the neglect of the cross and union with Christ as a critical example of how the prosperity gospel makes frequent use of Scriptural proof texts but tends to miss the spirit of the Bible as a whole.

Finally, the essay will suggest that the weaknesses of the prosperity gospel argue for investing in rigorous theological training on the African continent that highlights teaching believers to interpret Scripture in its literary context. This will lead to responsible interpretation of the Bible and a realization of the significance of Christ’s death for the lives of believers. The upshot will be Scripture-shaped teaching and living among Africa’s Christians.

To see another post on the prosperity gospel, and another section of this essay, see the entry from 3/15/2013.