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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Called to Ministry

Texts: Acts 9.1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19

Today we take some time to reflect upon the implications of being called to minister in Christ's church.

According to the readings we heard just now, the call to ministry comes directly from the risen Jesus himself and, somewhat counter-intuitively, it comes to those who least deserve it!  Note, however, that while the call to ministry comes with bucket-loads of grace, the stringency of its demands on the one called are not thereby diminished.  Ministry asks that we lay everything at Christ's feet - possessions, plans, ego, work - everything!  Ministry is therefore very, very costly.  The reward, however - in keeping with God’s disproportionate measure of grace - is an extraordinarily new quality of life, life lived in colour rather than in the black and white.  All of this can be summarised in a short phrase from the Acts reading:  'being filled with the Holy Spirit'.  When the Spirit of Christ fills us up, the mundane becomes extraordinary, the profane becomes sacred, the activities of mere flesh and blood become the fulfilment of God's dream that the whole creation might be renewed in peace and love.  When the Spirit comes, she equips us to serve that dream after the way of Christ our Lord. . . . .    But I’m already moving too quickly.  Let us return to the beginning.

The call to ministry comes from the risen Christ himself.  Simon Peter hears the call in the midst of a meal of bread and fish on the shores of Lake Galilee.  The host is a stranger who turns out to be Jesus.  Peter is asked, three times, to nurture and teach Christ's church.  Saul of Tarsus hears the call as he rides between Jerusalem and Damascus.  The risen Christ appears to him in a blinding light.  He is told to go into the city and wait for further instructions.  After three days (that repeat and mirror Christ’s time in the tomb) he is baptised, the scales fall from his eyes, and he receives a commission to preach Christ's message to both Jew and Gentile.  My own call to ministry came through an encounter with the Christ of the Gospels.  As a thirteen year old, I was already weary of what the usual path in life seemed to offer.  Alongside my usual diet of science fiction, I began to read the gospels.  One evening I read the following in Matthew's sermon on the Mount:  'Seek first God's kingdom and his justice, and all of your hungers will be taken care of' (Matt 6.33).  Right then and there the written words came alive in a way which made my spine tingle.  I felt a presence in the room which seemed to be ADDRESSING me.  I said 'OK Jesus, I'll take you at your word.  I'm hungry for something greater.  Let's see if you can deliver the goods'.  All these years later I can report that while I'm still hungry, the goods are being delivered everyday, very often against the odds!

The call to serve Christ also comes to those who least deserve it.  Simon Peter had abandoned Jesus in the moment of his greatest need.  Luke tells us that while Jesus was being taken away to be tortured, Peter denied that he knew Jesus not once, but three times.  Yet it is this same Simon Peter whom the now risen Jesus calls to lead the fledgling church at Jerusalem.  In a striking reversal of the three-fold denial, Jesus invites Peter to affirm his love for Jesus three times.  And with each affirmation, Peter receives the commission to feed Christ's sheep.  There is a grace in this three-fold restoration which speaks of the resurrection itself.  Whatever we have done to trample God underfoot, whatever we might have contributed to the dying of life’s light, God’s grace is more than sufficient to forgive, to heal, and to breathe the life of the Christ who defeated death itself into our feeble frames!

Saul, too, is called out of disgrace into ministry.  A chief persecutor of the first generation of Christian disciples, he is nevertheless chosen by Jesus to be a travelling missionary, carrying the word of life to the furthest reaches of the ancient Roman world.  His encounter with Christ makes him blind, and he remains in that netherworld of darkness for three days.  When Ananias comes to baptise him, Saul puts away his old self, the self that was God’s enemy.  He nails it to the cross with Christ.  In the power of Christ’s resurrection, he rises to take a new name – Paul – and become, in time, the architect of Christianity as we know it.  Witness, again, the power of the call of Christ to forgive, to heal, and to set even the most vehement sceptic on the path of ministry.

Paul’s story reminds me of a friend, a fellow named David, a minister of the gospel in the Churches of Christ.  One of the roughest characters you would ever meet.  An alcoholic and a junkie, a bikie who beat people up in pub brawls, a consummate abuser of relationships, he trashed three marriages.  But, by David’s own account, God took him by the scuff of the neck and said, and I quote, 'Come with me, Thompson'.  He's still a rough character.  He can still sink a lager or two.  But he's one of the most real and honest pastors of Christ I've ever met.  He knows how to listen, how to share your pain.  And people are healed and comforted because Jesus called Dave Thompson to ministry.  I tell that little story to make a single point.  God calls all of us to ministry, no matter what state we're in when the call comes.  Paul once wrote that ministry was like a glittering treasure which is carried around in jars of clay (2 Cor 4.7).   That means that even you and I, with all our secret fears, anxieties and sins, are still God's chosen vessels for this marvellous word of life.  So, my friends, we have no excuse.  If we are baptised, we are called to ministry.  It is as simple as that.

Finally, the life of ministry is characterised by a peculiar paradox.  On the one hand, we are to sacrifice everything we possess and everything we are for the sake of Christ.  Yet, by doing so, we are promised a life of joy, and riches beyond our wildest dreams.  When Jesus commissions Peter he warns that the freedom to which he has become accustomed will eventually be done away with.  He speaks of a time when people will bind him up and lead him away to be crucified.  Similarly, when Paul is commissioned by Ananias, the Lord says that Paul will suffer for Christ's name.  And we know from Paul's own letters, that he is eventually put under permanent house arrest in Rome because of his unwillingness to accord Caesar greater homage than Christ.  Such is the slavery and the sacrifice of those who are called to ministry.  The modern martyrs of El Salvador, Iraq, the Philippines and many other places, those who die because of their love of the poor in Christ's name, are a permanent challenge to us about the quality of our Christian discipleship.  They call to us from their graves saying 'are you really willing to follow Christ wherever he may lead you?'  I am constantly floored by Christ's words in Mark: ' Any who seek to follow me must take up their cross and follow in my steps.  For the one who would save their life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it' (8.34, 35).  These words sound like absolute foolishness according to the conventional wisdom, do they not?  The TV tells us to buy, to consume, to get richer, to make ourselves more beautiful etc., etc . . . But Christ tells us that gaining the world is the same as losing your soul, losing the sense of what life is about, losing life's joy and purpose.  But that's why the way of Christ, a way through suffering and sacrifice, is also the way to life.  Because it's only by resisting the conventional wisdom, it's only by swimming against the stream, that we'll find out what life is all about.  Luke says it like discovering that there's a land of light and colour out there when all your life you've known only the darkness of being blind.  It's like scales falling from your eyes to reveal the beauty of God's earth.

In closing I simply want to note that the call to Christ's ministry does not usually come as some kind of experience subsequent to our conversion.  Rather, it comes as part of the conversion experience itself.  Thus for Paul.  Thus for us.  To be converted, to be baptised, to be filled with the Spirit, to be commissioned for ministry - these are all experiences and decisions that belong together.  In your conversion and in your baptism, you were filled with the Spirit and equipped with everything you need to begin on way of discipleship, which is also the way of ministry.  Today the risen Christ says to all of us 'I love you.  I forgive you.  I have given you are ministry to perform in my name.  What are you doing about it?'

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church on the 3rd Sunday of Easter in 2001.

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