Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Ministry Beyond
March 21, 2011, 10:07 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 20th March 2011

The overall title for our Sunday evening addresses during Lent is “Ministry Beyond”. I admit to feeling slightly baffled when I heard this: “Beyond what?” I thought. Are we having some sort of séance? But no: a closer look at the title revealed that it meant “ministry or discipleship outside the Church fellowship.” An irreverent colleague suggested that for me that might mean no more than saying grace at my monthly Old Bristolians’ lunch club. But I think more is needed.

Last Tuesday evening we had a very interesting talk on Ministry to open our series of Lent meetings. Any of you who were there will agree, I’m sure, that it gave us much food for thought. However, it made me ask myself, what exactly we mean by “ministry”. It is such a wide-ranging idea. There is no one thing that is “ministry”, there are all sorts of “ministries”. Can we narrow it down a bit?

The root meaning is of course “service”. Any sort of service to someone else can be called a ministry. This isn’t a particularly religious idea. It doesn’t imply any formal or permanent relationship, either. It may be part of our job to be “at the service” of other people: working in a shop, driving a bus, or something with a more professional air like being a doctor or a teacher. That is what I mean by formal or permanent. But it may be quite informal and occasional, as when someone in the street asks directions, or when we help someone who has dropped their shopping in the supermarket to pick it up. Anything helpful to another can be called service or ministry.

And any such service can become religious simply by our consciously relating it to our Lord’s commandment that we love one another, or by remembering his words, “What you do for the least of my brothers, you do to me.” Christian people do not need to do extra, or different, things to “minister beyond” the Church fellowship. They just need to do the same things with Christ in mind. As George Herbert wrote,

“nothing can be so mean,
which with this tincture, ‘for thy sake’,
will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine;
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.

This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold.”

So: in the most general sense, “ministry beyond” is easy. We just try to be as helpful as we can to others, whether as part of our job or not, seeing ourselves as at the service of everyone.

But I would like to take the idea a step further. Our speaker on Tuesday spoke in particular of priesthood, and here I think we need some clarification. Priesthood, in the sense of the ordained priesthood, is indeed one particular ministry within the Church. But we get in a muddle if we speak of the ordained priesthood simply as “the ministry”, or even “the ordained ministry”. Priesthood is a ministry, but not all ministry is priesthood. Yet there is a real sense in which all Christians form “a royal priesthood.” There is a proper way in which we can speak of the Baptismal priesthood, or even of the priesthood of all believers. So let me muse a little on the concept of priesthood.

Priesthood, unlike ministry, is definitely and essentially a religious idea. Not just Christian: other religions too have a concept of priesthood. The essential character of the priest is to be a go-between, an intermediary, between God and the rest of the community in which he is a priest. The priest speaks to the people on behalf of God, and to God on behalf of the people. Both of these elements are important. The prophet speaks on behalf of God, but that alone does not make the prophet a priest. The intercessor prays to God on behalf of other people, but that alone does not constitute priesthood. Every priest is a pontifex, a bridge-maker, in fact he is himself a bridge between God and mankind.

For Christians, the archetypal priest is Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Anointed One of God. He is not just the Spokesman of God, the Emissary, he is actually the Word of God, the message and not simply the messenger. Jesus is the Universal Priest, sent by the Father to the whole of creation, and who brings back the whole of creation into unity with God.

No-one can appoint himself a priest. The priest has to be sent, has to be accredited and authorised by God. In Christianity, this is the significance of ordination. Even if the priest emerges from the people, even if to some extent the priest is put forward by the people, the priesthood itself is the gift of God, imparted through the ministry of those who already have this authority.

But (you may say) what has all this to do with “ministry beyond”? This is just routine stuff about the priesthood. Well, yes and no. Because Christianity sees priesthood at more than one level. Conventionally, we tend to identify it with the “ministerial” office within the Church itself. Priests serve the People of God by administering the sacraments, by preaching the word of God, and “churchy” things like that. This is priesthood in the Church and to the Church.

But (as I said just now) all Christians form “a royal priesthood, a people consecrated to God”, in St Peter’s words. This is what is called “the Baptismal priesthood”, and it means that each and every baptised believer is somehow sent by God as an emissary to the human race at large: all that mass of people who have not yet heard the word of God, who do not yet know Jesus Christ. And this is most definitely a ministry “outside the Church fellowship.” And it is more than just the service and ministry I spoke of earlier, of being helpful in all sorts of ways to the people we meet every day.

How should this “ministry beyond” be exercised? Firstly, I think, by the baptised Christian remaining aware at all times that we are ambassadors of God, of Jesus Christ, to the world. As St Paul says somewhere, whenever we speak we should speak as from God, and so on. That does not mean that all our talk should be explicitly religious. What bores we would become! But it does mean that we should try never to speak in a way we cannot imagine our Lord speaking- nothing unkind, nothing indecent. Like Christ himself, we must be not just messengers, but also the message. Our whole lives should be such that we as it were “demonstrate” Christ to others.

Because this is a real priestly service, a mediation between God and humanity, it is automatically “beyond”, to the world outside the Church, to those who do not yet know Christ. By our lives (and occasionally by our words) we speak for God to his people; and in our prayers we intercede for all people with God.

There is yet another level of priesthood: that of humanity itself to the rest of creation. As God’s rational creatures, we stand between him and the material world. Through us, through human beings, God perfects his universe. Science and the arts in some way advance the creative process, and through human beings the inarticulate creation- from stars to microbes- finds a voice. When we sing the Benedicite, “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord,” and so on, we are doing this. Even non-Christians who believe in the Creator are able to do this, but it will only come to perfection when in fact the Church embraces all people, when all people are taken into the Body of Christ.

One last point: though not the least important. Priesthood is also about sacrifice, about making an offering to God. Jesus offered himself on the cross, being obedient even unto death. For us, the sacrifice of God is a contrite spirit: a broken and contrite heart he will not despise. Our offering is of ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice in union with Christ. And as we offer ourselves with him to the Father, so by our baptismal priesthood we enable others to become part of this offering.  This, I would say, is the rationale of all “ministry beyond”. Its concrete application is left to each one individually.


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