July 2, 2015

Ministry: sharing in what Jesus is doing

This post continues a series looking at The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1, 2, 3, 567891011, 12131415.

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman by Giacomo Franceschini
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Previously in this series we've noted Anderson's emphasis on the unity of theology and mission. When fully Christian, both are grounded in the person (being) and work (doing) of Jesus, the incarnate, resurrected, ascended Son of God. There is no separation between Jesus' being (from which flows Christian theology) and his doing (from which flows Christian mission). In Jesus, by the Spirit, Christian mission (ministry) is actual participation in what Jesus is doing in the world to fulfill the Father's mission.

It is thus vital that the church keep at the forefront of its thinking the truth that it is Jesus (the living Word) and not someone or something else, that constitutes the interpretive key (hermeneutic) by which the church is able to rightly understand Holy Scripture (the written Word), determine doctrine, and define its mission/ministry. In short, Jesus must be the Center of the center of all the church believes, teaches and does. Jesus, in union with his Father, and at work in the world through the Holy Spirit, must set the agenda for the church. This Christological, Trinitarian approach has two important benefits:
  • It rules out utilitarianism (which tends to create ministry out of needs), and pragmatism (which transforms ministry into mere marketing strategy).
  • It focuses the church on the reality of God's ongoing ministry, which is one of revelation and reconciliation.
Note how Anderson defines ministry as one entity with two integrated movements: revelation and reconciliation. God reveals himself to humanity in the person and work of Jesus, then through that revelation he brings forth a response by which the person is conformed to the Word. The revelation is creative of the human response (leading to reconciliation). Note that God is involved in, integrates and upholds both movements: "Reconciliation, as a movement initiated by God, does not originate outside of the event of revelation... God's word of revelation involves the ministry of reconciliation" (pp.66-67).

Anderson also notes that this ministry of revelation and reconciliation includes both judgment and grace. Despite misconceptions to the contrary, these two are not at odds---God's judgment always is for (never against) the person in order to lead them to reconciliation with himself, which brings forth healing and holiness (wholeness). In judging a person and their situation, God closes one door and opens another, making possible a new possibility---bringing forth, by grace, the new creation which has occurred already for all humanity through the vicarious humanity of Jesus. It is thus an actual reality (2 Corinthians 5:19) and the ministry of the church is participation in what Jesus is now doing through the Spirit to make this objective actuality a personal (subjective) reality.

How then should the church conduct this ministry of revelation and reconciliation? Anderson comments:
The ministry of disclosing the Word to the world [revelation/proclamation] is upheld by the reality of the incarnate presence of Christ in the world. All exegetical, hermeneutical and homiletical work as the proper theological activity of the church is supported and made possible by this incarnation. The ministry of reconciling the world to this word of revelation is upheld by Jesus' incarnate life of obedience and faithful response to this word. All of the healing, teaching and saving ministry of the church is supported and made possible by the incarnation (p.73).
May we as church leaders examine all our ministry programs asking whether or not they are genuine participation in what Jesus is now doing in the world. And may we examine what we believe and teach (including our doctrines and policies) asking whether or not they are obedient responses to our Lord's present ministry. It's all too easy to think only of what Jesus did historically. But Jesus is alive! He is present and now at work, through the Spirit, in our world. We certainly want to carefully study what Jesus once did (we have Scripture to tell us). But we also must discern what he is currently doing. Some worry that this line of thinking will lead to bad doctrine and practice where current cultural norms and preferences set the agenda. But that need not be the case---indeed it must not be the case---what Jesus currently is doing often is quite counter-cultural, though always it is for the purpose of revelation and reconciliation in the current (here-and-now) set of circumstances.

A key principle here (addressed by Anderson in chapter six) is that Jesus, through the Spirit who forms the church for mission, is working to move people toward a deeper experience of the reconciliation he has accomplished already for all humanity with God. This is a progressive journey of transformation. We see this at work in Scripture where, for example, God moves the church to embrace the "new wine" that is the gospel contained for a time in the "old wineskins" of the Law. But then Jesus leads the church to cast aside the old wineskins (the old covenant) so that they can fully embrace its calling to join with Jesus in God's mission to the whole world (Jews and Gentiles alike). Anderson gives other examples of changes in strategy as the church journeys in ministry with Jesus. Their ministry experience then leads to deeper understanding of theology, which in turn informs ministry, and on it goes (and continues in our time to go). Anderson comments:
Jesus himself continues to instruct Christians as to the will of God in practical matters of the life of faith. Jesus has not simply left us a set of teachings. He has done that. But in addition, he continues to teach. Discerning this teaching it itself a hermeneutical task, not merely an exercise in historical memory (p.84).
This does not mean we ignore what is written in Scripture. Quite the contrary. The Bible is the primary way God reveals himself to us in Jesus, by the Spirit. But the Bible, like all things in heaven and on earth, stands under the Lordship of Christ. To understand Scripture properly (for the purpose it was inspired), it must be interpreted through the "lens" of the person and work of Jesus. In that regard, Anderson offers these important observations:
The resurrected Jesus as the living Lord is a continuing hermeneutical criterion for interpreting the Word of God.... Jesus is not only the living Word who inspires the New Testament and thus insures its trustworthiness but...also [is] present in the contemporary reading and interpretation of the New Testament... [Jesus] upholds his word in Scripture as true and directs its purpose to his own creative ends.... The very words of Scripture, inspired as they are, continue to speak to us out of the very being of the One present with us (p.87).
Of course, some will object to these observations, worried that they elevate personal/subjective experience above Scripture. Anderson comments:
To those who protest that the reality of the living Lord cannot be objectively discerned and known in the context of our own subjective experience, we must in turn protest that this is a denial of the sheer objective reality of the being of the risen Lord who presents himself to us both as an object of knowledge and as experience through the Holy Spirit's encounter with us (p.89).
Next time we'll look at some real-life examples of the approach to ministry that Anderson advocates.

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