The ministry of the spoken Word of God

This post continues a series examining key points of Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 891011.

Lost and Found by Greg Olsen (used with permission)
As noted by Purves, the pastoral ministry of Jesus has four aspects: 1) the ministry of the Word of God, 2) the ministry of the grace of God, 3) the ministry of the presence of God, and 4) the ministry of the reign of God. This post begins looking at the first aspect, which Purves views as inherently "apostolic and priestly... grounded at all points in the vicarious humanity of Christ and enabled... through our union with Christ by the power and act of the Holy Spirit" (p. 156). He also notes that Jesus' ministry of the Word of God is threefold: 1) speaking the Word, 2) hearing the Word, and 3) obeying (responding to) the Word. This time we'll look at what Purves considers the two principal aspects of speaking the Word: preaching and pastoral care.

The ministry of the spoken Word of God in preaching

As pastors, teachers and other pastoral ministers, when we think of preaching, we often think of preaching techniques and tools. Though these are helpful, our principal concern must be to participate with Jesus in the proclamation of the Word of God as it is addressed to our audience (typically a congregation in the case of preaching). In this proclamation, our primary goal is not to illustrate the Word or to show its application, but to proclaim it clearly in all its inherent power. Purves comments: "Through union with Christ, the proclamation of Christ Jesus as the living Word of God to and for us speaks on its own terms as Christ's Word" (p. 156). The proclamation of the Word is God's gift to the congregation---a gift "not within our power to engender or manipulate... a happening that is not ours to control" (p. 156). As the Apostle Paul discovered, the proclamation of the Word (which for him had to do with announcing the Lordship of Christ) is... 
...the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women.... When Paul announced [the] gospel message, it carried its own weight, its own authority, quite independently of the rhetorical or linguistic skill of the herald. (pp. 156-7, quoting N.T. Wright)
Since, through our union with Christ, we share in the life of Christ, the sermon is "an enfleshment in speech today of the one historical and always eternal and living Word of God." The sermon is thus a "theological act... whereby God speaks [his] personal and actual Word of address to the people gathered through the voice of the minister" (p. 157). Purves emphasizes that preaching, at its core, is the "announcement of the gospel... [whereby] the preacher tells about Jesus... as he is attested by Scripture" (p. 157). The content of this gospel message is summed up by Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:14 (NKJV): "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit."

Certainly, preachers should develop their craft in terms of preaching knowledge (eg: homiletics) and skills, but they must always be aware that the power of preaching is not in them, or in technique, but in the Word of God. Thinking otherwise shows "a lack of confidence in the efficacy of Word and sacraments"---the primary means by which Jesus, the living Word of God, is "present with us in truth and power" (p. 159). So let's remember, preachers, that we are called to preach not our message, but the message concerning Jesus (the gospel). As Purves notes, our "homiletical skills must at all points be controlled by the subject matter, the gospel to be proclaimed, that by God's grace is proclaimed, and that is the content of God's address whereby people are brought to faith and into the church" (p. 160). In short let's preach the Word!

The ministry of the spoken Word of God in pastoral care

For Purves, it is vital that we view pastoral care as a principal aspect of Jesus' ministry of the spoken Word of God. Sadly, however, it's often grounded elsewhere---in psychology or certain aspects of sociology, for example. Though these areas of knowledge have their place in informing pastoral care, the basis (ground) of that care must always be joining with Jesus in speaking the Word of God into the lives of those we are called to care for. Purves (at time quoting Eduard Thurneysen) puts it this way:
Pastoral care exists in the church as communication of the Word of God to individuals... [It] can be nothing else than a communication of the Word of God in a particular form. Hence, pastoral care can be concerned with nothing else than the proclamation of forgiveness [justification] and the sanctification of man for God... a conversation in which both parties listen to and respond to the Word of God for it is God's Word alone that ultimately interprets and heals the human situation. (pp. 160, 162)
With this approach to pastoral care, the person we seek to assist is, appropriately "cast back upon Jesus Christ, who comes as he is, the Word of God, attested by Scripture" (p. 162). Our primary job as pastor is not to "fix the problem" of those we serve, but to help them explore their presenting problem in ways that lead to a discussion of the deepest truth about themselves. This discussion thus serves as an "on ramp" to the source of true healing for them, namely their union with Christ. In that way, we are helping our congregants build on the ground of their baptism as we move "the conversation away from inner resources or external fixes to a ground in the gospel" (p. 163).

There are, of course, various human skills that help a pastor enter such deep, gospel-centered conversations with congregants---skills like empathy, sensitivity, focused listening, biblical knowledge, etc. But ultimately, what we do in pastoral care (when it is fully Christian) is to help congregants listen deeply for "a word from the Lord." Indeed, the heart of evangelical pastoral practice is sure knowledge that only Jesus, the living Word of God, is able to reveal and then heal the content of the human heart. This evangelical approach to pastoral care takes seriously at all points that Christ, through his vicarious humanity, is sharing life redemptively with all people. This means that pastors "listen to their people in the context of the Word of God and seek always to return them to that Word" (p. 164).

Pastoral care certainly does take up the understandings and tools presented by psychology, philosophy, sociology, etc.---there is much to be learned in studying these areas of knowledge. However, eventually the Word of God "surpasses these preliminary perspectives" (p. 165). As Thurneysen notes, "Pastoral care built upon the Word of God travels into  territory where psychology cannot go, namely, the ultimate mystery of the human condition and its redemption in, through, and by Jesus Christ (p. 165).

As we lead those we are caring for to Jesus, and to his Word to them, there will oftentimes come a crisis---a decision will be called forth, and that event often will lead to struggle.We as pastors/counselors are there to help them in that time of need, not deliver them from the struggle, but to assist them in this "confrontation from Jesus," for he is the only one who transforms and heals the lost, hurting, and sin-sick. And that, ultimately, is what pastoral care is all about.

So those are key points about the ministry of the spoken Word of God in preaching and pastoral care. Next time we'll look at the ministry of the heard Word of God. Stay tuned. 

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