TWENTYFIRST CENTURY MINISTRY
SERMON AT A DEDICATION SERVICE OF CHURCH MINISTERS.
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1- 6
REFERENCES: Video: “Cool Runnings” Walt Disney Corp.
I am deeply honoured as one who ministered for over 50 years in the twentieth century to speak to you ministers who will spend your ministry lives in the twenty-first century. The twenty-first century must have a ministry fit for the times. Ministry is in a constant state of change to meet the new needs of people and the differences found in every generation. Many clergy find it hard to keep pace with the changing demands of their role and the varying needs of church members. The calling does not alter; neither does the primary resources used by the minister, but the demands and needs alter with very decade.
I have been very proud of the members of the ministry teams with whom I have worked in almost every one of those fifty years. For over a quarter of a century the ministry team at Wesley Mission, with which I worked: ordained clergy, ministers, chaplains, pastors, youth workers, counsellors, and administrative assistants and administrative staff, worked together for many years.
By and large the work was effective and we saw growth in our church membership and attendances over all of our congregations, in an era when all city churches have declined and where most Uniting Churches particularly have grown smaller. Ministers and pastors at the beginning of the year such as this dedicate yourselves to another year of service. Yet some are under stress with the constant difficulty of balancing your calling with realistic expectations and the often unrealistic expectations of some church members. The work is demanding, the rewards are few, and the signs of success are rare. For many, ministry is frustrating. So what specifically will leaders of the church in the twenty-first century be required to demonstrate?
Many passages of Scripture reflect on the calling of people to ministry. In one, the Apostle Paul writes: Ephesians 4:1-6 “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
The apostle urges the Christians in Ephesus, particularly their leaders, to (v1) lead the sort of life that matches their Christian vocation. Paul insists on a balance between profession and practice. That is where some ministers have failed in the public eye: behaviour has not lived up to their profession.
Ministers’ lives must reflect the purity and holiness of the Gospel. Christian ministers must always model a holy lifestyle. Paul specifies (v2) four graces that evidence the minister’s calling and character: humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance. He also notes how (v3) the absence of these qualities may jeopardize Christian unity. Paul presses his readers to exert all their powers to maintain the oneness in Christ. The verb “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” suggests such is difficult and requires a rugged determination to keep that unity.
The reasons why those (v4) who belong to Christ should be eager to preserve their unity are now supplied in a crescendo of nouns. In three groups of three items each, Paul’s thought ascend. “One body” depicts the church as a single visible community. In the pagan world there were many religious cults to choose from. But Christians were members of one body. “One Spirit” indwells the body of Christ. By him the body lives and moves. The “one Spirit” spans the widest of gulfs to bring together diverse groups within the church. It is the calling of the minister to preserve the unity of the body, even at the price of battle.
The second trio of unities (v5) is related to the “one Lord” the Master to whom all Christians owe their allegiance. Christ is central. Jesus is the sole Head of his body the church. Christians must trust Him and obey His commands. The pagan world spawned many lords. Christianity has only one. “One faith” in the one Lord unites believers. Faith is personal commitment to Christ. “One baptism” is the external seal of incorporation into the body of Christ, our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection. (Ephesians 1:13; 2:5, 6; 3:15). Baptism is one because it makes one. It provides the evidence that all Christians, without discrimination as to colour, race, sex, age, or class, share the grace of Christ provided they trust Him in faith and obey His commands. By our baptism we accept the standards of the character of Christ as ours as well. The last in the ascending trio (v6) is “one Father”. There is “one God”, who is the “Father of all”. These reasons explain our commitment to moral behaviour.
One of the highlights of my life, was to be the first chaplain to an Australian Olympic team. It was for the XV Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, 1988. Australia had only 17 competitors. I remember broadcasting to 2GB the highly contested women’s figure skating, and interviewing Eddie the Eagle, the British competitor in the 90 metre jump, who had never done it before. He gushed: “To have competed has been wonderful. To have survived a miracle!” The team which captured attention was the Jamaican bobsled team. It never snows in Jamaica, so their presence was most unusual. The Swiss, the Americans, the Russians, the East Germans scoffed, but the crowd cheered them.
They were led by a young Jamaican runner, Daresse, who wanted to be an Olympian like his father. But he never made the athletics team. His father had an American friend who had won two gold medals in an earlier winter Olympics in bobsledding. He was disqualified for adding weight into the nose of his bob-sled and both medals were taken from him. Dareese asked Bergin Brister, the American, if he would train the first Jamaican bobsled team. They trained on the beaches of Jamaica and made it to Calgary. At Calgary they qualified in a creditable 56.53 seconds. Just before the final, Dareese asked Brister a question, “Coach, I have to ask you a question. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” Brister responded, “You want to know why I cheated, right? It’s a fair question. I had to win. You see Dareese, I made winning my whole life. You have to win no matter what.” “But coach, you already had two gold medals. You had it all.” And Brister replied, “Dareese, a gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you are not enough without it, you will never be enough with it.”
He was saying a gold medal cannot make you a person of integrity, and without integrity you can lose even a gold medal. What is essential is integrity! Ministers of the Gospel must be people of absolute integrity. In a world where everything is for sale, God’s people must be people of integrity. As Psalm 51:6 says: “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts ; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.” The minister of the Gospel in this new century will be a valuable asset to the community if he or she is known for integrity.
When I was ordained fifty years ago, it was a very public event – a commitment between myself, God and the Church. I was committing myself to the ministry of the church for the rest of my life: no “ifs”, no “buts”. I would never leave because God called me to a place that was too difficult, or to people who made life a misery. I would never quit because the pay was inadequate or the demands too great. I had taken the words of Jesus literally: “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” On the night of my ordination my hands were placed on the wheel of a ship, and no storm or tempest would loosen my grip, for like the old sailing boat captains, I had lashed myself to the helm. Come hell or high water, I was lashed to the helm for life!
The twenty-first century ministry requires that commitment. I have listened to a new generation of ministers speaking about “flexibility of occupation”, “short-term appointments” and “transferability of service”. The church doesn’t want people who in tough times quit. The church of the new century wants commitment in its leadership because we may face in this era persecution, ridicule and social rejection as we have not seen before. The key to commitment is our affirmation in the Bible as the written Word of God. Through the Scriptures God speaks to us today. Deny the Scriptures and you will notice the sense of commitment evaporates. Commitment is grounded in the Word. This new era demands commitment, and commitment is galvanised through belief in the Scriptures.
There must always be a balance in the minister’s life between being tough enough to take whatever comes and tender enough to care for those who are hurting. I believe we need ministers who will never whine and who will stand up against strong opposition to the truth, but who at the same time can bring comfort and compassion. We need in this coming century ministers who are tough minded and tender hearted.
In the West Australian detention camps for illegal boat people who tried to enter Australia’s North West, a group protested by stitching their lips together. I discovered many ministers had their lips stitched together in time of moral dispute within the Uniting Church during protests over some high profile leaders who lived together in homosexual relationships. The timid ministers did not speak out when they should. They did not stand up and make their commitment to Biblical morality clear. Their lips were together out of fear that if they spoke out they could lose their current appointment, or future appointments, their house and car.
I was discouraged by the failure of ministers to publicly speak against wrong although many spoke and wrote to me privately. “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The new century will not give us the luxury is staying silent in a world that is looking for courageous leadership.
God calls men and women to be ministers of the Gospel and in this new century, they will need to be people of morality, integrity, commitment and courage. What a time to be alive and in the service of Christ and His Church! Never be afraid, for God honours those who honour Him.