Life Together as the Full Expression of Ministry

Sermon delivered Sunday, June 28, 2009 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to hear an audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we conclude this month’s preaching theme which focuses on the purpose of ministry. You recall that we define ministry here at St. Andrew’s as service to the Church. Two weeks ago we looked at three biblical reasons for why we are called to ministry. We saw that we are created by God and called to help him in his restorative and redemptive work in these end times as even now he is at work in establishing his new creation. We also talked about the fact that every one of us is going to have to give an account for our lives, not in terms of whether we are saved, but rather for what we have done with our God-given gifts. Last, we talked about the fact that we do ministry as a grateful and sincere response for all that God has done for us in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and his promise to bless us with new resurrection bodies to live in his New Creation.

Last week we looked at some reasons why people are sometimes reluctant to enter into ministry. Specifically we looked at how our fears and insecurities can warp our views about what it means to be a success or failure, and we talked about how we need to look to God’s economy to define success or failure. We saw that success in God’s eyes is determined by how faithfully we use his gifts to serve him, and failure results when we refuse to use his gifts. We also talked about how critically important it is for us to remember God’s mighty acts in the history of his people, both in the OT and NT, and in our lives today. We do the latter by sharing our “God Moments” with each other. This morning I want to try to paint for you a compelling picture of what ministry can look like, especially as it is expressed in small groups, and why it is so important for us, not only as the Church but also as individuals, to do ministry as we live life together.

How many of you found this morning’s Gospel lesson compelling at some level? Why is that, do you think? I suggest this story grabs us so readily because it speaks to our deepest fears and hopes. In these two stories of Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman, we find all that can go wrong with life, and this frightens us. We see a life cut short by illness and the grief it causes. We can relate to this because everyone of us in this room knows of someone to whom this has happened. Some of us are struggling with that very issue right now. Just this past week, for example, my old girlfriend from the 1970s, Farrah Fawcett died at 62 of cancer (well, she actually never knew she was my girlfriend but she was) and Michael Jackson died at age 50 of cardiac arrest.

Likewise, we can relate to the hemorrhaging woman, can’t we? Most of us here know of at least one person who has struggled with a chronic disease, either physical or mental, and who, despite all kinds of treatment, has simply not gotten better. If we know these persons well, or if we are one of them, we also know the feeling of hopelessness and despair that can eventually overtake the afflicted ones. And so we can really relate to Jairus and this unnamed woman when they desperately seek out Jesus to heal their loved ones or them. We can relate to them because in all likelihood we have desperately reached out to Jesus to heal us or our loved ones too.

Then, of course, there is Jesus. We see him respond to Jairus’ desperate plea to come and heal his daughter. We watch with relief when Jesus does not rebuke the marginalized woman for touching him so that she could be healed. We hope that he will treat us likewise when we approach him with our hurts, infirmities, and sicknesses for him to heal.

Moreover, we are reminded in this story that Jesus can and does heal and transform us. He resuscitates Jairus’ daughter and heals the woman, and we take hope in that because this is another story that reminds us that Jesus brings life, not death, compassion, not rejection, healing, not sickness. Yet at the same time, we wonder why Jesus sometimes doesn’t answer our prayer for healing and one of two things is likely to happen: (1) we wonder what is wrong with us and/or our faith; or (2) we wonder if Jesus really is all he’s cracked up to be. Can he really heal and transform us or is this all just a bunch of baloney?

And so from these stories, on the one hand, we see why it is so important for us to cultivate our relationship with Christ, and on the other, we are left with our doubts. Yet, deep down these stories ring true and we want with all our heart and mind to believe them, but often we just seem to be spinning our wheels. Why is that?

Or consider this prayer from Hannah Whitall Smith:

Lord Jesus, I believe that thou art able and willing to deliver me from all the care and unrest and bondage of my Christian life. I believe thou didst die to set me free, not only in the future, but now and here. I believe thou art stronger than sin, and that thou canst keep me, even me, in my extreme of weakness, from falling in its snares or yielding obedience to its commands. And Lord, I am going to trust thee to keep me. I have tried keeping myself, and have failed, and failed, most grievously. I am absolutely helpless. So now I will trust thee. I give myself to thee. I keep back no reserves. Body, soul and spirit, I present myself to thee as a piece of clay, to be fashioned into anything thy love and thy wisdom shall choose. And now I am thine. I believe thou dost accept that which I present to thee; I believe that this poor, weak, foolish heart has been taken possession of by thee, and that thou hast even at this very moment begun to work in me to will and to do of thy good pleasure. I trust thee utterly, and I trust thee now.

From The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith

Regardless of what you might think of Smith’s theology (if you know anything about her), this is a beautiful prayer, isn’t it? It acknowledges our fallen condition with all its weaknesses. There is a wonderful hope expressed here as well, and we find ourselves nodding in agreement with its petitions and acknowledgement of Jesus’ sovereign power. Yet how many of us have prayed something like Smith’s prayer? How many of us have resolved to give ourselves totally to Christ and to trust him completely, only to find that a few days or weeks later, we are right back in our old patterns of thought and behavior? I have. So what’s up with that?

Where is God’s Grace?

I know what some of you are thinking right now. Is Fr. Kevin ever going to get to the point? After all, the days are getting shorter now and we need all the daylight we can get. Well, yes, I am coming to the point, so take heart (and get the suntan lotion ready). The reason many of us never develop the kind of relationship with Christ that our hearts desire is because we are fallen creatures and we are trying to do this on our own. We Americans especially are so ingrained with the notion of rugged individualism that we forget we are called to live our lives in Christ together for many of the reasons we have already talked about.

Simply put, ministry is living life together as Christ’s Body, the Church. It is loving service to one another and it manifests itself best when we love each other enough to get real with each other and help each other as we grow, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, to Christ’s full stature. In a church this size with four services, it is impossible to do this kind of ministry only on Sunday mornings. It requires that each one of us gets into a small group so that we can learn to develop the kind of grace-filled intimacy with one another so that our Lord can use us to help him transform us and be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).

Now please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that ministry in small group is more important than other forms of ministry that occur here on Sunday morning and at other times. For example, if we did not have the altar guild or the tech ministry or music or ushers or hospitality ministers, or Sunday school teachers, our worship would surely be impoverished and we as Christ’s Body would suffer immensely because we are first and foremost a worshiping community.

Neither am I suggesting to you that belonging to a small group is more important in developing our relationship with Jesus than prayer, daily Bible study, or weekly worship and communion. All of these means of grace are very important to help us become more like Jesus (Christian maturity). We shouldn’t look at this as an either-or proposition because doing so sets up a false dichotomy between doing ministry in small groups versus doing ministry here at the church and between doing ministry in small groups versus the other means of grace. Instead, I would encourage you to look at this as a “both-and” proposition. We need the spiritual dimension that is part and parcel of prayer, Bible study, and taking communion. But as we have seen over the last two weeks, we also need grace manifested in the human dimension to help us grow to the full stature of Christ so that we can become like him, and there is much biblical warrant for this.

First, we were created to have fellowship with both God and each other (Genesis 1-2). Human isolation and loneliness are products of the fall, not the desire of our Creator, and in the wonderful visions of New Creation that we read in Isaiah and Revelation, we notice that there is a corporate dimension. The New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven, and which is part of the New Heavens and New Earth, will not be inhabited by a collection of autonomous individuals doing their own thing, but rather by the body of all the faithful saints worshiping our Risen Lord forever and doing so together (Revelation 21).

In his farewell discourse, Jesus himself reminds us that we were made to have relationship together and that we are to help each other in our faith journey when he called himself the vine and referred to us as the branches. A vine with one branch is not exactly a healthy vine, is it? No, in this imagery, Jesus reminds us that we must have our roots in him but that we are to help each other and grow together (John 15:1-17).

Likewise, Paul reminds us that we are Christ’s Body, the Church, and in that wonderful passage from 1 Corinthians 12, he talks about the deep interdependency of the various parts of the body and the importance of each individual in it. He refers to the Church as a living organism, not an organization. Again, it is impossible to develop that kind of intimacy in the context of Sunday morning worship. We need to use our own unique and individual gifts to build each other up, which is ministry at its finest, and this kind of intimacy can only happen in small groups.

The various NT writers, especially Paul, recognize the fact that by ourselves we are fallen, broken creatures and ripe for the picking if we seek to develop our relationship with Christ on our own. Peter warns us that our enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Again, this does not mean that we do not have the power of Christ working in us to help us resist the Evil One. We do indeed have that power. But as we have seen, from the very beginning, God has chosen to use human agency to help him accomplish his good will and purposes and we ignore the ministry we offer to each other in the context of small groups to our own peril. That is why we see the NT writers encourage us to live life together so that we will not fall away, so that we will not succumb to our doubts and fears, and so that we can help build each other up as we use the other means of grace to help us grow in our relationship with Christ.

Listen to a couple of examples from Scripture. We are encouraged to love one another, be kind and compassionate toward each other. We are to submit to one another, both in our relationships at church and in our family relationships. We are to teach, admonish, and encourage one another. We are called to be humble, patient, kind, and compassionate, bearing with each other in love. When I did a search for these terms, I found over 60 of these kinds of passages (and if you would like a copy of them, you can find them in the narthex). This is ministry at its finest. It is based on fellowship and it is the Spirit-filled remedy on the human side for all that seeks to prevent us from growing in our relationship to Christ.

Please notice two critical assumptions behind all these biblical “one another” imperatives. First, nowhere are we urged to engage in navel-gazing or long walks on the beach by ourselves to commune with God. This rugged individualism approach to developing our relationship with Christ is simply absent in Scripture. We are called to grow in our faith in relationship to others, and that means doing ministry, i.e., serving one another in love, just as our Lord commanded us to do.

Second, notice the nature of the relationships presupposed by these passages. You don’t teach, admonish, and bear each other’s burdens if you have a superficial relationship with people.  Imagine trying to do that to a perfect stranger, even if he were a Christian. You will likely get a very cool reception! No, the only way we can do this is to get real with folks, i.e., to have an authentic relationship with each other, and this takes time and effort to develop, as does any meaningful relationship. Only when we are willing to show our real selves, warts and all, will the Spirit equip us to minister to each other in ways that foster our spiritual growth and deepens our relationship with Christ. So while we can certainly minister to people in relationally superficial ways, ministry that Christ uses to be life changing usually takes place within the intimacy of personal relationships because it is in that context the Risen Lord can best use us to help each other grow in our relationship with him.

Where is the Application?

Let’s go back to our original examples above and apply what we’ve been talking about to see what this might look like. We read today’s Gospel lesson and want desperately to believe its good news about Jesus but we or someone we love is sick and our prayers seem to go answered. We get discouraged and are tempted to fall away. If left to our own devices, except for the sheer grace of God, there is a real possibility of that happening. But when we are in a life group and have developed real and intimate relationships with each other, we can express our fears and doubts and allow other group members to minister to us by praying for us, to share their own doubts and fears, as well as their hopes, and to look closely at Scripture with us to see what it has to say about these mysteries. Perhaps most importantly, however, we take great comfort from their ministry to us because we know we have someone whom we trust and on whom we can depend. That’s ministry which flows from real fellowship.

Likewise, when we resolve to put our whole hope and trust in Jesus as Smith’s prayer articulated and then life starts to get in our way because it is messy, we call our accountability partner who both admonishes us and encourages us to stand firm. He reminds us of God’s mighty acts in the history of his people and asks us to remember some God moments in our lives to help build us up in our pressing moments of weakness. This, of course, is impossible without a deep and real relationship with a trusted Christian brother or sister and the abiding Presence of Christ. Without those relationships, we are likely to be defeated because we are fallen and broken creatures. However, with a real and intimate relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord will surely use that to help us grow to his full stature [personal testimony about divorce, ordination concerns, and my small group]

None of this, of course, denies the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. In fact, these examples presume his active Presence and Power at work in and through his faithful people. As we have seen repeatedly, we Christians are called to use our gifts to help God accomplish his good will and purposes for us. This is ministry at work, powerful and compelling. This is what it means to do ministry as life together. When we minister to each other this way, we are doing what Paul urged us to do—rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). We are demonstrating our love for each other and we are doing it humbly because we know that we too are subject to temptation, sin, and infirmity.

The Christian faith is a journey and often a struggle, but we are not called to live it alone. God can and does work through human agency and uses his children to help him in his work toward New Creation and to help us grow to Christ’s full stature. When we take the chance and develop real relationships with other faithful souls, we will find an added dimension to Christ’s grace to help us on our way. The promise is ours for the taking. Do you love the Lord and each other enough to want to help him in his work, thereby ministering to those you love? If you do, you will find that he blesses you and those with you in ways you can scarcely begin to imagine.

When we do ministry in the context of small groups, we help build up Christ’s Body and make it healthy and strong so that together we can do the work Christ calls us to do. Just as when physical illness or infirmity prevent the body from doing its normal activities, so an unhealthy Body of Christ will be unable to witness to a broken and hurting world that so desperately needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But when we minister to each other so that we are helped in our relationship with Christ, we help make his Body strong so that we can provide a powerful witness to those who need to hear the Good News. Outsiders will look at our ministries and say, “See how those Christians at St. Andrew’s love one another! Look how well they serve Christ by helping each other. I want to be part of that!” That’s ministry that will last you a lifetime and beyond, folks, and that’s good news, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.