A moment ago we commissioned two of our own to do the work of the ministry. We shared together in the commissioning of Alex and Rial to be Stephen Ministers, a ministry of pastoral care and service to this community of faith. According to information I found on the Stephen Ministries website:
The Stephen Series is a complete system for training and organizing lay people to provide one-to-one Christian care to hurting people in and around your congregation.
With their commissioning, we have recognized and affirmed the gifts and calling of these two people to take up this caring ministry in the congregation.
Perhaps it’s providential that this service of commissioning occurred on the day that we begin observing the Week of the Ministry. Each October our churches observe The Week of the Ministry in order to lift up the call to ministry, both in its lay and clergy forms. This year, fortuitously, the emphasis is on “Many Gifts, One Spirit.” The message is simple; although our gifts maybe different, there is but one Spirit who empowers and equips and calls forth the ministries of God’s people.
Not only have we commissioned Alex and Rial to be Stephen Ministers, and have begun our observance of the Week of the Ministry, but even the lectionary reading from the Epistles focuses its attention on ministry. In this second letter to Timothy, a letter that is attributed to Paul, advice is given to a young pastor who is experiencing some troubles in his church. Although most scholars don’t think Paul wrote this letter, if you go back a few verses, to verse 10, you will find “Paul,” or someone writing in his name, talking about his own experiences in life and in ministry, and he suggests to his charge, that he should follow this example and heed the teachings that have been handed down to him by his mentor.
It’s not surprising that Timothy is having some difficulties – he’s young and not everyone respects his calling to the ministry. He’s doing his best to preach the gospel, but some in the church are looking elsewhere for answers. Yes, the mentor pastor notes that there are those in the congregation who have “itching ears” and are looking for teachers who will “suit their own desires.” Isn’t it good to know that such a thing would never happen here? I mean, I take great comfort in the knowledge that everyone in this congregation agrees with me 100% on every issue. Yes, I take great joy in knowing that whatever I say, you believe and will do, without question!! Okay, you can stop laughing! But all kidding aside, this passage of scripture has two important points to make that are essential to the way we understand ministry in the church. Christian ministry requires proficiency and persistence.
In this passage proficiency has to do with proper preparation for ministry, and the mentor pastor asks Timothy to remember who it was who taught him the scriptures and prepared him to live according to these scriptures. I wonder, can you picture in your mind who it was who introduced you to the Christian faith? Maybe it was your mother or father who shared with you the basic message of the Christian faith. Or maybe it was a Sunday school teacher, who was there for you, Sunday after Sunday, teaching in both word and deed the good news of Jesus.
I can’t remember when I first heard the message, after all I’ve been the church all my life. But I can picture two men who exemplified for me the Christian faith, and both were at one point or another my Sunday School teachers – Paul Sabo and John Harmon. I can’t remember exactly what they taught me, but I remember that they modeled what being a Christian was like. I also remember that they stood with me, even after I left the Episcopal Church. They loved me and cared about me. John even surprised me by flying down to LA to be at our wedding. I also remember my youth ministers at the church I attended during most of my high school years – Steve, Del, and Ray. Although I may look at the scriptures today in a very different way from what they taught me, I can say that they cemented within me a love for the Scriptures that continues to this very day. I could go on and name my teachers in college and seminary, who helped me understand more fully the Christian faith and the Scriptures that stand at the heart of this faith, people like Herb Works, Dennis Helsabeck, Jim Butler, Scott Bartchy, Colin Brown, and Jim Bradley. Each of these teachers helped prepare me for the journey that I have taken to this point.
The message of this passage reminds us to pay close attention to the things that were passed down to us. Remember what you were taught, because, as the New Living Translation renders verse 14 – “You know you can trust those who taught you.” There is, the author reminds us, a relational component to the way in which we experience the teachings of our faith.
Deeply rooted in this passage is a reminder that if our faith is to have any impact on our lives and the lives of others, we must be fully instructed in the substance of our faith – and not just doctrinally, but also in terms of the foundational Christian practices, including loving God and loving our neighbor. It might be instructive to remember that Alex and Rial didn’t just decide one day to be Stephen Ministers and then the next day received their badges and authorization in the mail! No, they went through lengthy and rigorous training. Right now Alex is also beginning her seminary training, which is a reminder that the call to pastoral ministry requires lengthy training as well.
In this text we discover that the foundation for every form of ministry is a proper grounding in the Scriptures. The mentor pastor commends Timothy for his commitment to understand and live out the teachings of the Scriptures, which in his case would have been what we call the Old Testament. According to this letter, Scripture is inspired by God and useful for the purposes of God. Yes, these sacred writings are theopneusto. That is, they are, as the Greek makes very clear, God-breathed. That doesn’t mean that God verbally dictated the words of Scripture, nor does it mean that they are necessarily inerrant or infallible. But this passage does suggest that when we attend to the words of Scripture, when we wrestle with them, and seek to understand and live out the message that is found in these words, God promises to be in them and with them, so that we might be taught, corrected, and trained in righteousness. As you hear this litany of possible uses, it’s clear that the author has in mind the full body of a person. The Scriptures are useful to instruct our minds, but they also help form the way we live in the world, and that is because the Spirit is present in them and with them as well as being in us and with us.
Therefore, being proficient in the things of God, we are ready to proclaim the message of God to the world. But, this will take persistence, which isn’t the same thing as stubbornness. I know first hand about stubbornness, for I have been known to be stubborn! So, persistence doesn’t mean doing the same thing year after year, even though all the evidence suggests that it might be time to try something new, which might work a lot better! It’s good to remember that church leaders sometimes get a burr under the saddle and can’t seem to get rid of it, and so they beat that old proverbial horse until it can’t move any further.
But, as the author of this letter makes quite clear, the call to ministry isn’t always a bed of roses. This young pastor, as I mentioned earlier seems to be feeling abandoned by his people, who are chasing after the latest spiritual fads. Although Paul is probably not the author of this letter, he would have understood what Timothy is going through, because when we read his undisputed letters, we discover that he faced untold difficulties with the churches he planted. Paul told the Corinthians, for instance, to bear for a moment with his jealousy for them, because he was perturbed by their willingness to entertain views of God that were contrary to his teachings, which led him give a litany of his own sufferings for the Lord. After all, he’d been imprisoned, flogged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and set adrift at sea, along with facing the dangers of bandits and floods (2 Corinthians 11). Despite the odds, Paul remained faithful. That is, he was persistent in his calling.
And if you need a more contemporary lesson in persistence, just think about the thirty-three Chilean miners who spent nearly ten weeks underground. What a joy it was to watch them emerge from the mine the other day. But that moment came only because the people involved were persistent. The miners decided that they would survive, and so they worked together to accomplish this goal, while above ground a team of people – engineers, psychologists, physicians, miners, and more -- joined forces to not only bore a hole in the ground so that the trapped miners could be pulled to safety, but they continued to provide words of inspiration and encouragement to them, much like this pastor did for Timothy.
With the examples of Paul and the Chilean miners in our minds, like Timothy, we hear a call to remain true to our gifts and calling, which God’s Spirit has poured out on the church of Jesus Christ. Some are teachers and some are prophets, some assist those in need, and others listen attentively to the concerns of others. Some give financially beyond measure so that the ministry of the church can proceed and God’s name might be proclaimed. Yes, we are being encouraged to stay true to our calling, even when things get difficult and we feel abandoned. The reason we can do this is that God remains faithful. Even when we feel alone, we can take heart in the promise that God remains present with us in season and out. So, be persistent in your ministry – convince, rebuke, encourage others with utmost patience. And, perhaps, like Timothy, you will hear a reminder to do the work of an evangelist. But, whatever your calling, be proficient and persistent in carrying out your ministry in its fullness.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)