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Paul's Ministry... & Ours

By Ralph P Martin.

Introduction

We all have our ideas and models of what christian ministry should be. Let me suggest that we can do no better than turn to Paul as the apostolic paradigm and see in his understanding a set of paradoxical pictures to assist us.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7 the apostle Paul writes of his service as a christian leader:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (NRSV)

The flow of Paul's argument in this chapter suggests that its purpose is to connect the kind of work he does with the kind of world he lives in. His opening reference to `this ministry' (4:1) is matched by what comes later when he describes his service as set in the midst of `this [present] world' (or `age') (4:4).

To put these two terms so closely together-this ministry and this world - is to mask the degree of disparity that separates them. Paul's understanding of his work makes it clear that it is one of humble service, the role of deacon or servant. Equally he has a realistic view of his environment-it is human society seen as an arena in which the powerful forces are evil and destructive of all that is good, wholesome and true. Satanic powers are rampant and are in apparent control. Yet there is no other world in which christian service is to be rendered. Christ's ministers are summoned to fulfil their calling in the midst of an unpromising and hostile setting. If this is so, the key has to be found in the over-used term `communication': how do christians, and especially ministers, committed as they are to accepting the role of servants, ever hope to bridge the gap to a world where power and influence are measured by assertiveness and even arrogance? To face this question is to confront immediately the theme of how the christian faith is to move into the next decade and the new millennium, and to wrestle with the paradox which Paul presents to us: we are frail; the world is strong. How can the christian message ever hope to gain a hearing and win an allegiance in this unequal contest?

So Paul poses a second paradox. The treasure we have to share is highly desirable and eminently valuable. Yet it is contained and transmitted in ordinary vessels. The latter were either ceramic receptacles, such as vases or jars, used to transport silver or gold, or pottery lamps designed to hold the oil which fed a candle wick to give a smoky, flickering light.

These containers were of baked clay, easily obtained and as easily disposed of; easily broken in transit but quickly replaceable. The nearest analogy in our consumer society would be the soft drink bottle or container that carries the label, 'No deposit, no return'.

Paul's view of Christian service is graphic ... and deflating. But it is exactly in line with the central thrust of what he believed about the message he was charged to deliver and by which his life was shaped. We may see it illustrated in a few ways as we try to put it in a wider context.

1. Incarnating the Godhead

First, it is the glory of the incarnation, surely at the heart of the New Testament faith and its evangelical message, that the divine life is concealed in the human. The age old questions, What is God like? How can mortals aspire to know the infinite and be in touch with the transcendent? are given resounding answers on almost every page, and notably by the same apostle who states the principle that `Things are not always what they seem to be'. He goes on in the immediate context of our verse to declare that the glory of the God who creates all things is seen in the human Jesus (2 Cor 4:6). He thereby reverses philosophical and popular notions of his day. Greeks could well imagine that men and women might become divine, but, as A D Nock once remarked, it was inconceivable that God should ever become fully human. Yet that is Paul's incarnational faith in a nutshell, expressed memorably in Dorothy L Sayers' dictum that in Jesus. of Nazareth God wrote his autobiography.

In the truly human life of this figure of history - who was bom, who lived under Palestinian skies and whose feet touched our native soil, who loved and suffered and died - it is there that we see the face of God, and his glory revealed. The glory of God, which in the Old Testament is that numinous display which marks the separation of the divine and the human (for instance, in Isaiah 6), is now reinterpreted in the story of Jesus of Nazareth -to show what is really there: the character of God spelled out in a language we can read and which speaks to us as the treasure of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21).

2. Valuing the Bible

Then, the good news which the church's ministers and servants are called to announce and to exemplify, is itself brought to us in the common speech of the Bible. Written over many centuries and

bearing all the marks of a human composition as a library of polyglot literature, the Bible with its obvious diversity may yet be said to share in this paradox of revelation. Weak and frail are the words of its authors, yet in this receptacle the treasure of the divine word is given. And it is a divine word that offers promise and hope, for its key theme is `good news', gospel.

In a world where good news is always at a premium, the place and power of the scripture in proclamation, liturgy, and personal living brings with it a liberating and renewing force. This awakening or discovery is not explainable simply because we are reading or hearing the human words, but rather because beyond and beneath the `words in a book' we are bidden to discover the word- the logos-which is personal and renewing (John 5:39-40). To borrow the adage of Luther, the Bible is the crib in which Christ is laid.

3. Celebrating the Supper

Finally, the ecumenical sacrament of the Table, the Lord's Supper service, well illustrates the same paradoxical Pauline principle. Grace comes to us in the lowly character of bread and wine, for it is as we take, and then partake of, the bread and the cup that we become sharers in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). How this conveyance or communication or communion is to be explained may be beyond us, just as we can never fully comprehend the mystery of the word become flesh or the Bible become word-of-God. Yet we know it to be a fact of experience: not our experience only but one that transcends the barriers erected by a fragmented, divided Christendom. Queen Elizabeth I in her day was in no mood to say more:

'Twas God the word that spake; He tooke the bread and brake; And what the word did make; That I believe, and take.

But at least she was expressing what the Supper is all about: obedience to Christ's command. And her words take us once more to the paradox of Christian truth and service. It is by means of the ordinary, the commonplace, the tangible and frail, that we came into touch with the eternal, the true, the life-changing realities of the divine.

Christianity in the next decade and beyond, I suggest, will live by these paradoxes - of incarnation and redemption, of revelation and evangelism, of renewal and nourishment. We have no other world in which to live than ours, and we are all too human and frail as we look to our own resources. Our adequacy lies not in ourselves, for we are common clay jars, but in God who deigns to entrust spiritual treasures to our keeping and sharing.

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You are reading Paul's Ministry... and Ours by Ralph P Martin, part of Issue 2 of Ministry Today, published in September 1994.

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