On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XI

I made the claim earlier that the crisis in ministerial and churchly identity is a crisis that finds it genesis in a defunct christology. This ought to be no surprise, for the Church is the body of Christ. And I drew attention to T.F. Torrance’s claim that everything for the Church depends on Christ’s humanity and substitutionary work. I have spoken a little of the implications of Christ’s humanity. Now let me press a little more on the church’s dependence upon Christ’s substitutionary work, and that by way of offering an essential clarification.

History leaves us with little question about the fact that when the substitutionary elements in Christ’s work are emphasised at the expense of the participatory elements – when, for example, salvation is reduced to an application of Christ’s merits as some sort of external transaction and the grace of union with Christ (of which Calvin was so fond) all but abandoned – then this inevitably sponsors the notion of the Church as a mere institution. [For an antidote, see Mike Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, and Todd Billings’ Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, and Braaten’s & Jenson’s Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther]. It is this element of participation that I have been trying to emphasise here precisely because the implications of such a doctrine for pastoral practice and identity are so radically fruitful and liberating.

But lest we distort or impose limits upon the richness of Christ’s person and undermine his call to discipleship, we might also highlight the sense in which service is also a response to the love of God in Christ. But here again, the reality and form of this service is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (see T.F. Torrance’s article on ‘Service in Jesus Christ’ published in Theological Foundations for Ministry). In other words, the response of the creature is constituted in and made possible by participation with Christ. To confess that service is the response to the love of God, therefore, is to confess that service is determined by the relationship established with and maintained by God, and not by any outcomes. Put differently, Christian service is, from first to last, about grace. Service, therefore, cannot stand on its own outside of the God-human relation (which itself in constituted in the hypostatic union). Little wonder then that service for service’s sake finally results in boredom and despair, and that preachers that seek to ‘whip-up’ the faithful by throwing them back upon their own resources participate in murder rather than resurrection. This reminds us too that service is not about servitude, but about freedom and the movement of love. It also recalls God’s provision of powers for service, and that Christ’s servants ought not assume authority for the service they undertake nor are they responsible for any results that arise. They must look for no reward beyond the joy of the relation itself.

This is only possible because in the incarnation of the Word God has undertaken to wear our humanity, to heal our brokenness and to put to death the idolatry that reigns from within the depths of human existence. Only in the humanity of God, therefore, lies the creative ground and source of true diakonia. And it is at this point that we finally come to where we might have begun: with baptism, and to the stunning truth that baptism is ordination to ministry. Indeed, baptism reminds us – among other things – of the fact that ministry is what the whole people of God is called to. The ‘Book of Order’ of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand puts it thus: ‘Baptism invites us to share in God’s mission through our own vocation and commitment to God’s new and coming world. This vocation and commitment take shape in a range of occupations and activities in society’

Eugene Peterson once wrote:

‘The biblical fact is there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades’. – Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 2.

So the need to keep recalling the truth proclaimed in baptism, including the truth that the tools for Christian ministry are to be found underwater. Learning to breathe underwater, then, is the challenge of being Church.

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Other posts in this series:

[Image: Time]

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