Jesus has left the building. He handed the keys to his understudies. The church is theirs to gather, guard, care, and keep. Unfortunately, that’s the picture many people inside and outside the church have of the Christian ministry. From this approach has sprung a host of visions about pastoral ministry: the need to be more therapeutic, more managerial, more relevant, etc. Christians are now sometimes called to be “incarnational” in their ministry, taking Jesus to those marginalized, oppressed, and alienated. It’s no wonder that pastoral burnout is so high and church closures are so frequent. When the whole weight of ministry hangs on the shoulders of ordinary men and women, they must strategize and shift course in whatever ways seem necessary to bring about success: the coming of the kingdom of God. Who could possibly manage such a feat?
But the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that the same one who bore our sufferings and rose for our glory now graces us. The Ascended Lord of heaven and earth rules the church. The human Jesus – still incarnate – reigns and rules, provides and promises. He continues to function as the prophet, the priest, the king. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and so we can trust him to give us grace for this week’s ministry as much as for all our previous failings and frailties. He has not abandoned his offices, and he has not abdicated his seat at the head of the church.
In my summer course on “Gospel-Driven Ministry,” we consider the nature and implications of Christ’s action on the church’s behalf. We see the gospel as not only surprising grace for sinners but also startling good news for ministers. As John Webster says, “The community of Jesus Christ is a community which is brought into being by the gospel, sustained in life by the gospel and summoned to bear witness to the gospel; and because that is true, the church can only be what it is if its entire life and activity emerges out of the event of starting again with the gospel.”
Ironically, it is precisely as we realize that Jesus is the minister that we are freed to really minister. The fear of failure hinders real boldness and integrity, while the fear of rejection shuts down our transparency and honesty. Yet Christ demands a church and a ministry that are true and spiritual. So nothing is more crucial than rich acknowledgement of the love of God in Christ, the ways and works of our God in this time and place. Savoring the fullness of all God continues to be for us in Jesus frees us to live freely and to love fully.