In the officiant's words which open a service of Celebration of a New Ministry, we hear that such an occasion is a new beginning because the new minister brings certain gifts to "our ministry together." This is a very appropriate and important sentiment because it both speaks of gifts brought, and it speaks of ministry which is a shared responsibility. As we look at the first ten verses of Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, it becomes clear that we are in good company when we speak of such things and that we can set a context for Gene's ministry in this place by understanding the context of the ministry of Paul in this letter to the Church at Corinth. I want to look first at this idea of what Paul calls "this ministry" and then at the gifts that one might think support it, but really flow from it. And how all of this is related to Gene Packwood's new ministry at St. Barnabas, Medicine Hat.
Paul starts this passage by saying, "Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not loose heart." Paul says, we have "this" ministry and I suppose this is why this is a suggested reading for occasions like these. It refers to ministry. However, if we were to look only at this passage and not locate it in the context of Paul's wider letter, we might be tempted to look at only what this ministry means to us or to someone like Gene who we expect to engage in "this ministry" in this place. In reality, there is something bigger going on here. Paul was making a comparison by using these particular words. He was actually comparing "this ministry" to something which is implied and we might identify as "that ministry." And this comparison is very timely for the Church in the late twentieth century as well.
In this Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul is having to deal with some real problems that have arisen in the Corinthian Church. We're not talking about finances or fights over hymn books or prayer books—somehow, in light of what he was up against, I think he might have looked forward to those kinds of battles. Rather, he was dealing with something much heavier, and far more destructive. He was having to deal with doctrinal error and with the false teaching that was promoting it. Mixed up with these things was the fact that those who we might identify as the false teachers also put a lot of effort into slandering Paul and they attempted to make him look bad, both in the eyes of the Corinthian Church, and in light of the corrupt gospel that they were proclaiming. With this in mind, we can note that Paul's comparison identifies the teachings of the false teachers with "that" ministry, and that through God's mercy, we have "this" ministry.
Without actually discussing what these other missionaries were teaching, and noting that the specific issues are not necessarily the same, let me warn you- the spirit of "that" ministry is alive and well, and is making a real comeback at the close of this millennium. We need to so fully understand "this" ministry that we have been given so that we can tell the difference so as to boldly proclaim the truth that we have received in God's Word.
I heard a great story in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago which I think really draws a line between "that" ministry and "this" ministry. The story was told by Paul Barnett, the Bishop of North Sidney who was co-leading a preaching course that I attended at Regent College. He said that there was an American bishop who felt called to go to Africa to straighten people out on a few matters of Christian belief. As you may well know, the Church in Africa is experiencing enormous and rapid growth at this time. I suppose this bishop was feeling a little frightened by this as the Gospel being proclaimed in Africa is different than the one that his own "enlightened" mind was starting to comprehend. So he thought he needed to do something about it.
In one speech, standing before thousands of new Christian converts, and speaking through an interpreter, the bishop proclaimed to the ignorant masses that they needed to reject what they had been taught; that the Bible needed to be seen as allegory; and that the Resurrection was simply a metaphor for something that happened in the distressed minds or in the collective psyche of the disciples after Jesus died. The bishop paused to allow the interpreter to translate his words into the language of the people. The interpreter, in a tongue that everybody except the bishop could understand, simply said, "So far he hasn't said anything worth repeating!" The interpreter obviously understood the difference between "this" ministry and "that" ministry, and whether he was assigned to do a particular job or not, he was not about to proclaim "that" ministry.
So what is "this" ministry that is ours through God's mercy? What are its distinguishing features? And even more importantly, does Gene Packwood know anything about it? The ministry that these other teachers proclaim, according to Il Cor. 3:7, is a continuation of the ministry of Moses which, although not denying Christ, certainly downplayed salvation through Christ, and therefore according to Paul would lead to condemnation and death.
On the other hand, "this" ministry that we have through God's mercy is a ministry of righteousness. In 3:9, we see that Paul, when he speaks of "this" ministry, links the words "ministry" and "righteousness." Therefore, "this" ministry has something to do with our moral standing in the eyes of God who created us. In "this" ministry, we become new creations; adopted children of God; worthy to stand in his presence, inheritors of his kingdom.
It is also a ministry of reconciliation. In chapter 5, verse 18 Paul says, "All this from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation." "This" ministry recognises that there is a gulf separating humanity and God. This gulf is the result of sin, and only Jesus' sacrifice on the cross could close it. It is the work of the cross that reconciled us to God. We then have this ministry of reconciliation where we proclaim Jesus so that others might also be reconciled to God.
Chapter 3 verse 8 identifies "this" ministry as a ministry of the Spirit; the Spirit who is the Comforter; the one who empowers us for this ministry. The Spirit makes us bold in "this" ministry. 3:12 says, "Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold!” In 3:17-18, we read that we also have freedom through the Spirit both to turn to the Lord and also to be transformed into his moral and spiritual likeness. All this comes from the Lord who, as Paul says in 3:18, "is the Spirit." Therefore, since this ministry is one of righteousness, reconciliation, and the Spirit, we can conclude that it is a ministry which is concerned with relationship. Specifically, it is concerned with our relationship with God the Father, through the saving work of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And since we have this ministry through God's mercy... we do not lose heart, for it is the most precious treasure we could ever possess.
This man named Gene Packwood that you claim as your priest today; your rector or your incumbent, is not here to do this ministry for you. Listen to Paul's words, "since through God's mercy we have this ministry." The letter itself is not addressed to an individual in the congregation, and it is certainly not addressed to the rector or the incumbent. It is addressed to the whole church of God in Corinth and to all the saints throughout that region. And by extension as the Word of God, it is addressed to each and every one of us here. "This ministry" is not the exclusive territory of clergy; it is the responsibility of the whole Church. Gene's role is to be a sign of this ministry in your midst; a visible reminder of what God is calling the people of St. Barnabas to. And he will be this sign in your midst in three ways that are identified in this passage from II Cor. 4.
First of all, through his preaching. Paul says in 4:5, "For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord…” The word that Paul uses for "preach" doesn't refer to standing up on Sunday morning and delivering a sermon, although that can be part of it. It is a word that means to proclaim or to herald. In the context of this ministry, we proclaim Jesus as Lord, not only with our lips but through our actions as well. Gene should therefore be a sign of proclamation in your midst by all that he says and does. I know he will do this because it was during my internship time with him that he taught me that I have to strive to be sinless because the devil looks for whatever cracks he can find so that he can tear us apart when he sees that we have set our hearts on "this" ministry. Walking the walk should proclaim the same message as talking the talk.
The second way that he will be a sign in your midst is that the content of the message that he proclaims should be "Jesus as Lord." This also we see in 4:5. I have great confidence that he is not very likely to deviate from this message. The first time I ever met Gene was in my home congregation of St. Cyprian's, Didsbury. Gene was a guest preacher one Sunday and he was telling us about a document signed a hundred or so years ago that stated five fundamentals of the Christian faith and that people who ascribe to this document are what we call Christian fundamentalists. Just as people were starting to form stereotyped images of such people in their minds, Gene dropped a bomb shell on us. He asked how many of us believed the Creed that we recited each week. When everybody put up their hand, he declared that we were all at least 80% fundamentalist as 4 out of 5 statements on the document are contained in the creeds. I know that Gene Packwood takes his creeds very seriously and therefore is at least 80% fundamentalist himself. As such, I have great confidence that he will always proclaim Jesus as Lord.
The third way that Gene will be a sign of this ministry in your midst will be in the way that he helps you to focus on the glory of God. Throughout chapters 3 and 4, Paul is very concerned with this word "glory;" and in 4:4 he connects the glory of Christ with the image of God, and in 4:6 he connects the glory of God with the face of Christ. I've seen Gene in action. He will try very hard to point you toward the glory of God. You'll hear this when he preaches, you will understand it when he teaches, you will love it when he sings about it, and you will be blessed by it when he prays with you. My favourite memory of Gene pointing to God's glory comes out of the middle of the eucharistic prayer, when in the Sanctus he raises his hands to God as he says "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts..." I would always get this mental image of Isaiah's vision of seeing the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filling the temple, and the seraphs calling to each other saying, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."
And so these three ways of being a sign in your midst are connected; the proclamation of Jesus as Lord gives us access to the glory of God. This is what you can expect of Gene. This is how he is called to share in "this" ministry with you.
So what is his credential to do this? What gift is it that he brings that will allow him to be such a sign in your midst? It’s not that he'll be some sort of superman; his strength does not come from his abilities as a hospital visitor, social worker, or Bible teaching, guitar playing, tea drinker extrordinaire. In fact I happen to know he prefers coffee anyhow. His gifts come right out of "this" ministry that I have been talking about. He knows that "this" ministry is the greatest treasure he could ever possess. He also knows that its best expression does not come from his strengths, but through his weakness as a frail and fragile human being because this serves to point out that the power of "this" ministry is from God and not from us. And so Paul refers to this ministry that we express through our frailty in 4:7 as treasure in clay jars "to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us."
You will be able to count on Gene Packwood to be a humble sign of "this" ministry in your midst because I know him to be well aware of his frailty and his dependence on God. Knowing these things, he will be able to encourage you by being a reminder that because we have "this" ministry we do not lose heart; through this ministry we have hope. As Paul says, "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed." You will hear Gene say and sing things like, "find me in the river, find me there; find me on my knees with my soul laid bare." And when you do find him pouring his heart out through his weakness, don't pity him and don't lose heart. Join him, and thank God for the precious treasure he has given you--the treasure of "this" ministry that is yours through God's mercy.
In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.