I spent the last three days at the URC’s end of year one reflection for ministers ordained within the last 12 months. One of us was unable to attend so there were six present (we are an especially small cohort). While disappointed that we were not given more opportunity to share our experience and reflect together the very powerfully delivered content gave me a good deal to think about, and react against. It helped me greatly in thinking about how I believe ministry is shaped by our relationship to Christ and what that relationship should be.
Briefly put we were urged to concentrate more on Good Friday, on the suffering and dying Jesus. We were encouraged to see him as separated from the Father and as a God who suffers along with us, using a framework derived from the work of Jurgen Moltmann. We were further led to see this as related to Walter Brueggemann’s suggestion that Israel is a partner with Yahweh, whose role is often to attempt to restrain God’s violence. God was cast as brutal and merciless and our place to suffer willingly in a relationship where our Lord is arbitrary and cruel. Suffering and brokenness, an unflinching acknowledgement of the horror of our situation, it was implied, are central to Christian discipleship, cast as imitation of Jesus, especially in his submission to the cross.
This is powerful and valuable and a helpful correction to the vapid ” be nice because Jesus was nice” type of liberal moralism. We have to recognise that the God we meet in the Old Testament is neither “nice” nor “good” , if we mean by that that he conforms to modern standards of moral judgement. He is often angry, he can be ruthless when he judges the situation calls for it. He subjects human beings to destruction and violence on a massive scale repeatedly. One thinks of the flood, of the cities of the plain, of the conquest of Canaan, the plagues visited on Egypt. These are appalling events whose origin is ascribed to God (and that’s before one dwells on Job’s completely awful and unmerited sufferings).
One can deny that any of this has to do with “our” God, the God of the New Testament, in a way that goes back at least to Marcion in the second Century. In those days it was usual to say that the God of Israel was a lesser or a bad God and that the God revealed in Jesus was the true, the good God. Now the tendency is to say that it was the writers of the Biblical books who got it wrong but the argument is essentially the same, I think, and is no less misleading. Our God IS the God of Israel and our experience is of arbitrariness, suffering and pain. Denying it helps no-one.
However I think it doesn’t help, either, to dwell there. That same God, the God of Israel, did something new in the incarnation. The relationship with Israel is not the same as the relationship with the Church because God’s relationship with us and with creation is transformed. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross completes and perfects Israel’s mission and opens a new chapter in salvation history. We now live in the time between that transformation and its completion in Christ’s return and the coming of the kingdom for which we ask in the Lord’s Prayer.
A couple of things follow from this, for the Church and for its ministers: first we cannot and should not try to repeat or imitate Christ’s action on the cross; secondly we are to look forward to the realisation of Christ’s ministry and to represent its hope,
It was a key argument of the Reformation that what happened on the cross was unique and could not be repeated, that was the core of the redefinition or recovery of the meaning of communion. Where medieval Catholicism had tended to see the mass as a sacrificial priestly action that reenacted the cross the Reformers said it was something else, a communion between the people of God and Jesus their head. It was not the sacrifice but rather a memory of it and a sharing with and joining to Christ. This is very important indeed. We are not to be Jesus, we are to be joined to him. We are not to seek to repeat his work but to benefit from it in order to be equipped to represent and to work for him.
Further this work and representation is first and foremost a witnessing to what he has done already and has promised to do in the future. Our salvation comes to us from outside, from God in Christ, and not from within, from anything immanent in humanity. We are not to build the kingdom of God (in a term often used today but nowhere found in the New Testament) we are to notice its coming close and proclaim God’s promises. The Kingdom is and will be the work of God, not the work of human beings. We can show forth signs of its nature but we cannot bring it, we have to wait for it.
This means, in my view, that the real guide to our vocation in the gospels is less what Jesus does and more what he instructs the apostles to do. We are to seek to follow his instructions not futilely to strive to be him. For this purpose the most useful passages for me at the moment are those in which he sends them out early in his ministry. He tells them to take nothing with them but he does grant them authority to heal, he tells them to preach and he instructs them to accept hospitality.
As a new minister that is one’s position. One is a guest in a church that belongs, really, to those who have built and sustained it, but one is a guest with particular authority, given by Christ but affirmed by the Church. One’s tasks are to heal and to call to repentance by proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom. We are not Jesus and not called to do what Jesus did, that’s been done and is still to do, by him. We are his representatives and we are representing good news, the news that all has been transformed and that the Kingdom has come near.