Christ-Like Ministry: Prophetic, Priestly and Kingly
Hebrews 3:1-2; Luke 24:19; Luke 1:32-33
Thank you very much for inviting me to deliver the keynote address at this year’s edition of the national Church Workers Convocation. This is a great honor. Whether I can live up to your expectation,I am not sure. Convocation organizers took a risk in pressing into service the feeble mind of this junk, not adjunct, professor who is 80 years young, not 40 years old.
As I see it, the convocation theme has two key components: theological education and Christlike ministry. Between these two, Christ-like ministry is, to me, comparatively more significant because it is seen as the goal and norm of theological education.
Christ-like ministry is patterned after Christ’s earthly ministry. By word, deed and example, Christ made God’s saving love real in the lives of people who live in a broken world. He did that as priest, prophet and king. We participate in his ministry by invitation and commission. So let us try to get a glimpse of our ministry in this three-fold sense by imagining that each of us is a priest and a prophet but not as a king for only Christ is king. Having said this, we hasten to add that Christ’s kingly ministry is something “that is a complete reversal of our earthly notion of kingship. It is kingship that serves, that is in total solidarity with people, and a kingship whose trajectory moves in the direction of struggle and sacrifice” (Levi V Oracion). For us pastors and prophets of our time and place, Christ’s kingly ministry in this sense deserves our prayerful consideration and single-minded resolve to witness to, and live, by it.
Most, of not all of us, are relatively familiar with our task as priest or pastor. But we may not have much of a clue about what we are supposed to do as a prophet. Should we be watching the signs of the times to predict the end of the world? We wonder.
A senior elder of a local church in the Northern Mindanao District Conference asked a wise, old pastor whether his church should invite a graduate of the Divinity School to be their new minister.
“By all means do that,” the sage replied. “If you get a priest or pastor, your church will be happy. But if you get a prophet, your church will become a philosopher.”
As priest or pastor, our ministry that is carried out primarily within the church is multi-faceted.
Let us mention just three of them.
1. In our role as mediator, we invite people to accept by faith God’s gift of saving love made known fully through Christ’s perfect, once-and-for-all time sacrifice on the cross. Through the spoken word and dramatic action, we enable people to see and be touched by such love every time we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We also approach and ask God to accept those who accept God’s saving grace. Through us, people connect with God in meaningful ways. In worshipservices, people joyfully celebrate their “new life” in Christ in praise, thanksgiving, contrition and commitment to live their lives in faith.
Conflicts within the church happen now and then because the church is not a community of perfect saints. It is a hospital of forgiven sinners. Differences between individual members and groups within the church are bound to happen. In some instances, they are inevitable but not necessary. Some of them can be prevented if causes of conflict are identified and resolved before they break open. But when conflicts flare up, it is our responsibility as priests/pastors to build bridges, or tear down walls of separation. Although we play a key role in conflict resolution, the ministry of reconciliation within the church needs to be institutionalized. Ideally speaking, each church should have conflict resolution committee that works closely with its pastor.
Unity in the household of God is a mandate of the love commandment. It is also a prerequisite for our task of witnessing to the saving love of God. In his high-priestly prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that his disciples should become perfectly one so that the world may know that God is a God of love (John 17:23).
2. As priest or pastor, we are called to proclaim the good news. With John 3:16, the “gospel within the gospel” in mind, the theologian Karl Barth said that “Jesus loves me this I know … ” is the heart of the good news. People need to hear this message, and it is our duty to “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” This is our evangelistic mandate. For this very important task we need to have a grasp of the basic affirmations of our faith as set forth in the bible which is our primary source of knowledge about God. Our preaching and teaching ministries could be authoritative without being authoritarian if it is rooted in the bible.
But in the main, the bible is not self-explanatory .. Here and there, what it says is not always explicit partly because, among others, its writers lived in a culture that is different from ours. For its message to come alive, it has to be interpreted in imaginative insightful and relevant ways. That is the task of the theologian in each of us.
Some people think that for our sermons to be biblical, we must clothe them with heaps of verses from scriptures from beginning to end. Our preaching, however, can be thoroughly biblical without explicit reference to particular passages of the bible. This does not mean that we avoid making explicit references. That is a fatal mistake. But what we should bear in mind is that the Word of God can be delivered without using the actual words of the bible and still be biblical.
A super spiritual, biblical literalist and narrow-minded person attended a worship service of a church that I once served. In a rather self-righteous way he criticized us. He said that we were not biblical Christians because we did not carry our bibles with us. I was taken aback. A church member came to my rescue and said, “We are biblical; but we do not go around waving the bible as you do.”
Our preaching should not only be faithful to the biblical text; it must also be relevant to the context in which people live. Text and context go together. Once again we remember the advice of Karl Barth. He said that when we preach we should hold the bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
It is in relevant preaching that the proverbial rubber meets the road. Sometimes, we use the text as a pretext to ignore the context. That is a mistake. But we could also err on the other side and focus on the context and ignore the scripture text. A member of a church that my minister friend served shared his feelings about their minister. He said, “Reverend So-and-So preaches from the Philippines Free Press, not from the bible.”
3. As priest/pastor, we carry out Christ’s ministry of caring for people and relating to them a close, personal way, intimately sharing their joys and concerns. There is a saying in Cebuano Visayan that goes like this: “sumpay ta ug tina-i. ” That is, our intestines are so intertwined that we only have one digestive system. If we are not pajama pastors, still in our sleeping clothes at high noon, we make ourselves available to people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In counselling with the disturbed, we sympathize and even empathize with them although we maintain a professional distance at the same time. We strengthen the faint-hearted, encourage the disheartened and offer hope to the hopeless. We laugh with those who laugh, sing with those with joyful hearts, weep with those who weep, share the joys of the victorious and the agony of those who fall by the wayside. We shepherd our flock in their journey through deep, dark valleys to green grass and refreshing waters and eventually to the banquet table of God.
Caring for people is not a walk in the park. Counselling with a difficult person, for instance, can be very stressful. A caption of a cartoon of the Peanuts comic strip expresses this point clearly and with a touch of humour. Linus Van Pelt says to Charlie Brown, “I love humanity; it is people I can’t stand.”
But as pastors/priests we care for our parishioners in self-emptying ways no matter how demanding that could be because we truly love the people entrusted to us. It is a Christ-like thing to do.
In the main, as prophets, we carry out our ministry not only within, but also beyond the fold of the church. Speaking on God’s behalf, we strive to “draw people into the reality of God in such a way that they cannot any longer be content with conventional wisdom and superficial existence … ” We bring “the light of the gospel to bear upon all aspects of existence” (1. Philip Wogaman, Speaking the Truth in Love: Preaching to a Broken World. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. 1998. p. 4). p. 4). In the power ofthe Spirit who guides us, we (1) declare the way of God that people, including those in authority, should follow, (2) disturb the comfortable and (3) comfort the disturbed, the oppressed and the deprived by pointing out to them that God’s reign of love, justice and righteousness has the last word for our broken world (Yoshio Maruyama).
It is said that any society has a mixture of good and bad.2 So as prophets, we should say God’s “yes” to what is good in our imperfect world and enjoin people to make what is good better and better.
For instance, despite his many shortcomings, we commend and support Noynoy Aquino’s “No wangwang” (no indiscriminate use of sirens) campaign against public servants who abuse their delegated powers. That is a symbol of hope for a Philippine society that is freed from all kinds of pride and arrogance that fan the fires of rampant graft and corruption. Imagine how wonderful it would be if our public servants behave like servants, not as overlords.
But not all is well with our society. For instance, our once stable economy is now almost a basket case in Asia. In 2006, 32.9 per cent of Filipinos lived below the poverty line (Wikipedia) on a daily income of P54.44 or US$1.32. Those Filipino people had AIDS – acute income deficiency syndrome. That the poor in great numbers are getter poorer and poorer and the few rich are getting richer and richer is clearly not God’s will. We should not turn a blind eye on them. Instead, as prophets like Amos, we should pronounce God’s “No” to such a situation and God’s “yes” to God’s demand that justice should run like waters in our economic system and so promote the good of all. This is as it should be for salvation that God intends is both individual and social (Emerito Nacpil, Jesus Strategy for Transforming Social Transformation. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999, p17).
What do we mean when we say that we speak for God and say “Thus says the Lord.” We should not assume that we hear God’s message in a clear and explicit language. We receive God’s message not in a mechanical way as if God sends us text messages to our cell phones or e-mails to our e-mail address boxes. We hear God speaking to us in four distinct and inter-related ways: (1) through the scripture which is our primary authority on faith and moral life; (2) through the tradition of the church such as the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines; (3) through our experience of the Holy Spirit; and (4) through reason. 3 But why should we be prophetic? An obvious answer is that such a role is an integral part of our calling and of the church as well. If we are not prophetic, we could end up accommodating to values of our culture that are “not consonant with our ultimate beliefs” (Wogaman, p. 6). We could find ourselves being pressed into service by earthly powers including the Herods and Pilates of this world. We could weaken our power to “deepen the lives of people” and influence for good the culture of our society.
The problem of cultural accommodation becomes most acute in situations of widespread corruption and oppression. Examples in church history are many. It is said that the Russian Orthodox church could not voice a sharp, challenging voice about the perils of bolshevism because “it was so deeply compromised by its relationship with the previous czarist regime” (Ibid, p. 4). The German Christians easily accommodated themselves to the Nazi regime with disastrous results to their identity and integrity. In contrast, and close to home, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, at least as far its leadership is concerned, affirms that its ultimate loyalty is to the God above all earthly gods. It sees itself as simultaneously in the world but not of the world. Without apologizing, it sees itself as being a community of believers who belong to God’s kingdom 4 where love as the highest spiritual law is expressed through applicable moral principles such as justice in individual and community life. For this very reason, it distanced itself from the discredited Marcos regime and held it accountable to God for its excessive abuse of power. Recently it carried out its prophetic ministry when it filed court cases against former President Gloria Arroyo claiming that as Chief Executive Officer of the country, she is “morally accountable” for various violations of human rights (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 6/26/11).
Because of its unwavering loyalty to God, the UCCP could very well say that every earthly system of governance is morally accountable to God for the exercise of its assumed or delegated authority and power.
Prophetic witness aims to liberate not only those in bondage to dehumanizing situations but also those who victimize others. In violating the rights of others to be truly human, victimizers also devalue themselves. In fact the first victim of oppression is not the oppressed but the oppressor. The first victim of racism is the racist. They need to be liberated from a deceptive kind of bondage that dehumanizes them so that they can be what God intends them to be. Likewise, those who cling to wealth in the face of endemic poverty cheapen their personhood. They need to be freed from their attachment to things which in themselves cannot give them true security, happiness and meaning in life. How wonderful it is for them to know that moth and rust and thieves do not have the last word regarding the value of things and that their worth is” based upon God’s love,” not on perishable things.
Prophetic and Priestly5
A reliable source told me recently that the Divinity School should make it possible for interested students to specialize in either priestly or prophetic function. If this proposal means that priestly and prophetic ministries are by the very nature of things separate, then the answer to such a suggestion is “no” because they are essentially one and inseparable. The prophetic leads to the priestly, and the priestly leads to the prophetic. We cannot be priestly without being prophetic. And we cannot be prophetic without being priestly. Each of us should be a priestly prophet and a prophetic priest. An airplane that has only one wing may only be able to taxi on a tarmac and on a runway. To be able to take off and fly, it must have two wings. We may, at any given time, choose to emphasize priestly or prophetic ministry. But we should do that only for practical reasons, not as a matter of principle. In either case, we should not affirm one to the exclusion of the other.
By the very nature of our calling, we encourage people to live up to the high standards of Christian living. We advice, teach, enlighten, offer constructive criticisms and admonish others to bear the fruits of the Spirit such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). This is a privilege and high honor. But therein lies real danger.
Unwittingly, we may easily see the speck in the eye of our fellow human and not notice the log that is in our own eye (Matt. 7:3). We may think that we have a solemn duty to judge others and feel that we are above reproach. We could succumb to the sins of pride and self-righteousness even without being aware of it. This danger is real and has actually happened according to stories I have received from some grassroots people. Let me reproduce two of them below:
In an e-mail, a minister friend of mine said, There is a tendency on the part of activists (read prophets) to look down on those who prefer to continue their ministry that is not explicitly prophetic. They create in me the feeling that they are right and superior, and that those who do not follow what they think are wrong.
A retired minister who was once a high ranking UCCP leader offered this observation:
There is a tendency among modem day prophets including the DCCP prophets to be boastful of their eloquence and knowledge of the Bible, forgetting that others do not have to be wrong in order for us to be right. Or forgetting sometimes that our church could do injustice to others especially those people with disabilities, or pastors with less educational attainment, or church workers with different sexual orientation, etc. Some churches tend to be exclusive and not welcoming.
As priests and prophets we need a healthy dose of ongoing self-criticism. We need to recover and put to practice one of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation. I refer to the doctrine of Ecclesia semper reformanda est which means that “the church must always be reforming.” We should live by the conviction “that the church must continually re-examine itself in order to maintain its purity of doctrine and practice” (Wikipedia).
A Challenge to Seminaries
We have focused primarily not on theological education as such but on the nature of Christ-like ministry, using the traditional paradigm of Christ’s earthly ministry as priestly, prophetic and kingly. That notwithstanding, I would like to highlight the supreme importance of formal theological education at seminaries of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. Stated simply, through their theological education programs, seminaries such as the Divinity School are perfectly positioned for the task of effectively equipping future church workers for their calling as priest and prophet and as witness to the kingly ministry and mission of Jesus. Our seminaries, like the Divinity School, are a most significant arm of the church in the formation and carrying forth of a ministry that is truly Christlike for today’ s context.
Of the many facets of what a seminary-based theological education program should be, four of them stand out. First, each faculty member of a theological school should meet at least the minimum standard set forth by Association of Theological Schools in Southeast Asia (ATE SEA) for teaching courses at the seminary level. Faculty members need to keep abreast of scholarly advances in their fields of specialization. Theological schools should therefore provide their faculty members with opportunities to upgrade themselves. Pursuing graduate or post-graduate studies, sabbaticals leaves for research and writing and the like easily come to mind. Second, in partnership with annual conferences and local DCCP congregations, a seminary should have an effective way of recruiting and supporting promising students deriving some guidance from the Magna Carta for Church Workers. Third, the curriculum of a theological institution must be structured in such a way that the teaching/learning process is faithful to the biblical message and tradition of the DCCP on the one hand, and relevant to the context in which churches carry out their mission and ministry, on the other. Fourth, the library of a seminary must be equipped with scholarly and up-to-date reading materials – books, journals, magazines, etc.
Seminaries related to the DCCP should look into the wisdom, possibility and feasibility of forming themselves into a consortium for their mutual support. This could be done in a variety of ways: faculty exchange, cross-crediting of courses, standardizing of curricular offerings, and the like.
Indeed, a serious theological education program of the church committed to the formation of a faithful, Christ-like ministry and witness must always strive for stronger unity, greater relevance and contextuality, and impeccable academic integrity if it is to make a meaningful prophetic and pastoral presence in our society worthy of the respect of the whole community, and if it is to have a prophetic and pastoral voice imbued with authority and passion which the rest of the nation cannot ignore.
An Asian student at a renowned university in the United States of America had problems with the English language. He had difficulty choosing the right word for the right idea. Once, an American friend of his asked him a personal question. “Why is it that you and your wife are childless?”
He paused, then replied, “Because my wife is inconceivable.”
“What?” his friend asked in wonderment. “Can’t you understand your wife?”
He tried to offer another explanation and said, “My wife is impregnable.”
“Ah,” his friend said with an impish grin, ” so your wife must be some kind of a mighty fortress.”
Exasperated, he raised his voice and said, “1 tell you, my wife is unbearable.”
Our calling as priest, prophet and witness to the kingly rule of Christ is by no means easy. Like the friend of that Asian student, we cannot fully comprehend, let alone express, what is expected of us.
It can also be stressful. Its challenges and problems stare at us eyeball to eyeball. We may be overwhelmed by them perhaps even to a point of experiencing a dreaded sense of burnout. To lighten our load, let us emulate the example of a minister who was involved in various aspects the Christian ministry for 53 consecutive years and eventually retired at age 77. His secret was threefold.
First, as much as possible, he did not do all things for his people. They did not stand idly at the sidelines with folded hands. Rather, he did things with them. Martin Luther said that every believer is a priest. The Puritans said that every believer is a prophet. That minister put those twin doctrines into practice. So let us build up our people so that everyone becomes a priest and prophet of God and to one another. Let there be priesthood and prophethood of all believers in the church that we serve.
Second, he enjoyed his calling as a servant of his Servant Lord. He diligently carried out his daily tasks with a cheerful heart (proverbs 17:22). His keen sense of humour helped him handle difficult situations creatively.
Third, he lived by the promise that God would not leave him alone to fend for himself. He felt assured that Christ, the priest and prophet par excellence, and the King of kings, was with him and for him.
As we face formidable odds, let us remember that God’s ever-present Sustainer, will enable us to meet the demands of our Christ-like vocation. So let us persevere for the issue is not that we succeed or fail by worldly standards, but whether we are faithful to our calling.
IIn our preaching ministry, our sermons and mini sermons must be grounded on sound theology. If they are not, we will be feeding people’s soul with stones instead of God’s liberating truth as has happened to preachers who handle the good news in over-simplistic manner. Consider the peddlers of the prosperity gospel.
They say that it is our business to have ftrm faith in God; and it is God’s business to give us what we want. But we know from experience that God does not always give us what we think is good for God gives what is best for us instead. And as Jesus puts it, God’s best gift is the gift of the Spirit (Luke 11:13). Advocates of the prosperity gospel are always in a win-win situation. If their clients happen to be blessed with healing and prosperity, they get all the credit. But if people are not so blessed, they are blamed for their lack of faith. On closer inspection, however, their notion of faith is not faith in God, but faith in faith.
Or think of those who pray that God should release the Spirit. They suggest that the Spirit is imprisoned somewhere to be released at our bidding. But this notion is far off the mark from the standpoint of sound theology of the Spirit (pneumatology). The Spirit of God is free. Like an active breeze, the Spirit blows where the Spirit wants to. The Spirit is always present everywhere — before the creation of time and at all the times.
Present when God created all things, the Spirit brought, is bringing, and will bring order out of chaos. The Spirit is already in us, among us and ahead of us. So the right petition is for us to be in tune with the Spirit who is already in our midst.
It is instructive to also bear in mind that since theology is a human construct, it is likely that different people seeing the same thing will have varying views about it. We live in a theologically pluralistic world. For instance, there is only one Christ, but there are many christologies as shown in the many responses the disciples made to Jesus’ question about his identity and mission (Matthew 13:16-20). Jesus commended Peter for confessing that he was the Christ. But neither did Jesus say that the other disciples were wrong in calling him as one of the Old Testament prophets. The various theologies are like musical instruments of an orchestra – string, woodwinds, brass and percussion. If they play against each other, we will have “noisic.” But if they play together under the baton a maestro, we will have a beautiful symphonic music. ( Cf. Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity o/Multiple Perspectives in Theology. New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1987).
2Walter Rauschenbusch, the foremost theologian of social gospel movement, gave a classic defInition of a Christian social order as one in which bad people are forced to do good things whereas in an unchristian social order, good people are forced to do bad things. One can sense an air of triumphalism in the way Rauschenbusch expressed his point. Nonetheless, he offers a penetrating insight into how structures of power can be used for good or evil.
3People’s faith in God is a faith that seeks understanding. But how we can discern the truth, the whole truth about God? The answer is that we cannot. Even our best knowledge of God is incomplete because of our human limitations. We are not God. Yet, we must try as best we can to know the meaning of faith. Towards that end, I would like to suggest that we use the four tools for discerning God’s will that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had spelled out.
1. Scripture. The bible is the primary source of knowledge about who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ. Through its principles, precepts and direct commands we have a glimpse of God will. Instead of just pounding the pulpit, we expound scripture texts in imaginative, insightful, enlightening and contextually relevant ways
2. Tradition. Tradition refers to beliefs and teachings of the church expressed through the ages. It includes writings about theology, doctrines, creeds, prayers, pronouncements of church councils and wisdom gain through church history. For us, the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Faith is a very useful starting point for our approach to theological knowledge of the faith.
3. Experience. Experience is not simply a collection of events and happenings. It is our experience of the Holy Spirit in worship, fellowship with other believers, in our work and testimony for God’s kingdom.
4. Reason. Reason is our God-given capacity to interpret God’s Word. It can be used together with the other three tools and be constrained by them. (Adam Hamilton, Confronting the Controversies: A Christian Looks at the Tough Issues (Nashville: Abingdon Press,2001, pp. 18-19).
4″The Kingdom of God is not confIned within the limits of the church and its activities. It embraces the whole of human life. It is the Christian transfIguration of the social order. The church is one social institution alongside of the family, the industrial organization of society, and the state. The Kingdom of God is in all of these, and realizes itself through them all” (Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology of the Social Gospel. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1945, pp. 144-145).
“The call of the Kingdom is for a complete and thorough revolution that begins in the heart and radiates to every nook and cranny of society but it is non coercive and nonviolent and demands an ethos of truthfulness, righteousness, mercy, love and peace. Yet it is not on that account a toothless tiger that can be pushed around for, as Jesus exemplifIed its ethos in his own life, it stands for love, justice and truth and for that very reason exposes the moral bankruptcy of anything opposed to it, and those who live by its ethos participate in God’s own struggle in the world” (Levi V. Oracion, God With Us: Reflections on the Theology of Struggle. (Dumaguete City: Divinity School, 2001, p.124).
5During the Vietnam war, some church leaders urged Billy Graham to try to persuade President Richard Nixon to stop the illegal bombing of Cambodia. In response, Billy Graham was repOlted to have said, “I am a New Testament Evangelist, not an Old Testament prophet.”
The term “evangelical” has been used to refer to Christians who emphasize the salvation the sows of individual persons for other-worldly and future-oriented existence. On the other hand, the term “ecumenical” is usually associated with one who advocates social salvation. There are those who prefer one to the exclusion of the other. But either way means the proclamation of a truncated gospel. The wholeness of the gospel demands that one should be both evangelical and ecumenical.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR :
Lourdino A. Yuzon
Bachelor of Theology (1956); Master of Divinity (1968);
Dr. Lourdino A. Yuzon was the keynote speaker during the 50th Church Workers Convocation at Silliman University on August 28, 2011.