The Meaning of Ministry

By Eric Stetson — October 24, 2010

(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C.)

Picture a minister in your mind. More likely than not, you thought of somebody called “Reverend So-and-So” wearing a clerical collar or stole, standing in the pulpit of a church preaching a sermon about religion. This is one manifestation of ministry commonly observed in our society, but such a stereotypical image captures only a small fraction of the possibilities associated with the ministerial calling.

As Christians, we are called to be like Christ. Christ is our supreme example to emulate — whether in our own lives or in ministering to others. Let us consider what is the meaning of ministry by comparing the life of Christ to some features and functions often associated with people identified as Christian ministers.

Does ministry mean being called by a special title that indicates spiritual authority and worthiness of respect? Not necessarily. The prophet Isaiah says about the Messiah, “he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” [Isa. 53:3]. Jesus didn’t get addressed respectfully as “Reverend”; he was mocked, spat upon, scourged, and nailed to a cross.

Does ministry mean holding an educational degree from a theological school? Not necessarily. Despite having no formal religious education, Jesus impressed teachers in the Jerusalem temple with his intuitive wisdom and understanding, even at the age of 12. As far as we know, the greatest spiritual master of history never studied for any significant length of time in any seminary or institution for training religious leaders.

As far as we know, the greatest spiritual master of history never studied for any significant length of time in any seminary or institution for training religious leaders.

Does ministry mean being the leader of a church? Not necessarily. Jesus never led a synagogue or held any priestly or clerical office. His ministry took other forms.

Does ministry mean telling people what they should believe about theological issues? Not necessarily. Jesus rarely talked about religious doctrine and left many theological questions unaddressed, apparently considering them relatively unimportant.

So what kind of a minister WAS Jesus? What DID he do in his ministry, and how can we emulate him if we feel called to serve in a ministerial capacity? At the root, what does this really mean?

The ministry of Jesus was characterized by the fact that he brought hope and healing into the lives of all he encountered. He could have done that in a sanctified building or sitting in the gutter — the place was not relevant. He could have done it by giving eloquent speeches or through casual one-on-one conversations. In fact, he did all of these things and more. Jesus was versatile. Wherever he went, his ministry went with him.

The world is a place of terrible suffering — always has been and still is today. Jesus was born into a country that was subject to a brutal occupation by a foreign empire. He dared to hope for a better future; and what’s more, he gave voice to a soul-stirring vision of the world set right, the reign of a grace-filled justice overcoming merciless tyranny and oppression in every corner of creation. When all hope seemed lost, he proclaimed a greater hope than anything previously imaginable.

But not only did Jesus inspire hope in people’s hearts; he also brought healing to their lives. And he did this in tangible ways — feeding the poor, curing the sick, liberating the mentally ill from their demons, forgiving sinners and social outcasts and teaching them to love themselves again. Jesus did not tell people what to believe; he literally showed them the way.

As ministry has become identified with leadership of religious institutions, there has been a tendency to reduce ministry to merely a matter of upholding and spreading “the faith” — whatever that is. We must be ever mindful of the wise words of James, the flesh-and-blood brother of Jesus: “What good is it, my brothers, if a person claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. … Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” [Jas. 2:14-18]

In this statement, James reveals himself as the true brother of Jesus not only in the flesh but also in the spirit. He knew his brother well, and knew how much he valued concrete action to help people as the essential hallmark of authentic and meaningful ministry.

Helping people need not necessarily be about providing for their physical needs. It could be about their emotional needs — showing love, care, and compassion — or their spiritual needs, by guiding people in developing a life of prayer, meditation, and personal relationship with God.

Above all, having the inner strength and courage to hope in the face of all obstacles and disappointments, and the ability to inspire others to a similar hope, is the mark of a minister. Because hope leads to healing. And healing changes the world.

Having the inner strength and courage to hope in the face of all obstacles and disappointments, and the ability to inspire others to a similar hope, is the mark of a minister.

Saint Paul said that “God… reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” [2 Cor. 5:18-20]

This is a profound message of hope. It is a great calling. Imagine a world in which ever greater numbers of people of every nation, race, and religion gain the hope of a world fully and universally reconciled — a world where we don’t remember old grudges, where we don’t punish each other for our mistakes but show mercy and grace; a world where we don’t fight with each other over our differences but seek peace, understanding, and harmonious coexistence in the knowledge that all are loved by a God whose love knows no boundaries nor end.

Can you find a way to touch each person in your life with this magnificent hope? Can you heal the souls in your midst, loosening the chains of physical suffering and negative thought patterns that may bind them to a cynical view of reality? This is what Jesus did. This is the meaning of ministry.

Being a minister means making a sacred commitment to spread hope and healing, and thereby to bring relief to a hurting world — to make this earth a little bit more like heaven. Every time we minister to another person, we are fulfilling Jesus’s message that “the kingdom of God is among you.” [Lk. 17:21]

Today, there are countless opportunities and modalities for meaningful and effective ministry: service in a church, charity work, hospital chaplaincy, counseling or life coaching, music, writing or the arts — even using the new technologies like websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter, to reach out across geographical boundaries with positive messages and building supportive relationships and networks.

Whatever type of ministry one chooses to do, let us always keep in mind that it is not about raising oneself up above others, but about lifting others up through humble service. Anyone can be a minister, but only those who understand that fact WILL be.

God grant that we may all become gracious, joyful, and effective servants according to our respective abilities and capacities, hearing Your call and following it with sincerity, integrity, and courage. Amen.

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