On the edge of the sacred

22 Jul

This semester I’m teaching about Church: and the search for authentic community. Part of that is about the nature of ministry. I have to wrestle with this myself, constantly. What does it really mean to engage as a representative of the Gospel we proclaim? Can anyone honestly do that?!

In my reading this last week I’ve found two really challenging paragraphs, from different sources:
The first pictures a priest or preacher about to lead the people in worship—to speak for God. The image is of one on the edge: it’s a very helpful image, that reminds us of how crucial is our role (or the possibility of it) and yet also how precarious it is. It is not really about us at all!

You open the door … and cross the threshold. Where are you now—really? You are on the height of a mountain pass, or, to alter the metaphor slightly, in a defile or on a bridge between two banks, where beneath you the river of time goes swirling on, and above you, please God, the heavens are opened. For a few moments now you have arrived at a strange wayside station. You are standing between workaday world and worship, between home and “office”, between preparation for preaching and preaching itself, yea, also between the resting-place of the dead and the company of the living, or rather between the church triumphant and the church militant. And perhaps you sense something of the symbolic significance of this “betweeness”. Perhaps never as in these moments in the sacristy is the interim character of our whole life so palpable …

Not everything here do I identify with. I have not worked from a ‘sacristy’; nor do I think in terms of the ‘church triumphant’ or ‘militant’. But still the image is a very good on. Our life, not just our formal acts of ministry in leading worship, but our whole lives as people of faith, or people hoping to grow in faith, is lived on this edge. It is the sense of being in a liminal space, on the edge of the sacred. It is both awesome and demanding.

I read another piece about the work of a local pastor, who began with a sense that his own role was really close to worthless. Someone in hospital said to him that if he were a gravedigger his calling would be more useful! Imagine how encouraging that would have been! I have known exactly this kind of self-doubt, though. Campared with people who have ‘real jobs’ and who can ‘make a difference’, what is our work really worth.
The writer then goes on to say that the ‘authority’ of ministry does not come from people, employers, or satisfied customers, it lies with Christ himself, who has called us to speak his Word, to witness to the reality of his resurrection. That’s all! And by his grace, he chooses to make something meaningful, even perhaps effective and powerful in people’s lives, from our efforts. So we find this paragraph which links our ministry with the great venture of God in the world, through the mystery of the church:

When we consider the church and its existence, we can only describe it as God’s great venture among us men, the venture of a divine diakonia with us, that does not balk at the utmost depths. The church of Jesus Christ and its history, Calvin once said, is nothing but a chain of resurrections from the dead. It is also a passion history of the incarnate Son of God. In everything that is taught and believed, loved and suffered, planned and thought in this church, Jesus Christ is venturing himself, daily repeating the washing of the feet of this church which have daily been soiled on its journey. And he must follow up everything that men do in this church, even the most shining deeds, and in some way set them straight and make something good out of them. But just because such a church really does exist, a church that lives by this ministry of Jesus Christ, the minister in his ministry is not merely an impossible figure, but a necessary representative, as long as God keeps his church among men.

I apologize for the lack of gender-inclusive language here: the church is not only among ‘men’, but all humankind, and the ministers too are not only males. (At least, that it is my belief, though we still have nothing like a gender balance, but we are working towards it.)
The critical point in this piece is the deeply confronting idea that the ministry of the whole church is utterly dependent upon the choice of God to engage with humanity and the world, in what is called ‘God’s great venture’, and with that the idea that God is constantly raising up this church and its ministers from all kinds of living deadness—giving new life and hope, to us, and to the world. This is our foundation, and without it we are indeed ‘impossible figures’. But with it, there is life and hope, and a deep sense of value, meaning and belonging.

(These paragraphs are found in an old minister’s prayerbook, from which I draw inspiration occasionally. The sources are often very obscure and certainly long since out of print, so I will not bother tying to identify them here. While the book clearly belongs in another age, the wisdom endures.)

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