Now if ministry is not the monopoly of some in the Church but the responsibility of every child of God, how do we go about it? “In whatever we do, in word or in deed” how do we honour Jesus? When I first came across Colossians 3:17 this really puzzled me. Perhaps it was a case of what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “It is so hard to believe because it so hard to obey.” However the New Testament is not written in a legal format. It is not a set of rules a person has to obey. It addresses and confronts the real situations and challenges Christian encountered as they tried to live for God in a sometimes very hostile world. For me there is one phrase that really sums up the Christian’s vocation, “being the light of the world.”
When Jesus mentioned this phrase in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14) it was not anything new. It was deeply rooted in Jewish thought that Israel, the people of God, was to be the light of the world. Passages like Isaiah 42:6 and 60:3 confirm this. The critique of Israel in the New Testament, which is consistent with the Old, is that they had neglected their vocation to be the world’s light. Paul writes in Romans that the Jews were to be the light of the world and yet quotes the same prophets in saying that they had instead become the reason the name of God was being blasphemed among the nations (Romans 2:19, 24.) The Jews had adopted an insular form of ministry like the one I earlier described. They were only concerned with what went on among them like many modern ministries, which are solely focused on what happens within their cloistered walls. If we have a form of ministry that can only be legitimately practiced by certain people in the Church, it means it can only be seen during meeting days. This in turn implies we cannot impact the world in the way God intended. Abraham’s family was called to be a blessing to the world (Genesis 12:1-3.) As the new people of God, if we are not being that to the world then we are heading down a very dangerous path.
If the kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), then ministry is about being of service in a relevant and useful way, to the world around you that the Creator-King has made. It does not matter whether you happen to have certain letters before your name. As long as you are carrying on the narrative of being God’s image bearers, of being truly human, you are doing kingdom work. There is an episode in the Gospel of Luke which is illustrative of how we often miss this in the Church.
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” – Luke 17:20-21 ESV)
Jesus had been doing so many things to indicate God’s kingdom had arrived yet the Pharisees, who should have known better, came asking him when it was going to come. I believe in a rather exasperated manner he responded, “Look guys don’t you see all that I am doing? The kingdom is not going to come because it has already arrived! In fact it is standing right in front of you, speaking to you and chastising you for not seeing it.” The signs Jesus performed did not point to another but himself. They showed he was the Messiah, that is, God’s chosen ruler. If the king was present in his domain it meant the kingdom had already begun. The kingdom is about God’s presence and activity in the world, with and through his people. The Messiah as God’s chosen person was busily demonstrating what God’s dominion on earth really looks like. Often the problem is when we want to do something for God we are looking for some marvellous sign to validate what we are doing. As far as Jesus and the gospels are concerned you do not need any more confirmations to act in a meaningful and helpful way in your world today.
Even though the Protestant Reformation took ministry from being the preserve of the clergy, we have not had a robust theology of work and vocation that plugs into the biblical narrative. So when the Christian works he does not know he is participating in a story that has a meaningful end, which is some way according to God’s infinite wisdom is relevant in his eternal plan. Things in the secular realm are somehow seen as profane and not worthy of the kingdom of God. If it is something a “sinner” could do how can it be kingdom work we ask?
In Psalm 72 when it speaks of the Messiah’s reign it talks about justice for the poor and the weak, the people and the very land itself flourishing and prospering. These are things you cannot do during church meetings. The Messiah’s reign is God’s kingdom impacting everyone and everything in the world, including the “secular.” The scriptures are clear we have been called to participate in that project.
We become squeamish when we see unbelievers doing such things like justice and helping people to prosper. It is because we know we are supposed to be doing it. We don’t want to join in because in a way we are conceding to the fact that we were not doing our jobs properly. If that is the case, shame on us and we need to repent and get on board. However, we must remember secular thinking has been greatly influenced by the Christian worldview. What we might call social justice was unheard of in the ancient world and the Church pioneered it. A lot of values we hold to today can only be supported by the Christian worldview. Also the drive for human flourishing and through human flourishing the flourishing of the world is as old as Genesis 1. It is not an innovation of modern humanism but as far the word of God is concerned it is what humans have been called to do by their maker.
Ministry is about being in the world and being of use to it. Real ministry cannot be restricted to the Sunday service and Wednesday Bible study. If we are the light of the world we need to enter the dark alleyways and crevices of the world and shine. The kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is about answering the question, what would it be like if God was in charge, right here and right now? We are the answer to the question as his children when we demonstrate his wise rule, goodness, justice, beauty, creativity, love, mercy and peace among other things. It is about being his image bearers, acting in the way God would as his chosen vessels to fulfil his purposes for the world. This means whether you are an artist, an entrepreneur, a baker, a teacher, a politician, a scientist, a student, a construction worker, a police officer, an athlete, whatever profession you find yourself in, you can be the example of what happens when God is in charge. Yet it starts with God being in charge of you. That is why the New Testament is so interested in Christian character and ethics. You cannot be a light to the world if you live in the same darkness as it. Once you are in submission to God, naturally whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, is also in submission to God. This includes your work and how you behave among your family, friends and community.
I am not saying that we will solve poverty or eradicate malaria but we can and should have such lofty goals. However, it is not only about solving the big problems but also solving the little ones in our immediate environment. Even if it is helping feuding co-workers get along with each other it is useful. It is not solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but you are bringing shalom to the world around you. We can doggedly pursue making our world better no matter what because God has started a new creation. It is not creation out of nothing but a renewal of the old world. In typical theological fashion we live in the already-but-not-yet phase of the new creation project. God started it when he raised Jesus from the dead but it is not complete yet. Since we know God will finally restore everything, we can be certain that our contribution will not be for nothing but he will bring it to a perfect end.
So how do we go about kingdom business? Colossians 3:16 speaks of the word of God so richly dwelling in us that whatever we do is in the service of the Lord Jesus. The grand story of the word of God needs to be alive and deeply rooted in our souls. Our hearts and our imaginations need to be taken over by the Gospel narrative that there is good news for the world. As we worship, pray and study the word of God regularly and seriously as a Church community, it begins to live and breathe through us and it critically challenges and renews our minds. This is where we need special ministers like those in Ephesians 4:11 to help guide the Church to be biblically rooted and ministry oriented. With this inner transformation we can think in new ways and see opportunities within our present circumstances to do what is right and maybe cause a positive change. If we believe the narrative that God so loved the world, as we think and live scripture we too will have great concern for the world and will not abandon it. It might be confusing and challenging at first, and we will probably make some mistakes on the way. However, as long as our hearts are focused on whom we are serving, I believe God by his spirit will way or another work with us to see it through to his glory.