“I am not Jesus.” There you go, I admit it. My psych test at National Assessment was a bit of an ordeal, but there wasn’t a specific probe into messianic aspirations. I wonder if I’m the only one who’s slipped through?
What I mean is this—of course I understand I’m not quite like the messiah, but in reality I can behave as if my purpose is to be Jesus for others, or on slow days maybe his ‘hands and feet’. I’m beginning to suspect, however, that my family and congregation have spotted some potential discrepancies.
And, of course, I could never sustain such a presumption. The kind of temptation I’m talking about here is not so much the overblown ego, but a kind of pious presumption about the performance of life and ministry; a performance that is ironically fueled by anxiety. Our times are permeated with anxiety about performance, effectiveness, and the very survival of the Church. As I have discovered it doesn’t take long in pastoral ministry to run into a defining paradox—leadership is intrinsically related to trust, integrity and character, yet at the same time our very Christian life depends on the faithfulness of Jesus and not our own capacities. This paradox can cause us to flit between affirmation, critique and expectation. At worst, incongruity between our public face and our inner life becomes debilitating for us, our families and our congregations.
I believe this tension can be strangely linked to our attempts to mediate Jesus to others. An unexamined individual and ‘churchly’ habit of thinking and acting like we are called to be Jesus is disastrous. Of course I don’t mean one is actually trying to ‘be’ Jesus—I mean the patterns of belief, expectation, and piety that cause us to feel and behave like it is our holiness and efforts that are the basis of God’s presence and activity.
Let me be clear—I am not seeking to diminish the call for followers to be more Christ-like. But, as all this recent celebration of the Reformation should remind us, the gospel is not only something we declare to others (seemingly as pithily as possible)—it is first and foremost the person of Jesus. And, despite my quips about messianic delusions, the most important thing I learnt in my time at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership is that it is not actually my ministry that matters. My aspirations and conceptions need to be [continually] crucified in order that what I do as a follower of Jesus is grounded in the only ministry that counts—that of God in Jesus Christ. (Thanks to Andrew Purves and his important book, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) for this critical insight.)
This is the gospel we do not possess; indeed, it is the person of the risen Christ. Not something, but someone who grasps us; challenging, forming and renewing us as we gather and confess and worship and testify. Trying to ‘be’ Jesus is thus a disastrous pursuit not simply because I, or you, will fail, but because it perpetuates a lie about where the real source of ministry resides.
Thank the Lord then, that our churches are not what we make them without remainder. As theologian Andrew Purves contends, we must allow God to crucify, our ministry. This is a vital premise on which faithful and cruciform Christian life stands—’it’ [church growth, salvation, the kingdom…] doesn’t ultimately depend on us. And, fittingly channeling a bit of Luther, those things aren’t direct results of our holiness either. Holiness, to reiterate, is not the basis of our communion with God. As the biblical narrative discloses time and time again, life before God happens as grace breaks in upon our persisting lack of holiness.
We cannot avoid the risk of trusting God—trusting in the costly grace shown in Jesus, and the gift of faith and righteousness founded in Christ’s faithfulness alone. If you are anything like me, you probably don’t make a very good Jesus. The way we respond in life and ministry depends on the fact that God has already taken matters into God’s own hands, so to speak. Such a confession is not a license for passivity, but instead grounds our freedom to participate in God’s liberating faithfulness. Lay down the burden; good news for the messianic minister!
Andrew ministers at St Margaret’s Church in Bishopdale, Christchurch. He has a Doctorate in the discipline of Systematic Theology. This contribution is part of a series where we are encouraging ‘doctors of the church’ to offer words for our ongoing reflection.