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“My Ministry Is Dearer To Me Than Life”

 

1st Thessalonians 1:1- 2:8

 

     John Calvin suffered atrociously.  He was afflicted with chronic tophacceous gout, deposits of calcified material around his joints.  In 1562 he wrote to Theodore Beza, “God keeps me bound by my feet…. it is difficult for me to creep from the bed to the table.  Today I preached. But I had to be carried to the church.”

In addition Calvin suffered terribly from kidney stones.  His physician advised him to ride his horse vigorously in hope of discharging a stone. At the end of the agonizing horseback ride Calvin wrote, “On my return home I was surprised to find that I emitted discoloured blood rather than urine. The following day the calculus had forced its way from the bladder into the urethra.  Hence still more excruciating tortures….the urinary canal was so much lacerated that copious discharges of blood flowed from it.”

Calvin also suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, and at one point coughed up so much blood that he had to be confined to bed for eight months. While he was in bed for the eight months he dictated the 1559 edition of his Institutes and translated it from Latin into French andrevised his commentary on Isaiah.

Calvin also had intestinal parasites.  (He describes in detail the hookworms and tapeworms that he passed, but I shall spare you the details tonight.)

Calvin also suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (also known as spastic colon), with its cramping abdominal pain.  For ten years he could eat only one meal per day.

He endured migraine headaches, often for days on end.

Not least he was afflicted with haemorrhoids.

The immediate cause of his death was probably septicaemia, shock caused by bacteria growing in his bloodstream.

Repeatedly he had to be carried into the pulpit in a chair. Why didn’t he quit? Or if not quit altogether, why didn’t he take it easy on himself?  Why didn’t he take a few more days off and enter upon a life of ease?

Why not? He tells us himself in the dedication to his commentary on 2nd Thessalonians: “My ministry…is dearer to me than life.”

Of course his ministry was dearer to him than life in light of how he understood the ministry.  Consider what he wrote in his Commentary on Galatians: “When the gospel is preached, the blood of Jesus flows”; and in his Commentary on Hebrews: “When the gospel is preached, the blood of Jesus falls on the congregation together with the words.”  It almost sounds like a Protestant version of transubstantiation, the transubstantiation of the ministry.

To be sure, the ministry is more than preaching.  Calvin knew that. At the same time, Calvin knew that every aspect of the pastor’s work – preaching, teaching, visiting, listening, consoling – embodied the logic of that work. And the logic of the work of the ministry was that in every aspect of the gospel-ministry that a pastor exercises the blood of Jesus flows; through every aspect of the ministry that a pastor exercises the blood of Jesus drips salvifically on the congregation that has been entrusted to the pastor.

It’s a singular honour to be a pastor.  I am moved every time I recall the remark of Jean Vianney, an early-nineteenth century Roman Catholic priest from the city of Ars in post-Napoleonic France . “If we really knew what it is to be a pastor”, Vianney said, “we couldn’t endure it.”  What did he mean, “We couldn’t endure it”? I have glimpsed what he means, for in the course of my pastoral work, especially in situations of distress and anguish, grief and pain, I have staggered home stunned at how eager people are to see their minister and what comfort they derive from his presence.  I have slowly learned why they are eager and how they derive comfort: it’s because they are trusting the pastor’s faith to support their own faith when their own faith is assaulted by tragedy or turbulence or sin. They are counting on the pastor’s heart-knowledge of God when a wall has fallen on them and mere head-knowledge isn’t going to help.  They want to lean on the pastor’s assurance, borrow from it (as it were). They are hoping the pastor’s assurance concerning God’s truth and God’s triumph will reassure them that God hasn’t abandoned them despite shocking evidence to the contrary.  They are hoping that the pastor’s confidence will restore their confidence that God will never forsake them even though God seems to have. And therefore while a pastor who appears to be a know-it-all is a nuisance, a pastor who never exudes unselfconscious intimacy with God is useless.

What is it, then, to be a pastor?  It’s to have the conviction of God’s mercy and faithfulness so deep in one’s bloodstream that the suffering person will feel the foundations of her life to be in place once more.  It’s to be so unselfconsciously a conduit of the Spirit that the same “current” will be induced in the person whom mishap has made to feel unplugged. Every high school student knows that if a current is passing through electrical wire and another wire is laid alongside it, the current in the first wire will induce a current in the secondThis is what it means to be a pastor.

Robert Coles is a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard. In one of his video-taped lectures Coles branches out into a discussion of painting, especially the work of Edward Hopper, an American artist. Coles points out that the people depicted in Hopper’s paintings sit close to each other but never look at each other.  They share the same space geographically but are humanly remote.  Coles points out that it’s easy for people to be proximate to each other physically, to chatter, even to meet conventionally; yet it’s rare — because difficult — for people to communicate intimately, heart-to-heart, spirit-to-spirit, deep-to-deep.  Coles is correct: such communication is rare because difficult.

But not so difficult and therefore so rare in the ministry. The human intimacy characteristic of pastoral work guarantees that a smaller congregation of even one hundred people is assailed with enough pain and perplexity, enough anguish and anxiety, to give a minister no rest.

Plainly, regardless of what else pastor and people need in the midst of life’s contradictions, above all we need courage.  We always need courage. Few books in scripture speak as much about courage as the book of Hebrews.         It likens the Christian life to a race, a relay race. Those who have run their leg of the race ahead of us (i.e., Christians of an earlier era who have predeceased us) are awaiting us at the finish line. They remained courageous throughout their leg of the relay race.  They remained courageous: that’s why they finished (rather than quit) and are awaiting us at the finish line.  The unknown author of Hebrews cries, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…. Therefore lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.” Because any Christian congregation is surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, wecan lift up our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees.  One task of the pastor is constantly to point the people to the cloud of witnesses.

 

It’s the cloud of witnesses that becomes for us a vehicle of the grace of God. One such witness in the great cloud is John Calvin.  Calvin was a giant among the Protestant Reformers.  Calvin spoke characteristically of the grandeur of God and the majesty of God. No one else seems as awed with God’s sheer Godness.  God, for Calvin, infinitely transcends all that we can say or think of him. And yet when Calvin pens a comment on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian congregation he writes what we don’t expect him to.  Paul has written, “We give thanks to God always for you all”.  In other words, the apostle thanks God for the congregation.  Calvin comments, “Is there anything more worthy of our love than God?” Of course there isn’t. But here comes the surprise. “There is nothing, therefore, which ought to make us seek the friendship of men (and women) more than God’s manifestation of himself among them through the gifts of the Spirit”.   How startling! The Reformer who is awed at the sheer, overwhelming Godness of God maintains that our friends in the congregation mirror God to us.  Our friends in the congregation aren’t friends chiefly because we get along with them or they like us; our friends in the congregation are those whom we are to cherish just because they mirror to us the mercy and patience and truth of God himself.

Calvin was born in 1509 in the town of Noyon , fifty miles outside Paris . At age eleven he went to Paris to begin university studies. His father steered him into law, having noted (his father said) that lawyers never starve. Calvin graduated with a doctorate in legal studies at age twenty-three.  Soon he left behind the technical details of the law for the riches of Renaissance humanism. Then in 1534 the gospel seized him.  He moved to Geneva , Switzerland , and quickly became known for his first major work in theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  The first edition had only six chapters; the final edition, eighty. It had grown into a two-thousand page primer for preachers.         Subsequently Calvin became the leading thinker of the Reformation outside German-speaking lands, a prolific writer, and a diligent worker on behalf of the citizens of the city.

Before Calvin died in 1564 he had written commentaries on most books of the bible, including 1st Thessalonians.         I am moved every time I open it, for here Calvin speaks so very warmly of the pastor’s life with the congregation that the pastor serves. In 1st Thessalonians the apostle Paul speaks of the style of his ministry with the congregation in the city. Paul writes, “We were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” Calvin comments on this passage, “A mother, in nursing her child, makes no show of authority and does not stand on any dignity.   This, says Paul, was his attitude, since he willingly refrained from claiming the honour that was due him [i.e., as an apostle], and undertook any kind of duty without being ruffled or making any show.  In the second place, a mother, in rearing her child, reveals a wonderful and extraordinary love…and even gives her own life blood to be drained…. We must remember that those who want to be counted true pastors must entertain the same feelings as Paul — to have higher regard for the church [i.e., the congregation] than for their own life.” When Paul maintains that one mark of an apostle is his willingness to make any sacrifice for the edification of the congregation, Calvin adds, “All pastors are reminded by this of the kind of relationship which ought to exist between them and the church”.

Calvin always knew that a dictatorial, tyrannical pastor is a contradiction in terms. The pastor is to lead the congregation, not hammer it; he is to plead, not whip; he is to model the gospel, not hurl it. When Paul says to the congregation in Thessalonica, “We beseech you”, Calvin adds, “His beseeching them, when he might rightfully command them, is a mark of the courtesy and restraint which pastors should imitate, in order to win their people, if possible, with kindliness, rather than coerce them with force.”  The pastor is always to plead rather than pummel.         Calvin summarizes this issue: “Those who exercise an absolute power that is completely opposed to Christ are far from the order of pastors and overseers”.

To be sure, Calvin speaks of two kinds of pastors who give the ministry a bad name. Class one: “stupid, ignorant men who blurt out their worthless brainwaves from the pulpit”. Class two: “ungodly, irreverent individuals who babble on with their detestable blasphemies”. Any minister who reads Calvin here must search her own heart.         I search mine, and trust that you will never find me blurting out worthless brainwaves or babbling detestable blasphemies.

Calvin had the highest estimation of the ministry.  Such work, he said, is “…the edification of the church, the salvation of souls, the restoration of the world…. The excellence and splendour of this work are beyond value”.         There is no greater privilege than being a pastor.

Realistically Calvin knew that pastoral existence could be difficult, even dangerous. He had seen congregations trample ministers.         When he reflects on the disputes and feuds which make life miserable for a minister he writes something that is, regrettably, true of too many congregations: “So we see daily how pastors are treated with hostility by their churches for some trivial reason, or for no reason at all.” Yet Calvin also knew that no one is cherished as much as a diligent pastor is cherished by a grateful congregation.

One day in May, 1954, Stan Musial, the superb right fielder for the St.Louis Cardinals, hit five home runs in a single game.  A few years later Musial was in the twilight of his baseball career. His legs no longer ran fast; his arm was no longer a cannon; and opposing pitchers with even a mediocre fastball were starting to sneak it past him.  He knew that he could now play only occasionally as a pinch-hitter. “Even if I know I’m going to sit on the bench for most of the game”, he told a sportswriter, “every time I go to the ballpark and put on my uniform I get a thrill”.

I am 64-years old. I am in the twilight of my ministry. Nonetheless, every time I exercise this ministry I get a thrill.  Whether it’s when I step into a pulpit on Sunday morning and see the expectant faces of the congregation, or whether it’s when I’m helping someone to die in peace, or whether it’s when I sit by myself and intercede for those whom God has laid on my heart – whenever I exercise the ministry to which I’ve been called I get a thrill. And as often as I’m thrilled I’m also startled, sobered and awed, for I recall Jean Vianney: “If we really knew what it is to be a pastor, we couldn’t endure it.”

I relish teaching in a seminary, and relish it for several reasons. One reason is that it keeps me probing the work of the giants in theology.  Another reason is that it keeps me acquainted with men and women (younger than I) who are preparing for ordination.  Entirely too often, however, a student remarks that after his first degree in theology he plans to do a second and third degree – i.e., a doctorate – because a doctorate will be the ticket out of the pastorate and into a professorship.  The first degree in theology lets one into the pastorate; the final degree lets one out. The truth is, I heard as much when I was a seminary student myself forty-one years ago. Whenever I hear this I tell students most emphatically that the real Doctores Ecclesiae, teachers of the church, were pastors first.  Luther worked as a pastor every day in addition to teaching, writing, travelling, and wrestling with most vexatious problems in church life; e.g., the predicament of nuns who left the convent in response to the message of the Reformation and then had no means of support. Calvin preached on average every second day. Yet his writings are so massive that his 2000-page Institutes represents only 6.8% of his written output.  In addition he sat with the dying, married the living, visited the sick, sorted out conflicts in the wider church (rural pastors, for instance, complained vociferously that they should be paid the same as urban pastors in Geneva .) He ordered provisions for the city hospital. And he had to endure the humiliation of his sister-in-law’s repeated adulteries.
Why did the real giants of theology persist in shouldering such a hugely variegated pastoral work, doing vastly more than merely the scholarship for which they will never be forgotten? Calvin spoke for them all when he wrote 450 years ago, “My ministry is dearer to me than life.”

                                                                                                           Victor Shepherd                        

June 2008

Dr. Shepherd received The Best Preacher Award by the Centre of Mentorship and Theological Reflection at Tyndale University College & Seminary, June 5, 2008.  Following is the sermon he delivered at that event.