It has been a real privilege to be part of this College with you throughout this last year, or two, or three, or four. Perhaps more than many other cohorts before you, you’ve been through the roller-coaster: great things have happened while you’ve been at College and there have been plenty of hard times too. You are the cohort who survived the pandemic lockdown! But now you are about to leave us and get on with the very things you came here to prepare to do. So what to say to you as you leave? What do I want you to remember? We’ve got Final Friday tomorrow and there we’ll open the Scriptures together as a College, sit under God’s word one last time together for the year, but tonight is just for you who are leaving us. What do you, whose horizons will soon be taken up with the ministry into which you will enter, what do you need to take with you?
I thought I’d share three connected thoughts about ministry with you before you go. Three things I think it is important to remember. They will give you perspective, they will sustain you when times are tough, and help you recalibrate when you’ve been distracted. And they’re pretty simple and so easy to remember.
First, Christian ministry, every Christian ministry — the ministry you will exercise wherever it is in this world and in whatever particular context — Christian ministry is about Jesus not about me. John the Baptist put it best when some of his own disciples were concerned that attention was being drawn away from him and towards Jesus: he said, “he must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Not a bad verse to have emblazoned on your study wall, or on your desk, or as your screen saver. “He must increase and I must decrease”. Now I’m quite confident that every one of you would readily give your assent to that great truth. If you had to sign a pledge to that effect, I suspect just about every single one of you would do it in a flash. But look around you in this world and even in this city. There are plenty of ministries being exercised for the sake of the minister, or for the sake of the ministry itself, and not for the sake of the Saviour. It’s dangerous when the ministry becomes your identity. And it happens all too often.
There is an almost palpable fragility, a personal insecurity, and shortage of resilience that characterises our age, sadly even among those in Christian ministry. And in order to dampen that down, to distract us from that perhaps, to replenish the stores of self-esteem, some people tie their identity too closely to the ministry they are exercising and not to the Saviour they serve. And it shows in how they are always talking about themselves, publicly and privately. It shows in the way they speak about “this ministry” or, more often, “my ministry”. It shows when all eyes must constantly be on them. And it rarely registers with others that they are even trying to talk about Jesus. It’s almost as if there is a sixth “M” in their ministry strategy: Magnification, Membership, Maturity, Ministry, Mission and “Me”. But when that’s the reality, that last “M” quickly undermines and swallows up the other five. Don’t fall for that, will you? So many have. And it is not always so obvious even though it’s real. Remember, Christian ministry is about Jesus not about me. “He must increase and I must decrease.”
The second ministry truth to take away with you this evening is this — the results of Christian ministry are in his hands not mine. I’m not suggesting for a moment that what you do doesn’t matter, that you shouldn’t give yourself tirelessly to the task, and keep learning to do what you do better. Yet when it is all boiled down, what generates the commitment and the diligence and the willingness to pursue effectiveness and excellence, is the knowledge that this is the Messiah’s work, it is the work of Jesus the Son: he began it and he will bring it to completion. “On this rock I will build my church”, Jesus said (Matt. 16:18).
We might preach the word in season and out of season like Timothy was urged to do by Paul (2 Tim 4:2). We might be faithful in prayer, diligent in preparation, scintillating in delivery, modelling the message as well as teaching the message, but we know it is ultimately God’s work. “I planted”, Paul wrote to the Corinthians — “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). He told the Philippians that he was certain of this, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). You see, because ministry is all about him, ultimately it’s all up to him. And that, folks, is tremendously liberating when you think about it. I give myself tirelessly, but the results are in his hands rather than mine. The best most insightful and engaging preaching in the world will not bear any fruit apart from him. The most feeble attempts at evangelism, or modelling Christian faithfulness in my family life, can be used mightily by him if that is his plan.
So I don’t have to turn into a workaholic as if all the results depend on me and me alone. And I don’t have to control what other people do because only then will it be right or good or effective. Sure, I have to answer for my stewardship, how I have used what God has given me to use for the glory of his Son. But I mustn’t act as if God is not in the world, as if his Spirit is not at work in me and others, as if his Son will not do what he said he would do: “I will build my church”. I can rejoice in the success of others because I know that it is Jesus who has done it. And I can persevere during the hard times because I know that it is Jesus who will do it. The results of Christian ministry are in his hands, not mine. “I will build my church”.
So the first two are not too hard to remember, are they?
Christian ministry is about Jesus, not about me.
The results of Christian ministry are in his hands, not mine.
And the third?
The third is that — the trials of Christian ministry are as important as the joys. None of us wants to experience trials, at least not now, not yet. When things don’t go as you’d planned, or worse when you can’t avoid your own fragility and brokenness and you are face to face with your own mistakes or your own limitations. When you encounter opposition or indifference from the very people you thought would be most onside. I was musing with a friend yesterday about another mutual friend who once told him how surprised he had been that not everyone liked him. Let me tell you now, not everyone will like you. If you are faithful in teaching the whole counsel of God as Paul had been in Ephesus, if you show people how God’s word speaks into their lives, interrupting them, redirecting them, challenging them, you will not be everyone’s hero. And sometimes it will be simply your personality or the ministry with which you have been entrusted that means people just won’t like you. But the trials of Christian ministry are as important as the joys.
And that’s because Christian ministry is about Jesus and because the results of Christian ministry are in his hands. He has not promised us unalloyed success. And that is not what he experienced as he went about preaching in a broken world. To be like him in ministry is to be like him in discipleship: it will involve suffering, even unjust and unearned suffering. “A servant is not greater than his master”, Jesus told his disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20) — and notice he put the persecute bit first. The trials remind you that the ministry we exercise now is not the final destination. And they remind us that we can’t do this, at least we can’t do this alone. They bring us to our knees. Try it sometime. It’s not a bad posture for prayer.
And so the trials of Christian ministry can themselves be part of the answer to a ministry that has become all about me rather than all about him. The apostles rejoiced when they suffered for the gospel and the kingdom. They counted it an enormous privilege. It was the jolt that reminded them that the ministry was not theirs but Jesus’, and that they do not control the results of what they do, even when they have prayed faithfully, prepared diligently, and preached powerfully. The trials of Christian ministry are as important as the joys. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matt. 10:24–25).
So there you are, three things to ponder as you leave here and take the next steps into the ministry which the Lord has prepared for you.
- Christian ministry is about Jesus not about me.
- The results of Christian ministry are in his hands, not mine.
- The trials of Christian ministry are as important as the joys.
Let me finish by thanking you for the things you have taught us, while you’ve been here. It is a magnificent encouragement and privilege to see what God has done and what God is doing in each of your lives. It is a thrill to see how God has gifted you and shaped you as people, as disciples of the Lord Jesus. I look forward to seeing you at Final Friday tomorrow and then again at the Graduation in March. Please don’t be strangers. This is your College. You are welcome here at any time.
Our God is good. He has enabled us to gather like this tonight. Not something, just at the moment, we want to take granted, is it? So why don’t we pray together before we hear a familiar song sung to us?
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