Models for ministry in the gospels

September 17, 2021 by Cynthia Campbell

For many congregations, the fall of 2021 continues to be a time of uncertainty and stress.  Across the country, pastors, leaders, and members are working through the challenges of re-opening and returning to something like a traditional rhythm of life together. At times like this, it is good to reflect on the basics. Who are we? Our faith tells us we are children of God, a community baptized into Christ, people drawn by Spirit to larger and deeper life. But we are also exhausted people, carrying within our bodies (as well as our spirits) losses from the last 18 months we haven’t even completely named. Layered on top of the trauma of the pandemic are the multiple crises that press in upon us: weather disasters fueled by climate change; reckoning with centuries of racial injustice and the reality of racism; deep divisions in nearly every community and many families over how to understand nearly every issue before us. And just when we thought a corner had been turned, new variants of COVID and heightened tensions threaten to take over our life together. How do we speak a hopeful word about how to live as followers of Jesus? How do we find strength for the journey this fall? How do we help people combat the instinct to turn inward and turn away?

Between World Communion Sunday (October 3) and All Saints’ Sunday (October 31), the Sunday gospel readings invite the church to reflect on discipleship and what it means to be followers of Jesus. These readings are full of challenges, but they are also full of promise and hope. On October 10, we reflect on the familiar (and familiarly difficult) story of a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. In Mark’s telling, there is great urgency in this man’s quest: he runs up to Jesus and kneels before him (details that both Matthew and Luke omit). His body language is indicative of his deep desire for something more in his life. Perhaps this intensity and depth of longing is what evokes Jesus’ reaction: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (also omitted in the other gospel versions).

This intensity of emotion is the context within which Mark wants us to hear Jesus’ prescription. The instruction here is not an abstract general principle. Jesus has looked with deep compassion on this seeker and knows what he needs. This one needs to let go: let go of trying to achieve, amass, and attain. He has both wealth and a life of sincere religious observance. On one level, who (even God!) could want more from a person! On another level, Jesus knows (as do we) that it is all to easy for even the good things of life to own us.

Who are we? Biblical faith teaches that we are stewards: persons entrusted with the most precious of gifts – the gift of life itself. The question is: what will we do with this gift and with all the possibilities life presents? Will we seek to achieve, amass, and attain for ourselves or are we able to let go and put ourselves, our possessions, and our virtues at the service of others?

This same question is presented again in the gospel reading for October 17. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the fishing-buddies of Peter and Andrew, come to Jesus with what may be the most audacious statement in the Bible: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Other people come to Jesus beseeching him for healing and hope. The man in the previous story seeks abundant life. It turns out James and John want honor, glory, and power – to be seated at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his glory. The lectionary does not include the verses that immediately precede this, but that context is important. Jesus has just told his followers (for the third and final time) that what awaits him in Jerusalem is betrayal, intense physical suffering, and death. And then the mysterious thing called “resurrection.” The depth of their misunderstanding of Jesus is stunning.

In Mark, each of Jesus’ predictions of his suffering is followed by misunderstanding and then by a teaching about discipleship. In this case, Jesus links discipleship with his own identity: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, … for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve….” The servant is one who is not self-directed but other-directed. Service can be a metaphor, but it is also describeing a whole area of work. My husband has been hospitalized twice in the last two years for major surgery. In both cases, this was followed by weeks in rehab and then out-patient therapy. Some of the most important people in his recovery process are called “aides,” but what they do is the most basic forms of serving, including (at least at first) bathing and dressing. They are the lowest compensated of the health care staff but in some ways they are the most important because it is their hands that clean and care and comfort. What would happen if you and your congregation took the hospital or nursing home aide as your model for ministry?

The next Sunday reading (Mark 10:46-52) marks an important turning-point in the gospel of Mark. This is the last incident in the ministry of Jesus before he enters Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. Scholars often call Mark a “Passion Narrative (the story of Jesus’ last days leading up to and including the crucifixion) with a long introduction.” The story of Bartimaeus is the end of the introduction, and it leads directly to the story of Jesus suffering and death. The scene is Jericho, the ancient city beside the Jordan River. A long, winding road leads up from there through mountain desert wilderness to the city of Jerusalem. That is where Jesus is headed, but on the way out of town, he is waylaid by a blind beggar. Many in the crowd urged him to quiet down, but he only called out more loudly. Jesus calls for Bartimaeus to come to him and then asks, “What do you want?” His longing is deep and simple: “Let me see again.” His trust (faith) is fulfilled; he sees; and immediately, follows Jesus on the way … on the way to Jerusalem and all that represents.

This story almost has the feel of a parable because there are so many clues inviting us into a deeper level of understanding. It begins with Bartimaeus’ response to Jesus’ call: “throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.” The cloak was an all-purpose outer garment that functioned as a bed as well as protection from the elements. For the poorest of the poor, it was likely their only real possession. Bartimaeus casts it aside – he lets go of all that he has. Then there is his request: he wants to see … which is precisely what the disciples (especially in Mark) are unable to do. And when his sight is restored – when he sees Jesus with his eyes as well as with the eyes of his insight – he immediately follows Jesus on the way – the way that leads to the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission and identity.

There is so much in our world that is hard to look at, let alone see: the enduring effects of slavery and racial injustice; the ways our lifestyles contribute to global warming and environmental degradation; the continuing erosion of trust and commitment to the common good. Bartimaeus is so brave: he wants to see. He is willing to move out of his old world and into a new one that includes following Jesus who is the way. Perhaps we have all been crying out, “God, have mercy” these past months and years. Jesus asks us what he asked Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” What do we want? And do we want what Jesus is prepared to give us?

Cynthia Campbell recently retired as pastor and head of staff at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky. Cynthia began her ministry in Texas and served in three congregations before completing her Ph.D. She joined the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1981 where she taught theology and ministry and directed the Doctor of Ministry Program. In 1988, she was called to the First Presbyterian Church of Salina, Kansas, as Pastor/Head of Staff, one of the first women to serve a congregation of over 1,000 members as pastor. In 1995, she was named President of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She is the author of A Multitude of Blessings: A Christian Approach to Religious Diversity (2007) and God’s Abundant Table (2011). Cynthia is married to Fred Holper, who is retired from teaching preaching and worship at McCormick Seminary. They have two adult children who live in Milwaukee.