In 2 Corinthians, Paul is put in the position of defending his ministry. “Are we beginning to commend ourselves?” he asks the Corinthians. “You are our letters [of commendation],” he reminds them. Paul’s “defense” of the authenticity of his work is the strong, open, vulnerable witness he has lived amont these people. “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves…” (4:2)
The open statement of the truth is delivered by means of a transparent witness, by the work of Christ in the hearts of the ministers. Paul says that the light of God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” (4:6) This treasure is carried about in jars of clay, so that the glory may redound to God and not to the vessel (4:7).
The Gospel goes from one heart to another. The transparent witness of one Christ-follower lights up the knowledge of God in another person. Grace “extends to more and more people…” (4:15)
I’m struck by the lack of standard supports for ministerial authority in Paul’s situation. I just re-read John Wesley’s sermon entitled, “The Ministerial Office,” which serves as an apologia for Methodism and an exhortation for Methodists to keep to their station. He upholds lay preaching, for example, but he criticizes Methodist preachers for trying to administer the sacraments. The purpose of lay preaching was evangelism, which does not need the standard support of ordination. The purpose of Methodism was spiritual renewal – for the light and love of Jesus Christ to shine in the hearts of Methodists so that others could see the glory of God.
I find here an irreducible core to Christian ministry. Ultimately, ministry is not training or skill, though both are crucially important. Ministry is heart to heart, whether lay or ordained. In some fundamental sense, ministry is nothing more than witness. And “witness” means that something is happening to me, to my heart, which becomes visible in my actions.
I don’t know about you, but as United Methodist annual conferences meet and tally the votes on the Constitutional amendments, these thoughts keep me oriented. I am not pitting “heart” against external, organizational matters, as if the organization does not matter. It does. And people in favor of and against the structual changes care deeply about mission.
But the ground of confidence in Methodism or any other church or movement ultimately is not in the structures. It is not in the various kinds of standard supports we build to enhance the organization’s effectiveness. The ground of our confidence lies in the glory of God shining in our faces; the grace of Christ extending to more and more people; the treasure of the Gospel embodied in these earthen vessels.
I take comfort in these thoughts. When I had to vote at annual conference last week, I struggled with the pros and cons of opinions about the amendments. I voted my conscience. At the end of the day, however, no matter how the structure changes or remains the same, the Gospel still goes from one heart to another. I need always to remember this one thing.