Shepherding in the Shadows
Ministering in the Midst of Death
Ministers are generalists who specialize in two areas: life and death. A pastor isn't required to know everything about anything, but he is expected to know a little something about everything. This is as it should be.
God isn’t silent and His ministers mustn't be either. As an ambassador of Christ, a pastor speaks that which has been spoken. He doesn’t legislate; he communicates. Only the One who grants life can rightfully govern it. Holy Orders are marching orders, issuing from three, all-encompassing words: Jesus is Lord. When a priest speaks about the implications and applications of Christ’s lordship, he is speaking about all of life. He doesn’t have to know everything about biochemistry, fly fishing, cabinet making, or underwater basketweaving, but he must know something about them; namely, that Jesus lays claim to all things. A good pastor may not know the answer to every question that arises in life, but he knows the answer to the fundamental question of life. One Preacher summed up and concluded the whole matter with startling clarity: “Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
But the predominant occupation of the minister is that of dealing with death. When speaking about life, he might press you with a question as to your temporal purpose, “What are you here after?” But a thoughtful minister will press you even further with a question as to your eternal prospects, “Ah, but what about hereafter?”
This is not because the minister loves death, it is simply because he lives with it. The faithful priest has death as his constant companion. The clergy and the crypt are wedded together until the resurrection liberates them both. Wherever death is, pastors are: Waiting beside a hospital bed, sharing a couple’s bewilderment over yet another late miscarriage, reading the 23rd Psalm as the earth swallows up the casket.
But dealing with death doesn't end with the obvious. The minister sees that death is present behind the hurts and heartaches that befall his parishioners on a regular basis. As a marriage disintegrates, two who have been one split in two again, trust and love die, and it’s only a matter of time before hope too is a corpse. Stocks crash, and before they know what happened a couple on the verge of retirement finds a lifetime of prudence deleted and their golden-year dreams dead. A corporation downsizes, and a man whose identity has been bound up with his work stumbles around to find a new self to replace the one he lost. A child’s apostasy wounds more deeply than death—it is but the living preview of the second death.
Every crisis is, in some way, a coffin. Every hard-knock is a death blow. Ministers are wherever death is, and in our world death is ubiquitous. To coin a phrase, “in the midst of life, we are in death.”
In all these circumstances, the preacher brings a word of life. To be a real gospel, good news for a world of death, that word has to be a promise of life on the far side of death — or, more properly, the promise of life through death. A message of life that skirts around the edge of the grave is not the gospel of Jesus. Any gospel that bypasses a bloody cross and a borrowed tomb isn't adequate for either life or death. The word we speak is the good news that the Father of Jesus is faithful even to the grave, and yet again faithful after it.
There is much talk these days about a “cruciform ministry.” That is, pastoral ministry should be cross-shaped as well as cross-centered. I think this is a necessary point that needs to be made. But we must go further to say that pastoral ministry has a Eucharistic shape: We offer the Bread of life, but only after the bread is broken, after the blood is poured. The Bread of life is the bread that proclaims the Lord’s death until He comes. And so must those who hold out the bread.
At the beginning of Matthew’s passion narrative, a woman pours oil over Jesus’ head (26:7). It is an anointing, acclaiming Jesus as Israel’s true King and Priest, but Jesus says that this anointing is in preparation for His burial. Jesus is ordained for the grave, anointed to pass through death and out the other end. In the economy of heaven, this is how kings are crowned. Life and death come through the great reversal—death to life.
Brethren, this is the great privilege of pastoral ministry. You are called to follow Jesus into the tombs that litter our world in order to announce the triumph of life. The next time that you find yourself walking the sad mile to one of life’s graveyards, remember that Christ had already been this way before you, and He still walks with you. That noise you hear is the sound of keys jingling in His hand.
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