Ministry, Temptations, & Authentic Relationship

I am speaking tomorrow morning at Southside Church of Christ in Rogers, AR. I am excited to share thoughts, stories, and visions with the disciples there. And I am excited about the task I have been given, to discuss with them what faithful ministry looks like!

Thanks to Henri Nouwen and his little book “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership” , I have thought of the narrative of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the desert, as a sort of parable for what it means to be faithful minister and minister faithfully. I am not sure I will share these reflections with the Southside family, but since I have been wrestling with ministry and ministry phoilosophy all week, in preparation, this “parable” has been fresh on my mind – so I thought I would at least share them here.

We all know the scene: Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted. He has given himself to the practice of fasting, probably, most of his life. But never has he experienced the harsh elements like this, while starving and thirsting. After he has become hungry and weary comes an opportunity for Satan to make his first offer. “Turn these stones into bread!” What is the temptation? To eat? To be fed? Is this only about Jesus and his own hunger? John Howard Yoder says (as does Nouwen) that one way to read this narrative is to bear in mind that this precedes the innauguration of Jesus’ earthly ministry. So Jesus is being tempted with “ways” of being king. But only one “way” will do, and that is faithfulness to the Father. So back to the question – what is Jesus being tempted with?

Nouwen says, “Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread. Oh, how often I have wished I could do that! Walking through the young towns on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, where children die from malnutrition and contaminated water, I would not have been able to reject the gift of making the dusty stone-covered streets into places where people could pick up any of the thousands of rocks and discover that they were croissants, coffee cakes, or fesh-baked buns, and where they could fill their cupped hands with stale water from the cisterns and joyfully realize that what they were drinking was delicious milk. Aren’t we ministers and priests called to help people…?”

But Jesus replied, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that procedes from the mouth of God.”

And the point is this: Ministry is not about possessing some power over others, some magic, some insight, some truth, some consumer goods. Ministry is not about being relevant. It’s about being faithful. When we try to be relevant we get short-sighted. We can only see what is immediately pressing in on us. And the big picture of new creation and the Kingdom of God get lost in the details of what the people say they want or “need.” But faithful ministry swims deeper than surface desires. It’s about deep connections and relationships that give an account of the fullness of human life. Wholeness of life comes not just by bread, on Satans terms, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the living God. What Satan wants is for Jesus to be a “conduit for the doling out of bread to the hungry” – so says my friend Dr. Lee Camp at Lipscomb University. But not just any kind of doling out – what Satan wants in an impersonal kind of giving and feeding, detached from relationship to God and others. What is missing is relationship.

In the second attempt to give Jesus another “way” of being King, Satan takes him to a high pinnacle and says “throw yourself down and the Father will send angels to rescue you…” So again, I ask, what is the temptation?

Nouwen says, “The second temptation to which Jesus was exposed was precisely the temptation to do something spectacular, something that could win him great applause…” Popularity is what Satan offered. “If you’ll just do something spectacular that impresses the people, then they will follow you!” But we all know that Jesus had a special penchant for being very un-popular at times! “Love your enemies…” and “If anyone does not hate his [family], they are not worthy of being my disciple…” – These sorts of claims will not amass a huge following, at least not the sort of following that the Great Shepherd was after.

Again, what Jesus is after is faithfulness. Of course, he did some pretty spectacular things. But never for the sake of being popular. He performed great acts of compassion, precisely in the name of bearing witness to the great love of the Father! His acts were to show the world how much the Creator loved them. And precisely when such acts or miracles amassed a crowd, is when Jesus told them the hard facts about what it might cost to follow him!

And all of this, again, brings us back to relationship. Given Satan’s terms, we have popularity without relationship. But if Jesus is going to ever access the power of angels, or the power of the Spirit to heal or perform acts of mercy, it will be in the name of love and relationship. Again, Satan’s temptation is clever. “Do something good, but do it alone!” The temptation is not to be radically immoral or evil, but to act and be without God and others… without relationship.

Finally, Jesus is given his final test. “See all the nations and empires. They belong to me, and I can give authority over them to whomever I please. And I will give you power over them all, if you will pledge allegiance to me, now.” Again, what is the temptation?

Nouwen says, “You all know what the third temptation of Jesus was. It was the temptation of power… When I ask myself the main reason for so many people having left the church during the past decades in France, Germany, Holland, and also in Canada and America, the word ‘power’ easily comes to mind. One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power – political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power – even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are.”

Again, at the core, is the deception of depersonalization. When we exercise power over others we are detached from both relationship to them, and to God. Relationship to others becomes impossible when we wield authority, control, or power over them, because we refuse to enter into meaningfulness of existence with them. They are less than we. And when we cling to pretense at control and power, we act and behave as if there is no God. If God has “all authority” and “all power” – why do I then need to seek some for my own and exercise it over others? “God alone has authority to act with justice and judge rightly.”

In exploring the connection between power and relationship, Nouwen notes, “One thing is clear to me: The temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and recieve love.”

So the anwer to all of Satan’s scheming was, in short, and declaration and proclamation in favor of biblical love and relationship. Connectedness that is rooted in deep love for God and others.

And as I speak tomorrow, I hope that I bear witness to a kind of ministry that keeps relationship in sharp focus. The cheif end of all flesh is to love God and love others.

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