The scene on the crowded street froze me in horror. There he lay naked, with a million flies feasting on the open sores of his emaciated body. "Dead," someone whispered. Soon another spread a sheet to take up a funeral collection. Even the poor can be generous in the face of death, and many began throwing coins on the sheet. A tall gentle man, dressed in impeccable white, hurrying perhaps to a nearby temple or to a business conference, stopped by. Generosity gripped his heart and he did a little better than the priest and the Levite; he tossed a one-rupee coin toward the cremation fund. The coin bounced, and landed on a bleeding sore on the left palm. Instantly the fingers moved, the eyes opened, and there he was dying but not dead.
Shock waves gripped the crowd. No funeral that day. One by one the onlookers faded into the winter smog of Calcutta. Either ashamed at the face of death or frightened to come down from their ivory towers to face life at its last ebb, the crowd vanished into the anonymity of the city. And then it happened. Two teenage girls, in white saris with blue borders, rushed to the scene. The million flies did not bother them. The stench posed no concern. One girl cradled the man's head in her bosom. The other gently lifted his legs, and together they carried the man to a waiting three-wheeler and rushed him to Mother Teresa's sanctuary for the dying and the destitute.
I followed these good Samaritans, and asked them why. They were young, beautiful, at an age when they should be out somewhere having fun. Why this? One of them looked straight into my eyes and said: "In the face of that dying man we see our dying Lord." As a minister I came away absolutely stunned at this definition of ministry. My seminary never taught me that. All the theological readings I have done did not lead me to that discovery. All the philosophy in the world could not portray the agony and the ecstasy I discovered on that street corner in the form of a dying man and two ministering angels.
Obviously, not all of us have either the capacity or the audacity to walk in the valley of the shadow of death and rescue the helpless therein. Obviously, not all of us can emulate Mother Teresa or her sisters. But one thing we can be sure of: we cannot ever say "They have their job; we have ours." That is not an option for Christian ministry.
What, then, is ministry? Our Lord defined it for us long ago, when He stood at His hometown pulpit: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to pro claim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18, 19, NIV).
This declaration provides a three-dimensional definition of ministry.
Ministry is a calling. No one can read the Bible without becoming convinced of this. See Noah or Abraham or Moses or Isaiah or Daniel or Peter or Paul. Or study the history of Christian proclamation. Or search for the secret of Moody, Booth, or Ellen White. A divine calling, a personal encounter with God, an inescapable bur den for the proclamation of the kingdom, is the sole driving force for a meaningful ministry. Any other motivation leads to distortion and manipulation.
Leslie Weatherhead tells of an young man who decided to be a minister. Asked when and how he came to that decision, the boy replied that he made that resolution after hearing a sermon in his high school chapel. Weatherhead asked him, "Who was the preacher?" The boy's answer: "I don't remember the name of the preacher. All I know is that I heard the voice of God that day bidding me come." In the final analysis, Christian ministry is not theology, not eloquence, not financial wizardry, not organizational expertise, but a sure and certain calling. The litmus test is: Have I seen Christ face to face? Have I heard His voice?
Ministry is proclamation. If ministry as a calling bonds the minister to the person of Jesus, then ministry as a proclamation must bond the pastor to the Word. "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel" is Paul's way of expressing that commitment (1 Cor. 9:16, NIV). No ministry can throb with power unless it ministers the Word of God in all its fullness. It is in the Word we learn of God, His love, His grace, His Son on the cross, His kingdom to come. Love and life, history and existence, the real and the ideal, take on meaning within the context of God's Word. When preached with the power of the Spirit, the Word of God releases "the creative energy that called the worlds into existence" and "imparts power; it begets life.... It brings with it the life of the Infinite One. It transforms the nature and re-creates the soul in the image of God." 1
Ministry is caring. If the calling gives the authority, and proclamation gives the content, the caring dimension gives ministry its context. Jesus' assertion in Nazareth that His ministry was to pro claim freedom, to provide sight, to re lease the oppressed, tells us something about the nature of the Christian gospel. It is not a pie in the sky by and by; it is relevant to life now as and where it is found. Ministry is both a witness to the Lord who saves, and service in the name of the Lord who cares. Says John Stott: "[God's] concerns are all-embracing not only the 'sacred' but the 'secular,' not only religion but nature, not only his covenant people but all people, not only justification but social justice in every community, not only his gospel but his law. So we must not narrow down his interests. Moreover, ours should be as broad as his." 2
Often the very mention of freedom, caring, healing, and justice sparks an immediate accusation of social gospel with all the negative baggage of that phrase. However, a caring ministry does not mean minimizing proclamation, but it does mean maximizing its effect. Proclamation without caring leaves one with a message but no audience; caring with out proclamation leaves one with an audience but no message. Both extremes are foreign to gospel ministry.
The temptation to identify ministry with either extreme has been at the root of the failure of Christian mission in our times. Consider the burning passion of mission movements in the past: William Carey not only gave the Bible to India, but also revolutionized its social structure by waging a one-man crusade against widow-burning. James McKean spoke not only of the cross but also about the mosquito, smallpox, and leprosy, and changed the face of Thailand. The evangelist Charles Finney was responsible for turning out converted young men who stood for human dignity and spoke against slavery in the United States. History is a witness that whenever the gospel is pro claimed as total freedom from all the ills of sin, the individual as well as the community stand transformed. John Gladwin reminds us: "It is because this is God's world and he cared for it to the point of incarnation and crucifixion that we are inevitably committed to work for God's justice in the face of oppression, for God's truth in the face of lies and deceits, for service in the face of the abuse of power, for love in the face of selfishness, for cooperation in the face of destructive antagonism, and for reconciliation in the face of division and hostility." 3
But such a dynamic is operative only when substance becomes more important than shadows, when mission becomes more important than structure, and when people become the focus rather than a program. Is that possible? What happened after the Nazareth proclamation says yes. When ministry puts on its working clothes, gets down to the street corner, and sees in the dying, the starving, the sick, the hopeless, and the lonely the reflection of what God's grace can do, that ministry becomes omnipotent.
1. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 126.
2. John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Bombay: Gospel Literature Service, 1989), p. 17.
3. John Gladwin, God's People in God's World (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1979), p. 125.