01 Mar Thread Season 3 Episode 1 : Identity
Thread is God’s word, tying together all the pieces of your life as a person in ministry. Its the place for believers who want to maximize the impact of their lives on others. In Season 3 we are moving through 2 Corinthians.
Today’s lesson covers (Chapter 1:1) and our topic today is Finding our Identity as a person in ministry.
I love this book! It has ministered to me throughout my 30+ years of full-time service to the Lord and the body of Christ. In this book Paul is a middle-aged man looking back on his life. Like all of us will, he asks this question: “Did I live well? Did I succeed in life?”
In his middle years, Paul here reflects on his life in the ministry. He has given every day to this calling and he has learned a lot about ministry, the glory of it, the grind of it, it’s cost and its rewards. This book is his reflection on what makes ministry work and what messes it up. He is passing on a lifetime of knowledge and I, for one, am hungry for what he has to say.
In Paul, we see a pure example of a vanishing breed. Not a coldly professional clergyman but a shepherd whose life is bound up with the Lord’s sheep. He pours out his heart with great emotion and describes the price he’s been willing to pay to build others up in the kingdom of God. This book is a great opportunity for us to judge the purity of our own heart and ministry and the check our attitude.
Paul did not invent the ministry. He is simply following the life pattern of Jesus. Christ used his time and energy each day to represent the Father to the people of earth and to pour out his life for their benefit.
Not Following a Normal Human Career Path
He has not followed the vocational or life pattern of his family and friends so he can’t judge in the same way they might, by the size of their business, the awards they’ve won, or positions they’ve held. Paul sees that these things aren’t the real measure of any life.
Now Paul had a great career going as an academic and a businessman. Then he met Jesus and Christ rewired his heart, transformed his life, and gave him an entirely new outlook on what his life was all about. Jesus called Paul to himself as a disciple. Then he called him to join him in his unfinished ministry to the people of the world.
To Enter the Ministry We have to Change Our Life Focus
If you focus on ministry (and not yourself), you’ll make yourself useful to God and man. It’s a generous way of living and because of this it will open up for you floodgates of resources, favor with people and opportunities to be involved in things so amazing that You can’t believe it’s happening to you. This life of generosity will attract great people to you for friendship and partnership in further ministry.
The core problem on earth is the self focus of mankind. Jesus showed us that giving is actually the key to everything. Giving opens up our life to the supernatural dimension. Through giving we walk with God. So, to find satisfaction in life we actually have to die to ourselves and focus on building others up.
The letter opens on a crucial point: identity. The ministry is one of the most identity-confusing places in the world. In the world you focus on yourself and get your identity from the symbols of greatness you can gain by competing against others in society.
When you embrace a calling to empty yourself and instead to build others up you’ll lose the chance to play this game (or at least you should) and you will immediately grapple with the need to identify and validate yourself and your place in society.
A Career full of Contradictions
Pastors have it the worst. For example, if I engage the services of plumber when my waterline breaks, I don’t ask where he went to college or about the state of his marriage. I don’t ask him what he’s reading or expect him to even know about other construction related fields like electricity. His is identity is simple. He deals with water supply and drainage systems in buildings. That’s it. He need only be competent at this one thing and he succeeds in my estimation—and he can give me a bill for his ministry to me in my time of need.
Ah, but a pastor! He needs to be a scholar of ancient languages, deliver 50 unique Ted talks every year, counsel like Dr. Phil, perform priestly duties with the grace of an archbishop, and have perfect children and a beautiful extroverted wife as well. Full-time ministers are some of the most identity confused people in the world. “Am I supposed to be a thundering prophet? a friendly chaplain? The Bible answer man? CEO of a religious business? A stand up performer? Who am I and what are my supposed to be?” This is such an essential question for each of us to answer because our identity will shape our actions and the tone of our interactions with others.
…and Conflicts of Interest
And then there’s the whole aspect of employment. Shall we consider the ministry a career with the same rights and expectations we would have in any other career? Ministry as a paying occupation is full of conflicts of interest, abuse, and awkwardness regarding the subject of money. We won’t get into that right now, but perhaps we can talk about that later.
Who am I?
Every adult needs to answer to the question: Who am I? Is foundational for everyone who serves the Lord in any capacity, whether as a vocation or in life generally.
Paul opens his letter by answering this question for himself and his readers.
1. I am Paul, a man. He does not open with this title or his position, “The Apostle Paul,” Rev. Paul, Pastor Paul, Dr. Paul,—see how we put that first?
Paul uses his name first. This says that he sees himself first as a man. He has the same psychological, emotional, and social needs as all other people. He is a human. Nothing more than that. He harbors no illusion that he is more special than others. He does not feel entitled. He is not a king. He’s a man. The ground is equal at the foot of the cross. Jesus did not establish a priesthood or any other sort of intermediary role for his community.
2. He is a man who has been rescued by Jesus. The day that Paul met Jesus became the defining moment of his life. He is now a man in Christ, as though Jesus covered him like a robe that has the power to change the wearer. Christ changed everything and all he wants to do is serve him with every day of his life.
The Imperative of Knowing who you are in Christ. Starting each waking day with, “I am a child of God.” This is important for all believers, but even more for those who are in some form of vocational ministry.
What defines you is not your position or the size of the work you are handling or whether things are succeeding or you are having hard times. You are secure in Christ. This does not change and it gives you a posture and a bearing—a presence in the midst of others who often crawl about like crabs, trying to get on top of each other in this competitive world, comparing themselves among themselves.
So many in ministry pollute their ministry because they drag this worldly mentality into the ministry so we have rivalries and competition among churches, ministries and leaders. How weird! But it’s all because they have not truly found their place of contentment and security in Christ. They have not fully believed the Gospel themselves, because the gospel tells us who we are without Christ and who we become in Christ. Paul has much more to day about the grace of Christ and the secure and exalted state he places us in through his blood and resurrection.
3. Paul has been given a specific role in God’s work on earth. At some point in your ministering you need to settle on your specific role within the general calling to be a minister to others.
Paul is certain that God has spoken to him to make ministering to others his primary occupation in life. He is also clear on what his specific role in God’s work is. He is an “apostle.” It means, one appointed and sent out to officially represent a greater one. Today we might say, “ambassador.” Paul embraces his role as a public ambassador of Jesus Christ, taking the knowledge of him to places where he is not known and representing him every day in each interaction with others.
This calling tells Paul what to do with his time and energy. It sets the pattern, style and purpose for his engagement with other people. It also holds him to a high standard personally. Paul loves his role in the Lord’s work and he is careful in how he lives because of it. He never wants to bring disgrace on the Lord’s movement or to become a stumbling block to others because of some glaring inconsistency in his own life.
4. He not an apostle of the church, but an apostle of Jesus Christ. This role is God’s will for Paul’s life and he has embraced this calling and has made it center of his work identity as a man in the world.
He’s crystal clear on one thing: he doesn’t work for the church. He represents Jesus. He will do that with or without a paycheck from a church, but he can give his attention to this vital work in a better way if he’s liberated from the need to also hold a job. He doesn’t represent his XYZ ministry incorporated. He’s not the face of the personal Paul’s worldwide ministry brand. He is the ambassador of Jesus Christ to every place his foot touches an to every human with whom he establishes eye contact. He is another set of hands, eyes, lips and feet for Jesus Christ on the earth.
So, right off the bat we’ve covered a lot of ground in defining who we are as ministers.
1. We are mere mortals, flawed in every human way, but we are also humans created by God himself. We have amazing gifts and are built to enjoy life on earth. We are the whole package, called to enjoy and fully express our humanity and to bring the human gospel to the other humans we meet.
2. We are new creations in Jesus Christ, transformed by his blood and filled with the same Holy Spirit that empowered his life on earth. We are recreated humans living in union with Christ. We have security in him and an identity that will stabilize us while others scratch and claw for an identity of their own making.
3. We have been called and equipped to play a specific role on earth. Not many of us are official apostles (probably something like a missionary or church planter today). We do have a specific role of some kind to play. The good news is that whatever we are called to be, we have been from birth designed to be and we’ll be the most happy when we find it and stick to it for life.
So we are first humans, second, disciples and brothers and sisters of Jesus, and third persons with individual roles assigned so we can join God’s work on earth.
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This week, expect God to use you. You are the light of the world. So shine on!
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