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Samuel Wells: Seeing the glory
During the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples to believe in him, do what he does, and he adds an astonishing third element -- do greater things than him. The former dean of Duke University Chapel wonders what this could possibly mean.
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. The Rev. Samuel Wells preached this sermon on June 17, 2011, at the UMC Virginia Annual Conference.
This is a great occasion. A service of ordination, licensing and commissioning is the crossing of an important threshold. It’s the end of a demanding period of training and the beginning of a wonderful time of adventure in ministry. A lot of you have brought friends and family members from far and wide. There’s a whole communion of saints up there, and throw in a few more angels and you could be forgiven for thinking you were being welcomed into heaven.
So let me spoil it for you.
Let me read the words of Jesus according to St. Matthew:
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. You will be hated by all because of my name.
You still up for this? OK, I’m going to close my eyes for 15 seconds and if you want to slip out, now’s the time to do it and we’ll say no more about it. Still here? Seriously? Did you hear what he said: “Everyone will hate you because of me”?
Now there’s an easy solution to this. Keep the ministry part. Keep the community leader, the chair of the meeting, the brilliant youth ministry, the bedside manner, the busy calendar, the high professional standards, the business cards, the discretionary budget, the classy robes, the reserved parking space, the touching anecdotes, the ready sense of humor.
No one hates you for those things. They admire you. Just leave out Jesus. That’s what they hate. Got it? In Matthew 10 we’re told quite bluntly that the reason people will hate us is on account of Jesus. So it’s simple: Leave out Jesus and you’ll be just fine. They’ll love it. Really.
That’s the temptation you’ll face every single day for the rest of your life. Keep the ministry. Just leave out Jesus. Then they’ll love you. See how long it takes until anyone notices. You going to resist that temptation every day? They’re going to hate you, remember. You still up for this?
If you are still up for this, if you want, like Jesus, not just to love your people but to love them to the very end, then let’s take a close look at what you’re in for.
Something in each one of you has decided that, if you’re going to do this Christianity thing, you’re going to do it properly. You’re not going to be checking the minimum requirements box; you’re going to look for total immersion. You don’t just want to see some results; you want to see the glory.
OK, let’s see the glory together. Have you seen the glory of God? Do you want to? That’s what we’re talking about. Hold tight. Let’s go looking for the glory.
Three stages of faith
At the Last Supper in John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples what it means to be a Christian. He said, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Just stay with those words a moment. They suggest three stages of faith.
There is believing in Jesus, there is doing what Jesus does, and then there is this astonishing third element -- doing greater things than Jesus. What could that possibly mean?
In Matthew 10, Jesus said:
When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
What will you say?
When we turn to Acts 6 and 7, it’s as if we find that Luke is giving us an immediate answer to these questions. Acts is the story of how the wonder that God did in Jesus was translated through the power of the Holy Spirit into the gift of the church. By chapter 6, we’ve already had quite a few bends in the road. Acts 6 and 7 is about Stephen, one of the first ministers set apart by the early church.
I want to read Stephen’s story with you to find out what it means to be called to ministry and what it means to be licensed, commissioned and ordained.
The story begins where the life of any local church dwells -- with a mixture of logistical problems and lingering resentments. You got some tensions and jealousies between those who like the contemporary service and those who prefer the traditional service? Stephen has got a similar problem. There are too many mouths to feed, and the Greek-speaking believers are cross because it seems their people were getting smaller portions than the Hebrew-speakers. The answer is a division of labor. The disciples are relieved of the soup-kitchen duties, and seven deacons are appointed to run the food-distribution side of the operation. Stephen is one of the seven.
Stephen has the same temptation you have. He has the temptation to keep the ministry and lose Jesus. They’d love it. But Stephen avoids that temptation. Why? Because Stephen wanted to see the glory.
Five windows to ministry
I want to talk about five windows Stephen gives us onto what it means to be in ministry -- five windows for him, and five windows for those who embark on ministry.