Living as a Plain Brown Wrapper A Personal Theology of Ministry

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It is the centerpiece of Christian symbolism and the prime directive for Christian theology. It is the highest form of Christian jewelry, usually made of gold or silver. It has been called by a variety of names — the cross, the crucifix, the tree, the place of the skull.

In ancient times it was a place of execution and shame. But twenty centuries of familiarity has taken its toll. Tracking alongside the growing honor has been a growing difficultly to keep the original meaning of the cross clear in our minds. Our view has become formal. Our picture has become ideal. Our emotion has turned sentimental.  And the way of the cross, living by the cross, have followed in distortion.

The cross is now approached as a distant devotional topic. For many, it is no longer a revolutionary principle defining Christian existence. The principle, dying to live, is difficult for many Christians to even understand, much less live by. But, twenty centuries ago, Jesus made it his own personal code (Jn. 12:24) and the foundation for his disciples (Mk. 8:34-35). And so, it should come as no surprise to hear Paul make the cross a dominant theme in the Corinthian correspondence because that church was already beginning to reshape discipleship into the image of its culture.  It was losing its cross identity.

It seems inevitable, living in a society that is built upon gross national product and a statistical view of success, that contemporary churches and ministers struggle with the same kind of Corinthian thinking. When a congregation seeks the “famous” preacher, or when a minister climbs the career ladder searching for a larger congregation that will provide him with more visibility and prestige, or when churches congratulate themselves on their growth by reference to attendance, budgets and the size of their physical plant, we are more in tune with our American success-conscious culture than with Paul’s message of the cross.  The late Dallas Willard argued that we should redefine our view of success (Leadership 26, 3 Summer 2005):

The popular model of success involves the ABCs—attendance, buildings, and cash. Instead of counting Christians, we need to weigh them. We weigh them by focusing on the most important kind of growth—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, kindness, and so on—fruit in keeping with the gospel and the kingdom.

More than two decades earlier Landon Saunders described the same difficulty (The Power of Receiving):

… the church seems so alive to itself.  So preoccupied.  At times neurotic.  Attendance.  Contribution.  Budgets.  How desperately she often clings to these.  How fearful when down.  How joyful when up.  Her eyes are so set on herself.  Her plans.  Programs.  Preacher … The church worries about itself.  It is fretful.  Protective.  Fearful for tomorrow.  It clings to itself.  This betrays the death to self principle taught by Jesus … And, what about the ego?  Whether in the individual or church?  Who is at the center?  To whom do we appeal?  Who can be offended? …  Do churches have egos? 

The fact that these questions apply, not only to first century Corinth, but also to the church today, demonstrates a common problem — a cross problem.

“We have this treasure
in jars of clay”

— 2 Corinthians 4:7 —

Today, “clay jar” could be translated a “plain brown wrapper,” and Paul says that the reason we should work hard to be plain brown wrappers is to make it absolutely clear that the “power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor. 4:7). So, when a minister exchanges his clay jar image for more impressive packaging, is he not re-assigning the power to himself? This kind of ministry is self-proclamation rather than cross-proclamation.  It is a message of personal power rather than a message of God’s power.  It obscures the message of the cross behind a growing ego.  And, in a practical sense, it is only workable for a few; those who are physically, intellectually, and verbally impressive.

When Paul says “we do not preach ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:5) he is not in any way contradicting his earlier comment “imitate me.” (1 Cor. 4:16). The Paul that today’s minister is to imitate does not describe himself with the success language of today’s power seminars.  He is not interested in being known as a “captivating speaker” or a “powerful communicator.”  Instead, he uses cross terminology to describe himself:  “on display … condemned to die … a spectacle … fools … weak … dishonored.” (1 Cor. 4:9-10). It is not important to him to have his appearance or mannerisms imitated.  He is not that enamored with himself.  He only wants to pass on the servant character of the cross.

Paul’s opponents at Corinth wanted a powerful image, so they followed a ministry method of attacking their predecessor (Paul) so they could establish a position of personal power. But this is not surprising.  Power seekers have always operated in this way.  What is surprising and instructive is Paul’s response to their personal attack. He placed the welfare of the Corinthian congregation above his own welfare. The disturbing report he had received showed quarreling (1 Cor. 1:11), jealousy (1 Cor. 3:3), boasting (1 Cor. 3:21), judging (1 Cor. 4:3; 9:3) and arrogance (1 Cor. 4:6, 18, 19) spreading through the congregation.  It was pervasive and damaging.  And it must be stopped.  How did Paul address it? What approach did he take?

Using the cross as his standard Paul was very careful to not counter the arrogance of the opponents with still more pride.  He did not want to add yet another example of egotistical leadership. Instead, he closely followed his cross-shaped identity.

It was in perfect harmony with Paul’s view of the cross that, upon hearing criticism of his life and ministry, he began his first letter, not by asserting his authority, but seemingly by denying it:  “Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:13)  He would not let himself be hailed as a party chief. Jesus alone was crucified for the community.  Paul would defend the treasure, not the jar.

Later, when the criticism was sharpened by the ambition of the opponents, Paul again pointed to the cross as his model:  “For to be sure, he [Jesus] was crucified in weakness …  Likewise, we are weak in him ….” (2 Cor. 13:4) In both letters he was charged with being weak (1 Cor. 4:10; 2 Cor. 11:21). And he did lack the outward signs of one who is himself a personal power.  But this was Paul’s premeditated style.  He really did not mind coming to the Corinthians “in weakness and fear and with much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3) because he did not want them to be distracted from what he said to how he said it, from the treasure to the jar.

Paul knew that the message of a crucified Lord was already difficult to accept.  And while today’s strategist would advise Paul to divert attention from such a difficult message by using an impressive presentation, Paul was particularly careful to not upstage his message by being an impressive package, even at the risk of appearing weak (2 Cor. 10:10). And it was in Paul’s unimpressiveness that God was free to impress:  “For my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9). So, when Paul appealed to the Corinthians by the “meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1) he was strictly interpreting the cross-bearing life of Jesus as his own role-model.

In Paul’s mind, it would be out of place for him to be the “hub” of the ministry in Corinth — the “dynamic” center, around which the ministry revolved.  In fact he argued against the kind of leadership that spotlights personalities and makes them celebrities. In that kind of ministry, faith is too easily based on personalities rather than truth.  And we all know how it works.  One minister can do no wrong and another can do no right.  In this scenario, the force of a minister’s personality drives and shapes the faith of those he leads.  And this is precisely the method the Corinthian opponents chose to use.  Following their own distorted self-confidence, (2 Cor. 5:12; 10:12; 11:17) they enslaved, exploited, took advantage, lorded it over, and slapped their way into leadership (2 Cor. 11:20).

But Paul, imitating the crucified Christ, (1 Cor. 11:1) exploited no one (2 Cor. 7:2).  Instead he gave up his own personal rights for the good of others, (1 Cor. 10:33) and made himself a slave to all (1 Cor. 9:19).  He became a servant (1 Cor. 3:5; 4:1) who felt the pain of others (2 Cor. 11:29) and he comforted them with the comfort he had personally received from Christ (2 Cor. 1:3-7).  He knew that genuine power, the power of God, operated very well in weakness.  And so, he conducted his ministry at the risk of appearing weak (1 Cor. 4:10; 2 Cor. 10:10; 11:21, 30; 12:5, 9, 10; 13:4, 9) and foolish (1 Cor. 1:21, 23; 4:10; 2 Cor. 11:1, 17) because, like his Lord, his personal ambition while on the earth was no higher than a cross.  Hence, his amazing words to his Corinthian flock (2 Cor. 13:7):

Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong.  Not that people will see that we have stood the test but that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed.

The same choices exist today.  The church has its favorite ministers.  But even worse, some ministers seek to be the favorite, and their method smacks of “Corinthian” thinking.  They replace the crucified life-style with the glorified life-style as they step into the spotlight showcasing their achievements and accomplishments, or worse, demanding uniformity to their views, opinions and preferences.

Paul teaches today’s minister to be a cautious example, encouraging imitation only “as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).  The goal is never to permanently stand between Jesus and a follower, but only to temporarily stand there until their own relationship is solid.  Today’s minister should be careful that faith is not built on himself, but on Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11).  As a “servant” (1 Cor. 3:5) he should not seek the spotlight.  Instead he should spotlight God as the “hub” of the ministry, since “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything but only God who makes things grow” (1 Cor. 3:7).

Paul’s statement “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10) could be translated for today’s minister as, “when I am not lifting myself up, I do my best work.”

“I resolved to know nothing
while I was with you
except Jesus Christ
and him crucified” 

— 1 Corinthians 2:2 —

At first, the Corinthian dissidents became enamored with Jesus the Lord of glory.  Later, the Corinthian opponents placed their emphasis on Jesus the wonder-worker.  But neither group emphasized Jesus crucified in weakness.  They pursued a “theology of glory” at the expense of the “theology of the cross.”

When the Corinthians tried to avoid the suffering of cross-bearing and go straight for honor and glory, Paul knew they did not yet understand.  When they lifted up the wisdom of men, Paul countered with his word of the cross.  When they looked to the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8) as their model, he quickly pointed to the Lord of the cross.  When they were impatient with those who were not quickly mature, he reminded them of a man whose patience with humanity led to his death on a cross (1 Cor. 8:1-13).

The message of the cross for ministers today is that Jesus laid his life down for us, and we, empowered by this gift, lay our lives down in service to people. (2 Cor. 1:4-7).  We receive the benefit of his cross, and we then live for the benefit of people (2 Cor. 5:15, 18).

And he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died …. All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.

It is interesting to note that when Jesus was asked to give the greatest of all commandments he said, in essense, “You have asked me one question, but I cannot give you one answer.  I must give you two.  Love God and love people” (Mark 12:28-31; Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18).  For Jesus, the two dimensions could not be separated.  Receiving always leads to giving.  Passion for God always leads to compassion for people. Loving God always leads to loving your neighbor.  Scot McKnight describes it well (The Jesus Creed):

Instead of a Love-God Shema, it is a Love-God-and-Others Shema.  What Jesus adds is not unknown to Judaism, and he is not criticizing Judaism. Jesus is setting up his very own shop within Judaism.  Loving others is central to Judaism, but it is not central to the creed of Judaism, to the Shema.  So, what Jesus says is Jewish.  But the emphasis on loving others is not found in Judaism’s creed the way it is found in the Jesus Creed. Making the love of others part of his own version of the Shema shows that he sees love of others as central to spiritual formation.

“For the message of the cross
is foolishness
to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved
it is the power of God.”

— 1 Corinthians 1:18 —

In the first century the message of the cross was so offensive that commitment to Jesus could only take place on the basis of His character.  Today, the message of the cross is so sentimental that commitment to Jesus should only take place on the basis of His character.  Thus today’s minister, as did Paul, must present the message of the cross from within the framework of Jesus’ life. In the context of his life Jesus’ character will be seen as he lives and interacts with people.  We will see his integrity as he lives out the two commands he stated as primary.  His cross will be understood because what he did on the cross he had always been doing off the cross – loving people.  Jim Woodroof described it well,

Jesus on the cross is nothing more or less than what Jesus was off of the cross.  He was forever giving his life up for people. He didn’t wait till he got to Golgotha to give his life up.  He didn’t wait till he got to Golgotha to lay his life down … What you have documented in the cross was thoroughly demonstrated in his life.

From National Campus Ministers Seminar, 1977

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.  (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

This pivotal statement is Paul’s summary of the gospel and, by implication, it is also his definition of ministry.  But for many today, the measure of a successful ministry has little to do with the faithful presentation of this story.  Instead it relates wholly to quantitative growth statistics.  Once again, the ABCs of ministry, attendance, buildings and cash, become the primary measurement.  But think about it.  Who is really spotlighted by statistical comparisons?  Whose ego is stroked?  Who is praised?  What standard of success is used?  Even more alarming is the thought that ministers could become so accustomed to equating evangelism with results and statistics that the preaching of Paul’s three-point outline would appear to them as unevangelistic!

Culture always tries to overtake Christianity.  And ministry is often contaminated by the self-seeking mind-set around us.  For a minister to mirror these values is a double tragedy.  He not only pursues the way of glory, but he gives up the way of the cross.

For several months, I’d been attempting to absorb the truth of this scripture:  Seek God first.  Why do we tend to seek other things first and want God to be added later? We seek success and want God to endorse our goals. We seek acceptance and want God to provide the cheering section. We seek increased income and want God to be the bonus. We seek vindication and want God to take our side. We seek happiness…and want God’s smile of approval. We seek health and want God to dispense an instant cure. As we mature in our relationship with the Lord, our goals change.  But we don’t realize that our pattern often remains the same! We seek to be useful and want God to bless our busy activities. We seek to be helpful to others and want God to tag along. We seek to be spiritual and want God to applaud. We tend to use God instead of seek Him.”

From When the Pieces Don’t Fit, by Glaphre Gillilland

But the world does not need a religious version of its own “success” plan. Instead, it needs to know that the whole matter of greatness has been redefined by the cross.

As a minister, I must understand, with Paul, that the greatest hindrance to God’s power being seen in the cross, is myself.  I must be careful not to dilute the cross with my own style or to eclipse the cross behind my own personality, or to upstage the cross with my own accomplishments.  Instead, my identity should come from the cross as I seek to be its plain brown wrapper.  My method, guided by the cross, should build a people dependent upon God and not upon myself.  My message should clearly paint the picture of the cross, illustrated in the life of Jesus.

May God help us to carry His message in jars of clay — in plain … brown … wrappers.

The Ultimate Hero

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.” — Mark 1:40-41

PfauFew are willing.  It has always been that way.  And though the majority are not willing, they see the few who are as heroes.  One such hero is leprosy physician Dr. Pfau of Pakistan.  Dr. Paul Brand, himself a hero of leprosy research, told of his first encounter with her.

Long before I reached her place, a putrid smell burned my nostrils.  It was a smell you could almost lean on.  Soon I could see an immense garbage dump by the sea, the accumulated refuse of a large city that had been stagnating and rotting for many months.  The air was humming with flies.  At last I could make out human figures – people covered with sores – crawling over the mounds of garbage.  They had leprosy, and more than a hundred of them, banished from Karachi, had set up home in this dump.  Sheets of corrugated iron marked off shelters, and a single dripping tap in the center of the dump provided their only source of water.  But there, beside this awful place … I found Dr. Pfau. — Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, 156

Pfau - LeprosyWhat makes her a hero?  A fearless courage, fueled by love and compassion, aimed at human misery.  All over the world people like Dr. Pfau are moving, at great personal risk, into the various forms of humanity’s plague.

But what is the root of the plague?  Is there a source of all the misery?  Is there an ultimate human plague?  And, if there is, who is the ultimate hero?

John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. — Mark 1:4-5

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”  Then John consented. — Matthew 3:13-15

John may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last to raise the question.  Why was Jesus baptized?  We can understand John’s reluctance. He was baptizing for repentance and forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4). For what sin did Jesus need forgiveness?  What correction was required in his life?

For centuries the classic answers have proved helpful.  Jesus wanted to identify with sinners.  He wanted to set an example of obedience.  But still, John’s question nags.

Jesus knew the aim of John’s mission.  He knew the purpose of John’s baptism.  He knew what kind of people came to the river.  They swarmed the banks of the Jordan like lepers on the Karachi garbage dump.  Wounded by greed.  Diseased with lust.  Infected by selfishness.  Covered with the sores of human failure.  All of them … except Jesus.

I have often imagined how that day at the Jordan could have gone.  As the only one free of sin, the human plague, Jesus could have remained above the whole sinful scene.  Imagine him, standing high in the hills surrounding the Jordan valley, separate and distinct from the human failure below.  He could even have made an announcement:  “You are gathered down there because you are infected with failure.  I stand up here because I am free of failure.  You should be like me.”  Nothing would have been truer or less helpful to those infected by the human plague.

In fact, such an announcement could more easily have been made from heaven.  Why stand at the edge of the lowest point on the face of the earth when you can stand at the highest place in existence?  Why be born into a peasant family when your Father owns the universe?  Why shield your true identity in order to grow up in obscurity?  Why?  Because the ultimate human plague requires the ultimate hero.

Today’s heroes commit themselves to the victims of misery.  They risk their own health, but take necessary precautions.  They seek a solution, but pray for personal protection.  And no one expects the search for a solution to require more of them than an understandable risk.

Not so with the ultimate human plague.  Jesus knew that his commitment was more than risky. He knew that the only precaution he could take was to refuse the mission.  He knew that the only solution for the human plague was for him to take upon himself the sin disease of others … intentionally.

So he climbed down from his high point.  He joined the mass of failure-infected people in the Jordan valley.  He submitted to a rite of cleansing reserved for the terminally infected.  And it shook John.  It was so unusual, so unheard of, for even the greatest of heroes, that John “tried to deter him.”

John was the forerunner.  He had announced Jesus’ coming.  He knew of his power and his mission.  But he never expected this.  In fact, no one had really counted the cost of the human plague.  No one had looked that far ahead … except Jesus.

Driven by love and compassion, Jesus went to the root of our disease.  He aimed at the source of all misery.  His baptism was a personal and public commitment, not to research and treat the human plague, but to contract it and thereby heal it.

It was a difficult and courageous choice.  This is why the Father immediately affirmed Jesus’ decision:  “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  And this is also why Satan immediately attacked his decision.  “If you are the Son…”  (Matthew 4:1-11).

So, why was Jesus baptized?  So that John could identify the Christ?  Yes.  So that Jesus could identify with the human race? Absolutely.  To set an example of obedience?  Of course.  But, more than this, in a very real sense, Jesus was baptized for the forgiveness of sins … but not his own.  His baptism was his decision to go to the Cross, the only permanent solution for human failure.

He began his ministry with an unavoidable baptism.  He ended it with an undeserved crucifixion.  It was his deliberate choice.  He was moving into the heart of the human plague as the ultimate hero.

“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.  “I am willing.”