Dying and rising does not merely describe the central focus of Easter. It also describes the central focus of Christian ministry.
Christian ministry is a daily dying and rising. It is an experience that healthy ministry experiences day by day, moment by moment, task to task. High hopes in ministry can so quickly become things which one must continue to press on for…hope against hope. The successes which appear to be within one’s grasp can so quickly die. How true is what H.B. London said and so many pastors have discovered, “It only takes a week to tear down what has taken ten years to build.”
Indeed, Christian ministry is a dying and a rising. It is this dying and rising which marks the ministry experience.
Unless A Seed Dies
Perhaps one of the great challenges of Christian ministry is that God’s servants do not minister from the consciousness that they believe ministry is so often about rising. Expectations by both ministers and congregations that they should experience rising trends of more or less aggressive arithmetic (or geometric) growth abound.
Rising expectations of pastors and their families and rising expectations for congregational members help fuel a type of ecclesiastical manifest destiny. If one does the right things, makes the right plans, trains the right people, implements the right initiatives at the right time–and, of course, prays the right prayers–so many believe we can’t fail.
Painfully, it is sometimes in response to implementing the most effectively planned and most necessary ministry strategies in the most effective ways that ministers and congregations experience what appear to be the most ultimate, unexpected and costly failures.
“How could all this effort go for nothing?” “How could all this planning just vanish into thin air?” “How could God let this happen?” “How could God just let this ministry initiative fail and leave the church to die?”
Such questions are a normal response to the grief of dashed expectations and failure. When hopeful situations strangely metastasize into hope-against-hope situations the painful response which ensues virtually always causes trauma. This trauma ultimately seeks its resolution in God.
Let The Seed Fall
In John 12:2 Jesus said, ” I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” NIV
In the immediate context Jesus was specifically referring to His immediately forthcoming death and resurrection. Do not, however, stop there. These words of Jesus also have application to ministry today. Specifically they speak of the implicit and essential characteristic of ministry: it must experience a constant falling, dying, and rising.
Without this process there is no growth. But, as Jesus said, the growth which will result from this process will inescapably come about through excruciating pain, inevitable death, and a miraculous rising to new life and fruitfulness.
Falling: The Experience of Brokenness
John 12:24 is not merely about disappointment, death and resurrection. It’s about brokenness. Spiritual brokenness. A plenary brokenness which though painful “for a season” results in a harvest of abundance.
This brokenness, so necessary for ministry, is most clearly described in the word “fall.” The original Greek for “fall” is “pipto.” In its most simple, obvious sense it means simply “to drop” or “to be knocked off something.” The more profound and less obvious meaning of “pipto” is
“to be overcome by terror, astonishment, or grief; to come under the sudden attack of Satan; to be destroyed, dismembered, or killed.”
When Jesus experienced His “fall” He was not merely saying He was going to die. What He was really indicating was that the culmination of three-and-a-half years of ministry to hundreds of thousands of people, the results of intense discipleship training and perfectly following God’s will was not going to be success as the world knows it.
Instead, what would occur as He prepared for the greatest work of His ministry was the most intensive, sudden attack of Satan to destroy, dismember and kill Him. The terror would be unparalleled. The astonishment unequaled. The grief never deeper. The seed, as He spoke of Himself, would fall to the ground and die.
This “falling” was the remarkable deepening experience of brokenness. This brokenness drove Jesus to go to the Garden, to pray for His disciples, to pray for Himself and, most importantly, to pray for His Father’s presence even as the experience of brokenness deepened. “Watch with Me,” He bid His disciples. But they didn’t understand His brokenness and resulting aloneness.
Jesus’ familiar cry, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” indicates the “low point” of His brokenness. His experience of Hell and all that Satan could do was exacerbated by His sense that God had forsaken Him.
Those at the cross probably did not understand what was happening. But Jesus did. The seed was falling. As the seed fell, brokenness must occur. Just as the seed was about to undergo its final death-transformation, Jesus showed that His brokenness did not end in defeat, but in victory. “Father,” He said, “into Thy hands I commit my spirit.”
Committing Our Brokenness
Virtually every Christian leader can identify times of brokenness. More often than not, many of those same Christian leaders can clearly recall one specific time of remarkable testing. Satan came unexpectantly to destroy them or their church. Things occurred in their lives so suddenly as to provoke a pervasive sense of terror, powerlessness, depression or anxiety.
In those times such leaders inescapably ask questions which go to the heart and soul of their ministry. Such questions may include, for example,
1) Since this occurred should I really be in the ministry?
2) Do I really not have the ministry gifts I thought I had?
3) If everything I’ve done to this point has gone up in ruins, is there cause to go on?
Perhaps the most pivotal question a leader might ask is,
“God, does Your Word really have the power to change and transform the lives of parishioners, congregations and those in the world?”
Of course the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Of course it does. But the problem may be that the called ministers of God throughout the world are looking for the transformation everywhere…except in their own lives.
Jesus’ words in John 12:25 speaks of the necessity of this transformation…especially in the lives of those who would be Christian leaders.
“He who continues to treat his life affectionately will continue to send his life on the path to ruin. But the one who continues being indifferent to–and detests–his own life in this world will keep on guarding his soul to prevent loss or injury for eternal life.” John 12:25 (author’s own translation)
One of God’s key strategies for sustaining a healthy ministry to Christian leaders is making the seed “fall” in our lives. This is not merely exemplified in Jesus’ life. Its also a core aspect of the prophetic and apostolic tradition Scripture.
“Unless the seed falls” the servants of God will resist healthy, spiritual transformation. “Unless the seed falls,” those who preach the Word will expect worldly results in the lives of their hearers not the results of a spiritual brokenness which makes them wholly vulnerable to God’s power and plan for them. Whether it be Abraham, Jonah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul…or you, unless the seed falls and dies, God cannot raise it to create many seeds.
Let The Seed Fall In Your Life
The Resurrection of Jesus is important because it shows that our faith is not in vain, that salvation has been won for us and that Jesus is truly the appointed Messiah who has fulfilled Scripture.
It’s also important because Jesus, as “Prophet, Priest and King,” demonstrates with His life the paradigm for Christian ministry. Whoever we are, wherever we might be, whatever our calling, “unless the seed falls to the ground and dies” our ministry will aspire to the cross and not to the world.
When the seed falls–and dies–God is simply transforming you to the degree necessary to make you be an instrument of soulful transformation.
Unfortunately, as our pain indicates, the necessary transformation in our lives far exceeds our expectations of just how remarkably we need to have our lives transformed by the daily cycle of dying and rising which began when we were baptized into the dying and rising of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:1ff).
The writer of Hebrews said,
“No discipline [paideia] seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11 (NIV).
The “falling” of the seed as Jesus described is of the kind of spiritual discipline Hebrews speaks of. The Greek word for “discipline” in Hebrews 12:11 is “paideia.” The basic meaning of this word is “to teach children and adults the things necessary for virtue, morality and noble living.”
What is often overlooked is that “paideia,” in its more profound sense, has a spiritual purpose, namely, “to teach things necessary for the deepest transformation of the soul.”
Invitation to Radical Discontinuity
Periodically one will hear in Christian circles a call to “radical discontinuity.” This call is frequently mentioned as the cure for a healthier church whether it comes from those promoting a “Post-Modernistic” perspective or a radical discontinuity from the current style of Christian ministry to that of the First Century.
Perhaps a key to healthier Christian ministry is that the seed would fall in the lives of every Christian leader, every Christian assembly, in every Christian’s heart in every place in the world. If the seed of our current expectations of ministry would fall to the ground and die, the result would be the most healthy, vigorous and radical transformation of the church of Jesus Christ.
This transformation would be poised to make disciples of all nations–without discrimination, without judgmentalism free of the imprisonment of unscriptural tyrannical traditionalism, perfectionism and ways of the world which otherwise impede the message of the resurrection.
This radical discontinuity would bring radical transformation. But, given the reality and the historical-spiritual reality of the resurrection, would the resurrected Christ want anything less?
Focus On Radical Discontinuity
Hebrews 12:2 reads,
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (NIV)
The nature of Jesus’ radical discontinuity was such that His sufferings on the cross were considered joy. He knew that the seed would fall. He knew it needed to fall. But, certain of the radical discontinuity which causes the dead seed to be transformed to abundant life, Jesus endured all for us. Indeed, He suffered. Surely He agonized. Certainly He died. That, in love, was unavoidable.
But also unavoidable was the radical discontinuity of hope and new life. We are the seeds of His resurrection. It is because of the radical discontinuity He won for us in bringing us from death to life that He has given us a ministry–just like His–which will also be characterized by the radical discontinuity of being transformed.
“Unless the seed falls” our ministries will lack the radical discontinuity which, having transformed us, will be God’s instrument to assist us transform others through the same radical discontinuity of grace.
Jesus concluded His thoughts regarding the seed that falls saying,
“My Father will honor the one who serves Me.” John 12:26 (NIV)
Do you really want to serve Christ? Do you really want to take up His cross and follow Him? How badly do you want to be in the midst of what God is doing in this world?
Then recall the “Unless the Seed falls” heritage of ministry which comes directly from the cross and empty tomb of Christ. Let your seed fall. Let God kill those areas in you that are destroying your ministry for Him. And, through the brokenness and aloneness, let God work the resurrecting power of His all-sufficient grace to raise your “seed” to a new life of healthy ministry for Him.
“God, put me in the midst of what you’re doing and
run over me with your presence.” (William Easum)
Thomas F. Fischer