II Corinthians 4:5-12

“Ministry that Makes A Difference!”

June 3, 2018             

            Fra Bartolommeo was an Italian monk who was a great painter in the fifteenth century.  One day, however, he threw up his hands in disgust and threw his paints and canvases away — exclaiming he feared his art was coming between himself and God.  His fellow monks, however, would not let him waste his great talent. “Why not paint again for the glory of God?” they asked.  So Bartolommeo began to paint again — and painted vivid scenes from the Gospels — vivid scenes from the lives of Christian martyrs — scenes with such vividness and quality that those who saw them knelt and wept at the beauty of the art. 

His fellow monks wanted to insure that others knew who had painted such moving pictures, and asked Bartolommeo to sign his work.  However, he refused, but scratched a message below each piece:

          Pray for the painter that he may do his work better and that the picture more clearly show the Lord. Let the artist’s name be forgotten.

            This story shows a great man with a great sense of humility — but does it show more than that? Maybe what Bartolommeo had was not a sense of humility — but a sense of understanding his ability to paint as a gift from God — a gift God should receive the credit for, not himself.  Maybe — without really intending to — Bartolommeo was showing us a way to understand our purpose as individual Christians and as the church.  Maybe Bartolommeo — either knowingly or not — was giving us a way to understand ministry and what form of ministry really makes a difference in the world.

            How can we understand ministry? What style of ministry really makes a difference in the world?

            If we want to understand ministry, we must first have a clear understanding of our purpose in ministry.  If we can come to an understanding of our purpose in ministry, we will be well on our way to understanding what style of ministry really makes a difference in the world.  But the problem is that there are so many different styles and types of ministry.  How are we to know which ones to try to emulate — and what to put as our purpose in ministry? And how do we know if our ministry is making a difference? 

            Even in our community we see churches that seem to be growing by leaps and bounds — while we grow some — but it seems ever so slowly. What are they doing that we aren’t?

            What can we do to copy their style of ministry — it seems to be making more of a difference than ours. 

            Why don’t we study these churches and try to copy their style — maybe their success will work for us, too? And that is our ultimate goal — isn’t it? Isn’t “success” as far as numbers and growth what determines whether our ministry is effective or not? Isn’t adding to our roll and budget to be our purpose as a church? Can’t the numbers we report to Presbytery every year about membership and finances give us a gauge of our “success” — or our “failure”?     

            Well — before we get too carried away here — let’s hold on a minute. Is success — large numbers — filled pews — big budgets — lots of money — growth — really what ministry is all about? Or is ministry to be something else — something that can’t be judged by the size of the church or its apparent “success”?  Could it be that our ministry is to have a different purpose — and therefore a different way to measure whether or not we are making a difference for God’s kingdom in the community and the world?

            Paul — in our scripture lesson from II Corinthians — seems to be pushing us to look for that “something else”  that is to be our purpose and the measure of the difference we make in our ministry. You see — the problems with different styles of ministry and different levels of “success” in the ministry is not new.  In fact, Paul knew these problems.  In fact, he had first-hand knowledge of these problems — and it wasn’t too pleasant for Paul. The church in Corinth was filled with those who questioned the effectiveness of Paul’s ministry.  Other preachers in Corinth were more glamorous.  Others were more handsome.  Others didn’t dare offend people — they just spoke what the people wanted to hear.  They seemed to be interested in doing whatever it took to get folks to follow them.  So — of course — the more followers they had — the more “successful” their ministry seemed to be.  But what about Paul? Well –Paul wasn’t that much to look at — and sometimes he “told it like it was” — not caring whether he offended people in the process or not.  Why — he seemed to be in jail more times than out.

            Whose ministry was the most effective? The ministry of those who seemed to be so successful — or the ministry of Paul?  Whose ministry was making a difference?

            In our scripture lesson for today Paul is giving his understanding of ministry  — and it is an understanding of ministry we need to pay close attention to. What does Paul say he preaches? What he people want to hear? No — Paul preaches one thing — Christ.

            “We do not proclaim ourselves we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.”

            The other preachers who seem to be so successful can’t say that. But — what about the success of the other preachers — what about their treasure of large followings and lots of money — and their goals of getting more people to follow them?

            Well — what is treasure for Paul? What is Paul’s goal?    Not large numbers — but Christ. The treasure is Christ. The goal of the ministry is Christ. Christ is the treasure — the goal — and for Paul — if ministry is going to make a difference — it has to be centered on Christ — it must have Christ as its goal — and nothing else. Paul even says that those involved in ministry are “clay jars” — nothing fancy.  The treasure is Christ — not Paul — so if Paul is afflicted or persecuted — it doesn’t matter — what matters is not Paul’s personal success — but that the gospel is proclaimed in what Paul says and does.  His goal is not the success of his particular branch of the church — but the church as a whole.  That — for Paul — is ministry that makes a difference.

            I wonder — what would it do to our understanding of ministry if we would let ourselves take our eyes off the numbers — the membership and the budget — not use numbers as a judge of our success or failure — not use size as a judge of whether of not our ministry is making a difference — but began to let ourselves understand ministry as the work of Christ through us — a work we are involved in — regardless of the outcome?

            Would that change the way we do ministry? Would that change our concern in ministry? Of course it would! How do we judge if our ministry is making a difference — by the number of members — or the faithfulness or our witness — the way the we let Christ make a difference in our lives — the way we proclaim the kingdom of God in our words and  deeds — regardless of the effect it may or may not have on our particular church?

            Don’t get me wrong here — numbers are indeed important. Just among the members we already have we can do better and attendance in  worship —  Sunday School — and other activities.  But the numbers should be a sign of our commitment to Christ – – not our commitment to our particular program or even our particular church — but the work of Christ in our lives and in our world.  If our numbers increase at worship — Sunday School — youth — fellowship times — it should be because our commitment to Christ and His work has increased.  

Frieiends — the only measure for ministry is Christ. The question for us is not “are we growing by leaps and bounds” — but are we committed to Christ — then reaching out to others with the love of God — and the life-changing power of God?

            Has Christ made a difference in our lives — and can others see the difference Christ can make in their lives through what we say and do? Ministry is not a matter of numbers — but matter of commitment — of faithful witness — busying ourselves with showing the love and power of Christ to the world — whether it brings growth to our particular church or not.   We must put Chrsit first — not ourselves — or our program — or our church.  Christ must be the focus of our ministry — and nothing else!

            That is our purpose. As we discover our true purpose — as we truly let Christ make a difference in our lives — as we show the powerful love of God to those who need to see and understand it — we will have a ministry that makes a difference. That’s what effective ministry was for Paul. That’s what ministry that makes a difference can be for us.

            Indeed, as Fra Bartolommeo understood his artistic abilities as a gift from God for which he wanted no credit — so we can understand our ministry as a gift from God — a response to God for making such a difference in our lives — but not something for us to take too much pride in or credit for — or gauge its effectiveness on results.  Ministry is our showing our commitment to Christ — and is not for results. As Bartolommeo asked those who viewed his paintings to pray for him so that he could show the Lord more clearly — let us all pray for each other — you pray for me — for yourself — for each of us — and I will pray for each of you and for us all — so that we can all understand our purpose in ministry — and be able to live out or calling to have a greater commitment to Christ — and to show Christ — and not oursleves — to the world in word and deed.

            This is ministry that makes a difference. Amen.