Friday, March 6, 2009

The Ministry of Presence

One of the greatest doctrines a Christian can meditate on is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ; meaning, God became human. The deity of Christ is essential for our salvation because without being equal to the Father, he could not have brought us to the Father. The full humanity of Christ is essential for our salvation because without exact similarity to us, he could not have represented us to the Father. If to be Christian means to be a "Christ follower," then the key question for the Christian is who is the Christ they follow?

Because of the importance of this question, the Christological definition of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 remains vital for us today:

Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these “last days,” for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness.

We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten – in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the “properties” of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one “person” and in one reality . They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only begotten Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers has handed down to us.

It is because of Christ's full deity and humanity that we could rightly call him "'Emmanuel,' which means 'God with us'" (Matt 1:23). This results in a localized proximity of God that many would enjoy throughout his earthly ministry. The manner in which Jesus touched lepers, ate with sinners or stayed with tax collectors were all "proximate" aspects of his ministry. In essence, he was communicating the "proximity of God" for those that needed grace. We can go further and say that he spatially mediated grace to those needing it. We rightly would identify a connection between Jesus' words to Zacchaeus "I must stay at your house today" (Luke 19:5) and his later pronouncement "today salvation has come to this household" (Luke 19:9). Jesus primary means of bringing that salvation to the household was to stay there. Why such a mundane method for mediating grace? Because the God/man renders all methods far from mundane!

It is for this reason that we must find it particularly tragic that such "methods" are forgotten in Christian ministry. What "methods" are these? Eating, drinking, touching and staying overnight.

The one sent from God communicates the presence of God merely by there physical presence. This is called practicing "the ministry of presence." It's a vital aspect of Christian ministry that more exactly copies the way of the master than the frequently sermons, crusades or confrontational evangelism techniques that we evangelicals are prone to. While our Bible exposition and ministry acumen is helpful, it must not crowd out this "ministry of presence" that is more clearly shown in Jesus' ministry than any other of our practices. Christian ministry has become so industrialized that church "executives" cannot imagine wasting time on habits and practices that do not fit their results-oriented goals. The pastor "ministry of presence" goes away under the guise of streamlining ministry effectiveness. Grow more; plant more; do more. These chants have largely drowned out the old accusations against Jesus as being "a friend of sinners."

For chaplains, the ministry of presence is among the most important skills we learn. We may find all our exegetical and expositional skills painfully under-utilized in chaplaincy. All those classes in seminary were important to obtain a degree. All that Bible knowledge may assist our personal piety. However, very little of that will come out in the chaplain's greatest moments of effectiveness; those being, when people need the chaplain to simply be with them - cry with them, eat with them, drink with them, laugh with them, work with them, run with them, stand with them in the rain or crawl with them in the sand. The pulpit is replaced by a seat on Engine One, or the deck railing on the a frigate.

The "ministry of presence" calls the minister (or chaplain in my case) to communicate the great truth of the Incarnation by demonstrating the proximity of God through their presence with those needing grace.

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