The Mystery of Ministry
Sunday 16, Ordinary Time, Year C
The Responsorial Psalm answers the question, “Who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?” The answer is, “Those who do justice shall live in the presence of the Lord” (Psalm 15).
What does it mean to live “in the presence of the Lord”? Does it depend on our environment? On how quiet or busy we are? Does ministry distract us from God? What enables us to be always conscious of God?
The Entrance Antiphon tells us, first of all, that everything depends on God: “God himself is my help. The Lord upholds my life.” But a lot depends on the attitude we have toward what we do: “I will offer you a willing sacrifice.” The question is not how busy we are, but how willing we are to be doing what we are doing. Finally, the Entrance Antiphon gives us a practical suggestion: a crucial one: “I will praise your name for its goodness.” We need to include praise in our “rule of life” — deliberately choosing to express praise — consciously, consistently, constantly expressing admiration and gratitude for everything we see that is good, both in God and in every person we deal with. Praise is a way of life. It fosters appreciation and awareness. It keeps us in the presence of God
Both options for the Opening Prayer focus us on the “gift of life” — the “new life” that gives us a “new purpose” (Prayer After Communion) — and identify it with the form it takes in action in us: “faith, hope and love.” To live in the presence of God is to be consciously “alive in Christ Jesus.” For this to become our way of life, we need to be “always eager to serve,” “watchful in prayer,” and “true to Christ’s teaching.” The readings will expand on this.
To “do justice,” serve
Genesis 18: 1-10 shows us Abraham “doing justice” by observing the sacred custom of hospitality. And, as a matter of fact, whether he knows it or not, he is in the special presence of God. The story — from different traditions — says “the Lord appeared to Abraham” and that his visitors were “three men,” the same as the “two angels” who visited Lot. But it was in any case an experience of the divine — as it is for us when we minister to others in “mutual love.” We should be aware that in serving others we may be “entertaining angels without knowing it.”1
If we remain “watchful in prayer” and “true to Christ’s teaching,” we will know that in ministering to others we are serving Jesus himself: “as often as you did it for one of my least brothers or sisters, you did it for me.” Those who minister in faith are always in the presence of the Lord.2
What is ministry?
Luke 10: 38-42 shows us two sisters ministering in different ways. One was in the “presence of the Lord” and one wasn’t – but not for the reason we might think.
Mary is often presented as a symbol of the contemplative life, a life of withdrawal from the world, of silence and prayer, while Martha is a symbol of the active life, a life absorbed in service and ministry to others. Both presentations are wrong.
First of all, prayer is ministry. When we pray for others we are serving them and ministering to them as truly as if we were teaching, preaching, nursing in a hospital, raising children, or meeting people’s needs through business. No one’s need is ever met adequately without the involvement of God:
Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep vigil.
It is in vain for you to rise early or put off your rest, you that eat hard-earned bread, for he gives to his beloved in sleep. 3
Prayer is social service: a service to society. And this includes the prayer of listening to God, the prayer of discipleship, because those who pray are the ears of the nation.
It is also a mistake to restrict the “contemplative” life to those who are not caught up in the business and busy-ness of this world. St. Thomas Aquinas, using the Aristotelian principle that “the nature of anything is determined by its end,” defines a “contemplative” as anyone whose goal in life is to arrive at the “perfection of divine love,” regardless of how many hours one spends in activities or in silent prayer. His argument is that this goal presupposes that one is intent on growing in loving knowledge of God, without which the perfection of love is impossible. And so, regardless of how successfully or fully one is engaged in cultivating this loving knowledge, if that is one’s goal, one is in the “contemplative life.” 4
Of course, no matter how much time we spend in religious activities, whether in prayer or in ministry, we need to ask about our goal. Many sincerely “religious” people have never accepted “the perfection of love” as their goal; nor does this end determine their way of life. They are content to just “keep in bounds,” helping people when they feel they can, doing all the things they are supposed to do and a little more, without any desire to grow in faith, hope and love. If asked what Jesus meant when he said, “I came that they might have life and have it to the full,” they would probably answer, “Heaven.” Whatever fullness of life they are seeking on earth, they do not identify it with growing in knowledge and love of God.
These are in the “active” rather than the “contemplative” life, because their highest purpose is just to do what has to be done — or even much more than that, serving others generously — without the express purpose of growing into deeper and deeper union with the person of God. They are definitely on a lower plane of Christian life. They have not chosen the “better part.”
When Jesus reproached Martha for being “worried and distracted by many things,” and said, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part,” his point was that Mary was distracted, not that she was busy. She was not “watchful in prayer” while she was working. If she had been, and had been aware in faith of what she was doing, she would have been just as much “at the Lord’s feet” as Mary was, whether “seated” at them or not.
Another problem is that Mary was not truly offering “a willing sacrifice.” She was apparently not really “eager to serve,” because she said to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” To “do justice” in the way that enables us to “live in the presence of the Lord” we have to minister with willing hearts — which is not the same thing as feeling like doing what we are doing! It just means that — like Jesus on the cross — no matter how much it is costing us, there is nothing else we would choose to be doing at the time. To give ourselves to ministry in this way is to be united to Christ in mind and heart and will, and that is to “live in the presence of the Lord.”
Ministry and Mystery
In Colossians 1: 24-28 Paul takes ministry into mystery. The key to his preaching and teaching – here as elsewhere — is the mystery of Christ in us.
This is the mystery that has been hidden from ages and generations past but now revealed to his holy ones. God has willed to make known to them the glory beyond price which this mystery brings to the Gentiles — the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.
No matter how absorbed we are in works of ministry, or in any other work, — although if we are “true to Christ’s teaching” we will understand everything we do as ministry — we will be always “in the presence of the Lord” provided we understand that Jesus is working with us, in us and through us.
For this we have to understand that by Baptism we have become Christ. That is why Paul could say, “In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was complete, lacking in nothing. But for his new life to be extended to the world, Jesus has to go on “suffering” — labor and difficulties, the trials, hardships and frustrations attendant on all ministry and service to others — in his present body on earth, which we are. Paul knew that in him Jesus worked and suffered and continued his mission on earth. His ministry was an experience of being united to Christ, of being Christ.
This was Paul’s way of life: to be Christ: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” To live in the presence of God is to live conscious of this. To keep ourselves conscious of this is to live always in the presence of God.
Paul said this is the mystery, “the Christ we proclaim… and teach… in the full measure of wisdom, hoping to make every person complete” — to make every Christian “mature in Christ.”
1 Compare 18:1 and 2; and 18:16 and 19:1. And see the allusion to this story in Hebrews 13:2.
2 Matthew 25:40.
3 Psalm 127.
4 See David M. Knight, “The Active-Contemplative Problem in Religious Life,” Review for Religious Vol. 35, 1976/4, pp. 497 ff.
Do I see a connection between humility and patience? Humility and love?
When fear or impatience inclines you to push things or to use power, surrender all power to God and pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Give life by loving.