Essay / Theology

Stewards of the Mysteries (Ordination Sermon)

(A sermon preached Sunday, Dec 30, 2012, at Tulare Evangelical Free Church, Tulare, California)

We are gathered today to ordain Dr. Jason Sexton to Christian ministry. What language shall we borrow to describe this Christian ministry?

We could use the word pastor, of course, meaning shepherd. That is a very biblical image, drawing our attention first of all to the work of God (the Shepherd of Israel) and Christ (the Good Shepherd). But precisely by pointing so strongly to the ministry of Christ, the image of shepherd can be a little awkward to apply to Christian ministers. How can we express the way a minister’s work is subordinated to, and dependent on, the work of Christ? Are we under-shepherds beneath the Good Shepherd? Are we assistant shepherds? But Jesus speaks poorly of the “hirelings” who take up the shepherd’s task, so that image is spoiled. Sometimes I think that “sheepdogs” would be a good way of expressing the role of Christian ministers in joining the work of the Good Shepherd: sheepdogs can be marvelous at circling the perimeter of the flock, carrying out the shepherd’s will for the flock, but nobody would mistake them for the bosses. If “sheepdog” were a biblical term (I fear it’s actually better used by Plato!), I’d use it.

All authentic Christian ministry is Christ’s own ministry: Since Jesus is anointed to be our prophet, priest, and king, we can find terms for ministry in the language of each of those offices: Under him, the minister speaks prophetically to the people of God. Under the kingship of Christ, the elders do rule and keep order among the people, though without lording it over them. And under the one, absolute, atoning priesthood of Christ, the Christian minister even works, as Paul says in Romans 15, “in the priestly service of the gospel of God,” bringing forth believers from among the nations as “offerings sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

But one description of the Christian ministry stands out as especially appropriate for the kind of theological ministry that Jason is being ordained to here today. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

Stewards of the mysteries of God, or as the NIV has it, “those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” Paul’s primary meaning here in the letter to the Corinthians is that this is the way to think of apostles. But what he says, and especially the image of stewards, has application to all Christian ministry, especially to theological ministry. I want to look briefly at this notion of stewards, secondly at what Paul means by mysteries, and finally at the incongruity of combining the two ideas.

1. Stewards

A steward is somebody who oversees the property of another. He’s somebody who gives order to the comings and goings of somebody’s household. A steward is in charge of the place, but it’s not his place. He has a delegated authority. He is a middleman, with one eye on those who are under his care, but the other eye always on the one above him. You can hear Paul negotiating this tension in 1 Corinthians, writing to a notoriously fractious congregation that has called his authority into question. Instead of just announcing that he’s the boss, Paul jumps out of the way and directs their attention to the real boss, his and theirs. “Think of us as stewards of the mysteries of God,” he says:

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

“Steward,” for Paul, clearly means “just a steward.” On this passage, John Calvin points out that what is at stake for Paul is the status of the ministry of the word. “He teaches in what estimation every teacher in the Church ought to be held,” says Calvin. His goal is

neither, on the one hand, to lower the credit of the ministry, nor, on the other, to assign to man more than is expedient. For both of these things are exceedingly dangerous, because, when ministers are lowered, contempt of the word arises, while, on the other hand, if they are extolled beyond measure, they abuse liberty, and become “wanton against the Lord.”

By using the terms “ministers” and “stewards,” Paul is establishing a happy medium between two extremes: such teachers “ought to apply themselves not to their own work but to that of the Lord, who has hired them as his servants, and that they are not appointed to bear rule in an authoritative manner in the Church, but are subject to Christ’s authority.” Calvin’s comments come from the sixteenth-century context, so the extremes he has in mind are the wild individualism of the anabaptists on the one hand, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the other. But true ministers, Calvin says, “are servants, not masters;” that is, ministers, not magisters.

“Stewards,” according to Calvin, connotes that “what the Lord has committed to their charge they deliver over to men from hand to hand — as the expression is– not what they themselves might choose.” And he adds the admonition, based on hard experience: “They ought not to move a step beyond this.”

The Greek word that Paul uses here, the one we translate as steward, is oikonomos, which combines the root word for “household,” oikos, with the root word for law, nomos. So an “economy” is the law of a household, and a steward, an oikonomos, is the one who carries it out wisely. In that large sense, Paul will sometimes talk about God having a wise plan, or an oikonomia (Eph 1:10). But I don’t think the Bible ever calls God a steward, because the household that he orders belongs utterly to him. He is the one who establishes the wise order of the household, and commits its administration to stewards.

2. The Mysteries of God

But the idea of God’s own economy, his own wise plan for salvation, brings us to the second major term in our passage, which is “the mysteries of God.” The letters of Paul are always on the verge of mysteries (“there are some things in them hard to understand,” admits Peter). He wants his readers to “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge,” –a knowledge-surpassing knowledge that must be a mystery. When Paul actually uses the word mystery, he may be talking about how marriage points to the love of Christ (“this mystery is profound,” Eph. 5:32) or about the general resurrection (“Behold! I tell you a mystery… we shall all be changed,” 1 Cor 15:51).

But when he says “the mysteries of God,” Paul is probably thinking of that one gigantic message of the New Testament, the big news, the gospel. This “gospel and proclamation of Jesus Christ” is what he says in Romans 16 was something that “was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations.” And in Ephesians 3 he tells his readers that

when you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.

And when Paul sketches the big picture, it’s always trinitarian. Like in Romans 5, when he summarizes the argument about salvation in these words: “Justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” You can always hear the three notes of the three persons in that one work of salvation. Or in Titus 3, where Paul says,

When the goodness and loving kindness of God our savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior.

These are the massive subjects that constitute “the mysteries of God.” The phrase “of God” means not just that they are God’s property –that is, “God’s, not yours”– but that they are about God. He is the content of these mysteries. The message of salvation is the message of God giving himself to us: the things of the gospel are the deep things of God. For the explaining and expounding and exploring of these mysteries, a lifetime of theological ministry is not long enough –but it’s a good start.

3. The Incongruity

So we’ve seen what a steward is. And we know what the mysteries are. But consider the sheer incongruity of combining these two words this way. Can you hear it? Paul has taken two words from two different domains, and put them together. One comes from the world of local economic management, and the other from the depths of religion: Stewards, but stewards of mysteries. There is a clashing sound here.

In his Notes on the New Testament, John Wesley paraphrases it, “dispensers of the mysterious truths of the gospel.” A dispenser, at least to my ears, sounds like some kind of spigot or tap. As if Paul said here, we are spigots of eternity!

Or faucets of glory.

Or accountants of the absolute.

Or book-keepers of meta-cosmic wonder.

Or undersecretaries of eternal life.

Or the housekeeping service for God almighty.

Stewards of the mysteries of God. The Holman Christian Standard Bible gets the awkward juxtaposition just right (intentionally?) with its translation, “managers of God’s mysteries.”

The two things are all out of proportion to each other. If God has mysteries, it’s shocking that those mysteries should have managers. If Christian ministry is a kind of stewardship, it’s shocking that what we steward is something as big, as mighty, as sovereign, as the mysteries of God.

Lest we be tempted to think that if anyone is qualified to be stewards of God’s mysteries, it must surely be theologians, remember that our point of departure here is Paul’s statement about apostles, and how it extends to all ministers of the word. In fact, it extends in some ways to all Christians, who exercise their priesthood by speaking the truth in love to believers, and bearing witness to unbelievers. Anybody who has ever been involved in evangelism has experienced the shocking incongruity between the human words spoken and the divine results achieved. A little Scripture, a little explanation, a little personal testimony, a little stewardship of what we know to be true, and suddenly: a new creation! A fellow human hears the gospel and is saved, justified, brought into a fellowship with God that will never end. There is no proportionality between the human effort of evangelism and the divine result of salvation. There is no proportionality between the stewardship and the mysteries. Between the two yawns an infinite gap, and anyone ministering in any way is in it. Theologians have no qualifications or training that would enable them to bridge that gap. They have not, in fact, “mastered divinity,” no matter what their seminary degree says.

In this sense, all Christians are stewards of the mysteries, and none of us are qualified. Those of us in theological ministry ought to be fluent in the grammar of our inadequacy, as well as being helpful to the rest of the church in effective teaching. As Paul asks in another context (2 Cor 2:16), “Who is sufficient for these things?” A few verses later, he gives the only possible answer:  “But our sufficiency is from God.”

4. Fill his Mouth with Arguments

I close with a story from the life of John Wesley, whose evangelical ministry in the eighteenth century marked him as one of the great stewards of God’s mysteries, as he tried to manage that “surprising work of God” that spread so rapidly in connection with his preaching. In many of the places where he preached, something like riots broke out. By 1749 he had a full decade’s experience of dealing with these disturbances, and had developed a lively sense of how to ride along with the unruly energy of a mob until just the right moment arrived for him to speak up and take command. In a brief note in his journal about one such riot, he describes how he waited for his moment, and then took it. “I called for a chair,” he writes. “The winds were hushed, and all was calm and still.” As he began speaking, he felt the power of God at work, and he recorded what happened within him that enabled him to minister to the mob: “My heart was filled with love, my eyes with tears, and my mouth with arguments.”

Jason, you are not an itinerant evangelist dealing with mobs. But this is precisely what you need for the ministry of theology.

May God fill your heart with love: Love for the world that he sent his Son to save. Love for this state of California and the 35 million souls in it. Love for a public that doesn’t always invite love, and is often on the verge of riot.

May God fill your eyes with tears: Tears like those that Christ wept over the city of Jerusalem. Tears drawn not so much by the momentary afflictions or the thousand shocks that flesh is subject to, but by the deeper tragedy of human souls imprisoned in lives that are godless, hopeless, prayerless, comfortless.

And especially as a theologian, may God fill your mouth with arguments: Arguments that take the mysteries of God and make them plain to this generation. Arguments that take every thought captive to Christ, and destroy all speculations that set themselves up against God. Arguments that name connections nobody else has seen, that bring the greatest moral good clearly before the mind’s eye of a city, a state, a nation, a world that needs to be moved by persuasion and not by brute force. Arguments that win, that are faithful, that speak the truth in love, as is fitting for a steward that is found faithful.

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