Friday, July 27, 2012

The Radical Pastor - Titus 1

Titus 1:5,9 (ESV)
5  This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

The third pastoral letter begins with the same message the first two repeated. The role of a pastor is to teach teachers to teach teachers to teach. The message to teach is simple and clear and constant. Pastors are to teach the gospel centrally, the Good News of free and gracious invitation to participate in the living Kingdom of God here and now, by the power of the freely given Holy Spirit dwelling in us, received by faith in Jesus Christ. This invitation is for all people, everywhere, without restriction or payment, regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, or background. None are preferred. All are enabled to live free and freely participate in Kingdom Communities that radically share together and resist the spirit of the empire from which they are free.

The teachers (called elders, or overseers) are chosen based on integrity and character. Everything else is developed in mentoring relationships. As Paul teaches Titus and Timothy, these elders will also be taught to teach the radical and free gospel of Jesus centrally.

Titus is also warned, as Timothy was, to guard against infiltrators that would try to bind people to rules and legislation as essential elements of their citizenry in the new Kingdom. Paul finds such religious oppression abhorrent, and entirely contrary to the free message he preaches of Jesus. Citizens of the Kingdom have been set free from law, and he will not abide such legalistic ritual applied to the free demonstration of faith through people as they pursue Jesus' justice and love.

Most of the mechanics of this foundational message of the three pastoral letters are explored in the notes on the letters to Timothy.

(see notes on preaching the Gospel from 1 Timothy 1 and Qualifications of Elders in 1 Timothy 2)

Preach the gospel.
Teach others to do the same.
Teach them to teach others to teach others to do the same.
The gospel is free, an for everyone.

The description of a pastor's role is so incredibly simple in these three short letters. What is surprising is how often pastors and churches today can have far-reaching and multi faceted ministries that do a great deal of good, and still sometimes manage to not fulfill these simple instructions. It is possible to go to church for months, and hear a lot of really great, even really helpful preaching, but never hear the gospel clearly presented. It's possible today to go to church for years without forming a significant mentoring, enabling relationship. Some churches go a generation with very little change in the leadership, the same few people on the stage or behind the pulpit without anyone else equipped to replace them.

This criticism isn't meant to suggest these churches don't love God, believe the gospel, or do good things. Sermons about money management, relationships, or success aren't bad. But what is missing when we don't keep it as simple or central as Paul suggests in the pastoral letters? And for what reason would we ever fail to practice church as they describe?

The truth is that community is very hard. Diverse community is especially hard. The early church didn't exist long before their radical inclusion did begin to cause them problems. People came to the communities with all kinds of baggage, old habits and worldviews they'd learned as prisoners of the empire. The ideal of Kingdom life was practiced in faith by the early Jesus followers, but there wasn't always agreement in how a just and loving community is organized and demonstrated. Worse, even if there was agreement, many frequently failed to meet the ideal. Conflicts and consequences needed to be dealt with in mutuality and love, also in the Spirit. Every member of community was on a journey, and had to also be gracious to the unique processes of their fellow travelers.

The same is true today. Community is still hard. Community lived counter-culturally, in resistance to the world's patterns, is really hard. Sharing an *inclusive* community, always welcoming new members just starting their journeys, is even harder.

The message of grace in the gospel is so scandalously free. It can take more than a lifetime to really grasp and practice the incredible freedom offered in the Kingdom. This freedom is much greater than a lack of oppression. This is a participatory and active freedom. We rest in the grace of God. We actively participate in the justice of God.

The problem is, we're not necessarily always all that good at it. And that's scary.

The message we pastors have been commissioned to share is an invitation to *participate*, right now, by faith, in God's work on earth. In an inclusive and active community, that can be scary.

Furthermore, people enter free community with a lifetime of experience in the old order, the controlling, corrupted, oppressive empire. We have habits of selfishness, some learned, some embraced from our own dark nature of the empire within. Many come with trauma and abuse, institutionalized by the world as it is. To simply remove chains and call a former prisoner free is a sober idea. But this is why we have community. We are not left to our devices. We each and all humbly submit our journeys to one another, failing forward toward a Victory purchased and promised for us.

What a beautiful mess.

But we pastors are as fallible as anyone else in the comnunity. Many of us would prefer things neat and tidy sometimes. It's also an easy trap to fall into. People come to church expecting what they've always had, someone telling them what to do, how to live. For some, freedom to do as they will is as frightening to them as it is to the pastor. So there is a certain comfort in fulfilling that role, giving three keys each week to relationship or financial success, but failing to share the tools to discover the keys themselves.

If we fall into this pattern, we may quickly find ourselves mirroring the old order from which our communities came. The people become consumers, and the pastor becomes a distributor of religious goods and services. The church itself becomes a commodity to be marketed. At worst, people are kept infants, dependent on the pastor for their faith and worship.

Paul demonstrates something different with Timothy. He never claims to have something that Timothy himself does not already possess.

2 Timothy 1:6-7 (ESV)
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, 7 for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Timothy was a young, inexperienced, and timid pastor who suffered from tummyaches. Paul does not give him step by step instructions for ministry. He does not even tell him exactly how he is supposed to choose and train elders and deacons (Elected? Selected? The text does not say). What he does tell him is to preach the gospel, which he repeatedly reminds him is something he already knows. He reminds him to stir up the gift already within him by the same Holy Spirit in Paul. And then he just lets him have a go at it.

What a mess that could be.

Or what freedom.

We pastors are not on some pedestal above people, getting special access to God on their behalf. There is only one mediator, and it is not you. There are no priests necessary. The same Holy Spirit that dwells in the pastor dwells equally in every single member of God's family. We don't need to tell people what to do, or how to live, not ultimately. Our central purpose is to walk beside or behind people, lifting them up and helping them find their unique gifts and callings. We nurture people as they heal from the trauma of life lived in the empire, and demonstrate how they may each personally participate in the free life of the Kingdom.

Ephesians 4:11-14 (ESV)
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

It's the church, every member, that does the work of the ministry, not the pastor. We're the equippers. We’re not way ahead of anyone. We’re all growing up together. And they might screw it up. In fact, they will, just like you did. Just like you still do. And then we'll humbly and graciously forgive and try again, together, in love and freedom.

We teach people to know and find the truth themselves, to wrestle with faith and scripture, so that they may grow up, and freely participate with life and creativity. A diverse body growing together is stronger than a community of people all following the good advice of one man.

The warning and danger of keeping freedom and community from our congregation is at the end of Titus chapter 1. No matter how good our advice may be, even if it has good result, if it isn't planted in the soil of the gospel, it is infertile. It is dead. Without the radical freedom of the gospel, and the messy business of enabling enablers, we risk becoming like the legalists that Paul warns about. Paul mentions Jewish religious ritual, but not because of an argument with an ethnic or religious group. His warning is about the legalism of religious ritual apart from the freedom of the gospel of the Kingdom. If we preach practical keys to success every week, without preaching the truth that victory has already been won for each of us, we risk creating a new bondage for out congregations. If we talk about how to be happy, without teaching and demonstrating the fruit of true joy that can come from a life lived free, we risk building a cage of empty smiles and hallelujahs as oppressive as the empire's empty hedonism.

We are fulfilled in Jesus.
We are satisfied in Jesus.
We are made free, radically, scandalously free in Jesus.
Even free to fail.

So let's preach the gospel, and give space for people to live as free as the gospel actually allows. Let's be willing to get messy together, and let Jesus be the one with the power, not us. It's better that way.

Read Titus 1

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