I am honored that Dick asked me to preach on this special day. He has been my friend and colleague, mentor and frequent conversation partner for many years. I give thanks to God for him.
Dick has been a faithful minister of the Word of God among you for over two decades and now he and you come to the end of that ministry as he retires. I have just gone through this myself, so I speak from experience when I say it is a time fraught with meaning. Like a trapeze artist who lets go of one trapeze but hasn’t quite grabbed a hold of the next, the transition from ministry to retirement can be at the same time exhilarating and frightening. And I daresay the analogy holds true for a congregation saying goodbye to their pastor and wondering about the future without him.
As we give thanks for Dick’s ministry, it might be profitable for us to consider what Christian ministry is all about. What is a minister? A minister is, quite simply, one who acts on behalf of another. We see this usage in European politics, where governments have a foreign minister or a minister of finance, for example. Such ministers represent and speak on behalf of their governments. Their authority derives from those they represent. It is not their own.
In much the same way our ministry belongs to Jesus Christ and we represent him as his ministers. Our ministry isn’t a possession that belongs to us, but a call we obey, a service we carry out for another. It is easy to forget this, especially when one has been around as long as Dick and I have been. In our weaker moments we pastors can take on a King Louis XIV sense of self-importance. Recall how Louis said, “Après moi, le deluge: After me, the flood.” I shared with Dick some advice that your former area Minister Richard Sparrow gave me one time when I was worrying about what would happen after I left my pastorate of 22 years. He said, “Rick, it was Christ’s church when you got there, and it will be Christ’s church after you leave.” Which was to remind me that ministry always builds on the work of others. As Paul told the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.”
Paul was addressing divisions in the Corinthian church. Although the Greek word for “divisions” is schismata, from which we get our English word “schism,” schismata does not really mean factions or parties. More precisely it means a “tear” as in a fabric, or like a run in a stocking. It seems the Corinthians have broken into quarrelling factions around their various leaders.
Paul admonishes them to overcome their differences and become united. The Greek word translated as “united” means literally to be “knit together,” the very same word found in Mark’s Gospel (1:19) when he is describing the mending of fishing nets. So we have a vivid image here that we miss in translation, the image of the church as a torn fabric that needs to be mended.
But the disunity of the Corinthian church is more the symptom of the disease rather than the disease itself. The actual disease is their false understanding of what the church is, and what the ministry is.
Paul gets a little sarcastic toward these followers of different leaders: “Has Christ been divided?” He asks them. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
You see the problem? Have you ever known people who join a minister rather than a congregation? It happens! People join a minister because the minister is a spellbinding preacher or a compassionate pastor or an attractive personality. The problem is that when the minister in time shows the inevitable feet of clay they become disenchanted. Or when the minister moves on or retires their ties to the church are flimsy, because they have joined the leader and not the church.
That is what has happened in Corinth. Some have joined Apollos, a teacher who came after Paul in Corinth. Some have joined Peter. Some even regard Christ as their leader, as if he were just another human leader.
Some Corinthians have a magical understanding of their baptism, so that they have come to believe that the minister performing their baptism bestows more or less power depending how wise and spiritual he is. It is like someone here in Acton saying “I was baptized by Dick and not by Gail, so my baptism is better (or worse).” Or even more absurdly, somehow by baptism they would say, “I belong to Dick.” So Paul asks sarcastically, “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
And what is it that the Corinthians believe makes one leader better then another? The criterion seems to be the capacity to speak “eloquent words of wisdom.” Paul founded the church in Corinth by preaching the simple good news of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ, the message of the cross, the message of the forgiveness of sins. Paul’s message was not Paul himself, nor was it Paul’s wisdom or Paul’s rhetorical eloquence. His message was Jesus Christ and him crucified.
But the Corinthians have mistaken their leaders for the traveling sages of the time who were known for the beauty and cleverness of their speech. Paul wants to distance himself from these wise men, and he wants the Corinthians to know, by contrast, who he is, which is a minister of Jesus Christ.
“I am merely a messenger,” he says. “Don’t mistake the messenger for the message.” Don’t look to Paul’s eloquence or Paul’s wisdom, but to the Gospel. For the power of the cross is a power made perfect in weakness, a power that might be obscured by eloquence and human wisdom, but one that is brought to light by the miracle of being shown as powerful even in the weakness of the messenger, just as God displayed his awesome power in the weakness of the crucified one, who died on the cross for us.
There are still all manner of attractive and eloquent purveyors of religion and philosophy around. You only need a TV remote to find good examples. And truth to tell, even in the church we are tempted to run after the wisdom of the age.
But if the church of Jesus Christ is to have vitality, integrity, and unity it will come out of its own life, not from the wisdom of the age, but from the power of the message God has given to us. And you and I and others like us in local congregations, in all our weakness, will be the bearers of that message and the living embodiment of its power. That is what a congregation is, for better or worse, the living embodiment of the Gospel.
Many people, perhaps all of us on some level, come to church to be taken care of, to be told what to do: by the Bible or the bishop or the pope or the newest book, somebody. If only the right leader would come along. But we see in the scriptures today that even the Apostle Paul struggled to get it across that it isn’t the messenger– it is the message, and it isn’t the leader– it is the church, the body of Christ, where the power of God resides through grace and the gifts of the Spirit. Paul had every right to be proud of the Corinthian church. After all he was the founding pastor. When he says, “I planted,” he means just that. But that is not all he says. He says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.” He knew the power was God’s power through the Gospel and not Paul’s power through personality, talents or training.
That has been one of the gifts you have been given in Dick Olmsted, a gifted leader who has never forgot for a minute that it isn’t his Yale Ph.D. or his keen intelligence or any other human attributes or endowments that have made him a good minister of the Word of God.
As today’s political consultants would say, he has stayed on message. And Dick is well aware that the message applies to him as well as to you. To understand means to “stand under”, and Dick had stood under the Word of God, and preached to you as one forgiven sinner to another. He never forgot the great Reformation insight that we are at the same time sinners and justified before God, which is why he ministered to each and all of you without fear or favor. Because he knows that he is a minister, one who represents another, and a messenger, one who brings good news, and a witness, one who is always pointing beyond himself.
In 1995 my family and I traveled to Colmar, France to see Matthias Grünwald’s painting of the crucifixion in the famous Isenheim altarpiece triptych. A reproduction of this masterpiece hung over Karl Barth’s desk as he wrote his Church Dogmatics. One hangs over my desk, and one hangs over Dick’s desk. I chose it as the cover of my little book on the cross and atonement. It is not a pretty picture, but it is a powerful one.
In the painting John the Baptist points at the crucified Christ. Now this is not realism or historical accuracy, as we know that John had lost his head long before Good Friday. But Grünwald is trying to convey a deeper truth than the facts. He is depicting John as the witness to Jesus Christ. John’s pointing finger is strangely elongated, to draw your eyes to it and then to where it points.
Grünwald shows John as the representative Christian, the one who always points beyond himself or herself to Christ. And the Christ he points to is not Christ the teacher, Christ the prophet, or Christ the moral example, but the crucified Christ. For whatever else we might say about Jesus Christ, the one thing we must say is that he was crucified for us, and was raised on the third day as a divine vindication of the power of his weakness. Christ’s atoning death does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, freeing us from sin and death. To be a witness to the crucified Christ is to insist that God’s love is stronger than human hate, and God’s grace is greater than human sin. That truth remains a scandal now as it was then, because it challenges the wisdom of this age as to what constitutes real power and authority.
Because in the topsy-turvy values of the Gospel the first shall be last and the last first, the exalted will be humbled, and the humble exalted, the poor will be filled and the rich sent empty away. In God’s economy power is made perfect in weakness, and for all our accomplishments, in the end we have nothing to offer to God but our sins. These are not the values of Donald Trump’s Apprentice, to say the least. And neither is it the wisdom of the age, but it is the message of the gospel, the message that a minister of the Word of God is called to deliver.
So you can see that this ministry of witness to Christ can be very frustrating in human terms. Which is why I took up cooking years ago as a hobby, because when you cook you see results right away. The meal either comes out or it doesn’t. When people enjoy it you feel satisfaction and you get compliments. But being a minister of the Word of God isn’t like this. This pointing to Christ doesn’t usually manifest in immediate results. It’s more like being a gardener, a matter of planting and watering, and letting God use what you have done for his purposes, which remain mysterious. For you never know what seeds you sow, or who is ready to hear what word and when, a word that might even change their life.
In Stephen Ministry we teach that ministry is process oriented and not results oriented, and at first this really frustrates the Stephen ministers. Because we Americans are not good at waiting for God to give the growth. We want dominion and power and control. We want to force our will on things. The wisdom of this age demands results, and even ministers give up and give in and talk about our congregation’s attendance, or our budgets, or our additions, or our programs, or our new members. And don’t get me wrong, I am always grateful for any visible signs of vitality in Christ’s church.
But the truth about the church is that we can have the most beautiful building, and the biggest endowment, and the most eloquent preacher with a string of degrees after his name, and we can be so friendly we will melt the snow right off the roof, but if the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, the message that God loves and forgives us, isn’t preached and heard and lived it all counts for nothing. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
And in each generation, God raises up witnesses, messengers, ministers, like Dick Olmsted, for which we give thanks. Some will plant, others will water, but it is God who gives the growth. Amen.
(The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Floyd, Pastor Emeritus of First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Congregational, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on June 19, 2005 at the Acton Congregational Church, on the occasion of the retirement of the Reverend Dr. Richard Olmsted.)