The improbability of ministry

As Christians we minister and witness in the realm of unlikelihood; humanly speaking our work is always against the grain and against the odds. The idea that sinful people could be reached through sinful people, via the medium of insignificant, politically disenfranchised, local churches is a material absurdity. If we were to take the components of how someone is converted and analyse them in terms of demographics, psychology, and probability they would not score highly – the success of any ministry at any moment is always only a miracle.

In this article I want to look at two improbabilities which stand out boldly in the life and work of the Apostle Paul, and show through them the grounds for rich encouragement that we have if we are seeking to make Jesus known in our everyday lives, or as pastors, missionaries, and church planters:

1. Paul as an unlikely convert to the gospel: if you were to read the first eight chapters of Acts, and weren’t aware that chapters 9 to 28 were to follow, your view of the arc of the Church’s story would be justifiably different than the actual outcome. The death of Stephen reads like a tragic anti-climax to the heady days of thousands coming to Jesus, and Saul’s frightening combination of ferocity and authority seems to spell the certain end of the project of gospel testimony. Acts 8:2 is loaded with tremendous pathos, ‘devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him…’. A light seemed to have gone out in the work of Christ with Stephen’s martyrdom, a pall of darkness descending on the horizon of hope that once blazed with such glorious optimism. The scattering of the believers from Jerusalem was no less traumatic, the upheaval of moving family, leaving friends, seeking safe haven and securing new employment had become normalised features of being a disciple.

No one in those days could have written the next chapters of the church’s history, no one could have predicted the trajectory that Christ’s commissioning words in Acts 1:8 would follow, least of all Saul of Tarsus. Saul had no proverbial premonitions about the ‘road to Damascus’ when he set out to slaughter and imprison more of God’s people, no hint of the fact that his meeting with the risen Jesus lay ahead. Saul as a convert might have been improbable, but not impossible. To balk at the fact that he could get saved is to miss the real point of Acts 9 – if we see the miracle of a converted man, without witnessing the greater miracle of a risen, reigning Jesus, then we might grasp the fact of Saul’s conversion, but not the chief factor behind it.

Paul never got over the fact of what took place in Acts 9. Our biblical understanding of him is nuanced and psychologically sophisticated, with Scripture’s portrayal of his sense of astonishment that one ‘born out of due time’, one who was ‘the chief of sinners’ might become one of Christ’s chief spokesmen.

His story is so informative to us as we serve Christ. Paul coming to Christ might have been sudden, but it wasn’t impulsive. Behind the bared teeth, the unsheathed sword, the keys to prison cells, the casual enjoyment of Stephen’s stoning, was a man who was deeply conflicted and convicted, a man who was battling the goads of God pricking his conscience. We are not privy to how those goads operated, or for how long, but the Holy Spirit was working in preparatory ways unseen to the rest of the world.

Sometimes, and particularly if we are working in ‘tough’ areas for the gospel, we are tempted to wonder where new believers might come from. Hostility, apathy, mindless syncretism, materialistically distracted lifestyles, abuse of minds, bodies and substances can seem the order of the day. The weight of media which is militant against belief can seem like a tank regiment in stand-off against a ragged group of home guard volunteers, and our own publicity can seem anaemic when compared with the personalised Las Vegas that people engage with everyday on their smartphones and on social media.

But in this maelstrom of counter-signals, God is at work, God has people upon whom his prevailing mercy, his irresistible grace, his Spirit’s power are fixed. They themselves may only be vaguely aware of the working of God in the recesses of their souls, and we may see nothing of it at first (or contrary signs), but be assured that the risen Christ who could flatten Saul’s resistance to the gospel and set him up as the apostle to the Gentiles has neither lost his power to save, nor his taste for rich biographical irony. When I am tempted to despair, to wonder where people might come from who will hear, let alone heed the gospel, I need to look to Paul the unlikely convert and take heart.

2. Paul the unlikely carrier of the gospel: not only are the recipients of the gospel unlikely in their receptiveness, but those charged with sharing it are not the people that you or I would imagine to be best suited to the task. There was much in Paul’s background which would ultimately work in his favour – his training in the best of Greek rhetorical, philosophical and poetic traditions, his cosmopolitan upbringing in Tarsus etc. – but there is rich irony in the fact that the one who was policing the boundaries of Jewish political and spiritual hegemony in Jerusalem and beyond, would be the one who would proclaim that the Messiah is, after all, Jesus.

There were also temperamental and physical factors which made Paul an unlikely man to take Christ’s message to the world. One is the fact that he seems to have lacked personal charisma, the kind of pizzazz that made the super-apostles so deceptively attractive to vulnerable Christians in the churches of his day. His mind was rich and fertile, but he didn’t lean on the power of oratory or personality to make the message stick. Paul may have been small in stature, he was certainly diminutive in physical prowess, and he seems to have suffered from hugely inhibiting physical weakness and illness. No human resource department wouldn’t have head hunted Paul for the enormous task of pushing out the boundaries of Christian belief, but Christ could say to Ananias in Acts 9 that the former persecutor was a ‘chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel’. The sufferings which Paul would face would form part of that instrumentality, as he would later articulate in 2Corinthians, where weakness is one the chief assets that Jesus employs for the furtherance of his kingdom.

This is pregnant with encouragement for all of us. So often I am tempted to look to my self, to my paucity of natural abilities that could make the gospel palatable to those who hear to me, to the inner conflicts of anxiety and sin and discouragement, to the monolithic secular culture which we increasingly face and wonder how in the world God could use me, and yet use me he does. You may feel the same. You may feel dreadfully unqualified and ill-suited to pastor or plant the church with which you are connected, to impact the field in which you are placed as a missionary, to witness to work colleagues or loved ones, but we are precisely the material means through which the Holy Spirit works and through whom he reaches our world. That’s incredibly encouraging!

Let’s take heart, let’s look at the improbable people whom we seek to reach, let’s be honest about the improbable people that we are to take Jesus to our world, and let’s be confident that God uses broken vessels as chosen instruments so that he can get the glory.

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