On Sunday 11 October there will be special service of Evensong in Chelmsford Cathedral to mark the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination. Before the eruption of Covid-19 I had hoped to celebrate the occasion with a big party, where along with food and drink there would have been a jazz band playing. In response to a ‘Keep the Date’ missive, some 200 friends had said they hoped to be with me on the day. In the event the party has had to be cancelled, and although Evensong will take place, only sixty or so masked worshippers, all socially distanced, will be allowed to be present. Although the Cathedral choir will sing, almost certainly there will be no congregational singing. On reflection, although a disappointment, this may not be a bad thing – the focus will be well and truly on God who, in the words of the Magnificat, lifts up the lowly.
However, I will still preach, and – as I had always planned – I will take as my theme the grace of God. Those of you who have read my autobiography, This is My Story: a story of faith, life and ministry (Wipf & Stock 2018), may remember that there in the penultimate chapter I elaborate on four convictions common to ministry in general:
- Ministry is rooted in the call of God
- Ministry is rooted in the grace of God
- Ministry is rooted in passion for God
- Ministry is tough but rewarding
It is this second conviction which will form the theme of my sermon next Sunday. In This is My Story I had written:
Ultimately everything we achieve in ministry is attributable to the grace of God. In a survey I undertook in 1997 I discovered that ministers in the UK reckon that they worked on average 64.3 hours per week. At one stage I kept a careful time log for seven weeks and discovered that in that period I had averaged fifty-seven hours per week. However, as the Apostle Paul made clear, what really counts is not our hard work, but the grace of God. For in the context of comparing himself to the other apostles, he said: “1 worked harder than any of them – although it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). Paul here recognized the folly of comparison – for at the end of the day everything is down to “the grace of God that is with me”. Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner in their magnificent commentary note: “Paul does not describe his hard work as a matter of co-operating with God’s grace but entirely as an effect of God’s grace. What was on display was not a manifestation of Paul’s capabilities or efforts, but of the grace of God that was with him.” Similarly, Gordon Fee, the American Pentecostal New Testament scholar, wrote: “In Pauline theology, even his labor is a response to grace, it is more properly seen as an effect of grace”. God’s grace, of course, does not do away with the need for effort on our part. David Prior commented: “The only proper response to grace is total commitment with every fiber of our being. If God’s grace does not produce such energetic single-mindedness, there is something seriously lacking in our faith (see Rom 12:1ff; Col 1:27-29)”.
Paul celebrated the grace of God. Three times in 1 Cor 15.10 he speaks of the grace of God:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them (viz the 12 apostles to whom the risen Lord had appeared) – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
What I find significant is the contrast Paul made between God’s grace and his own sense of identity, his own ego. Yes, ego is the word. “Not I” (literally ‘not ego’) but (in the Greek Paul uses two adversatives – de all’) the grace of God”. Paul had good reason to boast. In the words of F.F. Bruce, my PhD supervisor, and at the time the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester: “Latecomer as he was to the apostolate, he strove to make up for lost time and the sum-total of his achievements thus far surpassed the record of those who had been called earlier. The extent of these achievements is impressive enough, even if we go no farther back than the six or seven years immediately preceding the writing of this letter: he had evangelized the process of Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia, and was not actively engaged in evangelizing proconsular Asia…. Yet all the credit is ascribed to ‘the grace of God’ which called him…. and made him what he was.” For Paul, all the hard work which lay behind his achievements was not the result of a personal need to compensate God for his grace but were a reflection of God’s grace at work in his life. All was of grace.
With Paul it is God’s amazing grace that I wish to celebrate. I shall end with these words: “From start to finish ministry is rooted in the grace of God. However gifted and skilled ministers may be, however hard-working and committed they may be, ultimately we are dependent upon the grace of God at work in our lives. To God – and to God alone – be the glory!”