1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3 Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, ait will return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for athe labourer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
This was Luther’s choice. In the Bible there are many other passages that deal with ministry. And there was a long list of other texts from medieval pontificals. But these words from Matthew and Luke were the ones that Luther made his key passage in his ordination agenda. All Lutheran pastors starting on 20 October 1535 in Wittenberg heard these words when kneeling for the ordination prayer. This harvest text and prayer became a core component of Lutheran agendas all over Europe for centuries:
Heavenly Father, Thou hast said to us through the mouth of Thy dear Son our Lord Jesus Christ: “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that He will send forth labourers into His harvest”. Upon this Thy divine command …
What is the starting point of the office of the holy ministry? Does it start with you, with your interest, your inner calling, your willingness to study and serve? No, this is not the case. What does the text say? Pray earnestly to the Lord! Before you even thought about the idea of seminary training and becoming a Lutheran pastor, somebody was praying for you. Maybe you can name that person—grandparents, parents, your pastor. …Whoever it might be who prayed for you by your name, remember, the church catholic prays God unceasingly throughout the world for labourers. So does your being here today, and does the ministry itself start with these prayers? No it does not. Where then? It starts with the Word. With the sending of Christ. With His divine words. It starts with our Father’s loving will to seek what is lost, to bring back that which belongs to Him, to deliver His gracious gifts. Did you hear what Luther prayed? Upon this Thy divine command… Luther comes with the word to the altar. There Luther gives back to God His own words. “Here are the words of Your beloved Son, now do according to them through Your Holy Spirit. Answer us according to Your word and make these men Your labourers. Give them richly Your Holy Spirit. Send them out to Your work!”
Do you see how praying is only possible where first the word of promise is heard? We can pray only what the word promises to give us.
That is why you can say: It is indeed God’s will that men prepare themselves for the ministry, and indeed if it pleases Christ He will give me His ministry and he will send me to work in His fields. Did you hear the text? Not only the labourers are His, but also the harvest: Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest! Which comes first, then, Church or ministry? A question that you may have heard somewhere. Certainly not the congregation. And for sure not the ministry. Christ comes first. His ministry. His body of believers. His harvest. His labourers. And He guides His church made of preachers and hearers with His word.
I have to say that I was shocked when I went to Fort Wayne last January. I’m not only talking about the company that I travelled with and the music I had to listen in the pickup. After finishing my studies there 1999, it was nice to meet many friends again. What was shocking was not even that all the others looked older, some had become bald and others had gained some weight. No, it was shocking to hear that so many guys that I knew had left the ministry, their names had for different reasons disappeared from the roster. So many labourers were not working in the fields any longer. So many guys with whom I studied, sang Matins together in the Chapel, eagerly discussed theology in the cafeteria, who with joy and pride wore collars and vestments and who received the call and ordination, they are no longer reaping the harvest.
I daily come here to my study at the seminary. You know well the photographs of graduating classes, which are hanging there on the corridor walls. Soon your face will be found there and students will be able to smile at your funny appearance after 15 years. Call service is a great and exciting day to look forward. But my question to you is how many of your faces will be found on another wall in this building? The ones hanging downstairs that say emeritus crucis. Will you be one of those who walk all the way through? What does it take to walk the walk from upstairs to downstairs? How many of you will disappear on the way? I do not mean that the goal is to get an award, which seldom happens but which of course is pleasant to receive. I mean: will your face be found among those faithful Lutheran pastors of whom we can read the bold confession of aged St Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:7)?
The old catechism of my church back in Finland says something like this: “The life of a Christian is a constant and deepening understanding of sin and grace.” I think this is true. That is what the blood-stained cross of our Lord teaches us: For my sin, for my sake, so that I may live!
But on the basis of what St Luke has recorded for us from the teaching of our Lord, I would say that the life of a pastor is a constant and deepening understanding of being His labourer, sent to His harvest.
When you focus on these two aspects—His church, His ministry—then you will learn again and again that it is all about His doing. You will learn to see both yourself and your congregation from the right perspective. You will find strength and courage: I’m not here by my own authority and will but I’m His labourer. But you will at the same time learn humbleness and patience: It is His, not my field. He gives the growth when and how it pleases Him.
So because of these words of promise I can always say: despite all my laziness, selfishness, arrogance, fears, despite all my sins He does not hesitate to call me as His child and His servant. Yes, He is the one who called me, blessed me with the gift of the Holy Spirit and sent me. Yes, He is and remains faithful and gracious to me! Despite all the problems, troublesome persons, open and secret sins in the congregation, it is and remains His field and His harvest. And because it is His, not mine, no matter what I may face in the future I can count on the fact that it is not up to me but up to Him to reap the harvest.
I would guess that one day when your face is found downstairs or when you have become a pastor emeritus who did not actually get the award, you would say something like this: Yes it was indeed all from Him, from His abundant grace: His ministry, His church militant. And then you will conclude with joy: My Lord, my church triumphant!
So what can we say? “Dr Luther, that was not a bad choice for an ordination text!”