This sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the Festival of St Titus, Pastor and Confessor, 26 January 2021.
Occasionally unbelievers ask pastors what they do for a living. I have always found it hard to respond to that question. Convincing them as to why it’s important is even harder, when it comes to those whose minds and hearts remain veiled in darkness, not having been enlightened by the Light of the World.
A pastor: there is no “job” like it. The Office of the holy Ministry is truly unique. The instructions for our Lord’s “employees” are without comparison. “Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road”.
Now, students, imagine if your boss at your summer job, said to you, “I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves”. You would probably quit. What did I sign up for? No guaranteed work place safety, that’s for sure. Where’s the job security? No harassment policy? Benefits? Travel perks? Minimum wage at best? The commission that our Lord gave to His disciples were probably as surprising to them then as it would have been to us. Elsewhere Jesus adds, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me …. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” What about a comfortable retirement? Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Not much worldly appeal.
The apostolic office, which extends today into the pastoral and preaching office, is as attractive as our Lord’s passion and death for the sins of the world. There is no job like it, because its not just a “job”. It’s a vocation in the highest sense of that word. Those who are called to follow Jesus and sent out as His ministers to carry out His mission do it by a miraculous act of God. No man has a hand in God’s sovereign and gracious choice. After all, what young man in their right mind would agree to these work conditions? Who would work for this organization? The Lord knows. And He selects. He baptizes. He calls. He ordains. He installs. The Holy Spirit makes it all happen. We just follow along. We follow Jesus. We go where He calls. We leave all else behind. We don’t look back.
Well, sometimes we do, but then we repent. The Holy Spirit turns us forward again towards the crucified Lord, as we continue our march ahead, with sins forgiven and doubts demolished by His Gospel word.
It’s the same thing with regards to the qualifications for “elders” –i.e. “pastors”–in the letter from St Paul to St Titus. Titus was dearly loved by St Paul, his disciple and friend, which is why the church’s calendar has him and St Timothy surround the honouring of St Paul’s conversion yesterday. St Paul writes that a pastor “must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.” The manifestation of these characteristics can be attributed, again, to the work of the Holy Spirit as God directs his pastors to the very means by which He uses them to cleanse his people. The means of grace. There they are washed and forgiven, fed and nourished. From there the fruits of the Lord’s labour are then evidenced in the lives of His holy people.
Sadly many Christians are tempted to think of the pastor as helpful but non essential to the ministry of the church or their congregations. Points of view that equate the pastor’s role to a facilitator, motivator, life coach or community leader will always disappoint as pastors and congregations are robbed of all the comfort, blessing and strength that the Lord Jesus seeks to give to His beloved people. Instead a pastor is an ambassador of Christ. His messenger. His spokesperson. A shepherd, as THE Chief Shepherd chooses to hide Himself within this office, as behind a mask, to use the language of Luther. God works in disguise since if He didn’t, it would be to our detriment. The glory hidden within His holy means would be too much for mortal and sinful man to behold. So He mercifully works “undercover”, so to speak.
Our believing differently doesn’t stop God from working in these ways, for us men and for our salvation. God doesn’t let our search committees, contracts, interviews, and other human processes (when they try to guarantee “the best man for the job”) get in the way of His gracious work. For His faithful pastors are not identified as those who possess the most talents and gifts, but rather those most loyal to His message. They are messengers. The “best pastors” are those most faithful to delivering the message. When things go well in the holy ministry they don’t get the credit, and when things don’t, they don’t take the blame. It’s just part of being sent as heavenly messengers among wolves. And that may be the best comparison for this “job” when trying to explain it to the unbaptized. A postman.
When you get a letter, delivered by a postman, it’s also tucked in an envelope. So, too, God’s heavenly grace is tucked away in the envelope of His Means. As God wrapped and “disguised” Himself in human flesh, so His merciful Word is wrapped and disguised within water and bread. When preaching and administering the sacraments, pastors are a means to these means. But they can also be considered a means of grace themselves, “in disguise”, as they absolve sins in the stead of Christ. After all, their office is the envelope in which the Spirit is contained and through which His grace is delivered. Their tongue becomes the visible element, since they speak but Jesus is heard.
God’s means of grace always involve such surprising material realities. His extraordinary Spirit operates through the stuff of our ordinary earth, like human voices and human hands. First through Jesus, then through us. This is His special way. Working through human flesh, earthly water and wine.
And what for? The whole system is in place in order to deliver a message. As we hear in our text, the disciples were given one main task: speak, “Peace be to this house”. Now when we hear the word “peace” lots of different images are conjured up in our minds. But peace is not just a friendly cordial greeting, like in Islam, “Saalam Alaikum”. It’s not just the description of a warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts or a sense of restfulness in our minds, as in Eastern religion. Rather it’s primarily a proclamation of a reality that involves a heavenly truth. “Peace be to this house” transmits a promise. For Christians “peace” conveys a state of being regarding our relationship with God. As St Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2). This status holds true even when our emotional, mental, physical and even spiritual lives seem to be in turmoil. It’s true despite these sensations and the unrest that we feel in ours hearts, souls and minds. “Peace” expresses the Gospel in a word. And God’s messengers get to announce and pronounce that mind-boggling and earth-shattering message. After all, as the Psalmist proclaims, “The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty” (Ps. 29:4). “He upholds the universe by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). That word is Jesus, a Word that pastors carry upon their lips in every act of ministry.
For instance, whenever the words of consecration are spoken over the elements of bread and wine by the mouths of His priests, Jesus manifests Himself again in the flesh with His grace. Whenever the Gospel is preached from the mouths of his pastors, Jesus mightily enters broken hearts as the Word that He is. His kingdom comes.
God always uses earthly means to deliver and embody His heavenly things. Through the pastoral office we receive our Lord’s love letter to us. And if you listen carefully, you can often hear the beat of His heart in the ones who deliver it. Through the Word of Christ, which is never disassociated from his very fleshly presence, the kingdom of God has come, and continues to come, near. And with it, the healing of sickness, removal of sin, deliverance from the devil, and reconciliation between “sons of peace”, brothers and sisters in Christ.
St Titus was an exemplary messenger of the Word. He often functioned as St. Paul’s postman. Even though he was ordained as bishop of Crete, he is best known as a courier of St Paul’s letters and correspondences, especially with regard to the doctrinal challenges that the pastoral office faced at the church in Corinth, and “fundraising” appeals to help struggling and persecuted believers in Jerusalem. Yet he never regarded his role as an ambassador, mediator, and intercessor as beneath him. He remained a loyal transmitter of another’s message.
We imitate Him. Whether it be temptations to abandon this most honourable vocation in a world which believes we serve an imaginary god, or temptations within Christianity by those who wish that we find new, creative ways of making the message more relevant, or even tweaking it and thereby changing it, “contemporizing” Biblical texts or sacred services. The Lord upholds His own.
The Lord even forgives us when we esteem the pastoral office as lowly or mundane. He most graciously wipes our consciences clean with His cleansing blood each time we buy into the leadership models that want to make the ministry about us, our creative ideas, measurable qualities, or unique skills, as opposed to what He has done through His redeeming work. He is committed to disseminating his Good News in spite of all that. He consoles His humble servants when we stress about our upcoming placements, hoping that our bishops or DPs make the right decisions, worrying whether we are equipped enough, or worthy. He does it by a message to His messengers, a love letter that doubles as a love feast.
As His kingdom of peace and grace comes here and now to strengthen His pastors, their people and their disciples, His message, messengers, and all of its recipients unite together at one holy table as the one unique family of God, a spiritual house whose dimensions stretch into the heavenly realms, and include St Titus and all the blessed departed and angelic hosts. Amen.