Note: this is more or less the text of the sermon I preached Sunday minus the ad libs. The audio can be heard below.
Message for Epiphany 6 – Real Spiritual Maturity
Sermon on 1 Cor 3:1-9
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’m sure it was sometime in seventh grade or so, when I was goofing off at the lunch table and just being a 12 year old boy, when a girl looked over at me and I heard her say, “Real mature.” That was the ultimate put down from a mean girl to a boy like me. We’ll ignore the fact that she sounded like a California valley girl and we were living in Kennesaw, Georgia. In her book, it was apparently more mature to act like someone from another planet, than to act like oneself. I thought of that comeback about two years later. If that illustration was a little too 1980s for you, we can zoom out to a more universal, “Oh grow up,” disgusted look not just included but mandatory, or even, “Act your age, not your shoe size.” Did I get everyone? Good.
At first glance, it looks like Paul is doing something like this in his letter to the church in Corinth. “I have to talk to you as babies… I have to feed you with babies milk not grownup food.” It kind of sounds like Paul is saying, “Oh, grow up!” “Real mature.” But while, spiritual maturity is a significant theme for Paul, I don’t think we should hear him like the mean girl from my seventh grade. There’s no contempt here. And on top of that, he’s not trying to put himself up as more mature than the Corinthians. As a good spiritual father, he simply desires a greater depth of understanding and growth in love toward others, a genuine Christian maturity.
The problem that showed such spiritual immaturity was the significant divisions in the church in Corinth. Most scholars suggest that the church there wasn’t as many as a hundred people at the time Paul writes to them. And yet, they are torn apart by significant division. Some follow Peter, the apostle, some follow Apollos. We know from the book of Acts, Apollos was a Jewish man from Alexandria, that’s in Egypt. (Ac 18:24) He was a good speaker and had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, what we would know as the Old Testament. We’re not sure how, but Apollos was “instructed in the way of the Lord and he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” (Ac 18:25) He meets Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus and they instruct him further. And from Ephesus, Apollos goes on to Corinth with letters of introduction from the Christian community in Ephesus and there “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” This is all in chapter 18 of Acts. Apollos doesn’t get a lot of mention, but he was a significant figure in the church in Corinth and he helped a lot of people to believe in Jesus. Luther and others since him suggest that Apollos might even have been the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, but that’s speculation.1
So the little church in Corinth is marked by these factions. Some follow Peter, some Paul, some Apollos, and some Jesus. And Paul says, this is a mark of spiritual immaturity. If the cross of Jesus is really central to what it means to be a Christian—and last week, I think we saw that Paul certainly thinks it is—then, these divisions in Corinth don’t merely threaten the unity of the people there in the bond of peace, but they violate and endanger the very Gospel on which their unity is based. As long as they differed over people, mere men, they will have lost sight of the cross of Jesus, they will have lost the power of God in the Gospel.
We honor Peter, because, yes, he was an eye-witness to the Lord’s teaching and miracles, his death and resurrection. But this is not the church of Peter. We honor Paul because, yes, he was a brilliant and articulate preacher of the faith and the Lord called him to be His witness to the Gentiles. But this is not the church of Paul. We honor Apollos, even if we don’t really know much about him except what we just learned from a Bible dictionary a minute ago, because he was a faithful and even more articulate defender of the faith to all who would listen. But this is not the church of Apollos. Neither Peter, Paul, nor Apollos went to the cross. None of them were raised. Only Jesus went to the cross. Only Jesus was raised. Only Jesus do we follow. This is the church of Jesus Christ.
Paul is calling the Corinthians spiritually immature but he’s not doing it with contempt. He calls them brothers. “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” Pastor Paul is gentle and affectionate here. This isn’t a rhetorical trick. Paul considered the Corinthians his brothers in Christ. After all, he had been their pastor before his journeys took him elsewhere and he writes them as their former pastor. And he points not to himself but to Jesus, the way every good pastor should. And this language Paul uses here about spiritual maturity is a significant theme throughout the letter to the Corinthians and elsewhere in the New Testament. In Peter’s first letter, he encourages those reading to “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation…” (1Pet 2:2) It’s such a profound metaphor it works its way into our liturgical life in the Church, for centuries, the Introit for the first Sunday after Easter is this verse. Those who are newly born through the observance of Easter are encouraged to grow up into salvation. Paul’s concern is that there are many in Corinth who are still living and thinking from the perspective of the wisdom of the world and not on the basis of the God’s wisdom, the cross of Jesus Christ.
The Corinthians are involved in a lot of behavior that’s un-Christian. The thing is, when people convert to Christianity, they often carry with them a lot of baggage with them from the world they left and they need to learn to live this new life a step at a time. It’s not that they don’t have the Spirit of God, they do. But they keep living like they used to and as those without the Spirit still do. Gordon Fee, a conservative evangelical scholar, in his commentary on First Corinthians says, “There is no question that Paul considers his Corinthian friends believers and that they are in fact acting otherwise. But Paul’s whole concern is to get them to change, not to allow that such behavior is permissible.”2 Our own Confessional documents pick up on this same concern. In the Defense of the Augsburg Confession, “Of course, it is necessary to do good works. We say that, eternal life has been promised to the justified. But those who walk according to the flesh retain neither faith nor righteousness. We are for this very end justified, that, being righteous, we may begin to do good works and to obey God’s Law.” (Ap III, 227) I know Lutherans make a big deal out of works not being necessary for salvation, but you just heard that we still believe good works remain necessary for the Christian, just not for earning salvation.
I’m making this point because it highlights one of the chief criticisms against the Lutheran Reformation in Luther’s day. By his advocating that a sinner’s rescue from hell and eternal life are won by Christ’s work on the cross alone, (Solus crucis, the cross alone, if you will) not by any additional merit a believer contributes, Luther was accused by his opponents of licentiousness, essentially lawlessness when it comes to the Word of God. And as we see from our second reading today, that is not the teaching of the apostles, nor is it the teaching of the Lutherans for some 500 years now. Our good works, while they are incapable of earning us even a percentage of eternal life, are still fundamental and indispensable to a life in the Spirit of God.
Life in the Spirit of God is a life that grows from the lifeblood of the cross.
Most of you know how a tree gets nutrients up from the ground. It has a hydraulic mechanism just below the bark in the outer part of the tree that draws water up the length of the tree and up to the rest of the tree and out to the branches where leaves grow in season and the fruit of the tree grows. The cross of Jesus is not unlike this. A tree that draws up the lifeblood of Jesus shed and out to the branches in order to feed the growing fruit of the tree. It’s a metaphor Jesus Himself used. I am the vine, you are the branches. And it’s a metaphor that works in at least two ways.
The first of course is that we are the branches and attached to the tree and we bear fruit, the fruit of faith and our neighbors benefit from this whether or not they are believers or not. The stronger the branch grows, the more fruit it can bear but obviously not on its own. The source is Christ. The second and maybe just as profound way this metaphor works is that the cross is the tree from which we eat, a tree of eternal life. The fruit is Jesus. The benefit of eating that fruit is eternal life for all who eat of the tree. This view too implies a growth in understanding that true life, eternal life, a life of peace and forgiveness and love toward others, comes from regularly eating the fruit of this tree. Eating this fruit, eating Jesus regularly changes us and makes us more like Him.
What’s more, neither of these views of this tree metaphor involve a whole lot of anxiety or worry. A branch grows stronger by being fed from the source. It doesn’t worry about it. It just does it. Those who eat regularly the fruit of the tree of the life, don’t worry about the nutrition facts on the label. Growth happens. This is the power of cross Paul was so keen to keep uppermost in his thoughts as he wrote to the Corinthians.
Paul writes specifically about their divisions. Some say they are of Peter, or of Apollos, or of Paul, or presumably the really pious ones say they are of Christ. But Paul doesn’t let them off the hook because they’re not saying it as though they’re right but just as partisan and fractious as those who say they are of Peter, Paul, or Apollos. And I’ve already mentioned Luther and the Reformation and to outside observers we seem to be celebrating this year the fracturing, and we have to admit the disintegration of the Christian Church in the West. If we are going to say, “I follow Luther,” we need to be ready to explain to people what that means and how it’s fundamentally different than what Paul chastises the Corinthians for doing. There is story often repeated among well-meaning Lutherans that when he was asked about being called Lutherans, Luther himself was against the idea. And we have a quote from Luther himself to this fact.
In the first place, I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine [John 7:16]. Neither was I crucified for anyone [I Cor. 1:13]. St. Paul, in I Corinthians 3, would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I—poor stinking maggot-fodder38 that I am—come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold. The papists deservedly have a party name, because they are not content with the teaching and name of Christ, but want to be papist as well. Let them be papist then, since the pope is their master. I neither am nor want to be anyone’s master. I hold, together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master [Matt. 23:8].3
That was from a writing Luther wrote in 1522, just five years into the Reformation. So, first things first, Luther never said, “Hey everybody, let’s call ourselves Lutherans! That’ll show the pope!” No, in fact, Luther’s opponents gave the name as they saw him as every bit a heretic as those who had come before him like the Arians, the Pelagians, the Hussites, and countless others. Remember too that Lutherans never saw themselves as the new theology but the old orthodox Christianity. The Lutherans claimed allegiance to the orthodox teaching of the ancient church fathers, Ireneaus and Athanasius and Augustine and they called those who had departed from the faith “papist” because they followed the errors of the pope. As you can see, it’s the other guy who gets the name. And it’s pretty clear how Luther feels about party names at this time. But the Reformation continued for many years. And new players entered the field. Zwingli and Calvin and the more radical reformers that came after them like the Anabaptists.
Luther was subject to error. I’m sure one of the highlights this year will be the terrible things Luther said against the Jews. Out of context, they are horrible and provided intellectual fuel for hate. In context his comments are mitigated somewhat but still show how his own hard had been hardened. It is good to remember that Luther’s sins are as forgiven as our own in Christ. And so we don’t follow Luther because he is without error like the Scriptures. Nor is he the head of our church. And we don’t call ourselves Lutheran because we believe in Luther but rather because Luther pointed us to the power of God and the wisdom of God in the cross of Jesus Christ.
I’ve got a great quote from our own Formula of Concord, a confessional document written in the generation after Luther that makes this point very clear.
- We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged, as it is written in Ps. 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And St. Paul says in Gal. 1:8, “Even if an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.”
2. Other writings of ancient and modern teachers, whatever their names, should not be put on a par with Holy Scripture. Every single one of them should be subordinated to the Scriptures and should be received in no other way and no further than as witnesses to the fashion in which the doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved in post-apostolic times. (FC Ep 1:1-2) Tappert, 464–465)
Using this name indicates nothing else than that we are Christens who believe that the doctrine which was again brought to light in these lasts times from God’s word through Luther, is the true doctrine. Whomever confesses this doctrine with his mouth we call a Lutheran. But we believe a true Lutheran is only he who believes this doctrine with his heart through the working of the Holy Spirit and who has the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. A true Lutheran and a true Christian, the Lutheran church and the Christian church, God’s word and Luther’s doctrine – these are all one and the same to us. (This paragraph basically comes from Walther’s article in Der Lutheraner.)
1 R. E. Nixon, “Apollos,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 57.
2 Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 128.
3 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 70–71. I originally found a version of this quote in an old Der Lutheraner article written by CFW Walther, which can be found translated into English here: http://www.lutherquest.org/walther/articles/nameLuth.htm
I didn’t really follow the manuscript for this sermon so I’m not going to bother posting it. But the audio from the first service can be found below by clicking the link below.
So, a little technical stuff, too. I use WordPress as a host for this site. And that works as it’s normally free, especially with as few visits as I get. For a number of years, ever since I started here actually, I paid for WordPress to host the audio files on their servers. It was a small amount, like $20 or so annually. But last year I started paying for a bigger Dropbox and with it, I had the ability to “self-host” my own media files, through my public folder there. And that’s what I’ve done here. It’s the first time. I imagine that any old audio sermon links will go dead. And that’s probably not a bad thing. A sermon does a have limited life.
I have resolved to begin posting more regularly here as much for my sake as for yours, so enjoy.
On Sunday we observed All Saints’ Day and it wasn’t really the moment to look at what has been the weirdest election season I’ve ever seen. Except to say what I did, which is All Saints’ Day is the promise that in Christ, the victory has been won and that victory, even if not yet completed, is already a reality, if only by faith and not yet by sight.
But what of this week, and election day in general? For years, certainly during the years I became aware of both religion and politics, the 1980s, conservative Christians allied with conservatives in politics along social issues. Those efforts have, by and large, failed due mostly to failing in the courts. In my conversations about issues today, what seems clear to me is that most conservatives don’t understand the new demographic reality in the US. In this blog I mentioned the book, the New America. If you want to see how America is changing ethnically and attitudinally, this is a pretty clear picture. The political class is worried about who will pick the next supreme court justices because the majority has already been lost. Baring the Lord’s return or the Third Great Awakening, I don’t see much stopping the rise of pluralism, the real threat to Christian identity and teaching.
No matter what happens on election day, Christians should remember:
1. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven first – The old hymn “I’m But A Stranger Here, Heav’n is My Home,” has it right. While it certainly matters who is elected (I’m not naive), it matters only for this world, which will come to an end. [Insert joke here if candidate x is elected the world will come to an end.] In all seriousness, our king is Jesus and His kingdom is eternal. We are electing government leaders only for this present time.
2. There is no candidate who is the last hope for Christianity. And there is no candidate who will preserve Christianity. That job is already taken by the One who reigns over heaven and earth. Jesus promised the gates of hell cannot prevail against His Church, I doubt very seriously a political party will fare any better.
3. No political party is clearly on the side of righteousness. By their very existence, political parties choose one side or the other in an issue, and usually for the sake of power, not righteousness. Christians must affirm what is good, challenge what is lacking, and denounce what is evil. (HT – Trevin Wax). That’s a really good way to put it and both sides have some pretty serious holes.
4. Be faithful and repentant. Look at Daniel. He was an exile in a foreign land and yet remained faithful. The Lord will give us opportunities to be faithful. And remember His hand still influences the destiny of nations. Israel became unfaithful often and the Lord’s raised up nations to discipline them back. Remember that Christian teaching suggests the equivalence today is not biblical Israel to the United States, but rather biblical Israel to the Christian Church. It’s most likely time for the Church to return to the Lord, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
5. It is a Christian’s duty to vote. Do your duty. And remember God can, and historically has, used unbelievers to bless His people.
Note: what follows is an adaptation of an outline written in Concordia Pulpit Resources this quarter by my friend and colleague, Dr. Korey Maas, who’s now a history professor at Hillsdale College.
There is very little that’s surprising to us in this parable from Jesus today. Like a fable from Aesop, the moral of the story is clearly and simply stated by the one who tells the parable, lest one risk misinterpreting here. Unlike Aesop, Luke’s explanation comes not at the end but is presented up front, right at the beginning: the Christian “ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Again, this is not a surprise to us. We’re familiar with other Scriptures encouraging us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) But the context of this this parable and the persistent temptation it speaks to, serve to emphasize our need of continually hearing both the Law and the Gospel reiterated for us today. We can be assured that rather than lose heart, we can pray with confidence for God’s justice.
I mentioned a persistent temptation among us and that temptation is to lose heart. Our Gospel reading today speaks specifically to this anxiety among us about the end of all things. We have to go back to the previous chapter to see the context but Jesus tells this parable this morning in response to a question from the Pharisees when they ask, “When will the kingdom of God come?” (17:20) And Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed. And even to the disciples Jesus then says, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man and you will not see it.” (17:22) The Pharisees want to see the day of the coming kingdom. The disciples want to see it too. My guess is most, if not all of you want to see that day come as well. Believers look on the world as it is and see all the places where the kingdom of God has not yet come, where God’s ideal has not been realized. Even unbelievers recognize there is no justice and see it as proof that God is either not strong enough or good enough and therefore, if He exists at all, is not worth trusting. Waiting for the kingdom of God to come cause us some real anxiety and can tempt us to lose heart.
We see nothing but hints of the coming end of all things. “Wars and rumors of wars,” nations rising against other nations, “famines, earthquakes.” Perhaps we can add broken political systems and broken government to that list. In the midst of these kinds of rips in the fabric of the good creation, we’re encouraged to continue to pray as we’re taught, “Thy kingdom come”—and yet it feels like we pray to no avail; God’s kingdom has still not yet come.
Injustice is everywhere and our daily experience of it as we wait for Christ to come and set all things right will further tempt us to cease praying and to lose heart. The example Jesus gives is this widow who has to persistently petition the judge, “Give me justice!” So, add to all of that international and national tension we just mentioned, a daily ring-side view of injustice. Why won’t the insurance company pay? They paid last time. How could she possibly have lung cancer, she’s never smoked? How can the judge have possibly decided to let the children stay with him? We can be like the widow here asking the Lord to give us justice, for a change. It is difficult not to lose heart.
And nevertheless, we can still pray with confidence because of God promise to answer injustice with justice.
The widow in Jesus’ parable understood this well. She certainly knows injustice. She has experienced it, even from the very person who is supposed to be dishing it out. But this judge neither fears God nor respects man. By the way, this might seem like a description of impartiality to our modern secular world but this phrase, “neither fearing God nor respecting men,” is a mark of an evil person. So, this judge has not done what he is supposed to do and yet the widow keeps coming, keeps bothering, we might say badgering him with her case until the very act of her coming to him, pressing him to make her case right, forces the judge to act. She doesn’t despair. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. And so she squeaks and squeaks and squeaks until the judge decides her case. And Jesus uses her as a positive example here. If an unrighteous, let’s just call him what he is, if an unfair, bought judge knows how to dispense justice, at least eventually, how much greater then, your heavenly Father who has promised you to make it right!
Certainly, God will give justice to His own, to His elect. “I tell you, he will give them justice speedily.” The problem remains that we still don’t know when, or I should say how much longer things will be without God dispensing justice. But God has promised at act. God’s promise that he will act doesn’t allow for doubt that He will act or even despair that He hasn’t yet acted. The woman kept coming to a judge who had not promised to act. How much more confident then, can we be to bring our requests to the righteous Judge who has promised to answer. This is why we pray.
I had a conversation this week about this very question, why should Christians bother to pray? God already knows what we need. Right? So why pray? We pray firstly because God tells us to pray. God tells us to ask of Him like a child asks of his or her father. God delights to hear our prayers. So that’s the first reason. The second is because in praying, we are aligning ourselves with God’s will. Just think back to the Small Catechism’s explanations about the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy kingdom come.” “The kingdom of God certainly comes even without our prayer but we pray in this petition that it may come among us also.” In another place Luther boldly described prayer as rubbing God’s promises in His ears. That’s certainly the impression we get from the widow in Jesus’ parable today and why we can pray with confidence in God’s promised justice.
God’s sure promise is that he will give justice. This is what the widow is praying for. But if we are to pray confidently in God’s justice, we need to pray not in the way of the Law but in the way of the Gospel. I know that a legal view of justice would be some measure of fairness or even giving what one deserves. Luther struggled with this idea of God’s justice. If this is the way God deals with sinners, sinners deserve condemnation from a fair God. But Luther rejoiced to discover again that God’s justice is bigger than that. God’s justice is His work to justify sinners, to make broken, imperfect people right with Him through the mercy of Jesus on the cross. The widow prays, give me justice. To pray this prayer aright is to pray, give me not what I deserve, or what I think I’ve earned but give me that justice that Christ has earned for me. Give me what You’ve promised, O Lord, solely on account of Christ Jesus.
The temptation, and I know it well, is to see things not through God’s eye, through the cross of Christ, but through our own eyes where justice delayed is justice denied. Though the fullness of God’s kingdom has not yet come, the justice of God has been give already, on the cross. And as we participate in the feast of His kingdom, the kingdom comes for you in this foretaste. Don’t lose heart, dear saints of God. Your prayers are heard and answered. The righteous judge has already fulfilled His promise, and He will continue give justice. It’s a promise. Amen.
A number of people have asked how I use Doberstein’s A Minister’s Prayer Book. The book typically comes with a ribbon marker and that’s it. I use that ribbon marker in the lectionary section. I also just took a sticky bookmark tab and marked the psalms table.
So the first hack then is a bookmark for daily use. Doberstein has material for morning, noon, and evening prayer, and in the introduction, he’s written a suggested order for each of those times (viii). I simply made a quarter-fold paper with each of the three orders on it as well as the order of meditation (xvii) on the fourth section. You can see a copy of the one I made in the pdf file here.
The only remaining thing then is how to navigate the anthology on a daily basis. Because they are divided up by days, I simply made a series of seven bookmarks with the days of the week on them. You can see examples in the photos. I then know on Weds, say, I can turn to the Weds bookmark and read from there.
I hope this helps.
This is the latest on our Sunday morning class.
And the slides. Enjoy.
Heavenly Host, 2016
“The Power of the Gospel Delivered”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is the third sermon in this series, the Power of the Gospel. We’ve already heard how the Gospel has the power to save and in its saving reorders our lives by its power. Today the same major theme applies, the power of the Gospel, specifically, the power of the gospel delivered.
You may or may not think of it this way, but the pastor, specifically the pastor in the act of preaching is delivering the gospel. Most everyone here knows that Lutheran Christians insist on the external and objective justification of the sinner before God on account of Christ Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus died on the cross to bestow forgiveness on sinners, on us. That’s the Good News. As we heard in the first message I preached in this series, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. No other message has the power to free a sinner from the chains of sin. Certainly not any of the false gospels “do your best and God does the rest” or anything less than the free and full forgiveness of Jesus’ death on the cross. In our Lutheran confessions, Article IV of the Augsburg Confession puts it clearly and succinctly, “It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith,
2 when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That’s the singularly powerful message of the Gospel. Paul knew it which is why his letters to the Romans and Galatians are so precisely clear about all this. From Romans 4, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” That’s it.
But there’s another Lutheran distinctive besides our insistence on the clear word of the Gospel and it’s clearly biblical because it’s the subject of Paul’s letter to Timothy we hear this morning about overseers and deacons. These people are charged with the administration of the Gospel. Immediately after Article IV in the Augsburg Confession is Article V, which reads, “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments.
2 Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.
The God who acts powerfully to save and reorders our lives in the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, also provides for the administering of this Good News into the ears of those He saves. I’m not sure we really think about faith in this way. We think of it as far more mysterious, far more mystical. We think of faith as something like an Indiana Jones movie, were people have to slogging through swamps and hacking through jungles to ancient temples to find the real deal. But God doesn’t play tricks on us like that. The Gospel is not hidden away. The singularly powerful message that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners is proclaimed from this pulpit every week. God has instituted it. He has called a man to proclaim His powerful, saving Word to His people. God has acted to save and to ensure the saving message is proclaimed.
But people being people, what do we do? Are we here to listen to that message or for some other mix of motives? Why do we operate the school? Is it for the sake of the Gospel or is it for some other set of reasons? I ask these rather pointed questions because they are in the front of my mind these days. We’ve had three installations of new pastors in our circuit this summer and the fourth is today at Trinity in Columbia. And every time I go to an installation I hear these words about the Gospel and the office of the Holy Ministry and these very words from chapter three of First Timothy are read. And the new pastor makes his vows and the congregation makes their vows to want to hear the Gospel. And I think it’s a good thing we do this because it doesn’t always work out.
Sometimes it’s the pastor. He cannot live up to what’s required of him in this office for whatever reason, many of them not his fault. After nineteen years, I’ve seen many of the brothers I went to seminary with undone by factors beyond their control, and of course it’s just as bad if they succumb to their own weaknesses too. But more often, the case has been the congregation who say they seek a pastor, a Gospel office man, and yet they want very little to do with the Gospel. These congregations are not built on the foundation of the Gospel but are more like civic organizations that have an array of activities but can’t be bothered to attend to the Gospel message. A sad story that stays with me was about a church that had a supper club that met on Thursdays and when that holiest of Thursdays rolled around they decided to continue to meet rather than attend the Divine Service. And they didn’t even understand why their pastor was shocked.
What do we expect of our pastors? I’m including myself in this because I need a pastor too. Eugene Peterson is a pastor and scholar I’ve turned to for years. His many books and articles have served as a surrogate mentor pastor for me because mentor pastors are harder to come by than you might think. He tells a story that is particularly appropriate to our discussion this morning.
A number of years ago, I injured my knee. According to my self-diagnosis, I knew all it needed was some whirlpool treatments. In my college years we had a whirlpool in the training room, and I had considerable experience with its effectiveness in treating my running injuries as well as making me feel good. In my present community, the only whirlpool was at the physical therapist’s office. I called to make an appointment. He refused; I had to have a doctor’s prescription.
I called an orthopedic physician, went in for an examination (this was getting more complicated and expensive than I had planned), and found he wouldn’t give me the prescription for the whirlpool. He said it wasn’t the proper treatment for my injury. He recommended surgery. I protested: a whirlpool certainly can’t do any harm, and it might do some good. His refusal was adamantine. He was a professional. His primary commitment was to some invisible abstraction called health, healing. He was not committed to satisfying my requests. His integrity, in fact, forbade him to satisfy my requests if they encroached on his primary commitment.
I have since learned that with a little shopping around, I could have found a doctor who would have given me the prescription I wanted.
The connection is clear in my mind, most of the time anyway. We should insist that our pastors not merely give us what we want or even what we think we need, but that they be committed to the Gospel which is one thing and is not so many other things. It’s a noble task to bring others into great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Peterson goes on in the article to ask these rather pointed questions. “Is our talk of citizenship in a kingdom of God anything that can be construed as the “real world”? Or are we passing on a spiritual fiction analogous to the science fictions that fantasize a better world than we will ever live in? Is pastoral work mostly a matter of putting plastic flowers in people’s drab lives-well-intentioned attempts to brighten a bad scene, not totally without use, but not real in any substantive or living sense?”
The answer to these questions is the singularly power message of the Gospel. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I realize in the drab world these words can sound like just words but because they are proclaimed by the power of the Holy Spirit they are not just words, they are “justifying” words, saving words.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to save us, to save you. He has done it. Amen.
 Tappert, 30.
 Tappert, 31.
 This story appeared in Peterson’s article “Lashed to the Mast” in an issue of Leadership Journal, Winter, 1996.