I had the distinct honor of officiating and preaching at the Monday Matins Service at our 2007 Missouri District Pastors' Conference (21-23 October, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Jefferson City, MO). The conference theme is "Pastor, Who Do You Think You Are?" and shows the focus of the two main presenters as they present, dialog, and answer questions from brother pastors on the identity and work of the Office of the Ministry. Here's my humble exhortation to tackle the issues of the Pastoral Office with God's gifts of humility and charity. (The clip art shown here is what we on the Planning Committee chose as our "logo" for Conference materials.)
Exhortation to "Calvary Love"
Acts 20:17-18, 28-32
St. Paul sure knew how to plan and conduct a pastors’ conference! Even in the midst of his hurried journey to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem and deliver famine relief to the saints there, he takes time out to meet with his brothers in Office from Ephesus. And they gladly take time out of their hectic schedules of tending their flocks to meet with the Apostle and chief-missionary to the Gentiles. What a great message we pastors hear from the Apostle! What great love and support among clergy we can see in the Pastors’ Conference at Miletus in AD 56.
But before we unpack the Apostles’ exhortations, let’s back up for some context. It’s his third missionary journey, and St. Paul continues to proclaim Christ crucified and risen for the life of the world to any and all he can. When he arrives in Ephesus, he encounters some who have never heard of the Holy Spirit, and he baptizes them “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (19:5). He then enters the synagogue in Ephesus to speak boldly, “reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (19:8). Some gladly hear him and receive the message of Christ crucified and risen for sinners. Others, though, become stubborn and slander “the Way.”
Soon after, St. Paul’s Gospel preaching results in a great disturbance in Ephesus. Those who sell religious goods and services for “the great goddess Artemis” – a grand and successful enterprise, to be sure – fear that she will soon “be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence” (19:27). The Christian message routinely overthrows the gods of the culture. The abundant life in Christ is simply incompatible with – and infinitely better than – commonly accepted spiritualities. So, St. Paul has to leave Ephesus, but only after he trains and appoints presbyters, or pastors, to preach the Christ in Ephesus.
After some time in Macedonia and Greece, St. Paul begins his return journey to Jerusalem. Now we return to our text. St. Paul’s words to his brother clergy gathered in Miletus are sage words for us gathered here in Jefferson City. St. Paul reminds them and us how he had served “with all humility and with tears and with trials.” That’s a universe apart from the triumphalistic, success-driven talk we hear so much today! Let us pray our gracious Lord to give us the same humility that waits upon Him and His gracious working, the same tears of repentance that water the seeds of His Gospel, and the same trials that drive us to rely on Him rather than on ourselves and our strategies.
Then the Apostle gives some necessary exhortation. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.” Heed how you live and what you teach, you pastors. Be careful how and what you study and preach, how you live and interact with the flock that God has given you. And, yes, pay careful attention to your flock. You see, that flock is not yours to do with as you please, he says. As he tells the Ephesian pastors and us: “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” That congregation, that circuit, that district, is not some grand opportunity for you to put your dashing personality or pious skills on display for all to see and admire. It doesn’t really matter if you think your skills are leadership-driven and “missional,” or if you fancy your leanings to be staunchly conservative and confessional. That flock is God’s flock; those blood-bought sheep belong to Him. He wants you to tend them as He tends them: with humility, with self-sacrificing love. After all, our Savior did not spare His own blood on behalf of the flock, and He poured out His healing blood to reconcile enemies.
Then the Apostle gives a stark warning. “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Yes, watch out for the wolves – wolves from without and wolves from within. St. John Chyrsostom explained it this way: “Look, not only does he mention ‘wolves’ but adds ‘fierce,’ thereby hinting at their excess and recklessness. Even worse, he says that these wolves will arise from among themselves. This is exceedingly difficult to bear, since it is also a civil war” (ACCS, Acts, 254).
And just who are these wolves that arise “from among your own selves”? What is the civil war of which Chrysostom speaks? Just look around here this morning. To paraphrase the 20th century comic strip character Pogo: “We have seen the wolves, and they are us.” How many of us are here to see a “battle royale” between our two presenters? Theological discussion and debate are certainly good, as long as they lead us more and more into the Truth and Love of our Savior God, and into His gift of love for one another. But how many of us have chosen our side and want to “stick it” to the other? How many of us plan to rejoice in points made that resonate with our position, but will certainly stir and grumble with points that don’t?
And what shall we say about the ways in which we act like wolves with our brothers in Office? One hears of pastors asked to resign their calls because they are not “effective leaders,” or merely because some in the congregation may be unrepentantly upset with their pastor. One hears of congregations that do their “mission work” right in the back yard of a sister congregation. One hears of brothers who say, “I cannot commune with Brother ‘So-and-So’; he’s on the ‘other side.’” But then there’s that dirty little secret: we already commune with each other every time we celebrate the Supper in our own congregations. We can also think of how we delight in welcoming members, most likely disgruntled, from a sister flock – whether it’s innovative and “missional” or confessional and traditional. Some of us cause great stumbling by adopting and adapting worship that’s Pentecostal in style and substance. Others of us cause great stumbling by using our Confessions and the Church’s liturgy as a weapon against our brothers, instead of a weapon against the devil, the world, and our own sinful pride. Some of us use our Lord’s “Great Commission” as license to institute various innovations and excitements, as well as a club to use on those who don’t. Others of us grow cold to our Lord’s mission in the name of righteousness by doctrinal purity. Some of us sure seem to worship the mission more than we worship the Holy Trinity, while others of us fiercely defend our own position at the expense of bringing lost sinners into the very life and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My brothers, these things should not be. We have met the wolves, and they are us! So, as St. Paul says elsewhere, “if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15).
Instead of consuming each other, let’s repent, one and all. After all, that is where we will find our comfort, our hope, and our unity as overseers of God’s flock. As St. Paul tells the Ephesian pastors, he also tells us: “Now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” We certainly want to capitalize and personalize that word “Word.” St. Paul commends us to the Word – the Logos – made flesh. Jesus Christ is the “Word of God’s grace.” He poured out His innocent blood to reconcile us who are at enmity with each other. His cosmic victory over sin, death, and Satan, handily overcomes our little civil wars. His humility in death conquers our arrogant pride. His glorious life resuscitates us to love Him and one other. And He – the crucified and risen Shepherd of the sheep – is able to build us up in His eternal love and give us His inheritance of mercy, grace, and mutual love.
In 1945 Pastor Berthold von Schenk called this love of Christ “the Calvary Love.” He also said that we find this love at the Altar. This Altar-centered love is the true source and shape of the Church’s mission. I’ll let Pr. von Schenk have the last word:
At the Altar is the cresset where we get our fire of the Calvary Love. How this love is needed! We have lost much of it. We have to invent all kinds of methods to attract the people. We must advertise, we must entertain. Why? Because the Church has lost its way to the Altar it has also lost its way into the heart of the world. For the pure love of Calvary alone can save the world. It is that love for which the world is aching. But we must first recapture it ourselves.
Let us find the reality of Calvary, of love, by the way of the Altar. There we can again touch the wounds of Christ; and by touching the wounds of Christ, we shall touch the wounds of the world” (The Presence, 91).