THE MINISTRY IS SERIOUS BUSINESS!
- It proclaims a serious message
- It requires serious humility
Based on Luke 17:1-10
“So, Pastor, what are you going to do to grow this church?” The new pastor was a bit surprised to receive this question from a member of his new congregation on his first Sunday. He sensed a presumption in the question that he was supposed to have some kind of silver bullet or magic formula that would make the ministry flourish there. In light of what he sensed, he answered this practical question with a theological answer. “What are you going to do to grow this church?” The pastor responded, “Preach the gospel!”
Setting aside any assumptions about silver bullets and magic formulas, it certainly isn’t inappropriate to be thinking about the ministry today, especially as we begin our relationship together as pastor and congregation. I would imagine that when I arrived at my previous congregations, people had their own questions. What was my ministry going to look like? What kind of pastor would I be? Would the kind of pastor I would be line up with their expectations or hopes? Those questions are fair questions. They were fair questions for people to ask five and fifteen years ago when I arrived at my two previous parishes. They were fair questions thirteen years ago when Pastor Helwig arrived at Crown of Life. And they are fair questions this weekend as your newly installed pastor begins his ministry to this congregation.
This is a natural occasion for us to think about the ministry. In the Gospel for this week, Jesus’ words contain helpful thoughts as we begin our ministry together as new associate pastor and congregation. Even though Jesus wasn’t speaking directly about the ministry in Luke 17, we’ll find a good deal of direction and encouragement about the ministry in these verses. Today’s Gospel teaches us that the ministry is serious business. It’s serious business because the ministry proclaims a serious message, and it requires serious humility.
Let’s revisit the first part of today’s Gospel: “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.’” Jesus cuts right to the chase: The ministry has a serious message, and the first major component of that message is addressed in these verses. Sin is going to happen. Temptations that cause people to become tripped up and entangled in sin—thoughts and words and actions that violate the perfect will of God—these are simply reality in a sinful world. You can’t eradicate sin from this world any more than you can eradicate mosquitoes from Wisconsin!
But that doesn’t mean we should treat sin lightly. Jesus said that the person who promotes and encourages sin is seriously messing with God. I can’t think of too many situations where someone would say it would be better to die than to do “x,” “y,” or “z.” But Jesus says a person would be better off drowning than dragging a little child into sin.
When we come to grips with the fact that we have a sinful nature in us that defaults to doing the wrong thing, and when we come to grips with Jesus’ harsh warning about sin in these verses, we’ll realize the importance of the responses to sin that Jesus gives here. “Watch yourselves,” Jesus says. Be on constant guard against anything that would drag you away from God. But also be constantly aware of the need to rescue others who are being drawn away from God. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Confronting the sinner is serious business. So is consoling the repentant sinner. Jesus serious ministry message doesn’t only tell us to rebuke; it also encourages us to forgive. And the Savior who literally gave his all for us on the cross to win our forgiveness tells us that there is no situation, not even in the case of repeated offenses on the same day, when a Christian would withhold forgiveness from a repentance sinner.
In some ways, everything we’ve heard so far is familiar territory. Jesus’ words are as “Lutheran” as they come—sin and forgiveness, law and gospel. But from another perspective, Jesus’s words are overwhelming. It’s better to die violently than to tempt another? We are called to forgive someone who offends us every hour of the workday? I know that in my head, but my heart can have a hard time with that. No wonder Jesus’ apostles responded to his serious ministry message the way they did: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”
The apostles’ prayer was urgent: “Increase our faith!” But is it possible that they were navel-gazing a bit? If they looked at themselves and their personal ability to avoid sin or to forgive generously, they would (and should!) have their doubts. But faith is not rooted in self. Faith is rooted and built in the promises of God. Taking a cue from Jesus’ words, if God were to say to you that you could command a tree on this campus to toss itself into Lake Michigan, and you recognize that what God says is true, then of course it will happen! We misuse this passage if we think Jesus is writing a blank check that allows us to accomplish anything we want. That’s not faith; that’s just self-centered foolishness. But we’ll see Jesus’ point clearly when we understand that faith is in something; faith is built on something. Jesus hasn’t told us to verbally toss trees into the lake, but he has told us in his Word that when we confront sin or when we comfort repentant sinners, our words are as valid and sure as if Jesus himself were speaking them. So trusting in the power and promise of God’s Word, we are enabled to rebuke and forgive, relying on God’s promise to work in people’s hearts by the power of his Word that we proclaim.
When you hear Jesus explain the serious message of the ministry, and you see the disciples’ overwhelmed response, “Increase our faith!” do you find yourself reacting the same way? Or is there a part of us that hears this familiar law-gospel message and says, “I know this already. Lord, increase my interest! Talk about something else.” I will not profess to know Crown of Life congregation very well at this point. A pastor who has barely started to learn some names cannot know the strengths and weaknesses of his congregation in less than a month. But even though we’re still getting to know one another, it’s probably safe to say that we can identify sinful tendencies in the Church at large pretty well. And the tendency to tire of this serious ministry message is alive and well in the Church today. We forget that God’s Word is not merely information for the head, but nutrition for the soul. If God’s message were just information, we’d download it into our brains and be done with it. But nutrition is not something we store away for reference; it’s something we need again and again for good health. When we diminish sin as a mere “oops,” or when we diminish Christ as the same old tired message, we’re telling God that we think his ministry message shouldn’t be taken seriously. And when we do that, the fate we deserve is worse than drowning in the sea. Our fate should be to be engulfed in the fires of hell.
But that’s when we see the beauty of the ministry’s serious message. The God who seriously condemns sin and the God who seriously warns us against trivializing his Word was equally serious about rescuing sinners and did not at all trivialize our need for rescue. The reason you can turn to your spouse or child or parent or friend and say, “I forgive you,” is because God has removed your sins through the sacrifice Jesus made for you and the world on the cross. The reason you can hear your pastor stand before you week after week and say, “I forgive you all your sins,” is because Jesus Christ took your sins on himself as he died, buried them in his tomb, and rose again to prove that in his resurrection you have the peace of forgiveness that leads us to praise the Lord. And in those times when you feel the ocean waves of guilt overwhelming your soul, Jesus takes you to the pages of his Word to comfort you with his forgiving love and to strengthen your faith with the assurance that what he did two thousand years ago outside Jerusalem, he did for you. That’s a serious message, but a seriously comforting and encouraging message!
Within a half hour of our house phone line going live, we received our first phone call—a political survey. You can’t miss the fact that we are in “election mode” as a nation right now. As you watch the current campaigns play out, have you noticed how often the candidates trumpet their achievements and success? Whether it’s the candidate you favor or not, they are out to impress you with their resumé and convince you of the many reasons they think you should vote for them.
Should we expect that from our ministers? “Support me because I’ll connect with people and get our church to grow!” “Support me because I have a great track record of leading churches to pursue excellence that will resonate in the community!” In the final section of the Gospel, Jesus describes the attitude he wants all Christians, especially those who serve in the ministry, to exhibit—and it doesn’t quite match up with what we’ve come to expect from candidates for office. Jesus said, “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
The servant in Jesus’ illustration doesn’t expect special recognition or treatment. He doesn’t expect a dinner break before serving dinner to his lord. That servant demonstrates the humble servant’s heart that Jesus wants from all his people, and certainly from those who serve in the ministry. In modern terms, the serious humility required in the ministry should lead ministers to simply say, “I’m just doing my job,” as they carry out the Church’s ministry.
The ministry requires serious humility from those who serve the Church, but it’s easy to forgo that kind of humility in the ministry. Pastors stand up in front of the same crowd of people week after week and talk for 20 minutes without anyone interrupting them! Could that go to a person’s head? Absolutely! And so Jesus’ encouragement is important not just for the man in the pulpit. His encouragement is also important for the people in the pews, that they also view their ministers in a humble manner. After all, Crown of Life was never Schneidervan’s church, and it’s not Helwig’s church, and it’s not about to become Strey’s church. It is Jesus’ Church. We come to Jesus’ house. We come here to hear Jesus’ Word. We gather at this altar to receive Jesus’ Holy Supper.
When you see a judge wearing his black academic robe, or when you see a police officer in his blue uniform, or when you see a serviceman in his military garb, you know that that person does not represent himself. The unique clothing each of them wears says that they represent something other than themselves.
Around the fifth century, after Christianity was legalized and worship was no longer an underground experience, Christians “borrowed” the official garb of the Roman court and adopted it as the official garb for its ministers when they presided at worship. And though we are many centuries removed from the days when people wore a white alb (robe) like this around town, ministers continue wear these vestments today as a statement that they are representing something else. It’s not about them. They are merely mouthpieces—but mouthpieces of the CEO of the universe! That means the minister has no business inflating his own ego. That means that the members of a church will remember that the faithful minister is not there to speak his own ideas, but to speak the Word and will of God. And that means that ministers and members alike will view themselves with humility, recognizing that the ministry is serious business, not because we’re promoting a club, but rather because we are proclaiming the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is the third time I’ve preached a “first sermon.” On each occasion, I’ve been impressed with the fact that the regular readings that were pre-selected for that Sunday, long before I arrived, said something that applied well to the ministry. Today was no exception. We have much to think about and talk about and plan and execute now that Crown of Life has an expanded pastoral staff serving an ever-growing community, but the Word of God today helps us remember the absolute basics of the ministry that we dare not forget. This is serious business! Let us confidently proclaim the serious message of sin and grace that God has given us! Let us proclaim that message with serious humility, as those who realize that we too have been given the rescue from sin and the gift of heaven that Jesus now uses us to bring to others. God bless Crown of Life congregation as we carry out this serious business in his name! Amen.