The following is a sermon delivered on 25 October 2015 at the ordination service of James Thomas, a son of Hope Ev. Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO, and now ordained and installed as Associate Pastor at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, Bridgeton, MO (where the service took place). The text is the selected Gospel reading for the service, Matthew 9:35-38.
Contrary to popular opinion—that’s all of us gathered here this afternoon—today is not about soon-to-be Pastor James Thomas. Oh, yes, it’s sheer joy when the Lord of the Church takes a man—by the scruff of the neck—plants the seeds of theological training in him at seminary, and then—again by the scruff of the neck—places him into this holy office. Oh, yes, it’s great joy when the Lord of the Church answers the prayers of His faithful congregation and places a fellow sinner in her midst to proclaim and live out the joys of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus. But still, this day is not about James. Not primarily.
Today is about Jesus, the Lord of the Church. You see, the Lord Jesus Himself absolutely loves to go through cities and villages, teaching the Truth, proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing diseases and afflictions. The Lord Jesus absolutely loves to send out men to do exactly what He Himself does. He told His Twelve Apostles, “Proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:7-8). Later, He also sent out 72 other men, saying, “Heal the sick…and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Lk. 10:9). He even gave them this promise: “The one who hears you hears Me” (Lk. 10:16). Today is all about Jesus—and by extension His laborer and His harvest. You see, Jesus still absolutely loves to go through all the world—including here in Bridgeton—and proclaim the kingdom, and heal our diseases and afflictions. And He does it through the men, the laborers, whom He sends out.
Dear saints at Beautiful Savior, you have prayed to the Lord of the harvest for a laborer. And look at whom He has sent you! 🙂 I hate to break it to you, but he’s no spiritual Superman. He’s no church version of Captain America. No pastor is. He brings no magic elixir for fixing whatever ails you, either as individuals or as a congregation. He carries no silver bullets for filling pews or increasing giving. No, he’s very much like Isaiah, when the Lord called him. There was Isaiah, taking in the glorious vision of the Lord on His throne and the angels flying around, singing heaven’s song of “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts” (Is. 6:3). And what did Isaiah confess? “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5).
Brothers and sisters in Christ, whom are you getting here today? You’re getting a fellow sinner—a “man of unclean lips.” You’re getting a man who has the same kinds of faults and foibles, sins and stumblings, trials and temptations, as you. But you are also getting a man who has been redeemed, forgiven, covered and strengthened by the blood of Jesus. You are getting a man who has been washed clean in his Baptism. You are getting a man who must confess his sins and live only by the word of Jesus’ Absolution. You are getting a man whose faith is shored up and strengthened by the Body and Blood of Jesus in His Supper. And so, dear saints, your task—given by Jesus Himself here today—is to receive and love and listen to this man, this laborer of the Lord, in your midst.
And James, take a good look at where the Lord is placing you as He places you into His Office. 🙂 I hate to break it to you, but these are not perfect Christians; this is not a perfect congregation. There are no perfect congregations and there are no perfect Christians, this side of eternal life. Remember Isaiah’s words: “I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” There may be times when some—a few or many or an individual here and there—may “not endure sound teaching.” There may be times when some—a few or many or an individual now and then—may give in to their “itching ears” and want to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
But, James, they are still people of the Lord Jesus—still covered and forgiven by His blood, still baptized by Him, still absolved by Him, still fed and nourished on His Body and Blood. And so St. Paul’s words to young Pastor Timothy are perfect words for you too: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 2:2). Your task, James—given by Jesus Himself, here today—is to receive them, love them, and give them Jesus in all of your preaching and teaching and visiting. Your task is to pray for them and with them. Your task is to shepherd them with the only tools that Jesus has given—His Word and His Sacraments.
It’s what our risen Lord Jesus also sent Peter to do. Remember how Peter had denied Jesus three times before Jesus went to the Cross. After Jesus had risen, He both absolved Peter and gave him a new mission in life, spoken three times: “Feed My lambs…Tend My sheep…Feed My sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17). Your task—given by Jesus Himself, right here, right now, today—is “to know nothing among [this flock] except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Today really is all about Jesus, the Lord of the harvest. As He said, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” Saints of our Beautiful Savior, you have prayed. And the Lord has graciously answered! Here’s another laborer—this one, just for you. Also pay attention to the Lord’s language. This man is the Lord’s laborer, and he works in the Lord’s harvest.
The Lord’s laborer does the Lord’s work. The pastor does not run a business that happens to have the word “church” on the sign out front. No, he does what the Lord wants Him to do: he teaches the Truth, proclaims the Gospel of the kingdom, and gives the healing of Jesus for diseases and afflictions of body and soul. That’s the compassion that Jesus had for the crowds. It’s the same compassion that the pastor—the Lord’s laborer—has for his flock. You see, James, when you labor the way the Lord gives you to labor, HE is actually the one doing the work through you.
The Lord’s laborer works for the Lord’s harvest. Did you notice how Jesus calls it “his harvest”? It’s not the pastor’s harvest. It’s not the Christian’s harvest. It’s not even the Church’s harvest. The harvest belongs to the Lord. Remember how St. Paul said it: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). And the Lord Jesus gives the harvest.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed this Biblical teaching quite well when he preached of Christ building His Church:
It is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess—He builds. We must proclaim—He builds. We must pray to Him—that He may build
We do not know His plan. We cannot see whether He is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for Him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.
It is a great comfort which Christ gives to His Church: you confess, preach, bear witness to Me and I alone will build where it pleases Me. Do not meddle in what is My province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t ask for judgments. Don’t always be calculating what will happen. Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord; from His grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds. (No Rusty Swords, 216-17.)
So, saints of our Beautiful Savior, you have prayed, the Lord has answered, and you now have a new laborer. James, the Lord has put you here to labor for His end-time harvest, doing the very things that He Himself did and still does. Amid all the joys of this day, amid all the celebrating and rejoicing and giving thanks, still remember this: Today is really all about Jesus—showing His compassion, shepherding His flock, and working His own harvest. Amen.