It is true that proclaiming the Word of the Lord and pronouncing the forgiveness of sin on others are tasks given to all the baptized according to Luther. Early on in his ministry he told the people of Wittenberg that in his first epistle, chapter 2, verse 9, Peter had equated “you are a royal priesthood” with “you are Christians.” He then explained to the people of Wittenberg what it meant that God had called them and appointed them priests, namely, they were to proclaim God’s wonderful deeds that brought them out of darkness into the light and delivered them from all evils (LW 30: 64-65).
Nearly two decades later, in 1540 while preaching on John 20:21-22, he told the Wittenberg congregation on the basis of his doctrine of God’s Word, “This same commandment [“I send you as my father has sent me”] I give to you unto the end of the world, that both you and all the world shall know that such forgiveness or retention of sin is not done by human power or might, but by the command of him who is sending you. This is not said alone to the ministers or the servants of the church but also to every Christian. Here each may serve the other in the hour of death, or wherever there is need, and give him absolution. If you now hear from me the words, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ then you hear that God wants to be gracious to you, deliver you from sin and death and make you righteous and blessed.”
Luther knew most of his hearers would not have the opportunities he had to share God’s Word. He knew they did not have the training with which God had blessed him, even if they may have had insights from which he could learn. He knew he had been called to his office and taken an oath as, “Teacher of the Church” [actually “Doctor in Biblia”—Teacher of the Bible]. He recognized if his hearers were to bring God’s Word to family, friends, and others, they needed his guidance and instruction. He also treasured his calling to the spiritual responsibility of teaching, and he prized the office of pastor, taking great pleasure in receiving absolution from the pastor of Wittenberg’s town church, Johannes Bugenhagen. He regularly preached and pronounced absolution as Bugenhagen’s helper in Saint Mary’s congregation. Those sermons delivered both law and gospel in ways he believed his hearers could imitate in their own testimony and confession of the faith.
Pastors and guest preachers like me have public responsibilities to bring God’s Word to His people. Preachers do this not only to build up the faith of their hearers but also to urge and inspire them to carry the message further in the following week. Preachers also plant ideas and cultivate skills for effective Christian witness in their lives. Those who proclaim not only deliver the goods to their hearers; they also motivate them to confess their faith in all the corners of their daily life and provide them with the tools to do so. Like parents, preachers prepare those whom God has set before them in the worship service for life outside the church home. In the Large Catechism’s explanation of the Fourth Commandment, Luther emphasized that pastors do play the role of father to their congregations. “The name of spiritual father belongs only to those who govern and guide us by the Word of God. Saint Paul boasts that he is such a father in 1 Corinthians 4, where he says, ‘In Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel.’” This recognizes an essential element in God’s calling to the Office of the Public Ministry. Governance and guidance of other kinds may be requested by the people of God and even imposed on pastors by their congregation. But the central and overriding responsibility to which God calls pastors is the responsibility to make God’s Law and His Gospel come alive and work their life-changing effect on God’s flock.
The central and overriding responsibility to which God calls pastors is the responsibility to make God’s Law and His Gospel come alive and work their life-changing effect on God’s flock.
As in Luther’s day, God has called preachers of the Word to the calling of playing special roles in the life of the people in their congregation. Pastors are indeed appointed to equip the saints for their service (Ephesians 4:12) in the world outside the community of the congregation, but they are more than quartermasters who supply and equip. Their service extends beyond those vital functions to being in the front lines of engagement with those outside the faith—to involvement in the cultivation of the faith of those to whom members of the congregation are confessing their faith. Often that witness takes place better without a clergyman hovering over the conversation. But at some point our people will need pastoral presence and reinforcement. The ministry of pastors embraces service in the full range of activities which convey God’s Word and bring both law and gospel to pass in the lives of hearers. The sermon reaffirms the identity of believers as righteous children of God, as do absolution and the Lord’s Supper. It also equips hearers to give witness to their faith throughout the week.
The pulpit is not the ideal place from which we introduce those outside the faith to faith in Christ and the life we practice together. That happens best in personal conversation on the basis of personal example. But the sermon does cultivate the entire life lived as those whom God pronounces righteous, and that life includes giving witness to our Lord to those who do not know Him and are still outside the Church. The preacher creates proclaimers, sharers of Christ’s mysteries, by sharing his own expressions of the secrets of salvation with his hearers. This means they rely on their parishioners to pull them into certain places in their community where they would not be welcome without the trusted lay person who can build a bridge into lives so alienated from God and church that pastors would never gain their hearing without a trusted intermediary.
But the sermon does cultivate the entire life lived as those whom God pronounces righteous, and that life includes giving witness to our Lord to those who do not know Him and are still outside the Church.
As the Church returns ever more to the apostolic situation of taking a missionary stance in every congregation, it is important for the pastor-father of Christ’s body to recognize the differing expectations we can have as parents to adult children and to smaller children. A friend who fathered a large family once said, “It is easier to have ten kids than two.” I later mentioned that statement to one of the older children in the family, and he replied, “I changed more diapers before I was eighteen than I have since.” Pastors must be prepared to hand over some parts of the spiritual care and the sharing of God’s Word to those in the congregation of mature faith. We must also be sensitive to the fact that sometimes spiritually adult believers can regress to childish dispositions at times, but we must be willing to let the Word go about its work in all the members of Christ’s body appropriate to their gifts and opportunities. Pastors must also recognize how both adult confirmands and adolescent confirmands may experience up-and-down times along the journey and move from being able to give others spiritual care to needing care themselves. They will most likely be turned from moments of immaturity to the potential of greater maturity again. There are also times at which the mature children care for the infirm pastor, whose challenges seem overwhelming and whose doubts may not differ much at all from those which these mature children have also experienced.
In a society that has lost its moorings, evils with a large variety of forms and shapes capture people around us day in and day out. None of us has the experience or even access to enable either pastor or people to make all the contacts that are opening in the communities where the Holy Spirit has planted His outposts. Neither preacher alone nor people alone can carry out God’s commission to gather into His fold the sheep who have strayed into gulches and ravines unimaginable to many of us. Pastors and people are called to help each other understand how to make Christ’s life-changing love come alive in specific situations. It is not only from the vantage point of the pulpit that a person can sense the fulfilling satisfaction of delivering the goods, the benefits of Christ. The gift of new life through His death and resurrection, creates Christ’s children, all of whom are being sent with beautiful feet and beautiful tongue and lips to serve as the Lord’s hitmen and midwives. The preacher’s hearers carry out the same commission in their homes, on the job, in their neighborhoods, and among their friends and acquaintances.
We are all called to help each other find courage and develop skills so those who have strayed far from their Creator may experience in our words and works the presence of their Lord and Savior. The whole Church, all of God’s people, have been commissioned to turn the estranged into disciples by delivering God’s call for repentance and His gift of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. To that end, the Lord gives a variety of gifts, a large collection of skills, and an often-curious mixture of opportunities, so that through all the members of His body He may speak life and salvation into His world.