Almost a year after entering the monastery, on May 2nd, Cantate Sunday, in the year 1507, Luther celebrated his first Mass. From the time he entered the monastery up until this point he was subject to a rigorous life of testing, devotion, and spiritual exercises. This whole time was designed for Luther to prove himself as a novice in the monastery. His sincerity, spiritual fervor, penitence, and moral character were put to the test day after day with prayer, fasting, scourging, and the reading of Scripture. And all of this was done so that he could finally be worthy enough to utter the words hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”) and hoc poculum est novum testamentum sanguinis mei (“this cup is the new testament of my blood”). Everything pressed towards this one climactic moment: sacrificing the mass.
Reflecting on his first Mass in 1533, seated around the table with some close friends, Luther remembered how angry and betrayed his father was at Luther’s becoming a monk (AE 54:109). In 1537, he further recalled how terrified he was to utter the words of the Mass (what we would call the Service of the Sacrament). He mused that as soon as he began to sing the Mass, terror gripped him so fiercely that he had to be consoled by a fellow monk to stay at the altar and continue. In reciting the words of the Eucharistic Prayer he remembered that he felt like Judas standing before the majesty of God without a mediator (AE 54:234). Again in 1539, Luther reflected on how uncertain he was at the time, feeling that he was a shame to both his earthly and his heavenly father (AE 54:354).
The question of worthiness would haunt Luther all his monastic days. Am I worthy to hold the very body and blood of Christ? Am I worthy to be in the presence of God? Am I worthy of this calling?
The question of worthiness also struck me when I was ordained into the Office of Holy Ministry. In the Lutheran church, when a candidate is ordained he’s seated in a chair in front of the entire congregation and there he remains for the first half of the service. In view of everyone, Scripture is read to him about the duties, responsibilities, and promises attached to the office of the ministry. He’s asked to vow before God and the congregation to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments, to be totally devoted to the Word, to live an exemplary life, and to lead others to do the same. A group of other pastors then gather around the candidate and pray the Lord’s Prayer. Afterward, the ordaining pastor lays his hands on the candidate and ordains him. From this point on, the newly ordained pastor leads the service for the first time, starting with the Service of the Sacrament. For me, the weight of the office the ministry struck me both literally and metaphorically in the laying on of hands. As with Luther, with two hands pressing down on me and the words of ordination ringing in the air, the question popped into my head, “Am I worthy of this office?”
I mentioned this question to a close friend of mine afterward and he looked me in the eye and to my great surprise very bluntly said “No, you’re not.” After a pause, he continued, “You’re not qualified for the Office of Holy Ministry, but today…God has qualified you.” And never has a truer word of comfort been given to me. It was a comfort to know that despite my own failings – as a son, a husband, a father, a student, and a friend – there was something greater at hand. There was something that stood stronger and more sure and certain than the record of all my shortcomings, weaknesses, and failures and that was the call of God. What was put in front of my eyes was not the question of my own worthiness, but the assertion of God: “I call you.”
What was put in front of me was the creative work of God through his word. In Romans 4:17 we hear that our God is a God who gives life to the dead and “calls” into existence things that are not. Here Paul tells us that when God “calls” he “creates” something out of nothing. By the words, “I ordain you” he created a pastor out of an unworthy servant. By the words “you’re gonna be a dad!” God created a father out of an unprepared husband. By the words, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” God created a husband out of an undeserving man. The Lutheran doctrine of vocation or “calling” as such is inseparably wrapped up in the doctrine of creation. And because vocation and creation go together we can also hear and apply these words from Luther’s Small Catechism on creation, that “all this he does,” creating and calling, “without any merit or worthiness in me.”
Because the vocations that we find ourselves in are creations and gifts of God, we can rephrase our catechism question and answer of worthiness in the same way that Luther asks and answers this question in relation to the Supper two decades after his trembling first Mass.
Question: Who is worthy of his vocation?
Answer: Outward preparation and training are certainly good, but he is truly worthy and well prepared who believes these words, “given to you” and “your sins are forgiven.”
Whenever the devil makes us question our own worth or worthiness in our various vocations, whether that be as a parent, child, friend, etc. we can remember that we have been equipped with something more sure and certain, something that conquers our worst days and lowest moments: forgiveness and God’s creative word, “I call you.”