The Third Sunday in Advent
December 17, 2017
“Ministers of Christ”
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one's praise will come from God. 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
In the words before us this morning, St. Paul, the apostle, speaks for all Christian pastors throughout the history of the church. The apostles, chosen and sent personally and directly by Jesus Christ, were the church’s first pastors. Subsequent pastors, also chosen and sent by Christ, have not been sent directly by Christ, but indirectly, through Christ’s church. Whether send directly by Christ or by Christ through his church, all Christian pastors are sent by Christ and St. Paul speaks for all of us.
He makes three points that I ask you to consider with me this morning. First, the pastors are servants of Christ. Second, they are stewards of God’s mysteries. Third, while they will be judged by men, they know that God’s judgment is the only one that counts.
Pastors are servants of Christ. Jesus said of himself:
If Christ came to serve, those who are his servants must also serve. Pastors are not lords and masters. They are servants. That’s what the word minister means. It means servant. Martin Luther, in preaching on this text, said:
It is a failing of men who stand up before others to speak to think that they must be very important people. Why else would folks sit quietly and listen? This kind of thinking can turn the head of a servant of Christ and lead him into every kind of error. A servant of Christ doesn’t speak his own wisdom, his own insight, or his own solutions to life’s problems. He is a minister of Christ. That means he is to speak the words of Christ and preach Christ. We were reminded last Sunday that the Bible is the “manger” in which Christ lies. The minister of Christ must know the Bible. He must know what it teaches. He is no servant of Christ if he doesn’t preach Christ. He cannot preach Christ if he doesn’t preach and teach the Bible. Pastors are servants of Christ.
Second, pastors are stewards of God’s mysteries. A steward is a manager. He manages the property of another. The minister of Christ administers what belongs to Christ. Imagine that you go into a restaurant, read over the menu, and order an item on the menu. You order a Caesar’s salad with grilled salmon. The server comes to your table with a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. You say, “That’s not what I ordered.” The server replies, “Yes, I know. But, I like this dish. This is what I would have ordered, so this is what I am giving you to eat.” What would you do? You might politely explain that what the server of the food thinks or wants or likes is irrelevant. His job is to serve what was ordered.
The pastor invokes the name of the Triune God: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The church says her Amen, laying claim to her baptism and calling on God to be present with her as he has promised. Then the pastor faces the congregation and speaks for God. For God! He doesn’t speak for himself. He’s not there to give his own wisdom, his own spin on things, his own scholarship, or his own theories. He is there to serve as a faithful steward of God’s holy mysteries. They are God’s. The pastor’s job is to manage them faithfully.
What are these mysteries? Jesus spoke of the mysteries of the kingdom of God. The mysteries of God are truths that God reveals that transcend the wisdom and understanding of the wise, but are revealed to faith and to faith alone. The Holy Trinity – that our God is one God, yet three distinct persons – is a mystery. The incarnation – when the eternal Son of the eternal Father became flesh and blood, body and soul, in the womb of the Virgin Mary – is a mystery. The resurrection of the body on the last day, when this perishable body becomes an imperishable body, is a mystery. The marriage of Christ to his church is a mystery. The washing of Holy Baptism that takes us out of death into new and eternal life is a mystery. That the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for us for the remission of sins, is a mystery. These mysteries are not the private playground of the minister to do with as he pleases, or to bend and manipulate into whatever shape he desires. They are God’s mysteries. They are God’s truth. The pastor’s job is to be a faithful steward of these mysteries.
It is not possible for a pastor to be a faithful steward of God’s mysteries without upsetting anyone. That’s because God’s truth is not open for revision or change, and it is the nature of sinners to have itching ears that want to be scratched. When the culture goes in one direction and the Christian people follow its lead, it’s the pastor’s job to call a spade a spade. Faithfulness requires it. Let me illustrate. If it is considered friendly and hospitable to worship at churches that teach false doctrine, it is nevertheless the pastor’s job to teach the congregation to “note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” (Romans 16:17) If the social standards require us to accept women pastors as pastors because, after all, this is the 21st century and we must rid ourselves of vestiges of sexism and patriarchy, the pastor’s job is to teach that it is shameful for a woman to preach (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) and strictly forbidden by God (1 Timothy 2:12). If the religious culture says one thing and God’s word says another, the pastor must teach what God’s word says, regardless of the consequences. If he doesn’t; he’s not a faithful steward of God’s mysteries.
You cannot manage God’s mysteries without proclaiming them clearly. This requires the faithful steward to point out what is right and wrong, true and false. The most common and dangerous error taught in the name of Christ is that error that says we can work our way to heaven. The Bible teaches that all of us are under the wrath of God because of our sin and deserve eternal damnation and can do nothing to save ourselves. The Bible teaches that God rescues us undeserving sinners solely on account of his grace, his undeserved kindness that he gives us in Christ. The pastor might think that his parishioners need more law preaching. And I’m sure they do! People skip church for no good reason. Men and women engage in serial fornication, doing what God gives only husbands and wives to do, and they do it, even though they are not husbands and wives. People repeat malicious and harmful gossip against their neighbor. They deliberately set out to get drunk. They cover up their sins with a façade of piety or by pointing the finger at the sins of others. Oh, they need the law. Repent or perish! John the Baptist preached repentance. He was the model preacher. He paid for his preaching of the law with his own head. He was decapitated by King Herod.
John preached that if you don’t repent you will certainly perish. He also preached that forgiveness and salvation from sins are God’s free gift. He identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is the greatest mystery of all! That the suffering of the God-man could take away all of our sin, so that every time we come to Jesus, confessing our sins, he graciously receives us and washes us clean – this is the mystery of mysteries that the preacher must proclaim without ceasing, or he is no minister of Christ!
This brings us to the third point of today’s sermon. While Christ’s ministers will be judged by men, they know that God’s judgment is the only one that counts. St. Paul writes:
The preacher’s preaching is what matters. Folks love to judge preachers. And they will judge. All pastors are sinners, so their human judges will always be able to find something to judge. If we required our pastors to be sinless God would have to send us angels from heaven to preach. He has chosen to commit his mysteries to the stewardship of men who have clay feet. You may like this pastor better than that one. But pastors come and go. You don’t need Pastor Jones or Pastor Smith or Pastor Preus. But you need a pastor. That’s why God established this office. If a pastor lives an openly scandalous life, persists in teaching false doctrine, or is unable or unwilling to do his duty, he should be removed from office. If he is a faithful steward of the mysteries of God, he should be supported in his office, not on account of him, but on account of the office. We need the gospel and the sacraments to live. We need stewards who will administer them to us.
St. Paul says that when Jesus comes, he will “both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts.” Pastors cannot see into the hearts of their parishioners. Parishioners cannot see into the hearts of their pastors. Only he in whom we believe can see our faith. Faith is the reason we have pastors. I couldn’t preach the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners unless I believed I was a sinner for whom Jesus died. And the greatest encouragement for us preachers to preach the gospel is God’s promise that it is his power to save those who believe it. So we preach it. We teach the law in all its severity because the law is severe and a watered down version of it is useless. We preach the gospel. God, for the sake of Christ’s holy obedience and sacrificial death for us all, forgives you all your sins. This is what your faith needs to hear. This is why God gives you pastors to preach it to you.
Rolf D. Preus