The Public Ministry of the Word
Third Sunday in Advent| December 11, 2005| Rev. Rolf Preus| 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
God speaks. If God doesn’t speak we don’t have to listen, do we? Think about it. What would be the point in listening to someone who has nothing to say? And yet so much of what passes for Christianity these days is a vague affection for a silent deity who has nothing in particular to say. But who can trust in a god who has nothing to say? If he has nothing to say he has no promises to make. If he has no promises to make he has no promises to keep. Our God speaks. He makes promises. He keeps His promises. When the Son of God is identified in the Gospel of St. John He is called the Word. God speaks. He speaks through His Son. Every promise God gives is centered in His Son, Jesus. Every promise God keeps He keeps for Jesus’ sake.
God speaks through preachers. When the preacher that God sends preaches it is God Himself who is preaching. We confess of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed, “Who spoke by the prophets.” God used the voices of men but it was God’s Word. David, the greatest songwriter who ever lived, didn’t just express what was inside of him. We read in 2 Samuel 23:2, “The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue.”
God has always spoken through men. The men through whom God speaks are sinners. They are fallible. They are weak. They have clay feet. But when God chooses to speak through them God speaks His own almighty and infallible word. Is the preacher sent by God? Does the preacher preach God’s word? Then listen to him as if God Himself were preaching because God is preaching. When God sends the preacher, to despise the preacher’s message because of the weaknesses of the preacher, is to despise God Himself.
St. John the Baptist was a preacher sent by God. He preached the truth. He suffered for it. That’s the way it goes. John was a gospel preacher but he had to preach the law, too. There is no message of forgiveness except for sinners and if there is no law there is no sin. So John preached the law. The law he preached condemned Herod for stealing his brother’s wife. For preaching this John was put in prison. While in prison he sent a couple of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him if He really were the promised Christ. Why would John do so when he himself had identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Maybe he was having doubts about what he had preached as he was languishing in jail? We don’t know exactly, but we do know what Jesus said to John through John’s disciples. His last words to John were, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
The Christian preacher must preach Christ. That is the sine qua non of being a Christian preacher. You preach Christ. When you preach Christ you don’t promote yourself, your own opinions, your own bright ideas, or your own religious philosophy. St. Paul put it this way: “Let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
The Corinthians congregation was wracked by division. They pitted one preacher against another. Some said that they followed Peter, others Paul, other Apollos, and others Christ. But Peter and Paul and Apollos all preached the same gospel. They all preached Christ crucified for sinners. The preacher is nothing. The preaching is everything. The preacher is nothing but a steward of what belongs to someone else. He is a steward of the mysteries of God. The mysteries of God are the gospel and the sacraments of Christ. They are called mysteries because the truth they reveal cannot be reasoned out. The gospel teaches us that God gives us sinners the credit for Jesus’ righteous life and that Jesus willingly suffered the blame for our sins. The gospel reveals to us the mystery of God’s grace. God reckoned to Jesus our sins and He reckoned to us Jesus’ righteousness. Reason doesn’t understand this. Faith alone receives it. The world calls God’s mysteries foolishness, but faith lives on the truth that Christ alone is our righteousness, our salvation, and our life. Even as the mysteries of the gospel and sacraments reveal Christ to us, they also belong to Christ. They are the means that He has chosen to be vehicles of His grace. We should judge our preachers by what they preach. Are they faithful stewards of God’s mysteries? Do they preach the gospel purely and administer the sacraments rightly?
We should not judge our pastors by how one man compares to another man. St. Paul writes,
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.
There’s a reason why Paul cared little about the personal judgments of others and why he didn’t even bother judging himself. Paul knew that the ministry is always more important than the minister. Let God worry about judging men. Who should get what credit and who should get what blame? Who cares? Leave it to God. The ministry isn’t about the ministers. It is about Christ. It is about bringing to sinners the forgiveness of sins that only Christ can bring.
It is called the public ministry of the word. In the Augsburg Confession it is called the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments or simply the preaching office. It is public. That is, it is official. One must be called by God and entrusted with the office before he can publicly preach, teach, or administer the sacraments of Christ. As St. Paul says, “How shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:15) They can’t. It is public, that is, right out in the open for the whole world to see. The preacher has no secret wisdom of his own. He is to be a steward of nothing less than the mysteries of God Himself, and these mysteries are to be made public to the whole world.
It is the ministry of the word. Whose word is that? It is the word of God. God speaks to us through His ministers. There is a difference between a minister and a priest. A priest offers sacrifices up to God. The priests of the Old Testament offered up bloody sacrifices to God. They were offered for the sins of the people. These animal sacrifices did not of themselves take away anyone’s sin, but God joined the promise of forgiveness to them. He did so for the sake of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. When Jesus offered up His body and blood on the altar of the cross, He did so once and for all to take away the sin of the whole world. No priest can ever again offer up a bloody sacrifice to take away sins. To presume to offer up Christ’s body and blood to God as if this is necessary to take away sin is to deny that Jesus Christ has already taken away the sin of the world.
Christ’s ministers do not serve Christ by offering up sacrifices. All Christians are priests. All Christians offer up the sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise. Christ’s ministers don’t serve Christ by offering anything up to God. They serve Christ by preaching Christ’s word, washing with Christ’s baptism, administering the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, and absolving with the absolution of Christ. They serve Christ by serving Christ’s people. They have nothing of their own to give. They have the mysteries of God. And they may not alter them in any way.
Luther preached a wonderful sermon on this text on the Third Sunday in Advent in 1521. Listen to what he said:
This office is a service or ministry proceeding from Christ to us and not from us to Christ. Note this carefully; it is important. . . . The meaning of the verse, then, is: “Let every individual take heed not to institute another leader, to set up another Lord, to constitute another Christ. Rather be unanimously loyal to the one and only Christ. For we apostles are not your lords, nor your masters; we are not your leaders. We do not preach our own interests, nor teach our own doctrine. We do not seek to have you obey us, or give us allegiance and accept our doctrine. No, indeed. We are messengers and ministers of him who is your Master, your Lord and Leader. We preach his Word, enlist men to follow his commandments, and lead only into obedience. And in this light should you regard us, expecting of us nothing else than to bring the message. Though we are other persons than Christ, yet you do not receive through us another doctrine than his; another word, another government, nor another authority than his. He who so receives and regards us, holds the right attitude toward us, and receives, not us, but Christ, whom alone we preach. But he who does not so regard us, does u injustice, discards Christ, the one true Leader, set up another in his stead and makes gods of us.
Preachers whine and complain just like everyone else. Even though we confess in the Catechism that we daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment we still seem to think that we deserve something better. Besides, within every pastor there is a little pope just waiting to jump out and take charge. This is why the most loving and beneficial thing you can do for your pastors is to require of them that they prove their doctrine from God’s word. It is never an act of disrespect to insist that the pastor show from the Holy Scriptures that his doctrine is sound. It’s a matter of life and death. It is required of stewards that they be found faithful. A steward must manage what is given him to manage. He doesn’t choose. God has already chosen. The public ministry of the word is the office that Jesus Christ Himself established in and for His church when He sent out the apostles as His first preachers. He told them to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. Through these means of grace God brings sinners to faith and keeps them in the faith.
What faith is that? It is the faith that looks to Jesus and see that He is indeed the Lamb of God as the faithful preacher John said He was. Jesus came and gave sight to the blind, healed the lame, cleansed the lepers, gave hearing to the deaf, raised the dead, and preached the gospel to the poor. He preached forgiveness to them. This is what the faithful steward of God’s mysteries must do.
Every time you come to church you come as a sinner burdened with sins. You may not feel the burden, but it lies upon you. Guilt is guilt even when you won’t admit to it. You have loved yourself first and most. You have lied to cover up your own sins and to hurt others. You have taken what you had no right to take. You’ve cheated. You’ve lusted, hated, coveted, and you’ve lied about it to yourself so that you could do it some more. You’ve loved things more than people, and more than God.
But here you come. Why are you here? You are here to meet Jesus. You need Jesus because He is the One who forgives you. Any minister of Christ will do, just as long as he is a faithful steward. But you need a minister for the simple reason that Jesus chooses to come to you and to forgive you your sins and to receive you unto Himself through the speaking of a minister. You hear the pastor speak but it is Jesus who absolves you. The pastor’s hand give you bread and wine, but it is Jesus Christ Himself who gives you to eat and to drink of His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. He who bore your sin and washed it away by His blood comes to you here in this place through His ministry of the word and He serves you. God speaks. He binds himself to His promises. Though spoken through sinful, mortal, and fallible men, they give you forgiveness, salvation, and everlasting life. So we will treasure the ministry of Christ among us, regardless of who our pastor might be. Amen.