According to the founding statement of the Society of the Holy Trinity, “Ordained to the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments in Christ’s Church, called to such an office in Lutheran churches, we form together an ordered society of pastors. We commit ourselves to gather regularly for hearing the Word, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, prayer and theological reflection. We will gather to help one another to be faithful to the promises spoken when we were ordained.” Clearly a primary emphasis of the Society is faithfulness to ordination vows.
Faithfulness is closely related to obedience. “Obedience” implies submission to the authority, guidance, and will of another. “Faithfulness” marks the constancy of one’s submission to that authority, will, and guidance. Neither word is in vogue in modern society or, at times, in the church. Both are crucial to understanding the pastoral office and the Christian life.
To what, or to whom, do pastors pledge faithful obedience? First, we promise this to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Second, we place ourselves under the authority and guidance of Scripture, and then of creeds and confessions as they attest to the person and will of the Triune God, who is revealed in Scripture. Third, we promise obedience to the spiritual disciplines of Word and Sacrament, prayer, service, and a godly life, for the sake of those entrusted to our care and to God’s glory. Today I will focus on the first: fidelity to Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the most general way, submission to God’s authority, guidance and will, in the midst of and for the good of his people, indicates that no Christian, certainly no pastor, is an autonomous self. Everything — including personal experience and belief — stands under God’s judgment and is made holy and righteous solely by his grace. Thus it is absolutely critical, and should be abundantly clear (but sadly often is not), that pastors, priests, and bishops must return daily to faithful submission to the Triune God. For they have all been charged with faithfully proclaiming, teaching, and confessing the Christian faith, centered in the Father’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, given through the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament, attested to by the historic creeds, councils, and confessions of the Church. We are not free theological agents; we cannot and may not teach or preach contrary to the core confessions of the Church. When we do so, we adversely affect the spiritual welfare of so many others who have been gathered into his Body. The day that any pastor or priest or bishop says, for example, that he or she does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; or preaches a gospel of “God does not call you to die to self but rather to claim your true self” is the day that that pastor, priest or bishop should either repent or resign — or both.
Conversely, the more closely the Lord Jesus binds to himself his pastors and priests, the more potently and continually may he distribute the healing balm of his forgiveness and grace to his whole Body. The more readily may he bestow the Holy Spirit, who unites the Church in a bond of love. The more powerfully may he reach those who do not yet confess his Lordship. The more clearly may he be the Truth, Life, and Way to his Father’s house, in which he is preparing a place for all whom he draws to himself.
So how may we profitably speak of fidelity to the Holy Trinity as one dynamic of fidelity in ministry? The old sermonic method of “three points and a poem” suggests itself. The three points should be obvious, although the order may not be immediately so. We shall begin by considering fidelity to the Holy Spirit; then proceed (so to speak) to fidelity to the Son of God, and conclude with fidelity to God the Father. Although I will have concluding remarks, I doubt that they will be poetic in form. Feel free to cast them into verse yourselves, if you’re so moved!
Fidelity to the Holy Spirit
You can blame this whole paper on a particular word: Fidelity. Fidelity and faithfulness are synonymous; but fidelity immediately reminded me of that pre-DVD, pre-CD, pre-cassette recorder term, “high fidelity.” Remember the great big “hi-fi’s” that took pride of place in the living room back in the Dark Ages? “High fidelity” was the claim that what you heard coming out of that behemoth would be, as nearly as 60’s technology could make it, identical to the tonal quality of the music as it was originally performed.
Then, some years later, there were commercials for Memorex cassette tapes. Remember the buxom diva whose high notes cracked the wine glass, whether she was there “in the flesh” hitting that B flat, or whether somebody was simply cranking up the boom box with its Memorex recording of her voice? “Is it live — or is it Memorex?” was the catchphrase. The ad put a premium on faithful transmission of the singer’s voice, with all its vibrato, overtones, and richness, claiming that the recorded voice produced the same results (such as cracking glass) as the “live” voice. Now, destroying the inventory of Crate and Barrel is not the major reason for listening to a buxom diva. Rather, the auditory and emotional impact of said diva’s performance is the normal reason. Buyers of Memorex tapes could supposedly rest assured that this impact would rival the one obtained in the concert hall, without having to pop for the ticket.
The point is simple: fidelity means that the voice or actions of another are transmitted (through a person or medium) so completely and so well that the “original” is, in some fashion, truly present. We don’t have misuse sacramental theology in order to understand this.
Nevertheless, there are some immediate theological implications I want to consider. The first is Jesus’ own testimony concerning the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you…. He will testify on my behalf…. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15)
A crucial hallmark of the Holy Spirit is that he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and declare it to Jesus’ followers. This is not to be understood as mechanical parroting, but rather as perfectly mediating and re-presenting the mind, will, heart and actions of the One who has sent him. In so doing, the Holy Spirit makes the crucified, risen and ascended Lord truly and salvifically present to his Church, in Word and Sacrament. This, in turn, becomes absolutely crucial if, even in part, we are to understand the office of the holy ministry and the nature of fidelity in that office.
What do I mean? Fidelity to the Holy Spirit, involves, at least, fidelity to the Holy Spirit’s task and actions in the life of the church. Since one of the Spirit’s primary tasks is, if you will, to “give us Jesus,” therefore one characteristic of fidelity to the Holy Spirit is being so formed and informed by the Holy Spirit that one’s own proclamation and pastoral actions — indeed, one’s whole life – mirrors the Spirit’s own fidelity. In short, empowered by the Spirit, we, too, “give others Jesus.”
To take one example: after his resurrection, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That is, the Holy Spirit becomes the agent, so to speak, through which the forgiveness of Jesus Christ may be received by a penitent in the very act of hearing the words, “At the command of our Lord Jesus Christ and in his name and stead, I forgive you all your sins.” The order for Individual Confession and Absolution in the Lutheran Book of Worship puts it bluntly. The pastor asks the penitent, “Do you believe that the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God himself?” To which the response is, “Yes, I believe.” Now, this isn’t exactly a case of being a spiritual Memorex cassette tape; but it is a clear example of faithfully being the means through which the will and activity of God, without distortion, ambiguity, or diminution, are made present within the life of the community of the church. Regardless of one’s personal judgment of the awfulness of the sin or even the genuineness of the penitent’s confession, the act of Holy Absolution presents to the penitent the same Lord who says, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Robert Jenson wrote powerfully on this in Christian Dogmatics:
…when the confessor says, “You have confessed cheating and coveting; now I forgive you all your sins, in Jesus’ name,” these words do not seek to stimulate conversion as an event external to their being said. Rather, their utterance is a conversion of the penitent’s life, from a situation in which the word he or she hears and must live by is “You are a cheat and a coveter,” to one in which the word he or she hears and must live by is “You are Jesus’ beloved.”1
This forgiving (or retaining) of sins not only requires the Holy Spirit — for who can forgive sin but God alone; who even can announce God’s forgiveness save by the power and authority of God himself? It also mirrors the Holy Spirit’s activity. Through the words of Holy Absolution, the pastor makes the saving work of Jesus Christ available and active in the penitent’s life. What Jesus said about the Spirit, he now may say of the pastor: he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
This applies to the whole of the ministerial office of Word and Sacrament, not only to confession and absolution. Again, Robert Jenson puts it well:
Verbs specifying the Spirit’s work must be understood as instructions to preachers, liturgical leaders, teachers, and advisors. For example, “the Spirit illumines” should mean, “So speak of Christ and the lives of your hearers, that our lives’ meaning in Christ is made visible.” Nor do these instructions stipulate an experience or process in the hearer, which gospel-speaking is to strive to produce. We are not to exhort or describe or even promise illumination. We are verbally to illumine – illumination is a work of the prophetic Spirit, that is, it is an aspect of the spiritedness of the preacher’s words. 2
Here we should be particularly careful. True, life-giving knowledge and experience of God — in fact, true faith in God — come on God’s terms alone, and are given through the Holy Spirit alone. Not everything that comes from a preacher’s mouth or a theologian’s pen is the work of the Holy Spirit! Fidelity to the Holy Spirit, in part, involves proper discernment of the spirits; it is possible to be “inspired” by a spirit entirely contrary to the Spirit of God. This can occur when personal preferences, scientific theories, political agendas, or well-meaning but ill-informed theological pronouncements and systems are allowed to have veto power over the Spirit who, through the preaching of the Gospel, presents Christ, crucified and raised for the sake of forgiving, healing, and reconciling sinful, suffering persons who are estranged from God; who calls us into the Church which is the Body of Christ; who bestows God’s forgiveness and life-giving presence through the sacraments; who engenders trust in the Triune God as that One is revealed in and through Jesus Christ.
As I said earlier, no one — least of all a pastor, priest, or bishop — is an autonomous self, free to simply say or teach whatever he or she chooses. To be “open to the utterances and movement of the Spirit” is not to say or do whatever one prefers, or whatever occurs to one in, for example, the quiet of one’s study, under the guise of saying one has thereby discerned the Spirit. Rather, fidelity to the Holy Spirit means putting aside such preferences and opinions in order that, through one’s very human words and actions, the Spirit, Who “will declare to us the things that are to come” solely in obedience to the sovereign will of God, may clearly speak and act in the present time and place.
In some times and places, the chief barrier to discernment of and fidelity to the Holy Spirit has been a rigid doctrine of inerrancy that reduces the Spirit’s role to that of a divine stenographer. This causes a shift of emphasis: from making Christ and his saving works present, to emphasizing the divine source of Scripture. Now please understand this is a change of emphasis, not a strict either/or statement; but it does tend to, as Jenson aptly put it, “so identify the Spirit with the letter of Scripture that very little Spirit has been left.” However, in the Church today, and most specifically in the ELCA in which I and many of you do ministry, the chief barrier to fidelity to the Holy Spirit has been antinomianism that makes present a false Christ. In Luther’s memorable words:
“That is what my Antinomians, too, are doing today, who are preaching beautifully and (as I cannot but think) with real sincerity about Christ’s grace, about the forgiveness of sin and whatever else can be said about the doctrine of redemption. But they flee as if it were the very devil the consequence that they should tell the people about the third article, of sanctification, that is, of new life in Christ. They think one should not frighten or trouble the people, but rather always preach comfortingly about grace and the forgiveness of sins in Christ….They say, “Listen! Though you are an adulterer, a wordmonger, a miser, or other kind of sinner, if you but believe, you are saved, and you need not fear the law. Christ has fulfilled it all!” . . . They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach… “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,” but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extol so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, He has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men . . . Christ did not earn only gratia, grace, for us, but also donum, “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin. Now he who does not abstain from sin, but persists in his evil life, must have a different Christ, that of the Antinomians; the real Christ is not there, even if all the angels would cry, “Christ! Christ!” He must be damned with this, his new Christ.3
The consequence of infidelity to the Holy Spirit is that one makes present to the faithful “a different Christ” than the real one. I do not need to elaborate on the assertion that this has serious, indeed eternal, consequences. Hence, at least for the purposes of this presentation, a final manifestation of ministerial fidelity to the Holy Spirit is fidelity to the work of the Holy Spirit as He sanctifies those who have been redeemed. For without this, one has not made present the Christ Who breathed the Holy Spirit upon his followers and Who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…” (John 14:15-17)
Lack of fidelity to the Spirit in his sanctifying work has been a real temptation to the Church, perhaps in particular the ELCA and its congeners. The late Bishop Michael McDaniel said this in an address given at Concordia Seminary, Ft. Wayne, in 2001:
…this last decade has certainly been a distressing time for all who would be faithful to our Lord’ s command: “If you continue in my Word, you will be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” [John 8:31-32]. Most people seem to think that it is possible to search out the truth on the basis of uncommitted reason, and many even parrot the last of Jesus’ words — “the truth will make you free” — as license for trying to tear apart every precious heritage we have received. However, it is not possible to know the truth, let alone taste freedom, without first being in bondage to the Word of God. “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free!” 4
In this regard, I am concerned about the “conscience clause” that is so integral to the ELCA Task Force on Sexuality’s report and recommendations. It can indeed be proper to speak of being bound by conscience, even unto disobedience. But unless our consciences are first bound by the Holy Spirit to the Word of God, and thereby are forgiven, sanctified, and empowered to resist sin, we may unwittingly bind ourselves over (and others, through our teaching and example) to a false Christ.
That is perhaps a more somber ending to this section than I had intended; but it also is as good a segueway to the next as I could have asked for. Because now we must consider what it means for ministers, in particular among God’s people, to exhibit fidelity to the Son of God.
Fidelity to the Son of God
At least by now it might be clear why a discussion of fidelity in ministry began with fidelity to the Holy Spirit. It is only through the Holy Spirit that anyone — pastors included! — may be brought to faith in the person and saving works of Jesus Christ. Fidelity to the Holy Spirit involves mirroring the Spirit’s work of “giving us Jesus” by faithfully speaking and teaching “all that he has commanded us.” Therefore it would be impossible to talk about faithfulness to the Son of God without having first spoken about faithfulness to the Holy Spirit and His work.
Nevertheless, having dealt at length with fidelity to the Holy Spirit as the very means through which Christ and his benefits are made present to the church, I had to ponder at some length what I would say in this segment that would be something other than repetition of what I just finished saying. Again pulling from my storehouse of sermonic advice, one may certainly “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell them; then tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you told them,” but somehow I thought a tad more might be expected of me.
So let us hear what others have told us, instead! Let me begin by quoting our Lord, Luther, the Augsburg Confession, and the last portion of the ninth of The 9.5 Theses.
“He who welcomes you welcomes me, and he who welcomes me welcomes Him who has sent me.” (Mt 10:40).
[The] first and foremost [function of a priest], on which everything else depends, is the teaching of the Word of God. For we teach with the Word, we consecrate with the Word, we bind and absolve sins by the Word, we baptize with the Word, we sacrifice with the Word, we judge all things by the Word.5
To obtain this faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, when and where he wills, in those who hear the gospel.6
The Word of God is silenced among us and driven out of the Church whenever the holy Ministry becomes a loosely defined service to people rather than the specific divine call to serve the Word of God, and whenever bishops and pastors are not encouraged to adorn the holy Ministry with holy lives. (Ninth of the 9.5 Theses)
As I read Scriptures and the confessions of the Lutheran Church, it became clear that the best way to speak of pastoral fidelity to the Son of God is to begin by reiterating the classic call and obligations of the pastoral office: to serve the Word of God; to preach and teach the Gospel in its purity and to administer the Sacraments rightly in accordance with the Gospel.
There are a lot of important reasons why this is true. I will focus on two.
The first is, if you will, a consequence of the Incarnation, of the great good news that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. If we had assumed that everything that could be said about fidelity to the Triune God had been said in the previous section, we would be in danger of being “spiritualist Christians,” for lack of a better term. The presence of Jesus Christ, granted and mediated through the Holy Spirit, might easily be reduced to an ethereal, “spiritual-in-the-worst-sense-of-the-word” encounter, best offered — or grasped — by those of a particularly pious imagination.
In focusing the pastoral office upon Word and Sacrament, we are acting on the promise of God that the Son of God, the Logos, the Word, truly does become flesh for us, in the midst of that community which we are bold to call his Body. Jesus does not dwell only in a far-off heaven, seated, as Luther so vividly put it, on a throne and clothed in purple and velvet. If I may be equally vivid, despite the Holy Spirit’s — and the minister’s — task of “faithfully speaking all that he has heard,” Jesus does not simply make a Memorex cassette recording of himself, hand it off to the Holy Spirit, who dutifully pops it in the tape player — I mean pulpit — on Sunday morning, and call that the reality of his presence.
Although… The story is told that a rabbi, appropriately enough, had quite a reputation for his sermons. One Shabbat, a member had to be out of town. Not wanting to miss the sermon, he hired a Shabbat goy to tape the sermon for him to listen to when he returned. Other congregants thought this was brilliant, and began hiring Shabbat goys to tape the sermon while they played golf. Within a few weeks’ time there were 500 gentiles sitting in shul taping the sermon. The rabbi got wise to this. The following Shabbat he hired a Shabbat goy who brought a tape recorder to play his pre-recorded sermon to the 500 gentiles who dutifully recorded his words on their machines. Witnesses said this was the first instance of “artificial insermonation.”
Such point as can be wrested from this groaner is that the Holy Spirit does not function as our “Shabbat goy,” but instead ushers us into the real and living presence of the crucified and risen Jesus himself, who embodies himself, speaks to us, and acts in our midst in word, water, bread, and wine. And therefore pastors and priests, as they proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments, are truly and substantially proclaiming and administering Christ himself, not merely words about him or symbols of him.
Again, Robert Jenson provides needed insight, both in his book Visible Words and in his treatment of “Sacraments of the Word” in Christian Dogmatics.
My righteousness is an “external” righteousness… Just so, the gospel itself, the word that tells me of this righteousness, must be an external word, a message from outside me, of events beyond my subjectivity… The sacraments make present the inalienable externality of the gospel and therefore are necessary to the authenticity of the message… God’s Word to us is Jesus Christ. Or, what is the same thing, the gospel is this Christ’s self-presentation to us, his personal intrusion into our lives… in that the gospel is spoken both audibly and visibly, it is Christ’s self-presentation in our lives as the one risen and living person — spirit from one side and body from the other, as are all living persons — that he in fact is.7
It is precisely because Christ comes to us “from the outside,” from thence to abide with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, who unites us with him as he is united with his Father, that the ministerial office exists. Ministers are “agents of externality,” you could say. They are called to be stewards of Christ’s presence in Word and Sacrament – a presence which comes from outside us and which is graciously extended to us and which can never be simply grasped, learned, stored, and re-played like a cassette tape in our heads, any more than the living person and presence of that famed rabbi (or even the aforementioned buxom diva) could be stored in the heads of congregants, their Shabbat goys, or, presumably, connoisseurs of opera. Fidelity to Christ the Son of God means remaining faithful to the office of preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments, because it is through these “external means” that our Lord has promised to be present, with all his grace and favor, with his people.
The second reason for linking fidelity to the Son of God with preaching and teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments is that in doing so, our Lord provides (again for lack of a better term) a blessed fail-safe for his Church. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession addresses the question of sacramental efficacy and unworthy priests:
Nor does this detract from the efficacy of the sacraments, when they are distributed by the unworthy, because they represent the person of Christ on account of the call of the church and do not represent their own persons, as Christ himself testifies [Luke 10:16], “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ. The words of Christ teach us this so that we are not offended by the unworthiness of ministers.8
Obviously the point is not to encourage unfaithfulness or unworthiness in ordained ministers, but rather to highlight the faithfulness of Christ and the efficacy of his promises. In a sense, this is simply an offshoot of the statement that the Gospel is an “external Word.” Although ministers are stewards of that externality, we must remember that the Word of God is external to them, also! And because the presence and work of Jesus Christ comes as sheer gift, despite the unworthiness of his people, it also comes despite the unworthiness of his stewards.
Nevertheless, the presence and work of Jesus Christ actually come through the Word and Sacraments, to which his stewards, whether worthy or unworthy, are called and ordained to be ministers. Therefore although it may be important to address many issues and instances of “pastoral unworthiness,” the core issue is fidelity to actually teaching and preaching the Gospel in its purity and administering the Sacraments in accord with that pure Gospel. Failing to do that is the ultimate betrayal, the ultimate infidelity to the Son of God, because it stands in the way of the primary means through which the Savior has promised to be present with, to forgive, to redeem, and to sanctify His Church; further, it cripples the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the rest of the world. In a sermon critique of the United Church of Canada’s hymnal Voices United, Rev. Victor Shepherd reflected on warnings and exhortations given by Epistle writers to their churches. He wrote this:
Jude, Peter and Paul aren’t horrified because an alternative religious opinion is being made known; they aren’t heartsick because disinformation is being disseminated; they react as they do inasmuch as they know that where the gospel is diluted, denied, compromised, or trifled with, the saving deed and the saving invitation of God can’t be known. Where the gospel is sabotaged through “destructive heresies”, the salvation of God is withheld from men and women whose only hope is the gospel.9
Now, some pastors, priests, and theologians in the Church are scandalized by our Lord’s claim to be the way, truth and life, the only way to the Father; and by his command to take up our cross and follow him alone. In an effort to be more welcoming and respectful towards others who believe differently, and to soften the offense of cross-centered “exclusivity,” they are in grave danger of succumbing to that core infidelity to Christ, by preaching a different Gospel, presenting a different Christ. Does that sound familiar?
Here, though, the issue has devolved from antinom-ianism to outright heresy. To take offense at our Lord’s claim to be the exclusive means of salvation is an all too common form of infidelity to him and his Gospel. Granted, Christians have used exclusivity as an un-Christlike club over the heads of “heathens and pagans” in the past (and occasionally the present!). But we don’t rectify our sin by committing a greater one. Walter Wangerin, commenting on the lament of a missionary friend, said that some leaders within the ELCA are embarrassed by missionary efforts to proclaim that “the highest truth and the clearest revelation of God is to be seen in Christ the crucified.”10 There are Lutherans and others who see Christianity as “one paradigm among many for salvation” and Jesus as only one of many saviors, mentors, or spiritual guides who demonstrate God’s love. In this interpretation, such individuals have simply incarnated the ideals of human life, and salvation is a gradual transformation to greater self-actualization. Countering that, Rev. Linda Larson wrote in Lutheran Forum:
“For Christians, salvation is something quite specific. It is not simply about everyone being nice, or dissipation into nothingness, but it is about being brought into communion with the Blessed Trinity through Jesus Christ… The Church’s mission on God’s behalf is to preach repentance and forgiveness through Jesus Christ… ‘If we don’t have a higher truth to offer the world, then who are we? Not a church… Without Jesus Christ, we are nothing.”11
So, then, fidelity to the Son of God, though it ought to be made manifest in a life that is conformed to Jesus Christ, is not simply about a pastor’s personal piety, warmth, service, or even self-sacrifice. It is about something at once more prosaic and more profound. It is about holding fast to where Christ may be found; where he has promised to be present, through the power and good offices of his Holy Spirit, and usually in spite of the foibles and failings of his ministers. Pastoral fidelity to Jesus Christ is centered in “doing” Word and Sacrament, allowing our Lord to be present to the Church, through his ministers, “on his own terms,” whether those terms are mysterious, offensive, or comforting. For ultimately, his presence is the light, life and glory of his people.
Fidelity to God the Father
At long last we turn our attention to fidelity to God the Father. Faith, as we have already said, comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, who so presents the crucified and risen Christ, in Word and Sacrament, that those who are drawn into the community of the Church are truly and substantively united with the Son of God; and they are forgiven, transformed, made holy, knit into his Body through the bond of the Spirit. Yet this is not the end of the story.
The work of Christ didn’t end with gathering his people into one, as his body on earth; it does not even end with Christ sending us out in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring the Gospel, and thus his presence, to the world. The eternal glad ending, if it may even be called an ending of this story, is when the Son of God brings all of us who have been made one Body in him through the Holy Spirit, into the very presence of his heavenly Father. The work of the Son is to be the means by which the Church is ushered into the eternal, mutual, joyous and loving communion and conversation that describes the life of the Holy Trinity.
In his “High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus asks the Father to accomplish just that, saying: As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:21-23)
United with the Son of God and with one another through the Holy Spirit, we are brought to the fulfillment seen by John the Divine in his apocalypse: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.’ (Revelation 21:3)
So if this is the goal, the point of the story, then what is peculiarly the shape of ministerial fidelity to God the Father in service of this goal? All along, of course, we have been trying to discern that faithfulness to God that is over and above — or at least distinct from — the faithfulness and obedience that every baptized Christian is called to display. Thus, for example, we discussed fidelity to Word and Sacrament as the reasonably clergy-specific shape of faithfulness to Jesus Christ the Son of God. What is the clergy-specific shape of faithfulness to the one Jesus calls Abba, Father and invites all his followers to do likewise?
This stumped me longer than any other portion of this presentation; but no matter what Scriptural references, theological passages, or analogies I came up with, I kept coming back to one conviction. Ministerial fidelity to God the Father is shaped by prayer and by love of one’s enemies. Yes, all the people of God are commanded and invited to pray. Yes, we are all called to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. No, this therefore doesn’t sound like something unique to the pastoral office. But if the ultimate reason for the life and work of Jesus Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, is to bring us into the Father’s presence; if the ultimate destiny of the Church is to be brought into the life and conversation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then at the very least we have to examine how the ministers of Christ’s Church are called to bear witness to this destiny and be human instruments through whom God’s will is, in part, realized.
First, let’s turn to prayer. As I said, prayer serves as our apprenticeship for our “ultimate destiny of life and conversation with the Holy Trinity.” Even the dynamic of most prayer points to this. Although we rightly may pray to the Spirit or the Son of God, most prayer is offered to God the Father, in the name of and for the sake of his beloved Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, “who intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:27)The Son of God himself stands with us, giving us such intimate and loving access to his Father that we may say with him, “Our Father.” The Holy Spirit empowers us to cry out, “Abba, Father!” to the One whom the Spirit also knows intimately, heart-deep, perfectly.
And love, particularly love of those who hate us for the sake of the Gospel, is more closely related to prayer than perhaps one might think.
Richard Foster’s book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home begins to clarify the link between love in a more general sense, and prayer.
Today the heart of God is an open wound of love… And he is inviting [us…] to come home to that for which we were created. His arms are stretched out wide to receive us… The key to this home, this heart of God, is prayer… If the key is prayer, the door is Jesus Christ. [Such] overwhelming love invites a response. Love is the syntax of prayer. To be effective pray-ers, we need to be effective lovers… Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth but from falling in love.12
These words movingly expand on the promise of Jesus: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2, 3)
In prayer, we are invited — in this life, incompletely and haltingly — into the conversation of God. In prayer, we are embraced by and respond to the love of God. In prayer, therefore, we already begin to dwell in the house and heart of God. Those who serve as ministers at the threshold of God’s house ought to avail themselves of the conversation, shelter, and love of that house!
Put another way, prayer shapes pastoral fidelity to God the Father because it is predicated upon, it completes, and it perfects the fidelity to Spirit and Son. Pastoral fidelity to God the Father can only occur within the context of pastoral fidelity to the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, searches the Father’s heart, and faithfully speaks and teaches whatever the Son of the Father has disclosed. Equally, fidelity to the Father can only occur in the context of fidelity to God the Son in the preaching of the Gospel and administering of the sacraments, because through these means the Son reveals to his people the very heart of his Father, opens the storehouse of his Father’s love and forgiveness, makes us fellow heirs of his Father’s Kingdom, and gives us the right and the words by which we, with him, may say, “Our Father” as the opening lines of our part in the Trinitarian conversation.
Not only are pastor themselves called to be drawn through prayer into this conversation and life of divine love; but they are also charged to help others, as individuals and as the community of God’s beloved children, to participate in it. In essence, it’s the call to lead others into their true life’s work — even though it is, of course, God working and dwelling in and loving them! As one person put it, “The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with himself included as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.”13This loving community begins now, in the communal life centered in Word and Sacrament, bound by the Holy Spirit, articulated in prayer and made concrete in service.
So we may speak of prayer as pastoral fidelity, and most specifically, fidelity to God the Father — and to his will for his people. A full discussion of the many facets of such prayer — personal, corporate, intercessory, confessional, adoration, liturgical, contemplative — must be set aside until another time. I will speak briefly on one facet that has special significance for pastors. It is a consequence of the fact that prayer is inherently a conversation, not a monologue; it is a dynamic most acutely needed in the office of the Holy Ministry, although it is not unique to it. It is strictly a gift of God, no action of ours, perhaps to be received and acted upon only through prayer. And that gift is immediately related to our Lord’s command to love our enemies, to bless those who persecute us, and to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.
That’s a tall order! No, I am not saying that pastors (or any Christians) are perfect in this life. And no, I am not trying to get into a “pastoral pity party” over our underappreciated ministries or the alligators and troublemakers who populate our pews! Rather, I am getting at something much more basic. As pastors in particular, we believe, teach and confess that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and are all enemies of God. Faithfully teaching and preaching this will draw down upon us the wrath of the devil, the world, and even our sinful selves. If we cannot find a way to love despite this, we will succumb to despair and disbelief. Worse, we will betray the heart of the Father, who in love sent his Son while we were yet sinners and enemies estranged from God. This perfect Father promises to love and bless those who hate and persecute his dear Son. He promises to see us, only with his perfect and sinless Son standing between us and him. He promises to see us only “in Christ.”
And perhaps in prayer more than anytime else, God may graciously grant the gift of “doubled vision”. That is, through the goodness of the Father, received through the Spirit, we too may begin to see other people, the world, and even our own selves, with Jesus only standing between them and us. The gift of the Father to us in prayer is when we are granted vision clearly to see others (and ourselves) not only as the dreadful sinners we are, but also as lost sheep, for whom our Lord gladly came to die and rise. That gift, dreadful and precious, grants us power to see others, and ourselves, as those who betray, mock, scorn, and desert the Son of God — and yet also as the ones for whom he willingly prays, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. That gift allows us, now in part, as through a darkened mirror, to see with Christ’s eyes, pray with his words, will with his will that we, and all those awful others, might turn to him — and repent, and be forgiven, be healed, be fitted to live in his Kingdom forever.
This “doubled vision” is more than the necessary fidelity and obedience to the Father that prays, “Thy will be done.” It is standing with Christ as he abides in and reflects his Father’s will and heart. Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel express this: “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.’”(John 5:19). In his first Epistle, John says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 Jn 3:1-2)
Again, Richard Foster articulates it:
Søren Kierkegaard has brought this issue into clearest focus with his famous phrase, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” And so we do: we will one thing. We relinquish all competing loyalties… We see only what the Father sees, say only what the Father says, do only what the Father does. We will only one thing, which, as Kierkegaard reminds us, is the good, which is God. This is purity of heart.14
To which Dietrich Bonhoeffer adds these words in The Cost of Discipleship:
“[Love your enemies;] pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.” This is the supreme demand. Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him before God…We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves… How does love conquer? By asking not how the enemy treats her but only how Jesus treated her… In the face of the cross the disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love…The disciple can now perceive that even his enemy is the object of God’s love, and that he stands like himself beneath the cross of Christ. God loves his enemies — that is the glory of his love, as every follower of Jesus knows; through Jesus he has become a partaker in this love… Perfect, all-inclusive love is the act of the Father, it is also is the act of the sons of God as it was the act of the only-begotten Son. 15
This love, encountered and shaped in prayer, ultimately, is fidelity in ministry to God the Father, and it is a gift that makes possible pastoral fidelity to the Holy Spirit and to the Son of God, even as it is a consequence of those. That is the natural (although sometimes maddening!) dynamic when one speaks of the Three-Personed God. No matter where you begin, eventually you’ll come right round again, only deeper or higher or more richly complex.
So what is the point, ultimately, of fidelity in ministry – specifically, fidelity to the Holy Trinity? I suppose I would sum it up by saying that ministerial fidelity ultimately helps to equip the people of God for their eternal destiny of prayer, praise, adoration, and worship of the Triune God. Once again, John the Divine articulates this destiny in words that even today are sung in the Church’s hymns of praise: Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 5:11-14)
Everything else we do is details.
Robert Jenson, The Holy Spirit. Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 2, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 134.
Ibid., p. 134.
On the Council and the Church, Luther’s Works, 41:113-114. Emphasis added.
Presentation given at The Missouri Synod Fort Wayne, IN Seminary by The Rev. Dr. Michael McDaniel, former Bishop of the LCA and ELCA North Carolina Synod. Delivered on January 19, 2001, during the 24th Annual Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Martin Luther, “Concerning the Ministry,” (1523) Luther’s Works, Vol. 40, Conrad Bergendoff, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958), p. 21.
Augsburg Confession, V.: “Concerning the Office of Preaching.” The Book of Concord, Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 40.
Robert Jenson, “Sacraments of the Word,” Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) p.302-305.
Apology to the Augsburg Confessions, Articles VII and VIII, Book of Concord: Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 178.
Victor Shepherd, sermon printed on Voices United website, 1997.
Wangerin, Walt, “Ashamed of Jesus?” The Lutheran, Vol. 8, no. 6 (June 1995), p. 6.
Larson, Linda, “The Person and Work of God the Son,” Lutheran Forum, Advent 1995, p.28.
Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), p.1-3.
Dallas Willard, “Studies in the Book of Acts: Journey into the Spiritual Unknown” (unpublished study guide).
Ibid., p. 161.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Revised edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963), p.166-167.