8th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
July 17, 2016
“The Gift of an Overseer”
Most people like to receive gifts. But there’s an unspoken rule to gift-giving—when you buy your wife a gift, you’re supposed to try to give her something she wants. Maybe you’ve had the experience of opening a present and finding something that the giver wanted, but you’re not interested in, or a gift that they thought you should have. Then you strain out a smile and a “thank-you” and privately think, “Wow, they really don’t know me at all!”
Now, God is a giver of gifts. He gives generously to all without reproach (James 1:5). In fact, every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17). And God isn’t like a husband or a father who doesn’t know his wife or children very well and so gives them gifts they aren’t interested in. He knows you very well. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139: 2-4) Yet God’s gifts, particularly those He gives only to His children and not to the world, are gifts that we don’t want in the flesh. They don’t seem useful to us. They don’t seem to be what we need.
Today the appointed readings teach us about the danger of false prophets and teachers. But the second reading, from Acts, mentions a gift that the Holy Spirit has given to the church at Ephesus—the gift of pastors. In the reading Paul is speaking to the “elders of the church” in Ephesus. In our church we think of elders as lay leaders who are appointed to assist the pastor in matters of church discipline, but in the New Testament an elder is generally a man called by God to preach His Word and administer the Holy Sacraments.
In the letter to the Ephesians, chapter four, Paul makes clear that pastors are gifts Christ gave to the Church when He ascended to heaven to reign until His return on judgment day. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’…And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…[Eph. 4: 7-8, 11-12]
And in the reading from Acts, Paul exhorts these pastors: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [that is, literally, to shepherd or pastor] the church of God which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The Holy Spirit, says Paul, has appointed you men to be overseers over this gathering that Jesus obtained with His blood and to pastor them. These pastors were given by the Holy Spirit to His congregation.
As I said, God’s gifts to His Church don’t appear to be good gifts to the mind of the flesh. First of all, most of us don’t think of someone to oversee us as a particularly good gift. By nature we don’t like to be overseen; we don’t like to be directed. We like to be independent. And we especially resent it if someone tells us we are going in the wrong direction.
But secondly, most pastors aren’t that amazing that we would call them “gifts.” Out of all the pastors I had in my life, only one did I really like and admire so much that it would have occurred to me to call him a “gift from God.” And then he left the ministry.
The rest of the time, if you had asked me what gift I desired from God, what gift I needed, the last thing I would have said was “a pastor.” I needed help overcoming my faults and sins; I needed help succeeding at my work; I needed help knowing what the purpose of my life was; I needed help finding a wife. Those were all things that I thought I needed. But the pretty ordinary men I knew as my pastors? How was that the gift I needed?
And I imagine you probably think the same way, if you think about it at all. I am sure that each one of you has crosses to bear that occupy most of your attention. I know that, for many of you, the crosses seem to be never-ending, “one thing after another.” I’m not suggesting that this gift of God of a pastor, an overseer, will make those crosses go away, because God has a purpose in those crosses that He sends you.
What I am saying is that despite how it appears to the wisdom of your flesh, a pastor is a gift from God to His Church, a gift that you need more than lots of others you think you need. In the same way the Christians in your congregation are a gift from God that you need. Many people seem to think that they can be Christians and be saved without the Christians in a local congregation and without a pastor. That may be true in situations where Christians are forced to be without a congregation and pastor—when they are imprisoned, persecuted, or sick—but ordinarily it is not the case.
Meanwhile, it may well be that some of the crosses we bear individually are heavier because we don’t make use of the gifts God has given us in the Church and in our pastor. We carry things alone that other believers in the congregation could help us carry; and while they are ordinary people, like us, we forget that they also have the Holy Spirit, and that He has given each Christian gifts to benefit the rest of the congregation.
But how is a pastor a gift from God?
Often we think of gifts as “extras,”—not something we need, but something someone gives to us beyond what we need. Pastors are not gifts in this sense. God says Christians need pastors. The Church doesn’t need men who set themselves up as spiritual leaders and teachers of God’s Word. But she does need men whom God calls and sends to preach His Word, to oversee her, feed her with His Word, defend her with His Word. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…(Acts 20:28) The fact that it was the Holy Spirit who made these men overseers in the Church means that the Holy Spirit deemed it to be necessary for the Church in Ephesus. But it was not only in Ephesus. Paul’s practice was to appoint elders or pastors in every congregation. He tells Titus, This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).
The institution of what the Lutheran Confessions call “the office of the ministry” or “the preaching office” goes back to the Lord Jesus. Before His ascension, He commissioned His disciples to preach the Gospel and establish the Church throughout the world. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20). Through the apostles, the Holy Spirit called together the first believers and established the congregations in different cities. But then the ministry that was given to the apostles first was also entrusted to other men in those congregations, and they would carry on the work of preaching the saving Word, baptizing, catechizing and instructing in the faith, giving the Lord’s Supper, absolving the repentant, and shepherding the flock.
The ministry is necessary for us; we need it. Through it the Holy Spirit gives us the saving Gospel of Christ and the sacraments. Yet, even though it is necessary for us, it is a gift, just as the Gospel itself is a gift. We didn’t do anything to become worthy of God becoming man and being condemned in our place, for our sins, on the cross, and rising again for our justification. God gave His Son for us as a gift. And we didn’t become Christians because we had done anything to earn it. As a gift, God caused us to be baptized and gave us faith in Christ. And it is also a gift that God’s Word continues to be preached and taught among us. It is a gift that we are absolved, that our children our baptized, that we receive Christ’s body and blood. We aren’t owed these gifts. In fact, by taking these gifts lightly we have deserved that they be taken away from us. But God continues to give them to us freely.
In the same way, when God calls a man to give out the Word and Sacraments in our midst, to fight against false teaching, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to us when we are sick, when we are dying, when we are in trouble, this is a gift from God we haven’t earned. We need it to be built up in the faith and preserved to eternal life, but just because we need it doesn’t mean we are owed it. God gives us pastors out of grace, as a gift.
Now, human wisdom can’t imagine that it would be a gift to have an “overseer” and have a human being “shepherding” us. An “overseer” reminds us of a slave-driver with a whip in his hand.
But anyone who has knowledge from God’s Word about his sinful nature and what it is capable of would have to acknowledge that we need oversight. Adam and Eve in paradise had no sin and they lived in the presence of God, and yet they were deceived by the lies of Satan and condemned themselves and their children to eternal damnation. And what about you? Do you think you can’t easily be led astray, to believe false doctrine and be destroyed by it? Anyone who thinks that is already deceived and led astray. And we aren’t even talking about our tendency here to fall into vices and give into evil desires.
It is a gift to be overseen, watched over, and directed when the one who oversees, shepherds, and defends us is not a mere man, but Jesus our Savior. But Jesus doesn’t simply watch over us, teach us, and guide us in our hearts—He uses His Word, written in Scripture and spoken by other Christians. He calls pastors to oversee and shepherd the Church not with their own thoughts, according to their own desires, but by His Word.
And this is why pastors whom God has called and who carry out their calling are a gift from Him. Outside the church there are all kinds of people that want to guide you, offer to care for you and watch over you. But their guidance doesn’t come from God. It comes from human wisdom and the human heart, and both of these are captive to more powerful forces. Paul wrote to the Ephesians we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Earlier in the same letter he says that the normal course of things in this world is that people follow the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). The devil holds the world in captivity; he “oversees” them so that they remain in spiritual darkness and so that they will be damned by him.
In the Holy Christian Church, it is not that way. Here God’s Word reigns and rules in the hearts of believers. Yet the devil wants to break in with his deception into the Church. He tries to capture congregations so that what is called the Church of Christ no longer believes and confesses Christ’s teaching but his deceptions. In the reading, Paul warns and exhorts the pastors in Ephesus about this. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. (Acts. 20:29-31)
Pastors are a gift from God because they oversee the Church. They care for it like a shepherd. That means, of course, that they feed the church—they give it the law of God and the Gospel. They preach God’s commandments and exhort us to live a holy life; they expose our sin; they proclaim that the blood of Christ has washed away our sins, and that His perfect righteousness is given as a free gift from God. They baptize, absolve, give the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
But they also expose false teaching and false teachers, warning the Church against them, and striving in prayer, preaching, and teaching, that the congregation may receive, confess, believe, and live by God’s Word.
It isn’t only pastors who are called to be vigilant against false teaching and false teachers. Jesus tells all Christians in our Gospel reading, “Beware of false prophets.” If a pastor is rightly called into the ministry, but begins to teach what is contrary to God’s Word, the Christians in the congregation are not supposed to put up with it because “he’s the pastor.” They are called by the Lord to test the teaching they receive against the Scripture and against the basics of the faith taught in the creed and the catechism, which are drawn from Scripture. If the pastor contradicts these, he should be shown his error, and if he will not repent, he should be removed as not a pastor sent by God, but a “ravenous wolf.”
All this is true. But just as a shepherd has to not only feed and lead his flock, gather the strayed sheep, tend to the sick, and so on, but also has to defend the sheep from predators—even at the risk of his life—so it is a pastor’s job not only to teach the church, build it up, comfort it, but also to fight against false teaching when it creeps into the church, and to endure suffering when this fight arouses opposition.
Why is this such a great gift? Because there is one thing we really need for this world and especially at the end of this world—the forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake, as a free gift. Yet the devil is constantly at work to take this away. He wants to destroy our faith individually, but he accomplishes far more if he can cause the Gospel to be buried in the church, or forgotten, or even taken away entirely.
So how do we receive this gift of God of a pastor or overseer?
First of all, we recognize that a pastor, however humble, has been appointed from the Holy Spirit if he has been rightly called.
Secondly, a pastor is always to be tested and evaluated, but not in an earthly way. We should always test whether what he teaches and commands is God’s Word or not. Secondly, we evaluate his life—not that he is without faults or frailties, but that he does not live in open wickedness or put a stumbling block in the way of God’s word by his life.
Third, if a pastor teaches God’s word as he is called, we receive him as a gift from God when we faithfully hear his preaching and teaching and regard it not as his word, but God’s. This means not only that we hear it as fulfilling an obligation, but that we seek it out, that we seek to grow by it in knowledge and in God-pleasing works.
Fourth, we receive the gift of an overseer when we are obedient to the pastor when what he speaks is not his word but God’s. This is difficult to hear for us, but it is true. God commands us to be obedient to parents and rulers, and when we are not, we sin and incur His judgment and wrath. When God sends you an overseer, a pastor, he does not require you to obey him in his personal opinions. But when a pastor says something to you that God has said, he speaks to you in the name of God. This is why Hebrews says Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)
How often we don’t recognize or esteem God’s gifts! It’s true of our daily bread, our life, and the gifts of creation. It’s even more true of the gifts that He gives to His Church—the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, the Sacraments, the Church. It’s also true of the ministry.
Let us give thanks today for the Gospel of Christ—for His righteousness that fulfills the Law, His obedient death in our place.
Let us give thanks for the Holy Church, in which He distributes this righteousness through His Word and Sacraments, and comforts us through those He redeems and sanctifies.
Let us give thanks also for the Holy Ministry He established and gave to the Church, and for the ministers He sends to shepherd us with His Word. Let us pray for their blessing, for help in their ministry, and for a recognition of the greatness of His gift that He sends someone to apply His speak His Word to us—both His humbling judgment in the law, and His declaration that we are righteous in Christ in the Holy Gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria
Authored By De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine