How challenging the ministry is, that we strive to transform lives! But who among us doesn't carry guilt for our failures?
During my first stint at the Seminary, almost 40 years ago, the faculty did theological interviews of fourth-year students. One of my favorite questions: “You're before God in judgment, and He shows you someone who is in hell, partly because you messed up in ministry, skandalon. What do you say to your Judge?” The answers were predictable. “He didn't understand me,” “she didn't come to me to talk about it” and similar self-justifications. I kept pressing until finally the student would say, “Well, Jesus died for my sin too.” Yes! The Gospel for Oct. 6 begins as a knife in our hearts for our failures in ministry. “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1–2).
That's a bummer of a first paragraph. After Jesus laid the millstone on His disciples, He shifted them to forgiveness, 70 times seven. The apostles realized we don't have this in ourselves. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). So, “Increase our faith!” we beg (Luke 17:5). Jesus pointed them, points us, to the total “otherness” of faith that frees us for service. “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Martin Luther describes us church workers as “rusty and rough hatchets.” “If someone cuts with a rusty and rough hatchet, even though the worker is a good craftsman, the hatchet leaves bad, jagged, and ugly gashes. So it is when God works through us” (Heidelberg Disputation, Proof 6). Jesus died for my sin too. Yes!
Hatchet jobs though we are, God transforms lives through our ministries, probably more than we know. To that purpose, I am increasingly fascinated by the quality of congregational life. Is this gathering of people different from all the other gatherings people experience during the week? Or do we find in the congregation the same pettiness, quarreling and self-justifications we find other places during the week? Is 70 times seven evident where we are servant leaders?
Having spent time around “sinners” and also around purported “saints,” I have a hunch why Jesus spent so much time with the former group: I think he preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest about themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them. In contrast, the saints put on airs, judged him, and sought to catch him in a moral trap. In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus. (Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing about Grace? In unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, 60)
“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. ... We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:1, 7). Your Seminary is thankful to God for you, our alumni. As we go about our various duties, may He give us all an increase in faith!
Dr. Dale A. Meyer, President
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis