For the third day in a row Lutheran Service Book gives us a festival relating to the Office of the Holy Ministry. First came St. Timothy (24 January), then came the Conversion of St. Paul (25 January). Today it's St. Titus, another young pastor recruited by St. Paul. Here are some reflections on the readings for this feast day:
The first reading for today gives us St. Paul's exhortation to pastors (shepherds) in general: "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood" (v. 28). The shepherd's job is simply and faithfully to care for the Good Shepherd's blood-bought flock, feeding the lambs on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That sounds simple enough, until we read on to discover the real challenge of the the Office. Fierce wolves, a.k.a. false teachers, self-serving preachers, etc., will insert themselves into the flock of the Church. They will come from without and within. The latter - the fierce wolves that come from within the Church - may be the more dangerous. You see, such fierce wolves speak twisted things, things that sound true, Scriptural, or churchly, but things that draw attention away from the Good Shepherd. Why? Because those wolves really want to draw away the lambs after themselves. Watch out for the personality cults of any shape, size, or stripe. Watch out for those who are more "effective leaders" than they are faithful shepherds. Watch out for those who receive the accolades of being "a godly man" while they say very little about the God-Man who lived, died, and rose again to redeem the flock from the clutches of sin, death, and the devil. Instead, as St. Paul directs our attention, look to "God and the word of his grace," because that "is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (v. 32). Thank God for the true "godly men," faithful pastors and confessors, because they will be the ones that tell the flock, "Don't look at me; don't praise my work or my qualities! Rather, look to the true godly Man, the God-Man who actually shed His blood to cleanse you and redeem you!" The Church (flock) and her pastors (shepherds) have but one mission in life: helping those who are weak in their sin and death and remembering and proclaiming the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now we meet St. Titus himself, through the words of the Apostle Paul. Paul greets Titus by appealing to "the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began" (vv. 1-2). Paul's work, and by extension Titus' work, focuses on God's eternal will for all people. The ministry and the Church are far different from - and far above - the programmatic, business-like pursuits that so often mark modern churches and 21st century pastors. The ministry and the Church get to proclaim and revel in the life of heaven here on earth - the true life that God intended from the beginning, the true life that He restores in the death and resurrection of His Son, the true life that He delivers in the Gospel proclaimed and the Sacraments given out, the true life that comes to full fruition and complete revelation on the Last Day.
This is why St. Paul left St. Titus on the island of Crete - to make it an "outpost" of eternity here on earth, a "colony" of the life of love from and with God here in the day-to-day life of battling sin, temptation, evil, self-serving, death, etc. And notice how Titus - the overseer (episkopos) - was to carry that out: by appointing elders (presbyterous) in every town. We may not have a specific command to follow this kind of church polity (a wink and a nod for those who get nervous twitches at the mere thought of a command! ;-), but we certainly have a salutary example, a description of a reality worth regaining. And then St. Paul reminds Titus and all pastors/priests of those characteristics and habits that best befit their office. My, how we clergy need that list! My, how we need the reminders - from bishops (not bureaucrats!) - to care for our wives and children (instead of being "married" to the congregation or denomination and its plethora of extracurricular activities), to be stewards of God's things, to be above reproach, humble, patient, sober, calm, and content with the crumbs that fall from the Master's table. My, how we clergy need to be hospitable, lovers of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. Most of all, my, how God's shepherds need to "hold firmly to the trustworthy word as taught," that is, to the Word made Flesh who dwelt among us long ago and still dwells among us in His Body and Blood on the Altar.
In this reading our Lord Jesus sends out the seventy-two to proclaim the Gospel. (Okay, some manuscripts say "seventy." Big deal! What's two more preachers of the Gospel here or there? Hey, the more the merrier! :-) Our Lord's missionaries - the ones sent by Him - go out as laborers in His field, as lambs who may very well be easy prey for vicious wolves, as men who need not worry about their wallets, their suitcases, or their shoes. After all, if God could preserve and provide for the Israelites, and their shoes did not wear out, for 40 years, He can certainly take care of His "sent ones" who proclaim His kingdom of mercy, grace, and forgiveness! Our Lord's missionaries - the ones ordered (ordained) by Him - are to imitate His ministry of healing the sick and proclaiming that the Kingdom has come...in Him. Sounds like another way of saying, "Preach the coming of Christ here and now, and bring people to the healing life of God in the Sacraments"! Some may receive it; others may not. However, the Lord's missionaries are to let Him worry about those who reject Him. He will deal with those who reject the Kingdom and its healing; His missionaries are simply to wipe the dust off their feet and move on. After all, the Kingdom of God and His healing of forgiveness, life, and salvation cannot be forced on those who insist on rejecting it. That would not be the way of Divine Love! (And neither should the message of the Kingdom and the King's healing be changed, altered, or amended so as to appeal to more masses and fill more pews. Setting that message on the shelf in the back room while we (pastors) find other ways to lure people into our churches ("missions") may very well be tantamount to not receiving the King!)
And in verses that follow the assigned reading (Luke 10:17-20), we discover that the seventy-two actually had some "success" in their mission of preaching the Kingdom (Jesus) and healing the sin-sick (Sacraments). But Jesus tells them not to let their achievements go to their heads. Yes, as they labored in His field, He "saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven"; yes, they had authority over serpents, scorpions, and all the power of the enemy. But they were not to rejoice in these things. Yes, when a faithful pastor dutifully proclaims Christ crucified and risen, when he baptizes, communes, and absolves, Satan's domain is greatly weakened and toppled. But let's not rejoice in such things that are beyond our control. Instead, let us join the seventy-two and rejoice that our names are written in heaven! Let us rejoice that our Lord Jesus makes us part of His Kingdom and grants us healing from our many sins and weaknesses, faults and failures. After all, that's the only thing we really have to proclaim and confess!
All praise for faithful pastors,
Who preached and taught Your Word;
For Timothy and Titus
True servants of their Lord.
Lord, help Your pastors nourish
The souls within their care,
So that Your Church may flourish
And all Your blessings share. (LSB 517:11)
Almighty God, You called Titus to the work of pastor and teacher. Make all shepherds of Your flock diligent in preaching Your holy Word so that the whole world may know the immeasurable riches of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.