The Job Description
Editor’s note: Joel Biermann preached the following sermon on July 21, 2013, at the ordination of his son-in-law, Martin Dressler. The now-Reverend Dressler is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, Milford, MI.
“The Job Description” (Colossians 1:21-29)
One year and one day ago, Martin, I stood before you wearing this same alb, preaching a sermon to you. Of course, on that day, Justine was standing on your immediate left and I was preaching a very different sermon. The two of you were entering into that wonderful sacred estate called marriage where as husband and wife you embrace, embody, and display the reality of the relationship between Christ and his church. What a year it has been. Now, today, the focus is not on the image and reflection, but on the actual thing. Today, it’s all about Christ and his church. And it is a big event. Martin, this is the day when you answer God’s call and enter into the Office of the Holy Ministry: God’s pastor to serve God’s church. As it was a year ago, it is today, a great privilege to preach.
An ordination and an installation of a pastor are significant events—both for the pastor and for the church. It’s right that there is a festive spirit in the air. It’s fitting that special preparations have been made. It’s good that this new pastor and his family have been welcomed with warmth and enthusiasm. It’s wonderful that a time of eating and celebrating has been planned. This is a special event. Years ago, one of the times when I was being installed as a pastor, one of my new parishioners recognized the significance of the event, and carefully videotaped the entire event. Later, when he actually gave me a copy of the tape, the label on the case said: “Service of Inauguration”. It was an understandable mistake: it is after all a very special event, putting a new person into an important office with much ritual and tradition. It does feel a bit like an inauguration.
I suppose it makes sense to think of the start of a pastor’s ministry in political leadership terms, and so see it as an inauguration. Or, maybe, it’s military imagery that controls our understanding of the event, and we might consider this day as a sort of transfer of power, like a new captain taking command of a ship. Or, the controlling metaphor might be the world of business and so we would be here today to welcome the arrival of a new CEO who is to be entrusted with the management and oversight of this business we call the church. An ordination and installation are important and significant—every bit as significant as the making of a CEO, a commander, or even a president. But, none of those images are quite right. What’s happening here today is bigger, greater, more profound and more important than any of those things. None of them come close to capturing the incredible significance of this day.
We have a tendency to think too little of the church. By that I’m not saying that we don’t spend enough time on any given day contemplating the church. I’m saying that we have too low a view of the church. We diminish her. We grossly underestimate her significance and her vital importance. We make wrong assumptions about what the church is and what the church is supposed to do and we end up completely missing the true nature and purpose of the church. Because we recognize certain similarities, we figure that the church is like other institutions that impact our lives. The church, it seems, is like the Red Cross, an institution for helping people. It does nice things for others and helps in a crisis. Or the church is like a hospital or clinic, dispensing cures for life’s problems and patching up wounds. Or the church is a weekly motivational seminar aimed at picking up your mood and energizing you for the week ahead. Or the church is a counseling center providing guidance for life and offering help in straightening out messed-up relationships. Or like the Boy Scouts, the church helps to instill good morals and upright character in people. Or the church is a benevolent corporation, like a company with a conscience, in the business of trying to make the world a nicer and fairer place. None of these are right. They don’t even come close. When you think of the church in these ways, you think much too little of her. When you think like this, you see the church as one more thing to fit into life. Going to church once or twice a week is just another part of a busy routine—maybe an important part, but just a part—one more thing to do. This is wrong. This is cheapening and destroying the wonder and the beauty, the glory and the mystery that belong essentially to the church.
The church is the Bride of Christ. The church is the Body of Christ. Think of that. The church is the tangible visible presence of Christ in the world. The church is God here and now doing his work. The church is God’s chosen means to bring about the salvation and the restoration of the entire world. The future of the universe hinges on the church. The eternal purpose and meaning of the entire creation depends on the church. The future destiny of every single person in the world is in the hands of the church. You can’t get any bigger than that.
The church is more, far more, important and more significant than any corporation or organization that exists or has ever existed in the world. The church matters more, much more, than the politics or the fate of any nation or any empire. Here, God gives his grace. Here, he extends his forgiveness. Here, he speaks his story of all things made new in Christ. Here, he delivers the truth of his plan to reclaim all that exists according to his design. The church is not one religion among many; it is the one true expression of God’s truth and it is here—and here alone—that God is accomplishing his plan for the salvation and the re-creation of the world. This is what matters. This is what everything is all about. Any other view of the church is woefully deficient and unworthy of the bride and body of Christ. When you think of the church as anything less, you dishonor God, and miss this universe’s greatest truth. The fact that the world does not see this is irrelevant. It is God’s reality, and you must see it.
When we think too little of the church, underestimate its importance, sell it short, and get it wrong, it is inevitable that we get pastors wrong as well. When we expect too little of the church, we end up expecting too much of pastors. We expect too much of them because we demand of them what they were not sent to do. Many studies relate the sad fact of something that gets called pastoral burnout. And the stories of parishioners dissatisfied with a pastor who is not doing what they expected him to do are too many to count. How could it be otherwise? When you look to the church to do all the sorts of things you think it should do—from hospital to therapy center, to entertainment venue—you look to the pastor to be the one to facilitate those activities. And it seems that everyone has a different critical thing that a pastor “must do”. But when you get your understanding of the church straight, you also get your understanding of pastors straight.
Let me be crystal clear on this. The pastor is not called to a congregation to train children in some good, solid, morality. He is not sent to a local church to help cultivate spirituality and a sense of holiness among people. He is not called to a congregation to preach an upbeat sermon on Sunday so that the people can get their week off to a nice positive start. He is not present to patch people up after a tough week. Pastors do not exist to provide the basic religious services of hatching, matching and dispatching. Pastors are not called to lead the troops into battle, or captain the ship through the shoals. They do not arrive at a congregation to serve as CEO that can turn a profit for the organization, or to be a coach who can lead the team to victory. They are neither CEOs nor coaches. Pastors do not exist in order to energize and organize the workers. They do not come to a congregation in order to bring some fresh blood and excitement. They are not called to grow the church or to revitalize the people. None of these things are what a pastor is called to do.
A pastor is called by God through a congregation to go to that gathering of his people and to do his work among them. Your pastor is called by God through you to do God’s work among you. And God’s work is very simple: to bring Christ and his grace to you, and to make certain that you stay in that grace. That’s what pastors do. Pastors bring Christ to people. God has arranged it that way from the very beginning. Where there is a church there must be a pastor. God will not leave his people without a man, without a pastor, to deliver his gifts to them. So, your pastor comes to your congregation according to the will and purpose of God to be your gospel deliveryman. That’s what he does. That’s his job description. He makes God’s story real and relevant in your life. He forms you into the shape of that story. He enacts the re-creation of the whole world, and guides you into that wonderful eternal celebration. This vital work he does through God’s chosen means. He does it by preaching. In the pulpit your pastor tells God’s story to you and shows you how that story norms you and transforms you. He proclaims to you the wonderful news that in Christ all of your failures and all of your shortcomings and all of your willful disobedient sinfulness is all covered and forgiven and gone. He tells you that truth again and again and again. He will never get tired of it. It’s his reason for being.
And your pastor will deliver God’s grace to you through the sacraments. He will baptize your babies and your adult converts. Through him God will bring dead people to life. And he will remind you of your own death and resurrection in the waters of baptism. He will call you to the altar, and here he will feed you with Christ himself. The reality of God’s work in Christ will be at work in you as you eat and drink the body and blood of your Lord and receive all of his gifts. Your pastor brings Christ to you that’s what he’s here to do. And then he will work, and he will work mightily, to keep you in Christ. It will not be easy. Sometimes he will need to encourage. Other times he will need to warn. He will sometimes have to admonish and maybe even rebuke. At times it will be uncomfortable and downright unpleasant for everyone. But, he has no choice. It’s his call. He’s got to do it. He’s got to keep you in Christ, and nothing can get in the way of that, not even you. And he will teach, and he will teach, and he will teach, striving always to make you strong in your faith, certain in your doctrine, and bold in your confession. You see, the goal is nothing less than breathtaking and astonishingly ambitious. Every man, every man is to be made complete, mature, perfect in Christ. Every single man. That includes you. That includes all the people all around you—even those who have yet to hear about Christ and his incredible story of restoration and eternal life. Your pastor is committed to making sure that this place becomes a place that is filled with people who get the gospel and who work hard to make sure that others get it as well. This is what pastors do. This is what pastors are for. Your pastor is here to make sure that you are made perfect in Christ. That’s God’s purpose and your pastor is God’s tool in that purpose.
Sometimes it is openly acknowledged, and other times it’s only a tacit understanding, but it is typically the case in marriage that the wife sees her husband as her project. This is a very good thing. A faithful and godly wife wants her husband to be all that he can be, and she will work tirelessly to help make that happen. A wise husband appreciates this and cooperates with the process. You, my friend, are God’s project. In the marriage of Christ and the church, you are the project. You are the object of God’s work. He does this work using his tool, the pastor. Your pastor is God’s gift to you, sent here to bring you Christ, to keep you in Christ, to perfect you in Christ. Your pastor’s goal and purpose is you. You—complete in Christ. You…you—perfect in Christ. Wow, what a goal. It’s going to take some work. It won’t always be easy. And of course, it’s a goal that isn’t going to be fulfilled until the very end. But it will happen. You can be sure of it. You have God’s word on it. Perfect in Christ—God has already made it so and will bring the reality to stunning fruition on the last day, the day when Christ’s story is brought to its glorious finale. Until then you are God’s project. Until then, you’ve got the church to keep you in Christ. Until then you’ve got your pastor. Thank God for him. Amen.