Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
June 15, 1008
Text: Matt. 9:35-10:20

“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36; ESV). Sheep need a shepherd. Without a shepherd, the sheep are liable to graze upon poison plants, or starve for lack of good food, or be so intent upon their grazing that they wander right into the clutches of a robber or a wolf. Sheep need a shepherd to protect them from harm, and lead them to what is good. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:11). A good shepherd will give his all, even his very life, for the protection of his beloved sheep. That is the kind of Shepherd Jesus is for you and for me. He did give His life for us, for our forgiveness and life. Such compassion does Jesus have for His people, harassed and helpless as we are, that He cannot help but be such a Shepherd for us.

Jesus knows that His flock, the holy Christian Church, needs shepherding. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd. And yet since His ascension into heaven, even though He is truly present with us as both God and man, we cannot see Him with our eyes. So Jesus, again, in His compassion for the harassed and helpless sheep of His fold, has appointed undershepherds to tend the flock. In our text, no sooner had Jesus commanded His disciples, all those who were following Him, to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38), than He called twelve of those disciples to be His apostles, His “sent ones,” as the word apostle literally means, His undershepherds, those who were to speak His Word and be the twelve new patriarchs of the new, spiritual Israel, the New Testament Church. He called the Twelve and gave them the authority to speak His Word and do His works (10:1). All that these apostles did was to be in the stead and by the authority of Christ. They would be His mouthpiece and His hands in the world. Whatever they said in the office of apostle would be Christ’s own Word, so that when the apostles dealt with the flock, it would be just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ, our dear Lord dealt with the flock Himself. And certainly these Twelve apostles had spectacular gifts to back up their claims. Jesus gave them authority to cast out demons and to heal every kind of dread disease and affliction. These powerful gifts not only gave legitimacy to the apostles’ ministry, they were a continuation of the very things Jesus had been doing in His earthly ministry, as our Gospel lesson begins, “Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (9:35). This is the ministry to which the apostles were called.

Jesus gives the apostles some marching orders. In this beginning part of their ministry, they are not to go to the Gentiles, but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5). Later Jesus will command the apostles, and by extension, the Christian Church, to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all things whatsoever Jesus has commanded (Matt. 28:19-20), but for now, the disciples were to concentrate their efforts on their Jewish brothers and sisters. And the apostles were given a specific message to proclaim: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (10:7). It is the same message John the Baptist preached in preparation for Jesus’ ministry, and the message of Jesus Himself, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17). And it is this very message that Christian pastors and the Holy Christian Church of all times and places are called upon to proclaim: Jesus is here with forgiveness and life! Repent of your sins, and believe the good news!

As an aid to this preaching, the apostles were to do the spectacular miracles of healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons. Now these were gifts unique the apostles, and nowhere do the Scriptures promise these gifts would continue among Christians, but again, these gifts were given to the apostles to show that their ministry was the very ministry of Christ Jesus Himself, carried out by their hands. They were His undershepherds, servants of the Chief Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally Jesus told His disciples, “You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food” (10:8-9). In other words, the apostles were not to worry about earthly possessions. They were not to work for a wage. They were not to worry about whether they had saved up enough money before their journey began. Rather, the people of God were to take care of them, provide them with whatever happened to be needed; if money, then money; if food, then food; if clothing, then clothing; for the laborer deserves his food. Such grateful sheep provide for Christ’s undershepherds as those who receive and listen to their word. Of such our Lord commands, “if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it” (v. 13). Stay awhile, preach the Word, teach, baptize, administer the Sacrament, do the work I have called you to do among the people. But if the people refuse to hear the Word or receive it, leave the house, leave the town, and shake the dust off your heals as you go, as a testimony of the divine judgment they face.

And here’s the thing the apostles were to keep in mind: They should expect persecution and hatred. They should expect to be rejected as the undershepherds of Christ by the same people who reject Christ as the Chief Shepherd. For the apostles themselves are sheep, and they, too, need protection from the wolves. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (v. 16), says Jesus. “Be smart about your ministry, avoid persecution when you can do so in good conscience, but when the time comes, suffer as an innocent dove in the hands of a predator. For your reward is not in this earthly life. Let them drag you before their courts and synagogues and governors and kings. Just be faithful in your confession. Just trust Me. I am with you. Don’t be anxious about what you’re going to say, because I will give you My Holy Spirit, who will teach you what you are to say.” “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (v. 20). And a few verses beyond our text, Jesus promises, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (v. 22). The one who remains in the faith and confession of Jesus even unto death will have His reward in the life to come.

Well, even though these verses are addressed to the apostles and talk about a lot of things that are unique to the apostles’ situation, it’s not hard to make the connection with the modern day successors of the apostles, the Christian pastors. The word “pastor” means “shepherd.” Christian pastors are charged with shepherding the flock of the Holy Christian Church under the Chief Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. For the sheep need a shepherd. You, dearly beloved, need a shepherd. Jesus is your Good Shepherd, but you can’t see Him with your eyes, even though He is with you always. So Christ has given the Office of the Holy Ministry among you. He’s called a man, several men, in fact, through the course of time, from among you, the royal priesthood, to be His undershepherds in this place. They are ordinary men… I am an ordinary man, no less sinful than you are, no less in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, and certainly not worthy of any greater status before God. But by God’s gracious working, He has given you to me as my flock, and me to you as your shepherd. He has called an ordinary man, through you, the Church, to this office and work, to speak His Word and do His ministry in this place, to forgive the sins of the repentant and retain the sins of the unrepentant as long as they do not repent, to preach, to teach, to baptize, to administer the Sacrament, to warn against false doctrine, to visit the sick and the suffering, to counsel, and to pray. What an incredible gift! And here’s the promise: “The one who hears you hears me,” says Jesus to His apostles (Luke 10:16). That is to say that we should be certain “that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command,” regardless of who they are, and even if we find out later that they are evil, their dealings with us according to God’s Word are “just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”[1] You can be sure of this because of the Word and promise of Christ, because it is Christ who called the man and charged him with His ministry, it is Christ who does the ministry through the man He has called, and it is Christ who answers the prayers of the faithful to send out laborers into His harvest field. And so you can be sure of another thing: When your pastor declares to you, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins,” your sins are indeed forgiven. Eternal life and salvation are yours. All the benefits of the risen Christ’s cross and death are yours. For it is really Christ who forgives you.

It is Jesus’ great compassion that led Him to institute the Office of the Holy Ministry and give first apostles, and then their successors, pastors, to His Holy Christian Church. For we are harassed and helpless in this world, as sheep without a shepherd, under assault night and day by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. But Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He loves us, and does not leave us helpless. He comes to us, and in a very unexpected way… through the ministry of the Word. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Catechism quotes from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).

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