Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Readings: Acts 16:1–5 | 1 Timothy 6:11–16 | Matthew 24:42–47
Text: 1 Timothy 6:11-16
Today, we commemorate Timothy, a young man of a mixed Jewish-Greek marriage, whose believing grandmother Lois, and mother Eunice, nurtured in him a messianic faith that was kindled when St. Paul came to Lystra (2 Tim. 1:5, Acts 16:1-5). He went with Paul on his journey, as an example of God’s mercy to Jews and Gentiles alike. Later, he worked in Berea and Macedonia, and from the two letters written to him, we also know that he was formally ordained into the ministry of the Gospel (2 Tim. 1:6). Today’s epistle reading comes from spiritual-fatherly advice of Paul.
Not everything that St. Paul was writing to Timothy was groundbreaking: “godliness with contentment is great gain…But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6:6, 9) Again, at the end of the reading, he says, “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.” The importance of a temperate life and that God is exalted high above the world—these were not foreign ideas and even the greatest Greek minds like Plato and Aristotle would agree.
The incredible thing about the Blessed and Only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords is how He reaches us. The immortal One, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see sends His Holy Spirit to reveal Himself in our midst. We might expect Him to come in angelic visions or for awesome signs to occur when He reaches out to someone. I mean, that’s how it happened for St. Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
But as we commemorate St. Timothy, it’s clear that the immortal, invisible, sovereign God comes through words on human lips. The way He has made Himself known is incredible: in the flesh. Not just the Incarnation, but also in human messengers. For Timothy, it was his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, and then the missionary Paul. Through their nurture in the faith, Timothy came to know this God and Savior personally, not just as a rich tradition of his forebearers.
Now, who was it for you? Who was it in your life who nurtured you in the faith? It could have been several people. But the example of Timothy reminds us that the evangelistic task is put into the hands of believing men and women. How will your family, friends, and neighbors know of Christ unless someone who knows Christ tells them? Without that light, all they will see is unapproachable light, and not the flesh and blood of the Savior who came that they might dwell with Him in glory and eternal peace.
Together with everyday believers, another part of the way the Sovereign and Incarnate God comes to us is through the ministry of the servants He calls. He puts His sacred and saving word on the lips of a man. Upon this man—who has no other worthiness except for Christ’s call and the Spirit He bestows for the task—He puts the words of eternal life (John 6:63). Spoken by a man, He releases sinners from their bondage, consecrates bread and wine as His Body and Blood, teaches and builds up His beloved people, and more.
Yet, today, there are many distorted views of this part of how the Lord has ordered His Church. Flash forward two centuries, and you’ll find that a lot of history influences how we understand this ministry. We see a lot of human failings in it—the judgmental attitudes, abuses of trust, a teaching that nobody can come to God except by an approved priest. So, among Christians, there’s a desire to avoid those human failings by avoiding what it means to have a pastor.
One of the places this is lived out is in the practice of the Lord’s Supper. The pastoral ministry is the nexus of for a lot of misunderstandings and conflicts of conscience that sinners have with the Lord.
Some see the Sacrament as something that the pastor just serves a dispenser. It is enough for me to have my private belief and of course I’m worthy to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus because I haven’t been that bad of a sinner. Don’t get in the way of me and Jesus.
And if it isn’t up to a pastor to determine my eligibility, then I’m in control of the way I live. If it’s a shame to God’s Name, no matter. Jesus did for all my sins, right? So if I live like the unbelievers around me, but call myself a Christian then that’s ok, right? But no way will I let a pastor judge me and tell me what I should do. What business does he have telling me what’s right? “Only God can judge me!” we hear ourselves say.
Sometimes, we come to the Sacrament merely as a matter of doctrinal agreement. If I personally know that it is Jesus’ Body and Blood, then that’s all I really need. As long as I’m personally served, well and good. I don’t really know what the Church body teaches, or what the person sitting next to me believes. Just let me come to the Sacrament and go in peace without thought of others.
Pastors, for their part, also have their own misconceptions. Young pastors might think their duty is fulfilled when they present to the congregation a steady diet of orthodox teaching. No matter if people even know what that means, much less if they agree with it. In the language of the Parable of the Sower, this is like strapping on a gas-powered seed broadcaster, and hoping you hit enough good soil. As long as the pastor knows he’s giving them something more substantial than the box church down the street, then he’s done his job.
When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, pastors are tempted to oversimplify, and assume that anyone who bears the “Missouri Synod” stamp of approval should commune. On the other hand, telling people no might make you feel uneasy, so you just put an explanation in the bulletin and call it a day. That way, if anyone communes for whom it would be harmful, you can just place the blame on them for not listening. Pastors will be tempted to tell people what satisfies their itching ears, or quiets a conscience that really should be nagging. And if you do, there will be gain in the world, but what happens to the hearers?
In all these examples, us fallen creatures set up an idea of God and how He dwells among His people that doesn’t really fit with the Words of our Lord. As uncomfortable as it may be, He desires a much more from those who follow Him and those who serve Him.
He says in the Gospel reading today, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” (Matt. 24:45-46) The Immortal, Invisible, Only Sovereign, sets up men as servants to watch over his household. It’s their duty to give His household the portion they need at the proper time—sometimes the reproof of His Law, and other times the comfort and strengthening of His Gospel. Yes, they’re ordinary men, who can err, but it’s the Lord’s wisdom and His promise of how He works that this ministry does incredible, eternal things.
He also says in John 21 to Peter the “chief” of the Apostles: “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17) The job of the pastor is to tend and feed, and the role of the sheep is to be tended. That means it’s actually a good and necessary thing to be corrected and brought back into the fold when a sheep is wandering in dangerous territory. Yes, of course, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who knows His own, but He does His tending with human hands. So, neither should the pastor neglect the flock when he sees danger (John 10:12-13), nor should the Lord’s sheep think they’re doing fine out in the field by themselves.
Finally, Paul tells Timothy in his second letter, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:1-2) Almighty God reaches us not only through the comfort spoken by the Gospel, but sometimes it’s necessary that He reprove and correct us. Yes, of course, the pastor could be off-base, but that really shouldn’t be our first thought. Because we believe that the one who dwells in unapproachable light makes Himself known through human means, our first thought really ought to be that maybe the Lord is trying to get our attention and we should pay attention. If we have doubt, we check His Word, because He will never lead us astray.
How amazing that the Holy One comes into our midst and doesn’t just inform us with sacred understanding, but He actually cares for us—through the love and words of Christians, and the faithful ministry of pastors like St. Timothy. What a comfort it is to know that our Good Shepherd cares for us each day, not just by imagining Him to be with us, but in the flesh and blood of His people and the pastoral care of men who follow in the example of St. Timothy. Amen.