Throughout our midweek services during this season of Lent, we have been meditating on the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism, “certain passages of Scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.” We have heard Bible passages applying to government and to citizens, to husbands and to wives, to parents and to children, to workers and to employers and supervisors, and last week to youth, to widows, and to everyone. There is one more pairing in the Table of Duties, one more set of holy orders, which actually appears at the head of the list, although we have saved it for our meditation on this Holy Thursday evening.
Part of the reason for the Table of Duties was to emphasize for God’s people that priests and monks are not the only ones who are in holy orders. God considers all of the callings that He gives to be holy, so the vocation of citizen is not any lower than the vocation of the government. The vocation of husband is not any holier than the vocation of wife or children. They are all equally holy because they equally come from God. This is emphasized right at the head of the Table of Duties where the Scripture passages that are specific to the holy orders of Bishops, Pastors, and Preachers are placed alongside of the holy order of those who hear God’s Word from them and the Scripture passages that describe What the Hearers Owe Their Pastors.
Months ago, when planning the services for Lent and Holy Week, I thought it would be appropriate to consider these callings of preachers and hearers tonight in order to counter the false belief that there is something inherently special about the pastor that gives him the power to enact the Lord’s Supper, which Christ Jesus instituted on the night when He was betrayed. There is nothing special about the pastor or bishop that would give him the power to do this. The power, as with all the sacraments, lies entirely in the Word of Christ.
But the bishops, pastors, and preachers are the ones whom God has called to proclaim that Word and to be stewards of His mysteries, as St. Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 4:1). This is the way that God has always chosen to interact with His people. And He needed to interact with them in order to save them. In the Old Testament reading we heard how Moses spoke the LORD’s word to the people, and they listened and vowed their obedience. Then, not only Moses, but also his brother Aaron, the high priest, and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, also priests, and the seventy elders of Israel, chosen by God to relay His judgments to the people, went up the mountain into the presence of God. “They beheld God and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11).
There was really nothing special about Moses, other than he was called by God from the burning bush. There was nothing special about Aaron, he was called by God when Moses said he couldn’t speak well in public. There was nothing special about Nadab and Abihu except that they were sons of Aaron and God decided to call his family line to serve as high priests on behalf of his people. There was nothing special about the seventy elders either, other than that God told Moses to pick seventy men of the people.
Our sinful reaction to God’s calling might be to complain that God did not choose me for any special task. But in choosing some to be His spokesmen, His pastors and preachers, it means that He had already chosen you for something. He has chosen you to receive His Word proclaimed by pastors and preachers. For God did not have them in mind first and then decide that they needed someone to listen to them. Rather, God had you in mind first, knowing that you needed to hear His Word to you, and so He called bishops and pastors and preachers in order that you might have it.
As with all of the other callings listed in the Table of Duties. One is not above another. They all receive their holy orders, being ordered by the Holy One, God Himself. And it is for the love of His people, for the love He has for you, that God has called you to hear His Word and has called others to proclaim it to you. There is one line of today’s psalm (116) surrounded by those we familiarly sing as an Offertory, which reminds us of God’s holy ordering in His love for us. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints” (v. 15). You are precious to Him, not for what you accomplish in life, but even in your death.
“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.” That is why He calls you to hear His Word. It is only His Word that makes saints. That Word which proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes a saint out of you. That Word that is proclaimed by faithful pastors and preachers is what makes you holy. That is the Word which forgives your sins. That is the Word that is combined with water to effect the new birth of your baptism. That is the Word which is spoken over bread and wine in order to feed you the body and blood of Christ.
This is the night we remember that Jesus instituted His Holy Supper. With those whom He had called to be apostles at the table, “He took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And He took a cup and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:26-28). It was not just for them, but for many for the forgiveness of sins. As the LORD had Moses throw the sacrificial blood upon the people, so the Lord Jesus has His pastors pour His precious blood into your mouths.
It is for you and it is only for those whom the Lord has called to give it to you, just as it is for them to proclaim and preach all of His Word to you. It is for you to receive, to receive His Word in your ears, to receive the new life in the Spirit that is poured out upon you in Holy Baptism, to receive the absolution for your sins, and to receive His body and blood on your tongue. It is all for you.
So the Table of Duties speaks to the holy orders of preachers and hearers. To Bishops, Pastors, and Preachers: “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). What Hearers Owe Their Pastors: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
After instituting the holy meal “for many for the forgiveness of sins” they sang a hymn (Matthew 26:30). One of the hymns traditionally sung after the Passover meal is the Psalm that we spoke tonight, the psalm that we sing at our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. “What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD” (Psalm 116:17-18). Jesus took up the cup and He bids us to do this in remembrance of Him, in remembrance of all that He has done for us and all that He says to us. He took up the cup of God’s wrath and went to the cross to be sacrificed for all of our sins. Through His own blood He entered into the heavenly sanctuary and secured our redemption from sin and death. He gives His blood to us to purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Dead works are those works that we think will earn us God’s favour. Those dead works often come about when we try to take on some holy calling that God has not given to us. We think that He will love us more or forgive us more or that we will be holier if we do something extra, something that He has not called us to do. But the true service of God is to live in the gracious callings that He has given. These are the holy things that He has given us to do. They are not dead, but the holy works that flow from His love at work in us. They do not earn His love or forgiveness, rather, they flow out from the knowledge that He loved us while we were yet dead in trespasses and sins.
“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.” This is why He instituted His holy supper, in order that through the death of Christ Jesus, our death might be precious, held in His hand as a treasure, the object of His loving gaze and attention. This precious death He has united to the death and resurrection of His Son, so that we too rise to live forever with our loving God.
What to do for all of this? “Lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.” Do those things He has given you to do. Fulfill your holy callings to receive what He has given, to call upon His name, to give what you have vowed in support of His Church, to give thanks for what He has done through those whom He has called. As the Lord considers you precious in your holy callings as husbands and wives, parents and children, government and citizens, workers and supervisors, widows, youth, everyone, and as those who hear His Word, take up these holy callings filled with His grace and love for you. Call upon His name and hear what He has sent His pastor to proclaim. You are precious. You are holy. In the blood of Jesus, you are His saints.