Giving Them Their Food at the Proper Time
Rev. Kurt Lantz St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor Matthew 24:42-51
January 24 2021 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear members of the household of God,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
A graduate of this seminary recently quipped that the instructors who teach the Pastoral Ministry course never taught him how to minister during a pandemic. Didn’t they? Although I believe the graduate was giving a light-hearted poke in order to shrug off some of the stress of trying to serve his people during a government imposed lockdown, fear of viral contagion, and all the added stressors that the situation has placed on pastors and people, there has been a great deal of disagreement in the public sphere and in some corners of our own church body over what pastors ought to be doing and not doing in such a time as this.
I can tell you that I have agonized over this with the members of our church council, although we have all been in agreement. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for pastors who have dissident voices within their councils. We are also well aware that what we have determined to be a prudent course of action at this time does not meet with the full approval of all of our members. We therefore do what we do, which is a little different during this lockdown than what we did previously, begging the indulgence and support of all members, and ask that they realize we are trying to do our best for both the spiritual and physical well being of all of our members and of the community at large. No one in our council has any desire to flagrantly disregard either government orders or public health advice.
Our current situation is only but one instance among frequent reminders that we don’t ever fully know exactly what we ought to be doing or how to do it. There is a reason our Divine Service begins with a Confession and Absolution, and then continues with a Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.” Every Christian should understand that this is his stance before God every hour of every day. We don’t live like Pharisees, with a clear self-definition of what is right and what is wrong so that we can claim we are sinless. Neither do we live like heathen humanists who do not recognize any law, but are only guided by what feels right to them.
In truth, “I only did what I thought was right” is no defence before the judgment seat of God. There is a right and a wrong, but it falls to God to define it, and when He does we find that we cannot live by it. Where His will remains a mystery to us or is misunderstood, there is no defence either. Every thought, word, and action must be accompanied by a Kyrie cry: “Lord, have mercy.”
St. Paul gave personal training to young Timothy as he had the lad accompany him on his mission journeys (Acts 16ff). Later on, Paul would send Timothy as his representative to congregations throughout the world, even to sort out problems in trouble spots. Had he prepared Timothy for every and all situations that he might face in his ministry?
The Bible contains two letters that St. Paul wrote to Timothy, which include several continuing instructions for his pastoral practice. Sometimes they are quite specific about how to deal with false teachers in the church, even naming some and stating what action is to be taken in those situations. There are detailed criteria that Timothy is to follow when searching for men to be pastors, bishops, and deacons in the church. But at the end of the first letter, which we heard in today’s Epistle Reading, to each of the instructions given there we might ask, “How is this to be done?”
“Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called... keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:11-12, 14). There is a lot there stating what to do, but not how to do it. And in truth, much of it sounds impossible, striving toward a spiritual perfection beyond the capabilities of sinful man.
There is nothing in the letters of Paul to Timothy about what to do during a pandemic, or during war, or during a disaster of nature, or any number of other situations that might occur during Timothy’s time as a pastor, or during mine; just “pursue righteousness... fight the good fight... keep the commandment unstained... until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Where does one go to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness”? I suppose we go to their source. We go to God. And to pursue these things in terms of our humanity, we go to God in human flesh. We go to Jesus. He provides us not only with an example, which we are unable to follow completely and fully, but He also provides us with the source of these things for ourselves.
We find our righteousness fully and completely only in His righteousness. It is the same with “godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” We find forgiveness for all of our failures in Jesus and He cleanses us and sanctifies us to fill us with His own perfect godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.
In all that we do as pastors or people we go to Jesus, where we find these things full and complete. We confess our sins and we receive absolution and grace, to live forgiven and cleansed in the love of God, and sharing that love with others in so many ways that could not all be inscribed in the pages of any holy book.
When Paul tells Timothy to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, he does so with the reminder that Jesus is the one who made the good confession before Pontius Pilate when He suffered and died for all of our sins and shortcomings. We keep the commandment unstained only when we go to Jesus for the forgiveness that cleanses us from every spot, stain, and wrinkle. The forgiveness He purchased for us with His own precious blood poured out at the cross.
In ministering to their people in times of plague, war, persecution, or whatever other situation may develop, pastors are to do so by going to Jesus, confessing their sins and receiving His all encompassing grace and forgiveness. We pray, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” And in giving us His mercy, Jesus tells us to give the same to the people He has called us to serve.
“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? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes” (Matthew 24:45-46). Instructing His apostles about all of the things that will happen before He comes again (false christs, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, lawlessness, lovelessness, abomination, tribulation, the very shaking of the powers of the heavens), Jesus tells them in a parable to give the members of the household their food at the proper time.
That is, in the midst of all these situations ministers are to give the spiritual gifts of Christ to His people as they need them. Pastors are to provide Christ’s righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness for His people. Pastors are to give the means of grace to the members of the household of faith, because that is what they need to be fed during such times.
They need Christ’s righteousness, His forgiveness, His faith and love and steadfastness as they suffer these trying times of pandemic and lockdown. For they also are struggling to know what is the right thing to do and what shouldn’t they do at this time. And they are going to sin in thought, word, and deed as they try to figure it all out. Should they send the children to school or keep them home? Should they visit their aging parents or stay away? Should they go to church or stay home and watch on line? All of God’s people live in constant need of His grace and mercy. We all live with the deep breaths of “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
And He answers us with His mercy given in the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, served to you through the pastors He appoints in all times and places, while we wait for Him to come again. We may not know exactly how to do that in all times and places, but we do know that Jesus wants His people to hear His Word, to have their sins forgiven, to receive His body and blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation. As our catechism reminds us, “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life, and salvation” (Luther’s Small Catechism. Sacrament of the Altar. 2)
These are the things Paul had in mind for Timothy to do in all situations in order to “pursue righteousness... fight the good fight... keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is what our Lord commands us to do while we wait for His coming: “give them their food at the proper time” (Matthew 24:45). In Word and Sacrament they have forgiveness for every sin, known and unknown. That is where they have life from the source of all life to combat all that would threaten to bring death. That is where they have salvation from every enemy whether it comes in time of war, pestilence, lawlessness, persecution, disaster, or death.
Our Lutheran Confessions include the Large Catechism written by Martin Luther. In expounding on the Lord’s Supper, Luther wrote and we believe, teach, and confess:
Now it is surely a sin and a shame that He so cordially and faithfully summons and exhorts us to our highest and greatest good, and we act so distantly with regard to it, and permit so long a time to pass [without partaking of the Sacrament] that we grow quite cold and hardened, so that we have no inclination or love for it. We must never regard the Sacrament as something injurious from which we had better flee, but as a pure, wholesome, comforting remedy imparting salvation and comfort, which will cure you and give you life both in soul and body. For where the soul has recovered, the body also is relieved. Why, then, is it that we act as if it were a poison, the eating of which would bring death?... But those who are sensible of their weakness, desire to be rid of it and long for help, should regard and use it only as a precious antidote against the poison which they have in them. For here in the Sacrament you are to receive from the lips of Christ forgiveness of sin, which contains and brings with it the grace of God and the Spirit with all His gifts, protection, shelter, and power against death and the devil and all misfortune. (Large Catechism. Sacrament of the Altar. 67-68, 70)
This isn’t just a textbook confession which may be set aside when unexpected situations arise, like a pandemic, or localized plague. In answering a question about whether one may flee from a deadly plague, Luther concluded his response with these very practical directives for pastors:
First, one must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s Word how to live and how to die... Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or [two]... Third, if someone wants the chaplain or pastor to come, let the sick person send word in time to call him and let him do so early enough while he is still in his right mind before the illness overwhelms the patient” (“Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. (Luther’s Works. Vol. 43).
Does our seminary teach its pastoral students to preach God’s Word and administer His sacraments? Then our seminary has taught our pastors how to minister during a pandemic, during lockdowns, and in every other situation. And the people of the Church should know what they want their pastors to do during this and every other situation. “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes” (Matthew 24:46). We don’t have the answers to every question of how this might be done, but we have the Lord’s institution and His promise that in His gifts He answers our every Kyrie, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.