On the Anniversary of My Ordination

A Homily for the Ordination of a Presbyter by the Rev. Mitchell Lewis*

Texts: 1 Peter 5:1-4; St. John 21:15-19

I am Andrew’s father, a United Methodist pastor in the North Georgia Conference. And I appreciate Bishop Gordy allowing me to stand in this pulpit tonight as you prepare to set Andrew apart for the work of a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

When Andrew was 2 years old, I began a 27 year career as an Army chaplain, from which I’ve just retired. So you can do the math. My first assignment was at Fort Leonard Wood, and we took Andrew to a Lutheran preschool in St Robert, Missouri. I’m not sure if that started him down the road to Wittenberg or not.

Throughout his life, Andrew sat under all sorts of preaching and teaching in chapel worship and youth groups. He heard Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Catholics, non-Denominational evangelicals, parachurch groups, and so forth. The Army chaplaincy is a real smorgasbord of Christian religion. And there was a point, when I was assisting a Lutheran congregation on post, that Andrew probably heard the phrase “simul justus et peccator” every Sunday.

So to my Lutheran brothers and sisters, I want you to know, Andrew had choices. With his eyes wide open, he chose you to be his church family. I entrust him to your care. Treat him well.

To Andrew, this evening the church is saying God chose you. He chose you in baptism to be his son, and now in ordination he chooses you to help lead his church.

Last Sunday Andrew reminded me of all the crazy stuff I’ve done in sermons over the years. Sorry, Andrew. No crazy stuff tonight. I simply want to turn our attention to Peter’s epistle.

First Peter belongs to the Catholic Epistles, or the writings located near end of the New Testament. In earlier generations they were denigrated – mostly by Protestant academics – for their churchiness and what scholars called “early Catholicism”. They don’t reflect the revolutionary moral brilliance of the gospels nor the radical proclamation of faith alone found in Paul’s letters.

I have come to love the Catholic Epistles, however, precisely because of their ordinary daily-life churchiness. Isn’t the church an amazing gift of God? .

The question I have come to ask myself in every text is, “What is God doing?” That is the gospel. Everything else is just good advice. So what is God doing in an epistle that bears Peter’s name?

Do you remember how in Matthew’s gospel our Lord said to Simon, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it?”

Jesus is building a church that will emerge victorious in its battle with sin, death and the devil, and the early church was convinced that Peter played a major role in that work.

In this age, the church is what God is doing. It is the means by which Jesus is fulfilling the promise we heard from John’s gospel, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In the Apostles’ Creed, the church confesses its faith in the Gospel of God’s saving work: Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. He descended to hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and he is seated at the right hand of God the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

In this passage from Peter’s letter, the apostle locates himself between Christ’s crucifixion and future coming. Peter was a witness to Christ’s sufferings and he will someday share in the glory to be revealed. He lives, as do we, in the in-between time where Jesus reigns in the world in and through his church. The church is what God is doing now.

I think it is significant, here, that Peter just calls himself an elder, the same office to which we ordaining Andrew. He could have reminded his readers that he was the first pope, the prime disciple, one of Jesus’ inner circle. He could have claimed some kind of unique authority. Instead, he just reminds his fellow pastors that he is one of them. He models the kind of authority that he expects from his those entrusted with the care of souls.

Peter calls his fellow elders to tend the flocks that are entrusted to them. That sounds
remarkably similar to Jesus’ words to Peter in the Gospel of John. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Someday I will have to explore the connections between John’s gospel and Peter’s letter.

But Andrew, isn’t a weighty thing to contemplate: Jesus is calling us to tend his flock just as he once called Peter to feed his sheep. You and I and the clergy assembled here to lay hands on you are all part of one work of God that Jesus began 2000 years ago, and the basic calling has not changed.

Tend the flock. Exercise oversight. Be an example. This is Peter’s charge to pastors in the first century and the twenty-first century. Not reluctantly. Not for financial gain. Not in a domineering way. This is leadership, but it is a different kind of leadership.

You will find all sorts of advice on how to be a leader, from how to care for a facility and manage a budget to how to strategize for mission. This is the age of leadership science. Insofar as the church is a human institution, some of this advice might be helpful.

But the church is unlike any other institution on the face of the earth. The church, with its organization and resources and people, is a human institution, but it is not JUST a human institution. It is a physical body into which God has breathed the breath of life. Jesus died and rose again for the sake of the church, and the Holy Spirit infuses it with the presence of God. The most important tools you will need to lead the church are not the latest theories of organizational experts or church growth specialists. Rather, God’s ancient gifts of word, sacrament, creed, the Great Tradition, the Rule of Faith, the voices and stories of God’s saints through the ages: these are the tools you will need the most.

So lead the church. Stand firmly and courageously for the truth of God’s word as you understand it, but never see your brothers and sisters in Christ as the enemy.

In his little book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.

And is not what has been given us enough?

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably beneficial, because it teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together–the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.

If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.

Now perhaps now, more than ever, the world needs to see the church living in unity. Sometimes, in unity against the world. Always, in unity for the sake of the world.

As we sit here tonight on the cusp of 500th anniversary of the Lutheran reformation, we have to wonder what Brother Martin would think of what the church has become, divided as it is into thousands of different groups.

Still, we do not all need to belong to the same earthly expressions of the church to be good Christians any more than we all need to live under the same roof to be good neighbors. We are institutionally divided not just by trivial things, but by important matters of faith and practice. Our diverse Christians institutions enable us to take responsibility before God for the choices we make, and to live out our Christian walk in ways that are consistent with our common understanding of God’s word.

At their best, Christian denominations are what Mark Tooley calls “cohesive subset communities within the universal church, each contributing unique insights and spiritual specialties. Each represented a tradition often rooted in centuries of experience.”

We all don’t live under the same roof, with the same rules or the same expectations. Frankly, I often think some of our brothers and sisters in Christ are strange, and some of them are offensive. What I am just as often blind to, however, is my own ignorance and error, my own strangeness and offensiveness.

The world needs to see that the church stands together as one under the cross of Christ, even when we are convinced that our brothers and sisters are terribly wrong about some very important things.

Andrew, lead the church in a spiritual unity that is visible to the world.

Someday, the Lord might use you to be the next Martin Luther or John Wesley. Tonight, the Lord is giving you a congregation of people to shepherd. And a really beautiful building to take care of. And a budget to manage. And a council to lead.

Learn to see the macro in the micro, the big in the little. Believe me, it is sometimes a greater challenge to make peace with justice between the two people sitting across the desk from you than it is to make peace between nations. In local congregations, God’s work of justification and sanctification is taking place at the molecular level.

Tend the flock entrusted to you. Care for the community at your doorstep. There is no greater joy.

A few weeks ago, Sheri and drove to a small church in rural Barrow County where I served as a pastor in the early 1980s. We detoured from our route down I-85 specifically so that we could walk through the church’s cemetery and see who had died in the decades since we left. As we saw the names inscribed on the headstones, we recalled the faces of those with whom we worshipped, shared country-cooking fellowship meals in the church basement, and glasses of tea and slices of pie at kitchen tables. We remembered the faces of those we visited in hospitals and nursing homes. We remembered baptisms, weddings and funerals we shared with these
precious families.

This was the flock gave me to tend as I began my pastoral ministry, and they enriched my life beyond measure. I had a seminary education that I was very proud of, but these saints taught me things about being a pastor that I could never learn in school. I did my best, but made many beginner’s mistakes. The congregation loved me anyway. I know your new congregation will do the same for you.

Tend the flock that is entrusted to you, and the rest will take care of itself.

Andrew, I have seen you grow and mature so much as a religious leader from the time you first expressed your sense of call, through two seminary degrees and two internships. I am proud of who you have become as a man, and as a man of God. I know God has called you and prepared you for this day. Your mother and I love you very much.

Tend the flock. Exercise oversight. Be an example. Not reluctantly. Not for financial gain. Not in a domineering way. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today marks three years since my ordination. By the time I was ordained after seven years of seminary course work, internships, and waiting, I wanted nothing more than to celebrate the Eucharist with the congregation that called me. Today, more than seven months since my parish last gathered to celebrate the Divine Service, my deepest desire is very much the same. I am thankful for the sermon my dad preached, and it has guided much of my ministry these past three years – even as I reflect on where I’ve erred and failed to tend the flock as carefully and patiently as our Great Shepherd.

*Shared with permission. Find more of the elder Pr. Lewis’s writings here.

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