Sunday, September 16, 2018

Praying for Pastors ('I Am a Church Member,' Part 4)

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during morning worship today. The message is the fourth installment in a series addressing Biblical themes surfaced in the book, I Am a Church Member. We're also doing Tuesday discussion groups with the people of another area Lutheran congregation built around the themes of the book.]

Ephesians 6:16-20
Exodus 17:13-18
In 1527, Martin Luther wrote a letter to his friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon. This is part of what he said: “For more than a week I have been thrown back and forth in death and hell; my whole body feels beaten, my limbs are still trembling. I almost lost Christ completely, driven about...the ways and storms of despair and blasphemy against God. But because of...[the prayers for me] of the faithful, God began to take mercy on me and tore my soul from the depths of hell.”

Were these the rantings of a superstitious medieval man? Or did the prayers of others for Luther, this pastor, theologian, writer, and leader, make an actual difference in his life?

When we confess Jesus as Lord and set out to be faithful to Him, we become targets of the evil one, the devil, just as Jesus was when, after His baptism in the Jordan River, He set out to fulfill His ministry on earth. 

The devil and all evils, including sin, death, and futility, were defeated when Jesus, true God and true man, went to the cross and bore our sins and the death sentence for them you and I deserve. 

But the devil is still waging war to prevent us from living with God. This is why the book of Ephesians tells us that for disciples of Jesus, “...our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) 

When you’re a believer in Jesus, your enemies are never other human beings, no matter how vexing other human beings may be, no matter how much they have sought or seek to hurt us. Our enemies are evil, the devil, and the demons of hell. And the only way they can be overcome is through humble, submissive, incessant prayer in Jesus’ name. Martin Luther knew this. And we should know it too.

Personally, I’ve experienced too much in life to hold onto any naive belief that evil, the devil, and the demons of hell are fictional. 

After the Lutheran church body of which many of us were a part made the decision to abandon the authority of God’s Word, like many of you, Ann and I came under immediate assault from people who disagreed with us. 

But other things also took place. 

One night, in the midst of all of this, a man plowed into our cars, totaling both of them. The man, clearly in a drugged stupor, staggered to my porch. He pulled out a cigarette and asked for a light. When I told him that I didn't have matches or a lighter, he broke the cigarette in half and tossed it aside. Suddenly, he remembered something and went back to his car, which sat there, headlights still blazing like Marty McFly's stranded DeLorean in Back to the Future. When the guy returned to the porch, he was holding a handgun. When I saw that, I prayed even more earnestly that the police would soon arrive!

In this same period, I had a heart attack. My cardiologist has told me more than once, "I can't explain why you had a heart attack and I don't know why you survived the heart attack you had."

At about the same time, our house and the church were broken into on seven occasions. 

There were other out-of-the-ordinary things that happened to us in this period. When Ann told an in-town Christian friend about all that had happened, the friend said, “The devil clearly doesn’t want you here.” 

I’m convinced of this: Our lives and our capacity to fight the good fight of faith were sustained not by us or by our tenacity, but by the intervention of God that was invited into our lives and the life of the congregation by the prayers in Jesus’ name of the faithful disciples in Saint Matthew Lutheran Church and others. And I will always be grateful.

Today, we turn our consideration to the Biblical theme raised by author Thom Rainer in the fourth chapter of his book, I Am a Church Member. This chapter culminates in the suggested pledge, “I will pray for my church leaders.” 

On the face of it, the notion of leadership in Christ’s Church may seem oxymoronic. After all, aren’t we called to humble submission to Christ? Yes, we are. 

But Jesus and the New Testament writers frequently speak about leaders in Christ’s Church, the special responsibilities they have, and the need for others in the Church to support them and pray for them. In Romans 12, the apostle Paul lists leadership as one of seven primary spiritual gifts by which the life of the Church is empowered to live faithfully and to fulfill its mission of making disciples. If your gift is leadership, Paul says, then do it diligently. (Romans 12:8)

But, let's be clear: Leadership is not dictatorship! There is no room in the Church for pastors who strive to control everything. Such pastors forget that it is Christ Who is the Lord of the Church. And they forget too, that Christ, the greatest leader who ever walked the earth, relied, not on coercion or power plays but on the Holy Spirit to carry His message of new life through faith in Him into the hearts and wills of people.

Paul shows us what leadership in Christ’s Church is like when he writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” The first part of that passage would paint Paul as an egomaniacal control freak if the second part of it wasn't there. 
Pastors can lead only insofar as they seek each day to follow Christ

This doesn’t mean, thank God, that pastors must be perfect. The preeminent pastor of the first-century church was the apostle Paul who honestly wrote, “...I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin...what I want to do [the good] I do not do, but what I hate I do...What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:14-15, 24-25) 

A faithful pastor, the kind I seek, fitfully and inconsistently, to be each day, is one who openly acknowledges that he or she is a sinner saved only by grace through faith in Christ

Faithful pastors know that the call to spiritual leadership makes them different from others in Christ’s Church not in status or importance, but only in function, in calling.

But pastors cannot, at least this pastor cannot do our work without the prayers of our congregations. (And I know that many of you pray for me regularly!) 

In Exodus 17, we read that a people called the Amalekites attacked God’s Old Testament people, the Israelites, in the wilderness. Moses ordered Joshua to gather an army. 

After that we read, “So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” (Exodus 17:10-13) 

What happened? 

The leader of the Israelites, Moses, prayed for God’s people as they fought. He reached his arms out to God in prayer. Aaron and Hur were there to prop up Moses’ arms when Moses got tired. 

In truth, all of us should be praying for our fellow disciples and church members, lifting each other up, encouraging one another, and, sometimes, kicking each other in the seats of our pants. We need each other. 

But pastors, need the prayers of their churches. I need you to ask the Holy Spirit to guide me, to protect me from temptation, to give me the right thoughts, words, and silences when I study, preach, teach, counsel, vision, and work with the staff and the congregation. I pray for all of these things for myself, of course. But, just like you and just like Moses, weariness can creep into my life. I need a congregation of Aarons and Hurs.

Take a look, please at Ephesians 6:16-20. Paul writes: “...take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Paul is telling the church at Ephesus to pray about everything. As he writes elsewhere, “Pray without ceasing.”

And then Paul writes this: “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”

Folks, I’m not in chains. But I am one of Christ’s ambassador. I’m called to lead this flock and its witness for Jesus Christ in this community and in the world. I’m called to lead diligently, to share the gospel and the Sacraments, to follow Christ the Savior and invite others to do the same, to study and rightly teach God’s Word, to offer godly counsel, to be and to make disciples. 

And this is what I know: In my own power, I know for a fact that I am not competent to fulfill the call to pastoral ministry, which I’ve been privileged to do for almost thirty-four years. But it’s the Holy Spirit Who has called me and to quote Paul one more time, “ the grace of God, I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10): a pastor of Christ’s Church, your pastor. 

When you pray for me, the Holy Spirit goes to work in me. There are several beneficiaries when that happens: 
  • your pastor, who works more confidently and hopefully; 
  • the congregation, which is being led not by a pastor, but by Christ through its pastor; and 
  • the community and the world you and I seek to reach with the good news
Your prayers enable me to more courageously proclaim the Word of God in its fullness, centered on the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ. I am sure that that’s a good thing. 

That’s why in closing today, I simply ask you, beg you: Please pray for me, that I may be a faithful servant-leader in Christ’s Church. And, please know that, as is true, each and every day, I am also praying for you, beloved disciples of Jesus and friends. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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