Grace and peace are yours through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.
The text is Paul’s words in the Epistle, chief of sinners saved by grace.
Dear Members of Hope, Pastor Oswald, and family and friends gathered today,
I was recently asked by one of the members of St. John’s in North Prairie where I serve how preaching a sermon is different from giving a political stump speech. The election was in full swing. The same person was just telling me she had watched speeches by both candidates as well as our Senatorial candidates. She observed there was definitely a marked difference between political speeches and the weekly sermons she is subjected to as a member of St. John’s! (Poor thing)! She knew what that difference was, but she asked me anyway because I think she understands that the sheep judge the shepherd. She was testing me to see if I had an inner Donald Trump or an inner Hillary Clinton. Hopefully she found neither.
I recall thinking after our discussion that my answer wasn’t very Biblical, even though our text might suggest it was. I told this dear woman that I thanked God that I was not a politician. I told her, and I think is pretty much exactly how I said it, that “I [didn’t] have it in me to give speeches about myself.” I don’t think it should be easy for anyone to look another person dead in the eye and say “vote for me.” One of the best things about being a pastor is that, especially when it comes to giving sermons, hopefully you learn the freedom of not preaching yourself.
Now I’m not sure how righteous my answer was. It could be. It might not be. All I may have been saying is “Thank God I’m not Donald Trump!” That would be far less righteous than many might think. It would be suggesting a righteousness at the expense of someone else. It would be hypocritical. It would be the same as saying “I may gossip, but at least I’m not a murderer.”
The Apostle Paul, writing to the young pastor Timothy, has none of that. The words of our text are autobiography. Paul is writing about himself. He doesn’t mince any words as he does so. He refuses to project his own self-righteousness onto the screen of another person’s sin. He can’t say, “at least I’m not a murderer,” because he was! He tells Timothy, rather bluntly, that he was a violent man acting in ignorance. Most notably, he writes about his former life before his conversion and Baptism in the past tense. He was those things. The grace of God means those sins are removed from him as far as the east is from the west.
But he goes on and switches to the present tense. He delivers a trustworthy saying: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I AM (not was) the chief.” Once again, Paul doesn’t project or reflect his own righteousness off others lack of it. He just speaks for himself. He is the chief of sinners. And then, for emphasis, he repeats the saying in the next verse. Twice in consecutive verses Paul refers to himself as chief of sinners.
We call this “repentance” and it is a synonym for the word “faith” itself. Where genuine faith is, repentance will always be the first word. It was Thesis 1 of the 95 Theses which kicked off the Reformation. It was the first word of the messages of the Old Testament prophets. It was the first word of John the Baptist’s sermons in the wilderness. It was the first word Jesus preached. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is among you.”
Repentance is the first word of our liturgy. When we are gathered together in God’s Name on Sunday mornings, we do not tell him what wonderful people we are. We rather confess our sins, like Isaiah did in the Temple, like Peter did on the boat in Luke 5, like Paul does in our text. We’re not in church because we are good people and those not with us are the bad ones. We attend Divine Service precisely because we are sinners who need what is offered there: grace in the forgiveness of sins. Without that grace, Paul would have nothing to say or write at all. And neither would any future pastors like Timothy or any of us up here this afternoon.
And as a first word, repentance has quite a legacy. Our Synod President, Matthew Harrison, has pointed out on several occasions that repentance was the first word of the most consequential moments in history. Real change, even at the societal level, doesn’t happen by forcing your sinner neighbor to change. If America feels like a hamster on a wheel right now, it’s probably because too many of us are doing precisely that. Real change happens when we all look inward, when we all recognize ourselves for the chiefs of sinners we are, when we take our sins to Christ and look for His perfect cleansing.
Pastor Oswald, on this day of your installation, we know there are many good things to say about you. Back in August, our mutual friend, Naval Chaplain Ryan Rupe, positively gushed about you with me on the phone. And I think we both know that Ryan doesn’t gush about people. He’s one of the most powerfully honest and forthright people I have ever known. And he’s one of those people who you love for all that honesty. He spoke about you as a great peer, a great chaplain. He spoke about your compassion and your listening ears. He told me he thought Hope, Twin Lakes was getting someone strong on pastoral care. He told me he’d miss you as a peer after your retirement. From someone like Ryan, I consider that high praise.
As American citizens, we should be thankful for your service in our military. I know I am. I would hope all of us in this room are. Thank you for your honorable service. God bless America and God protect our soldiers and give honor to our leaders.
Despite all that, Paul’s words still remind us that what was true for him is also true for us. There are no Messiahs except Jesus Christ alone. Pastors may have many virtues, but they also have sinful natures. We pastors will sin, sometimes even grievously. We don’t preach ourselves. We preach Christ crucified, at whose cross we leave our sins. Dying to sin every day and rising to new life, we gain the strength to go back in there and care for God’s people even after foibles and failures.
Christians too need to hear these words for what they say. It is common in congregations to project everything that is right or wrong with the congregation on the pastor. Yes. He may have many virtues. Yes. He is a sinner and makes mistakes. But when he fails, for you to make him into a chief of sinners is to fail Paul’s test in this text before us. You too are chiefs of sinners. You too must look in the mirror of God’s law and see the ugly reflection. The sheep may judge the shepherd, but the Lord judges us all and the standard for both is the Word of God. That Word judges you the same chief of sinners it judges me and all the men in white robes up here today. The great privilege we have as pastors is the privilege of speaking that grace to you when the Law hits with all of its force. Paul was given a grace that covered all of his sins through Ananias of Damascus who baptized him. It wasn’t Ananias’ baptism. It was Christ’s. It’s not our Word; it’s Christ’s. It’s not our grace; it’s Christ’s.
Christ. He came into the world to save sinners of whom we are the chiefs. He demonstrates His unlimited patience in the lives of repentant sinners. Luther famously said that “Christ dwells in sinners.” He may very well have been thinking of our text when he wrote that.
Today is not about Pastor Oswald. It is not about Hope Lutheran Church in Twin Lakes, WI. It is not about the mistaken notion of God providing a new superhero to lead us out and into a great future. It’s not about God providing a convenient scapegoat if we fail. It’s not about any of these things.
Today is about Christ. Today is about His sacrifice for your sins. Today is about His victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil. Today is about His salvation of sinners like Paul, like me, like Pastor Oswald, like you. Today is about how He, as Lord of the Church, has provided another undershepherd for you. Today is about His grace extended through the mouths and words and hands of His human instruments, the pastor. Today is about His grace which covers us all.
I guess I do thank God I’m not a politician. To preach oneself is to set oneself up for an inglorious fall. We do well to stand before God as the sinners we are, pastors and people. It’s not about us and what great people we tell ourselves and others we are. It’s about Christ, who saves sinners of whom I (and you) are the chiefs. Our lives are now hidden away in Him so that He is glorified in all our speaking and all our doing.
Now to the King, eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God be honor and glory forever and ever. AMEN.
The peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. AMEN.