“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (John 20:19-23).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
To say it had been a few stressful days would be a huge understatement. Jesus had been arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, and buried on Friday. Saturday, they’d been in lockdown, no doubt observing the most isolated, sorrowful Sabbath of their lives. That morning Mary Magdalene had run back from the tomb exclaiming, “I have seen the Lord.” The other women also saw Jesus and added their testimony. The apostles, however, remained skeptical. Confused and apprehensive, they gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.
But there was one whom the locked doors did not keep out—Jesus. We don’t know much about His resurrected body, but we know He left a sealed tomb with even the grave cloths still intact and that He appeared inside a locked room.
Jesus hailed the disciples with the typical Hebrew greeting: “Peace be with you!” But on the lips of the risen Savior, it was more than a casual wish. He brought them the peace that the world cannot give, the peace that would sustain them through all earthly troubles, the peace of forgiveness and life. Jesus showed them His resurrected body that still bore the marks of the nails and the spear of the crucifixion to erase their last doubts. The disciples rejoiced. It was the Lord, alive!
Having discipled them carefully for three years, having finished His saving work of suffering, dying, and rising, Jesus, again, spoke peace to them and authorized them to carry on His work by bestowing on them His Spirit.
As the Holy Spirit once hovered over the dark empty chaos at the dawn of creation to bring light and order into the universe (Genesis 1:1-3), as God the Father breathed His divine Spirit into the nostrils of Adam on the sixth day, creating a living soul from inanimate dust (Genesis 2:7), so also on the first Easter evening, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fresh from the grave, brought life and immortality to light by breathing out the Spirit upon His chosen disciples to equip them to continue His work on earth—preaching repentance and faith.
So abjectly ruined is humankind since the fall into sin that people are unable to come to faith under their own volition. “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:1). Therefore in the work of evangelizing, preaching, teaching, catechizing, comforting, warning, consoling, and equipping Christians for daily life, the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit is essential. Only the Holy Spirit can accomplish the ministry, and He does that through His called and ordained servants like you, Pastor Booe.
That’s not exactly correct. The Holy Spirit doesn’t work through you as a person, but through the means you’ve been given by Jesus for the blessing of His Church and for the benefit of all the world. The ministry of Christ’s Gospel is always a ministry of the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is at work in the Word and sacraments and is given through these means of grace.
Even in this passage, where Jesus breathes on them, it is His Word that gives the Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23). That is the essence of ministry—forgiving penitent sinners by the power of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.
That’s especially important to note in our day. People have a lot of different ideas of what a pastor’s job is. For many, pastors are irrelevant in our secular age. For others, pastors are nice to have on call to apply religious bandages to some of the bumps and bruises of life but otherwise not much needed. Even among deeply spiritual and religious people, pastors are variously understood as chief executive officers, religious activity directors, conflict managers, or motivational speakers.
Each of these roles comes with its own job description, of course. No wonder then that we find a lot of churches confused over what to expect from their pastors. No wonder we find pastors and church leaders frequently in conflict. In fact, it’s no wonder that every year many clergy are leaving the pastoral ministry, chewed up by dysfunctional congregations, discouraged by failure to meet their own unrealistic expectations. Should we be surprised? When you hand someone a job-description so wide-ranging and complicated that it’s unmanageable—or so nebulous and undefined that it can apparently be changed on whim—wouldn’t that deplete and discourage the best of men?
So what is a pastor’s job? How do you carry out the work of forgiving and retaining sins? A good place to start is the vows that you, Pastor Booe, will be making in a few minutes as you are installed as pastor here at St. John. In addition to confessing the canonical Scriptures to be the inspired and infallible Word of God, and affirming your subscription to the Lutheran Confessions because they are in accord with the Word of God, you will be asked to make these promises:
Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these Confessions, and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?
Will you faithfully instruct both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine, will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you? Will you minister faithfully to the sick and dying, and will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel? Will you admonish and encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living?
Finally, will you honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life? Will you be diligent in the study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions? And will you be constant in prayer for those under your pastoral care?
To be certain this is not an exhaustive list, but it is safe to say that if a task doesn’t fit under one of these categories, you may need to rethink doing it.
Members of St. John, you also will be making promises that will help your new pastor to carry on the work that Christ has given to the Church:
Will you receive him, show him the love, honor, and obedience in the Lord that you owe to the shepherd and teacher placed over you by your Lord Jesus Christ, and will you support him by your gifts and pray for him always that in his labors he may retain a cheerful spirit and that his ministry among you may be abundantly blessed?
Will you honor and uphold your pastor as he serves Christ in all his God-pleasing responsibilities? Will you aid him as he cares for his family? Will you be diligent to “put the best construction on everything,” recognizing that “love covers a multitude of sins”?
The promises that both pastor and congregation make are simple to understand but impossible to keep on your own power. That’s why you all will make the promises with the words, “I/we will, with the help of God.” That’s why we will be praying for the Holy Spirit to grant grace to pastor and congregation through this ministry of Word and Sacrament. That’s why Pastor Booe will be installed as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Booe, I know you’ve been told this many times, but it’s always good to be reminded. You must rely on the Holy Spirit for the work of this ministry. It is beyond the ability of any fallen man—even one as gifted and talented as you—to carry out this ministry on your own power. You’ll end up burned out in the ministry very quickly if you don’t remember this one central truth: By your own power or strength you can do absolutely nothing as a servant of Christ and steward of His mysteries. Rather, in Christ’s Church the Holy Spirit does everything. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther puts it this way:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.[i]
From beginning to end, the life of the Christian is a gift of God’s Spirit. Since the fall of Adam every human from birth is spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God. That’s why it always takes the Spirit’s power for anyone to come to faith and trust in Jesus. Through means of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit calls us to faith. Having enlightened us with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, He also shares His holiness and keeps us in the one true faith.
And He has chosen to call you, Pastor Booe, at this time, here at this congregation. What a privilege! You get to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ and to administer His life-giving sacraments. You get to be the hands that hold the infant over the font and pour the water, who speaks the Word that makes him a child of God. You get to be the ear that hears confession and the voice that speaks the forgiveness of God to the penitent sinner in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. You get to hand deliver the very and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith. You get to be the one through whom God binds one man and one woman in holy matrimony for life. You get to be the feet that travel to bring the Church to the patient at the hospital, the resident at the nursing home, or the person who is homebound. You get to be the one who comforts the dying and mourning with the hope of Christ’s resurrection and the promise the Holy Spirit will raise all believers to eternal life.
And members of St. John Lutheran Church, you get to receive these blessings. You get to support this work. You get to work with and beside Pastor Booe, as he oversees this flock to which the Lord has called him.
By our Lord’s own mandate, He has so arranged it in His Church that we grow, are fed, nourished, guarded, and protected not out of the weakness and ineptitude of our ministers but rather by the tools Christ has entrusted into their hands. The Gospel and sacraments are filled to the brim with the energy and life of God’s own Spirit. The actual words that originated from the mouth of Jesus are the instruments and tools of the Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith. Jesus has entrusted into your pastor’s all too human and very flawed mouth and hands the Gospel and the sacraments by which the Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify His Church on earth.
So, go in the peace of the Lord. The ministry is safely in the hands of the Holy Spirit. Serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.