In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I have the somewhat dubious distinction of having graduated from the world’s largest Lutheran seminary. It not only had more graduate students than any other Lutheran seminary and boasted not only one of the world’s largest Lutheran theological library collections – but it also featured the largest faculty of Lutheran teaching theologians in the world, and it was a singularly volatile mix. And the treasury of stories about how this improbable bunch of simultaneously saints and sinners lived, fought, worshipped, argued, studied, and prayed together is nearly inexhaustible. One of those legendary stories is about a sermon preached by a certain faculty member at the ordination of one of his students.
Now, the person being ordained, so the story goes, was both particularly and peculiarly brilliant; he was also particularly and peculiarly undisciplined (and no, the student was not I). This student read and studied everything under the sun except for what he was supposed to be reading and studying for his classes. As far as his personality went, he could also be arrogant and aloof one day and the life of the party the next. Some say he had a mercurial temper unmatched by anything, except by the degree and sincerity of his fervent and heart-felt apologies, apologies that came flooding out of him just seconds after his temper had erupted. But he made it through his studies – though it took him six years to earn his Master of Divinity degree as opposed to the usual four – just as it had taken him six years to complete his Bachelor’s degree. And when at last he had finished his studies, the seminary faculty actually certified him for ordination, and when he had received a call, he asked his faculty advisor to preach when the day arrived for him to be ordained in his home congregation.
And when it came time in that ordination liturgy for his faculty advisor to preach the ordination sermon, choosing not to speak from the pulpit, the professor went and stood right in front of his soon-to-be-ordained student – and in the presence of this man’s family, friends, relatives, classmates, one-time pastors and Sunday school teachers, you name it, this professor blurted out: “Just who in the hell do you think you are? What nerve! What supreme and utter gall! To think that you should be a priest and pastor in Christ’s Holy Church!” And with this, the seminary professor began a long, long list of all of the outstanding faults and flaws of the one who was about to be ordained – though, it is said, nobody in that place heard anything they didn’t already know about this guy – his sins were many and his character defects considerable, and at one time or another all of extensive faults and weaknesses had been pretty much been laid out on a buffet table for everyone to behold. Among other things already mentioned, he was a hypocrite, his relationship to truth was now and again and now and again more than just a little bit tenuous, and as often as not he thought far better of himself than he ought, or was, or ever would be. In effect, what the professor did in this sermon was to hold up a mirror so that the man about to be ordained, along with everyone there, could see him as he truly was – a thorough-going, accomplished sinner. “In other words,” said the preacher, right in front of this young man’s face, “you’re just like me. You’re just like Peter and everyone who is and ever has been and ever will be called to proclaim that Jesus, the crucified and risen one, is the Son of God, true God from true God, sovereign over the universe. God chooses and calls the disreputable, the disgusting, the deeply flawed, and the cowardly to proclaim that God loves precisely: the disreputable, the disgusting, the deeply flawed, and the cowardly – and in Jesus Christ, God loves ‘em all, even you, oh chief of sinners, in Jesus Christ God loves ‘em all completely to death.” And then the preacher sat down. (And even if it didn’t all happen just that way, the story is still most certainly true.)
All this was shown forth in Simon Peter, son of Jonah (Jonah, an interesting name-sake if you know that whale of a tale), who first said, but most assuredly not of his own accord, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And just so no one would have any illusions, Jesus, in response to Simon’s proclamation, chose for Simon bar Jonah a nickname: Peter, meaning stone or rock – a name to point out for all time the great paradox, the great contradiction, inherent in the ways of God. While Simon’s proclamation that Jesus is the Chosen One, very God from very God, while that proclamation is the founding stone, the rock upon which the Church was, is, and shall be built – that proclamation, by the to-us-incomprehensible will of the Eternal Majesty, that proclamation comes from the mouth one who is as dense as a box of rocks – the proclamation of the Gospel is spoken by one who is a veritable dunder-head – a denier of Jesus, a coward, and a brash big-mouth. And so it was and ever shall be throughout the ages – to the most absurd men and women imaginable, the hypocrites, the cowards and the deeply flawed – would and shall be given the authority, the power, the command to forgive every sin in the Holy Name of Jesus, and the power and the authority and the command to proclaim that by Jesus’ descent into hell the very prince of hell has been bound in chains and shall have no everlasting power over you or anyone else. And in the Lutheran tradition we say that authority, power, and command is given to all the baptized – we call it the Priesthood of All Believers.
But, says St. Paul in his letter to Rome, to the Priesthood of All Believers gathered there, to a church filled with hypocrites and the deeply flawed, nasty and back-biting characters and crackpots of every sort: “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought. Realize, all of you, what all of those given the authority to proclaim Christ crucified and risen have been forced to realize – realize the immense depth of your own sin and depravity, of your own hypocrisy, of your mortally flawed self – so that then you may know, against all earthly reason, the even more immeasurable depth of God’s love and compassion unconditionally given to each of you in Christ Jesus without any regard whatsoever for any of your own merit or works, or lack thereof. And then, make your selves present in the assembly, the congregation – not for backbiting, micromanaging, sneering, judging, gossiping, and looking down your nose at one another – but for the worship that is indeed right and salutary,” says Paul. “Present your own bodies – a living sacrifice – that is, an offering of thanks and praise – to the God who in Jesus Christ has freed you from the very depths of hell – not because you are good, but because God is good, and God chooses, unlikely as it seems, to love to death every last impossible and improbable one of you – to love you to death, Christ’s death and yours – to love you to life, Christ’s life and yours, resurrected . . . new. . . and now. . . and for ever. . . and for evermore.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.