By Paul Koch –
A few weeks back, I was honored to be able to preach for the ordination service of a long-time friend and son of our congregation. It is always exciting to attend an ordination. Though I’ve been to quite a few, over the years I still find myself listening carefully as the new candidate speak the same words that I did many years ago. They are vows or declarations of intent concerning how you will conduct yourself in the office of the Holy Ministry with the help of God.
The pastor-to-be makes the confessions of the church his own for they are in accordance with the Word of God. He promises to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments in conformity with Holy Scripture and these confessions. He promises to never divulge the confessions of God’s people, to visit the sick and dying, and to encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living. And then, after all the vows are made the presiding minister says,
I ordain and consecrate you to the Office of the Holy Ministry of Word and Sacraments in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, in name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
And just like that, he was ordained.
A layperson became a clergyman; a friend became a colleague; a hearer became a speaker.
Now, sure, we could have spared all the pomp and circumstance and just paid a few bucks online for an instant ordination certificate. In this way, one could avoid all the cost and inconvenience of attending a seminary, studying Greek and Hebrew, learning biblical hermeneutic, working on homiletical styles, etc. Yet, this old rite of ordination was telling a far more powerful story. It wasn’t just about who gets to be called a pastor or who can legally officiate a wedding. It had nothing to do with a certificate to hang on your wall or even what degree (if any) that you hold. Rather, this old rite, with vows and pomp and circumstance has to do with the assurance of our faith.
As the Augsburg Confession puts it:
“To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe.”
This flows from the Word of our Lord when he appears in the locked room after his resurrection and says to his disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And then he breathes on them and says, “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 20:21-23)
It is as if our Lord says to his disciples, “Look, here’s the plan. I died and rose again bearing the sins of the world. In me and my life alone there is now forgiveness, hope, and life everlasting. So, here’s how I’m going to reconcile the Word to our Father in heaven—you are going to do it.” He says to them, “If you forgive anyone their sins, they are actually forgiven them. And if you don’t do it, there is no backup plan. Without the word of the cross, without your gospel proclamation, there is no forgiveness. There is no other way.”
An ordination isn’t so much about the character of God’s servants, the amount of schooling, or even the merit of the man. Rather, it is about the location of his Word of life. It is about an external Word—a Word that comes from outside of your feelings or desires of your heart, a Word that is spoken into your ears, a Word that proclaims into your locked rooms the peace of Christ himself. For the Word that comes from the outside is more sure than the one we conjure up from within, it is free from our delusions and selfish ambitions.
As it turns out, God’s work was bent toward that moment, toward creation of an office into which my friend was to be placed for a specific reason. To declare that old message one more time, to say to God’s people, “You are not forgotten by your Lord. You are not forsaken in your suffering. No, you are loved, and you are this day forgiven all of your sins.”
That is what and ordination is ultimately all about.