Speaking of Saul and his jealousies. There is this young David encamped in a nearby fortress by three rivers, who with his five smooth stones threatens to bring down giants. What am I to think of this, and what then shall I say?
By various circumstances and connections, my life and my parish have for several years been connected to Redeemer in Fort Wayne. This is a good thing, and I am really very pleased and thankful for it. True confessions, though: there was a time when I would get restless and grumpy at hearing good things about Redeemer and its pastor, the Reverend David Petersen. For a while, it felt like every time I turned around, someone else was telling me how wonderful Pastor Petersen was, and how perfect Redeemer was; and, honestly, I wanted it to stop. Instead of rejoicing in my neighbor's faithfulness and fruitfulness, I was envious of him and defensive of myself. My ego would much rather hear nice things about me and my own congregation than anything good about anyone else. For shame, I know, but it's the truth.
I'm not sure what it was, precisely, that helped me to get over it. I knew better, surely. I would regularly repent of my covetousness, and confess it, and proceed by faith in the forgiveness of my sins. But still, there was this petty King Saul reigning in my heart that recoiled a bit at every chorus of "David has slain his ten thousands." As though it were a contest or a competition. How pathetic! Why is it so hard, sometimes, to recognize our friends from our enemies? There is no good reason to envy the brother in Christ who preaches faithfully and well. Why, then, could I not simply revel in that blessed fruit of the Gospel, and give thanks to God for the vitality and vigor of His Church on Rudisill Boulevard in Fort Wayne? It is sinful pride, plain and simple, and by God's grace I had to let it go.
At some point it dawned on me that, instead of feeling threatened by or jealous of Redeemer in Fort Wayne, it would behoove me to learn something from that congregation and its pastor. It is clear they must be doing something right. Redeemer isn't a large congregation, nor is it affluent, but the members of Redeemer are devoted and passionately loyal; what is more, they are pious and faithful folks who demonstrate an obvious love for Christ and His Church and the Word of God. Since a number of those people are very dear friends of mine, and among them are my own daughter and son-in-law and unborn granddaughter, how shall I not give thanks for the good gifts they are given in that place? In fact, those personal connections were probably a decisive factor in getting my head on straight and my heart set right toward Redeemer. Yet, that should already be the case in view of my brothers and sisters in Christ in every Christian congregation, my fellow members in that blest communion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. But knowing that my children are well-served by the Gospel makes a difference. It is among the foremost blessings in my life, for which I regularly give thanks.
Still, there is more. There is something compelling about Redeemer and its life in the Gospel. It has an attractiveness about it that is far from simply superficial. It has a reputation for being "high church," and assuredly it is that, but that is not yet the heart and substance of Redeemer. There is indeed a care and concern for the rubrics, rites and ceremonies of the Liturgy, but all of this so clearly animates out of an underlying passion for solid theology. So, too, with the music, which sings at Redeemer with the vibrant voice of faith. There is a confidence at work, which is not merely an expression of Pastor Petersen's personality, nor a function of doing things strictly "by the book," but a confidence that stands upon the strong foundation of Christ and strides forward in the bold freedom of faith. Of course, such things are what all of us are about, what all of us desire and aspire to, but they are in evidence at Redeemer in Fort Wayne. That is what draws the attention and interest of students, for example, who are eager and hungry to learn these things. Every pastor, and every future pastor, wants to know how to get his bearings and proceed in such a way so as to give the Gospel free course. We all have a good example in Redeemer. I'm past being envious and jealous of that, and I'm far more interested in learning from it.
What is the key? The Liturgy is inseparably a part of it, but not the outward jot and tittle of the ceremonies as the starting point. The adornment of the Liturgy at Redeemer is not imposed upon it from the outside, but emerges from within it in a boyish enthusiasm, if I may say so, for the things of Christ. It is a hunger and appreciation for the body and blood of Christ, for the forgiveness and life and salvation that He bestows from His Altar, which emerges in the frequent celebrations of the Holy Communion. Sometimes elaborate and ornate, sometimes very simple, spoken and straightforward, there is a deep reverence expressed from a heart of faith in the Word of Christ. The outward actions and the way they are conducted are confessions of that faith, bowing before the Lord our God in godly fear, love and trust. That is what I have witnessed at Redeemer, and I believe that is what others see, as well.
You can't manufacture that piety and devotion by following the instructions in a book; though a delight in the Liturgy will prompt one to read and study. Reverence doesn't happen automatically when you put your hands together in prayer; though one who desires to be faithful will surely pray without ceasing. A passion for Christ and His Gospel will not run roughshod over His people, in a hurry to build a "high church" reaching to the heavens, but pastoral care will lead the flock through the green pastures of His Word, alongside the steady waters of Holy Baptism, unto the Table He has set with His life-giving body and His overflowing chalice of salvation.
The key, as I have said before, is in the preaching of the Word. That is perhaps the number one thing that I have learned from the faithful pastor of Redeemer in Fort Wayne. He and his congregation may be known far and wide for their liturgical practice, but the heartbeat of the Liturgy there is the preaching of Christ. I have met more than one person who were drawn to Redeemer and "stuck it out," despite a resistance at first to the ceremonial, for the sake of the preaching. To say it straight and simple, Pastor Petersen has a gift for preaching the Law and the Gospel, and he also works at it, constantly striving to preach faithfully and well. His good example in this regard, as well as his sermons, have been instructive and helpful to me; so that I am a better preacher, now, than I would otherwise have been. When I have spoken and written on the place and purpose of preaching, I have had no better model in mind than the one I find in my brother in Christ at Redeemer. It is not primarily the eloquence and art of rhetoric; though these have their place, and Pastor Petersen puts them to good use in his preaching. It is rather the way he unleashes the Law and proclaims the Gospel, each as the very Word of God.
My point is not to suggest that Redeemer alone has gotten things right; nor that Pastor Petersen alone has got the "right stuff," which the rest of us should endeavor to emulate. That would not be the right way to proceed, nor would it work. Each pastor and each congregation has a unique personality, unique circumstances, unique gifts to deal with and use to the glory of God. My point is simply to say that jealousy of brother pastors and sister congregations is not only sinful but counterproductive. It really is like King Saul throwing things at David and Jonathan. When we find ourselves unable to rejoice in the life of the Church, whether in our own congregation or another, then we have not the mind of Christ, nor His heart, nor His Spirit. More than that, we forego the opportunity to be sharpened and strengthened and sustained in our own service. The servant entrusted with one talent can learn from the one who has been given five or ten to use. If David has slain his ten thousands, shall we not give thanks for the sake of God's Israel, and be steeled for the fight against the twenty or two-hundred or two-thousand who stand before us? Really, I am glad for any champion of ours who can bring down Goliath, so that I am free to engage the battle with guys who are more my own size. If there are brothers in arms with faithful and compelling practice, I'd far rather learn from them than turn away from them. It should not be among the armies of the Lord that soldiers are thrown into confusion and turned against their comrades. Kudos to Redeemer for holding up a standard that helps me keep my bearings in the midst of battle.