The Feast of St. Titus—Sermon, 2020

The Feast of St. Titus, according to our hymnal, is to be observed on January 26th.

We remember Titus for a number of reasons, but the lessons given focus on his work as a pastor and bishop.

Missouri Synod Lutheranism is allergic to the word “bishop,” but that’s what ἐπίσκοπος, one of the words St. Paul used when he wrote to Titus, that’s how that word is and should be translated—bishop. 

A bishop, an ἐπίσκοπος, is a pastor to other pastors, present-day District Presidents, Circuit Visitors, or Vicarage Supervisors—though they reject the term.

But allergic or not, the Scriptures speak that way, and so should we.

The other word that Paul uses is πρεσβύτερος, translated—elder. But both refer to pastors.

Paul is pastor to Titus.

Titus is pastor to the pastors in Crete.

These are things that you need to know as a member of the Church, as a Christian.

To Titus, St. Paul writes: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders [πρεσβύτερος] in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer [ἐπίσκοπος], as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:5-8).

The Feast of St. Titus provides the seldom-afforded opportunity for your pastor to preach and teach the Word of God specifically against himself.

Pastors are to be above reproach, easily defined as being without something to criticize.

I was told the vote to call was unanimous.

But give it time—a month, a year, a handful of voters’ meetings—no pastor is without reproach.

Because no pastor does everything right.

Because every pastor is a sinner.

And no one is surprised by that.

But above reproach doesn’t mean “never does anything wrong.” Above reproach is a qualification of the Office of the Holy Ministry, because when your sinful pastor sins against you, and you do what Jesus says—go to him privately, talk to him privately, and say nothing to anyone else—when you do that, a pastor above reproach will remember the proverb and love you for rebuking him (cf. Proverbs 9:8). The pastor who does that is above reproach.

“Husband of one wife,” the next qualification, means just that.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, in practice, ignores that. In applications for seminary and in paperwork in preparation to receive a call, candidates are asked to list and describe all of their marriages.

For husbands whose wives have died, that’s a difficult but helpful question to ask. Professors and congregations want to know how to care for their student or pastor, and that information helps.

But for men whose previous wives are still living, another difficult but helpful question needs to be asked: What are you going to do other than be a pastor?

The qualification assumes the man’s a husband, but it requires that he be the husband of one wife.

In The Lutheran Study Bible, you have to read between the lines, but that’s how the footnote explains it: “Experience in a Christian marriage would prove the ability to maintain successful personal relationships during good times as well as trying times” (TLSB. Footnote of Titus 1:6. Page 2089).

That, of course, implies that experience in Christian marriages would prove the opposite. So, he must be  “the husband of one wife.”

The next qualification is interesting for two reasons—how it’s translated and how it’s footnoted.

The pastor’s children are to be believers and not open to charges of debauchery or insubordination.

That’s what we heard today.

But it’s also translated and explained as though those descriptions apply to the pastor and not necessarily to the pastor’s children.

You can add one comma and make “not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” the next item in the list of qualifications for a pastor.

Some translations have it and explain it that way.

Some pastors do the same, but Jesus defines the Law in the broadest terms.

So decadence and persistent disobedience is to be excluded from all, a pastor and his children.

But another footnote in The Lutheran Study Bible adds this: “Congregations should anticipate that a pastor’s children will fall into sin, just like anyone else’s children. They may also expect the pastor to apply Law and Gospel to his children, to restore them in God’s love and mercy” (Ibid.).

We shouldn’t need a footnote that says water is wet.

But maybe we do.

That list of qualifications and responsibilities from Paul to Titus ends with Paul saying this: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

A pastor must be those things—so that he will hold firm to the Word of God as he’s been taught.

A pastor must be those things—so that he may teach others and rebuke those who contradict the Word.

God sets limits and boundaries, qualifications and responsibilities for the shepherds—to protect the sheep.

In 2010, when Matthew Harrison was elected president of our synod, he walked to the podium and said something like, “You’ve kept your perfect record intact of electing a sinner to serve you.”

Those words made an impression on me.

We must confess the Word of God to be true: the πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος are to be above reproach—not sinless but faithful.

When we sing the hymn “Chief of sinners though I be…” (LSB 611) I mean it.

But, obviously, we don’t pick one person to sing that hymn when it comes up.

There’s no bulletin announcement that says, “Karen had a really bad week, so she’s singing that one.”

“Chief of sinners though I be…” we all sing it.

And it’s true.

The words πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος mean some kind of pastor, that’s true—but they’re also used to describe what we call elders.

The word πρεσβύτερος might sound familiar. The Presbyterian church named itself after its polity—its organizational structure. Elders are the main organizational structure.

Likewise, with ἐπίσκοπος, you might think of the Episcopal church. They, too, named themselves after their polity, being organized around bishops.

The point is, every opportunity to examine the eye of your brother is best begun by examining your own eye.

As steward of the many things God has given you, are you above reproach? Are you arrogant or quick-tempered? A drunkard or violent?

Are you greedy?

Or are you hospitable, loving all good things, self-controlled—not ruled by emotion or base desires.

Are you upright, holy, and disciplined?

It doesn’t matter what list you use—as helpful as lists are, they make us feel awful because we either don’t complete them or we do.

When we don’t complete them we feel bad, and when we do complete them—we could’ve done better.

For the πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος, for the pastor and elders, for every Christian, let us “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught.”

And this is the Word—thus says the Lord through Paul in Titus chapter three: “[Submit to rulers and authorities. Obey. Be ready for every good work. Speak evil of no one. Avoid quarreling. Be gentle. Show perfect courtesy toward all people…]”

And just when you thought he was writing another list to make you feel terrible…

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (cf. Titus 3:1-7).

And this is our hope:

“Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me” (LSB 611:1).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Feast of St. Titus—Sermon, 2020
Acts 20:28-35; Titus 1:1-9; Luke 10:1-9
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

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