Pastors Struggle with Death
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14f).
I have two brothers who are pastors, and was talking with one of them the other day about the pastor’s struggle with death. This pastor is now in his 24th year in his first congregation. He’s had a number of calls, but the Lord has seen fit to keep him in his first parish in a very fruitful ministry. But after 20 years in a long ministry, the pastor is burying people who have become almost life-long friends.
It becomes a struggle. People you have known more than half of your life and have seen virtually every Sunday for more than 20 years are now the ones for whom you are conducting funerals. The pastor more and more must deal with his own grief even as he comforts the grieving family. Only the knowledge that Christ Himself “partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death…” can sustain both pastor and people.
This struggle with death takes many forms. Recently I visited the cemetery of the congregation my father was serving as pastor when my parents married. There was a gravestone for a two-week old baby my father buried 8 days before I was born. What was going through his mind two weeks later when I was baptized at his hand?
When a parishioner was recently taken to a hospital with a life-threatening illness, my son, also a pastor, calling me on his way to visit him, exclaimed that he would not have been able to sleep, had he not gone to see him. Those are often golden moments in the hospital, when people are surrounded with the law (in the form of all the medical procedures and other reminders of death) and are often desperate to hear the good news of Jesus, the One whose death and resurrection gives us life. You have the privilege of bringing hope and peace in Christ.
In a way, all true pastoral work is a life and death struggle. Preparing sermons we want to bring the law to expose sin for the deadly poison it is, while also bringing the “living and abiding Word of God” in such a way that our people truly hear it and believe it. For only the Word can speak life, and bring to life those who are spiritually dead. Only the Word of Jesus can sustain us in the life of faith, for in the end it will be the Word of Jesus that will call us forth from the grave to rise to eternal life.
When a pastor hears a confession of sin, he is bound by the command of our Lord to speak forgiveness in Christ’s name. When a pastor listens to the cares and concerns of his people, he will point out the signs of death but will even more clearly speak of life in Christ, the One who has conquered death and the devil. When a pastor plans worship and preaching, his greatest desire is to bring life, the real life in Christ, to his hearers. Teaching, visiting, counseling, working with people, the pastor brings life into situations where death has ruled. And death often does not want to give up what he considers his territory!
So the pastor will also be conscious of his own mortality and his own need for Christ. He is a dying sinner just like all the rest. He lives by the same good news in Jesus he brings to others. In fact, knowing this about himself is the Spirit’s way of giving him empathy for people, both within and without the Church.
That’s why, dear pastor, wherever you go, you bring life into the midst of death. Your pastoral work is a matter of life and death. We sinners need the law to show us our sin and death. But even more we need Jesus, the One who conquers death, the One who forgives sin, who brings life by His resurrection. This is what pastoral work is all about. Never forget this is what matters for eternity.
Yes, pastoral work is often a struggle with death, but “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
+Herbert C. Mueller