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The following is excerpted from a homily based on Isaiah 61, delivered at the ordination of Joshua Appel on January 26, 2014.

In a few moments, we will lay hands on you to mark you as a minister of the Church of Jesus Christ. This is an effective ritual that achieves what it portrays and proclaims. Right now, you don’t hold pastoral office in the Church. By the end of the afternoon, you will. Our hands won’t declare that you already are a minister. They will make you one. You will be irreversibly changed.

What kind of change is it? Our hands won’t make you a Christian, obviously. Ordination doesn’t even make you a priest. The gesture of hand-laying wasn’t part of the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Levites were ordained by laying of hands, and by that rite they were appointed to serve the priests. So with you: You were made a priest in the house of God by baptism, and ordination specifies the form of your priestly ministry. By the laying of hands, you are designated as a servant of the servants of God and called to minister to the royal priesthood of Christ.

Like every other minster, you’re sent among a people, and into a world, wracked by Sin and Death. Sunt lacrimae rerum: Here are the tears of things. You will be surrounded by shattered hearts; do no harm, don’t snuff the smoldering wick; heal, bind the broken. You will encounter the injured and damaged with their open, festering wounds; don’t recoil in fear or disgust; bandage and medicate, wait and pray. You’re set in a world of slaves and captives; proclaim liberty.

Pastoral care isn’t merely remedial or restorative. Pastors equip equippers, train trainees to become trainers, comfort to enable the comforted to comfort. Pastors serve so the served learn to serve. Wipe the tears and comfort the mourning, but don’t stop when their dried tears streak their faces; don’t stop until they are robed in glory, crowned with garlands, anointed with gladness. Comfort those who mourn, but don’t stop until moans are transformed to praise. You’re sent into a barren land and commanded to nurture it into a forest; don’t stop until your people are tall, deep-rooted oaks of righteousness, the planting of Yahweh. Proclaim liberty, but don’t stop when you’ve opened the prison door; your job isn’t done until the prisoners enjoy the fullness of Jubilee, until they receive their own portion to shepherd into teeming fertility.

Pastoral care isn’t satisfied with restoration. It glorifies. It flows out until the waste is a garden, and the wilderness blooms like a rose, and the forest is made a luminous city. You’re ordained a Levite to serve the priests; don’t stop until every member is skilled in priestly arts, a proficient caretaker of the Lord’s house.

The task we’re setting on you is impossible. You cannot do it. How can you in your weakness empower? How can you in your shame glorify? You don’t have the skill to bind broken hearts; you don’t have the authority to liberate prisoners; you don’t have the stamina to labor until the wilderness becomes pools of water. Your job description is endless. The needs are infinite. You cannot do it.

Scripture is littered with failed shepherds. Adam’s sin was a pastoral failure to guard his bride. Aaron bows to the people and erects a golden calf. Eli grows fat watching his sons fornicate in the tabernacle courts. There are more idolatrous kings than faithful ones, always more court toadies than true prophets. Judah’s shepherds imprison Jeremiah, and they lead the conspiracy to kill Jesus.

Through all the mayhem and disappointment, God was at work to form shepherds—plural. True, the Church has only one Shepherd, the Good Shepherd Jesus, but he carries out his pastoral care through men. As Augustine says, “All good shepherds are in the one Shepherd; they are one. They feed the sheep, and Christ feeds them. The friends of the bridegroom don’t speak their own voice, but they rejoice at the voice of the bridegroom. That is why he feeds when they feed. This is feeding Christ; this is feeding for Christ; this is feeding in Christ—not feeding by oneself apart from Christ.” God has given all of himself—the Father has sent the Son to live, die, and rise; the Father and Son have poured out the Spirit, with this one outcome in view: so that we may lay hands on this man to send him off, confident he can complete the impossible work of shepherding the people of God.

Ordination is absurd unless we and you are convinced we are sending you out in the Spirit. It is insane unless you and we believe that the Yahweh’s promise to his Servant extends to the servants of the Servant of Yahweh, unless you can take the Servant’s words as your own: “The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me. . . . He has sent me.” 

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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