“What is a pastor’s job?” When you don’t know the answer to this question, it’s hard to understand why agents of ISIS would want to murder an 84-year-old priest. Sure, ISIS enjoys terrorizing people at random. But why target such a small group of people when larger crowds were available all over Normandy?
Sure, ISIS wants to conquer the world, but how much earthly glory could they possibly gain by taking the life of a frail octogenarian? When you don’t fully understand what God called Father Jacques Hamel to do, the answers to these questions don’t come easily.
Some people grew up in churches with Pastor Dweeb, who walked into the pulpit each week to tell us, golly-gee, how great it was that we are all so nice to each other and, gee-golly-gosh, how happy Jesus would be if we could all try being just a little bit nicer from now on. Every Sunday, Pastor Dweeb gave people the impression that a sermon was nothing but a slightly churchier version of your mom’s annual “I love you all, now please get along” Thanksgiving dinner toast.
Through his words and deeds, Pastor Dweeb taught his parishioners that a pastor’s job was to use a heavy diet of saccharine stories, bad jokes, hugs, and noogies to mold us into better people. For those who believe him, it’s hard to understand why ISIS would bother wasting its time on a man who was no more of a threat to them than a suburban woman in mom jeans and a tacky sweater.
Others grew up in churches with Pastor Hip, who bounced around an altar-less stage while singing promises of financial abundance and victorious living. Pastor Hip taught Christ’s sheep that a pastor’s job was to be a prosperity guru, to be the guy who uses Jesus-words to propel us down the path of health, wealth, and happiness.
Still others had their understanding of a pastor’s job formed by Pastor Justice, who would praise Jesus as a social reformer, rattle off a list of contemporary societal ills, and then implore his people to follow Christ’s example and tear down the institutions of oppression—in all of this, teaching his hearers that a pastor’s job is to sic Christian soldiers on the purveyors of modern injustice. For those who believe these teachings, it’s hard to understand why ISIS would look past bigger targets to silence the voice of a man who was simply telling people how they could end their own poverty or the poverty of their neighbors.
Father Hamel Was Murdered Because of His Confession
But despite the false impressions given by Pastors Dweeb, Hip, and Justice, Martin Luther’s Small Catechism offers a far more biblical answer to the question “What is a pastor’s job?” Speaking about the office of the keys, the catechism states, “the Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”
What is a pastor’s job? His job is to exercise the office of the keys. His job is to do what Christ commanded in John 20, to show those who won’t repent their need for forgiveness, and to say to those who fear God’s judgment, “Fear not, because God has now covered you in the sin-killing blood of His Son and judged you to be worthy of eternal life.”
A pastor’s job is to stand before Christ’s bride, the church, and speak the words Christ has put onto his lips: words of pardon, words of mercy, words that cast out fear, because those words cover us in the perfect love Christ made manifest on the cross. Whether his parishioners call him father, reverend, or any other title, forgiving sins is what Christ has called all pastors to do. That’s why Father Jacques Hamel was murdered by apparent agents of ISIS on Tuesday morning.
I didn’t know Father Hamel, the content of his preaching, what he personally believed or taught his congregation. I imagine the men who murdered him didn’t know these things either. But what both his killers and I know about him is that Father Hamel had a job: to speak Christ’s forgiveness. His job was to tell people they were at peace with their Father in heaven because Christ drowned their transgressions in his blood.
Christians, who believe God’s love is a free gift, look in fondness towards those like Father Hamel who occupy the office that administers the gift. But agents of ISIS, who believe that their god’s forgiveness, favor, love, and kingdom must be earned through rigid obedience, see men like Hamel as an arrogant thief who has raided the king’s treasury and is handing out for free the bright, shining rubies that can only be earned through a lifetime of service.
So, hoping to win the favor of their god, these men stormed into the thief’s house, slit his throat, and offered his blood as a sacrifice to the king who requires death for anyone who proclaims salvation in the blood of Christ. Quite simply, God sent Father Hamel to forgive sins, and these satanically inspired agents of ISIS sent themselves to stop him.
We Should Expect Murders Like This
Once upon a time, Christians regularly faced threats of murder. But the more the world tried to rip the gospel jewel out of their hands, the more they saw its worth, the more tightly they clung to that jewel, and the more the church grew, eventually wielding so much influence over society that governments began to protect Christians from persecution. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” Tertullian once said.
While this is certainly true, it seems that many western Christians have enjoyed so much comfort in the field the martyrs gave us that we’ve forgotten both what it means to be persecuted for Christ’s name and what it means to belong to him. Because our church-influenced governments kept us safe from those who wanted to kill us, we started viewing persecution the way we view leprosy—as an outdated, nearly extinct affliction from a bygone era.
Because we also lived in a world where no one was trying to pry the shining gospel from our cold, dead fingers, we stopped looking at its luster and became convinced that moralism, prosperity promises, or social justice teachings must have been of equal value. Enter Pastor Dweeb, Pastor Hip, and Pastor Justice, all of whom left us equally unequipped to understand why ISIS would target such a seemingly insignificant man in Father Hamel.
But just as the Israelites shouldn’t have forgotten what God said about his covenant after he delivered them into the Promised Land, so we shouldn’t forget what God has said about persecution even when he blesses us to experience so little of it. So while Father Hamel’s murder is certainly tragic, for Christians it shouldn’t be surprising.
Christ sent him to preach the gospel, and the world responded by doing exactly what Jesus said it would do to preachers of the gospel. Christ sent Father Hamel to tell sinners that the Son had set them free from the power of the devil, and the devil responded by doing what Jesus promised Satan would do, by screaming the opposite amidst violence and bloodshed. Christ sent him to give God’s love, his mercy, his kingdom and power and glory to all who believe, and the devil responded by spilling that priest’s blood to frighten people away from the faith.
They Can’t Take Our Lives No Matter What They Do
But just as Christ has promised that His faithful will experience persecution, he’s also promised that no persecutor of the church can take his sheep out of his hand. So even if we’ve never experienced more than a whiff of persecution, a faithful pastor will always prepare his sheep to stand firm in the face of the most wicked manifestation of persecution imaginable.
When a faithful pastor baptizes, he is telling those clothed in the waters of regeneration, “You are no longer under the power of the devil, his murderers, or his terrorists. You are now under the protection of Christ, and no one can take you away from him.” When a pastor faithfully administers Holy Communion, he says to those who gather at the altar, “Here with his body and blood, Christ covers you in his righteousness, and no knife or bullet can pierce through that armor.”
When a pastor faithfully speaks the word of forgiveness, he is saying to all who hear and believe his words, “Look in your hands and see the bright, shining jewel of the gospel. That treasure is now yours forever and if anyone tries to take it away from you by taking your life, rejoice that they will only succeed at marking you as worthy to suffer dishonor for the name and at delivering you into my arms.”
I don’t know if Father Hamel had the chance to speak any last words to his flock as the terrorists stormed into his sanctuary. But I do know that any faithful pastor wouldn’t need to say much in his final benediction. To fulfill the final task of his job, all he’d need to do was look at the sheep he’d forgiven throughout the years and tell them, “Don’t be afraid. These men have come here to take our lives, but they’re too late. Our lives already belong to Christ.”