Today the Church commemorates St. Titus, one of St. Paul’s disciples and the first Bishop of the Greek island of Crete. During Paul’s first missionary journey, young Titus was one of those who heard his preaching and was brought to faith by the Holy Spirit. Paul eventually brought Titus to Jerusalem to show the other Apostles and Jewish believers that a Greek, someone from a heathen background, could believe in Jesus. Titus accompanied Paul on several trips and became a trusted helper, so much so that Paul used him as a messenger of his Epistles to different churches, most notably the second Epistle to the Church in Corinth. While in Corinth, Paul gave Titus the task of attempting to resolve some of the controversies there, something that would require exceptional skill and theological knowledge. After his Roman imprisonment, Paul took Titus to Crete, a place where the message of the Gospel had spread because of Pentecost. Luke records in Acts 2 that Jews from Crete were in Jerusalem for the feast, and we assume took Peter’s preaching home with them. However, the Christians of Crete were incredibly divided and disorganized and were in need of spiritual leadership. Paul had to leave, but ordained Titus as the first Bishop of Crete, the first Gentile to take on a significant leadership role in the Church. Paul requested Titus’s help in Nicopolis, but this meant leaving Crete. So, Paul wrote what is recorded for us as the Epistle to Titus, which lays out the very specific requirements of those who would hold the Pastoral Office. This enabled Titus to appoint Pastors in Crete, so he could assist Paul. After completing the work in Nicopolis, Titus went on to evangelize what today is Croatia before returning home to Crete. By God’s grace Titus was able to live in peace and died in old age, not as a martyr as so many of his brother pastors had. We give thanks to God today for His grace to Titus, the work he did in Crete and elsewhere, and especially for the Holy Spirit’s work through Titus’s preaching and teaching.
His work was exceptionally difficult. The people of Crete did not have a good reputation. In his Epistle to Titus, Paul repeated the words of a man of Crete, a philosopher by the name of Epimenides: “Cretans are always liars, evil beats, lazy gluttons. This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply” (Titus 1:12-13). Isn’t that a lovely reputation! Imagine if that was on the Call paperwork from the District when you Called me just a few years ago! Paul leaves Titus on an island and tells him that the people who live there are liars, evil, and lazy, and on top of it the Church is a mess. What an Installation sermon! Titus has his work cut out for him. What lies ahead is not easy work. He’s there as the Pastor to a group of rowdy people, there are false teachers spreading heresy, and people intentionally causing divisions. This is not a small task. After this kind of introduction, Titus was probably wondering what he had gotten himself into.
But his task is much more difficult than dealing with sinful people. His task is really dealing with himself. It’s easy to call out someone else’s bad behavior, someone else’s heresy, someone else’s lies and laziness and evil. It’s another thing to have to do it to yourself, to gaze deeply in the mirror of the Law. But later in the Epistle Paul say to Titus: “In all things [show] yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned.” In other words, Paul said to Titus: Don’t just condemn their bad behavior, their unbelief, but first deal with your own. Remember the Words of Jesus: first remove the plank in your own eye before you remove the speck from your brother’s. Yes, your congregation is made up of sinners, but their Pastor is one, too. Take an honest look at your own works. Be a model to them of what God demands from faithful Christians.
And, of course, that message is for more than just Pastors. It’s sobering to everyone on both sides of the pulpit. Because as offensive or uncouth as that description of “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” sounded for Paul to say of those in Crete, it’s true. Not just of them but of all of us. Sin abounds in our lives. We are all liars. What do we lie about? We spoke it together at the beginning of this morning’s service: we say we have no sin. We generically say we’re sinners, but we’re always in the game of self-justifying and judging ourselves relative to the gross public sins of others, saying that my sin doesn’t really count. I’m not the best at keeping impure thoughts at bay, but I’m no Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein. I don’t hold my anger when I’ve had enough, but at least I’m not on the news for committing homicide. I don’t live any real life of Christian devotion—praying at all times, spending time in the Word—but at least I’m not at brunch right now like all the other heathen. And the list goes on—we’re evil in more ways than we can admit. We’re lazy and fail to perform the duties of our vocations as parents, spouses, employees, members of a Christian congregation. So, I’m no better, you’re no better than any of those people in Crete. We’re all under the same condemnation.
But Paul has one more message about that to Titus: “For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
As lying, evil, and lazy as we can be and are, it is forgiven by Jesus Christ. According to His mercy He saved us. He bought us back from our disobedience, our deception, our giving into lusts and pleasures, our malice and envy, our hatred of one another. This is the grace that sustained Titus in his ministry, and the grace that still sustains us so many years later. We are sinful to the core, but we are forgiven in Christ. By His death and by that death given to us in the washing of regeneration, that is, Holy Baptism, we are made new. We aren’t slaves to our old ways. We have the Holy Spirit who renews us, who teaches us the ways we should go, who causes us to do those things that are fitting for Christians, the good works that God wants us to do.
We give thanks for the faithful preaching of God’s Word that reminds us of this truth. We give thanks for Titus and all other Bishops and Pastors who do the difficult work of calling to repentance, of being an example in faith and life, and sustaining by the Gospel. Though we do not deserve it, Jesus extends His forgiveness each and every day. Titus and others have proclaimed it to the ends of the earth and have been part of God’s Work of raising up Christians in each generation. God be praised for all that He does for us out of His deep mercy.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.